Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets

Tollund Man
In 1950, Tollund Man’s discoverers “found a face so fresh they could only suppose they had stumbled on a recent murder.” (Christian Als)
 If you’re looking for the middle of nowhere, the Bjaeldskovdal bog is a good place to start. It lies six miles outside the small town of Silkeborg in the middle of Denmark’s flat, sparse Jutland peninsula. The bog itself is little more than a spongy carpet of moss, with a few sad trees poking out. An ethereal stillness hangs over it. A child would put it more simply: This place is really spooky.

The first time I saw him in his glass case at the Silkeborg Museum, a kind of embarrassed hush came over me, as if I had intruded on a sacred mystery. Apparently, this happens frequently. “Most people get very silent,” says Nielsen. “Some people faint, but that’s rare.”

What really gets you is his lovely face with its closed eyes and lightly stubbled chin. It is disconcertingly peaceful for someone who died so violently. You’d swear he’s smiling, as if he’s been dreaming sweetly for all those centuries. “It’s like he could wake up at any moment and say, ‘Oh, where was I?’” says Nielsen, who has clearly fallen under Tollund Man’s spell himself. “Looking at his face, you feel you could take a trip back 2,300 years to meet him. I would like to put a USB plug into his well-preserved brain and download everything that’s on it, but that’s impossible. He’s reluctant to answer.”

Reluctant perhaps, but not altogether unwilling. Archaeologists have been asking the same questions since the Hojgaards first troubled Tollund Man’s long sleep: Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you live? Who murdered you and why? But the way the researchers ask the questions, using new forensic techniques like dual-energy CT scanners and strontium tests, is getting more sophisticated all the time. There’s new hope that, sometime soon, he may start to speak.

Scholars tend to agree that Tollund Man’s killing was some kind of ritual sacrifice to the gods—perhaps a fertility offering. To the people who put him there, a bog was a special place. While most of Northern Europe lay under a thick canopy of forest, bogs did not. Half earth, half water and open to the heavens, they were borderlands to the beyond. To these people, will-o’-the-wisps—flickering ghostly lights that recede when approached—weren’t the effects of swamp gas caused by rotting vegetation. They were fairies. The thinking goes that Tollund Man’s tomb may have been meant to ensure a kind of soggy immortality for the sacrificial object.

“When he was found in 1950,” says Nielsen, “they made an X-ray of his body and his head, so you can see the brain is quite well-preserved. They autopsied him like you would do an ordinary body, took out his intestines, said, yup it’s all there, and put it back. Today we go about things entirely differently. The questions go on and on.”

Lately, Tollund Man has been enjoying a particularly hectic afterlife. In 2015, he was sent to the Natural History Museum in Paris to run his feet through a microCT scan normally used for fossils. Specialists in ancient DNA have tapped Tollund Man’s femur to try to get a sample of the genetic material. They failed, but they’re not giving up. Next time they’ll use the petrous bone at the base of the skull, which is far denser than the femur and thus a more promising source of DNA.

Then there’s Tollund Man’s hair, which may end up being the most garrulous part of him. Shortly before I arrived, Tollund Man’s hat was removed for the first time to obtain hair samples. By analyzing how minute quantities of strontium differ along a single strand, a researcher in Copenhagen hopes to assemble a road map of all the places Tollund Man traveled in his lifetime. “It’s so amazing, you can hardly believe it’s true,” says Nielsen.


Eleven-year-old John Kauslund recalled his family spading up their bog find. “There’s something strange in here,” his mother told the boy.
Eleven-year-old John Kauslund recalled his family spading up their bog find. “There’s something strange in here,” his mother told the boy. (Christian Als)

Tollund Man is the best-looking and best-known member of an elite club of preserved cadavers that have come to be known as “bog bodies.” These are men and women (also some adolescents and a few children) who were laid down long ago in the raised peat bogs of Northern Europe—mostly Denmark, Germany, England, Ireland and the Netherlands. Cashel Man, the community’s elder statesman, dates to the Bronze Age, around 2,000 B.C., giving him a good 700 years on King Tut. But his age makes him an outlier. Radiocarbon dating tells us that the greater number of bog bodies went into the moss some time in the Iron Age between roughly 500 B.C. and A.D. 100. The roster from that period is a bog body Who’s Who: Tollund Man, Haraldskjaer Woman, Grauballe Man, Windeby Girl, Lindow Man, Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man.

They can keep speaking to us from beyond the grave because of the environment’s singular chemistry. The best-preserved bodies were all found in raised bogs, which form in basins where poor drainage leaves the ground waterlogged and slows plant decay. Over thousands of years, layers of sphagnum moss accumulate, eventually forming a dome fed entirely by rainwater. A raised bog contains few minerals and very little oxygen, but lots of acid. Add in low Northern European temperatures, and you have a wonderful refrigerator for conserving dead humans.

A body placed here decomposes extremely slowly. Soon after burial, the acid starts tanning the body’s skin, hair and nails. As the sphagnum moss dies, it releases a carbohydrate polymer called sphagnan. It binds nitrogen, halting growth of bacteria and further mummifying the corpse. But sphagnan also extracts calcium, leached out of the body’s bones. This helps to explain why, after a thousand or so years of this treatment, a corpse ends up looking like a squished rubber doll.

Nobody can say for sure whether the people who buried the bodies in the bog knew that the sphagnum moss would keep those bodies intact. It appears highly unlikely—how would they? Still, it is tempting to think so, since it fits so perfectly the ritualistic function of bog bodies, perhaps regarded as emissaries to the afterworld.

Besides, there’s also the odd business of bog butter. Bodies weren’t the only things that ended up in the bogs of Northern Europe. Along with wooden and bronze vessels, weapons and other objects consecrated to the gods, there was also an edible waxy substance made out of dairy or meat. Just this past summer, a turf-cutter found a 22-pound hunk of bog butter in County Meath, Ireland. It is thought to be 2,000 years old, and while it smells pretty funky, this Iron Age comestible would apparently work just fine spread on 21st-century toast. Like the vessels and weapons, bog butter may have been destined for the gods, but scholars are just as likely to believe that the people who put it there were simply preserving it for later. And if they knew a bog would do this for butter, why not the human body too?

Much of what we know about bog bodies amounts to little more than guesswork and informed conjecture. The Bronze and Iron Age communities from which they come had no written language. There’s one thing we do know about them, because it is written on their flesh. Nearly all appear to have been killed, many with such savagery that it lends an air of grim purposefulness to their deaths. They’ve been strangled, hanged, stabbed, sliced and clobbered on the head. Some victims may have been murdered more than once in several different ways. Scholars have come to call this overkilling, and it understandably provokes no end of speculation. “Why would you stab someone in the throat and then strangle them?” wonders Vincent van Vilsteren, curator of archaeology at Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands, home of the bog body known as Yde Girl.

We may never get a clear answer, and it now seems unlikely that a single explanation can ever fit all the victims. But the question keeps gnawing at us and gives bog bodies their clammy grip on the imagination. For some strange reason, we identify. They are so alarmingly normal, these bog folk. You think, there but for the grace of the goddess went I.

That’s what overcomes the visitors in Tollund Man’s presence. Seamus Heaney felt it, and wrote a haunting and melancholy series of poems inspired by the bog bodies. “Something of his sad freedom as he rode the tumbril should come to me, driving, saying the names Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,” Heaney writes in his poem “Tollund Man.”

Tollund Man’s foot
MicroCT scans of Tollund Man’s foot allowed an in-depth view of sinews and the artery once connected to the missing big toe. (Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle)

It’s hard to say exactly how many bog bodies there are (it depends on whether you count just the fleshy bog bodies or include bog skeletons), but the number is probably in the hundreds. The first records of them date to the 17th century, and they’ve been turning up fairly regularly since then. (Before that, bodies found in bogs were often given a quick reburial in the local churchyard.)

We’re finding them less frequently now that peat has greatly diminished as a source of fuel. To the extent that peat still gets cut at all—environmentalists oppose peat extraction in these fragile ecosystems—the job now falls to large machines that often grind up what might have emerged whole from the slow working of a hand spade.

That doesn’t mean the odd bog body doesn’t still turn up. Cashel Man was unearthed in 2011 by a milling machine in Cul na Mona bog in Cashel, Ireland. In 2014, the Rossan bog in Ireland’s County Meath yielded a leg and arm bones and another leg last year. “We know something hugely significant is going on here. We’ve found wooden vessels here. We’ve found bog butter. This bog is a very sacred place,” says Maeve Sikora, an assistant keeper at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, who is investigating the Rossan finds.


The search for the origins of bog bodies and their secrets goes back a fairly long way, too. In 1780, a peat-cutter found a skeleton and a plait of hair in a bog on Drumkeragh Mountain. The property belonged to the Earl of Moira, and it was his wife, Elizabeth Rawdon, Countess of Moira, who pursued what we believe to be the first serious investigation of such a find, publishing her results in the journal Archaeologia.

As more bog bodies turned up, more questions got asked. In the absence of clear answers, mythmaking and fancy rushed in to fill the void. On October 20, 1835, workmen digging a ditch in the Haraldskjaer Fen on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula came across the well-preserved body of a woman, about 5-foot-2 with high cheekbones and long, dark hair. She was clamped to the moss with small staves through her elbows and knees.

Danish historian and linguist Niels Matthias Petersen identified her as Queen Gunhild of Norway, who, legend tells us, died around 970, and was notoriously cruel, clever, wanton and domineering.

Bog Borderlands
(Map Credit: Guilbert Gates)According to the old stories, the Viking king Harald Bluetooth of Denmark enticed Gunhild over from Norway to be his bride. When she arrived, however, he drowned her and laid her deep in Gunnelsmose (Gunhild’s Bog). This explanation was not only accepted when Petersen first advanced it in 1835, it was celebrated; Queen Gunhild became a reality star. Around 1836, Denmark’s King Frederick VI personally presented her with an oak coffin, and she was displayed as a kind of Viking trophy in the Church of St. Nicholas in Vejle.

Among the few dissident voices was that of a scrappy student, J.J.A. Worsaae, one of the principal founders of prehistoric archaeology. Worsaae believed the folklore-based identification was hooey. He argued persuasively that the woman found in Harald­skjaer Fen should be grouped with other Iron Age bog bodies. In 1977, carbon dating proved him right: Harald­skjaer Woman—no longer referred to as Queen Gunhild—had lived during the fifth century B.C. Moreover, a second postmortem in the year 2000 found a thin line around her neck that had gone undetected. She had not been drowned but strangled. This changed everything, except perhaps for the victim.


In the absence of hard evidence, the temptation to weave bog bodies into a national narrative proved hard to resist. The most notorious effort to lay claim to the bog bodies came in the mid-1930s, when the Nazis repurposed them to buttress their own Aryan my­thology. By this time, two views prevailed. It was largely accepted that the majority of bog bodies dated to the Bronze and Iron Ages, but their murder was ascribed either to ritual sacrifice or criminal punishment. This latter interpretation rested heavily on the writings of the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, whose Germania, written in A.D. 98, portrays social customs in the northern parts of the empire.

On the whole, Tacitus thought highly of the local inhabitants. He praised their forthrightness, bravery, simplicity, devotion to their chieftains and restrained sexual habits, which frowned on debauchery and favored monogamy and fidelity. These were the noble savages the Nazis wanted to appropriate as direct forebears, and Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo and the SS, established an archaeological institute, the Ahnenerbe, to justify that claim “scientifically.”

To the researchers at the Ahnenerbe, bog bodies were the remains of degenerates who had betrayed the ancient code. In a key passage, Tacitus writes: “The punishment varies to suit the crime. Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; the cowardly, the unwarlike and those who disgrace their bodies are drowned in miry swamps under a cover of wicker.” Professor and SS-Untersturmfuhrer Karl August Eckhardt interpreted this last phrase to mean homosexuals. It was just a hop from here to the Nazis’ ferocious persecution of gay people.

“The Ahnenerbe’s was the dominant theory of bog bodies at the time, and it was dangerous to question it,” says Morten Ravn, a Danish curator who has published a historical overview of bog body research. One of the few who dared was a historian of culture named Alfred Dieck, who perhaps felt himself protected by his own Nazi Party membership. Dieck’s research demonstrated that bog bodies came from too wide an area over too long a span of time to represent proto-Germanic legal practice. But the man who torpedoed the Aryan theory of bog bodies was prevented from working as an archaeologist after the war because of his Nazi past. Ravn says, “He was really quite an unfortunate person.”


Shortly after Tollund Man was discovered, the detective in charge of what was initially a missing persons investigation had the good sense to call in Peter Vilhelm Glob, who had recently been appointed professor of archaeology at the university in Aarhus, the nearest big city. P. V. Glob, as everyone refers to him, has stamped his name more deeply than anyone else on the riddle of the bog bodies. His book, The Bog People—to the bighearted Glob, they were people, not bodies—was hailed as a modest masterpiece when it appeared in 1965. It is sharp, authoritative and moving all at once, and it remains intensely readable. Glob, who died in 1985, succeeded not only in providing the scaffolding for our understanding of Tollund Man and his kin, but in restoring their humanity as well. He conjured bog bodies back to life and made the world take notice of them. It was Glob who introduced Seamus Heaney to Tollund Man.

In Glob’s view, Tollund Man and most of the others were sacrificed to Nerthus, the Earth Mother, to ensure a good crop. We can see the goddess paraded around, surrounded by fabulous animals, on the great silver Gundestrup cauldron, buried as a sacrifice in a Danish bog not far from where several Iron Age bodies were also found. Glob notes pointedly that the cauldron’s goddesses all wear neck rings and twisted bands on their foreheads—“like the ropes round the necks of sacrificed bog men.”

They were strung up at winter’s end or early spring. We know Tollund Man was hanged, from the mark of the leather high up on his throat; “if he was strangled, it would have been lower down,” Ole Nielsen explains. And we know roughly the time of year when this occurred from the seasonal contents found in his stomach and that of other victims: barley, linseed and knotweed, among others, but no strawberries, blackberries, apples or hips from summer and autumn.

The ominous conclusion is clear, Glob informs us: The winter gruel was a special last supper intended to hasten the coming of spring, “on just such occasions that bloody human sacrifices reached a peak in the Iron Age.”

Glob is fine—much better than fine—as far as he goes, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough, as he would no doubt agree. “I’m still trying to get nearer to Tollund Man,” says Ole Nielsen. “In my view, he could have been a willing victim, perhaps chosen from childhood—I see nothing degrading about that. Or maybe they drew straws—‘Oh damn! Well, better you than me!’

“If we had his DNA, maybe we could say where he came from—his clan, from the north, from Greece, wherever. Could he drink milk? Was he prone to diabetes? What about arteriosclerosis? That’s one of the reasons we sent him for a microCT scan in Paris, to look into his arteries.”

Tollund Man, discovered in a bog in 1950 near Silkeborg, Denmark, initially was thought to be the victim of a recent murder.
Tollund Man, discovered in a bog in 1950 near Silkeborg, Denmark, initially was thought to be the victim of a recent murder. (Christian Als)

Maybe we shouldn’t even be using the term bog bodies at all anymore, insofar as it tends to impose a unified explanation on a diverse phenomenon. The first museum exhibition Julia Farley recalls seeing as a child is the Lindow Man in the British Museum. Lindow Man is the most intact of several bodies discovered in the Lindow Moss in Cheshire, England, during the 1980s.

“I still come and say hello to him whenever I’m in the gallery,” says Farley, a curator at the British Museum. Except, says Farley, he may not be quite the same Lindow Man she first encountered all those years ago.

Carbon dating puts his death somewhere between 2 B.C. and A.D. 119. We have only the upper half of him, but besides that he’s in fine shape. He once stood around 5-foot-6. His beard and mustache had been clipped by shears. His manicured fingernails suggest he didn’t work too hard. His brow is furrowed in consternation. He was just 25 or so when he died, and he died a particularly horrible death. “One of the doctors who examined him originally found he had been kneed in the back to bring him to his knees, garroted, had his throat slit, his neck broken, got bashed in the head and was left to drown in the bog,” says Farley. “This is the so-called ‘triple death,’ and it’s the model that’s been taken forward.”

Farley isn’t so sure, and she’s not the only one. First, the physical evidence is inconclusive. Farley thinks the sinew tied around Lindow Man’s neck could as easily be a necklace as a garrote. Moreover, some of Lindow Man’s “wounds” might have occurred after death from the crushing weight of peat moss over centuries. Different fracturing patterns distinguish bones that fracture before death, when they are more flexible, from bones that fracture after death. It matters greatly, too, whether Lindow Man lived before or after the Roman conquest of Britain around A.D. 60. Among other sweeping cultural changes that came in with the Romans, human sacrifice was outlawed. What’s more, post-Glob, the Tacitus consensus has broken down. It turns out, Tacitus never visited the regions he wrote about, but compiled his history from other contemporary accounts. “There’s a lot of problematic issues with Tacitus,” says Morten Ravn. “He is still a research source, but you’ve got to be careful.”

All things considered, Lindow Man has gotten roped into a tidy, satisfyingly creepy meta-narrative of ritual killing. “For me, we’ve got to disentangle Lindow Man from that story,” says Farley. “There’s clearly something a bit weird happening in Cheshire in the early Roman period. But we can’t say whether these people are being executed, whether they’ve been murdered, whether they’ve been brought there and disposed of, or ritually killed for religious reasons. However it turns out, they’re not part of the same picture as the Danish bog bodies. We need to approach Lindow Man and the other bodies from Lindow Moss as individuals—as people.”

Last October, Lindow Man was taken for a short walk to London’s Royal Brompton Hospital, which has a dual-energy CT scanner. The scanner uses two rotating X-ray machines, each set to different wavelengths.

“It gives you amazing clarity for both the thicker parts, such as bones, and the more delicate parts, such as skin,” says Daniel Antoine, the British Museum’s curator of physical anthropology. “We’re using a dual-energy scanner in conjunction with VGStudio Max, one of the best software packages to transform those X-ray slices into a visualization. It’s the same software used in Formula One to scan brake pads after a race to reconstruct what’s happened on the inside without having to dismantle it. The software in most hospitals isn’t half as powerful as this. We’re really trying to push the science as much as possible.”

In September 2012, the museum ran a dual-energy scan on Gebelein Man, an Egyptian mummy from 3,500 B.C. that has been in its collection for more than 100 years. The scan probed hitherto unseen wounds in the back, shoulder blade and rib cage. The damage was consistent with the deep thrust of a blade in the back. Gebelein Man, it appeared, had been murdered. A 5,500-year-old crime had been revealed. Says Antoine, “Because the methods are constantly evolving, we can keep re-analyzing the same ancient human remains and come up with entirely new insights.”

In Ireland, Eamonn Kelly, formerly keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum, claims a distinct narrative for his preserved Irish countrymen. In 2003, peat cutters found Oldcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man in two different bogs. Both had lived between 400 and 175 B.C., and both had been subjected to a spectacular variety of depredations, including having their nipples mutilated. This and other evidence led Kelly to propose the theory that the Celtic bog bodies were kings who had failed in their duties. The role of the king was to ensure milk and cereals for the people. (He fills this sacral role by a kingship-marriage with the goddess, who represents fertility and the land itself.) Kelly’s theory was a significant break from bog body orthodoxy. As he explains it, St. Patrick tells us that sucking the king’s nipples was a rite of fealty. So lacerated nipples, no crown, either here or in the hereafter.

“In Ireland, the king is the pivotal member of society, so when things go wrong, he pays the price,” says Kelly. “All the new bodies discovered since then have reaffirmed this theory. The ritual sacrifice may be the same principle as in the Teutonic lands, but here you’ve got a different person carrying the can. To have one explanation that fits bog bodies across Europe just isn’t going to work.”

Even the Danish bog bodies who furnish the master narrative are being re-examined to determine how well P. V. Glob’s old story still fits. Peter de Barros Damgaard and Morton Allentoft, two researchers from Copenhagen’s Centre for GeoGenetics, recently examined one of Haraldskjaer Woman’s teeth and a piece of the skull’s petrous bone. They were trying to get a decent sample of her DNA to determine her gene pool. To get a workable sample would be a godsend for bog body research, since it could clarify whether she was an outsider or a local. To date, it has been almost impossible to get because the acid in bogs causes DNA to disintegrate. But if there’s any hope of obtaining some, the sample would likely come from the teeth or petrous bone, since their extreme density protects DNA well.


Karin Frei studies bog body hair samples (Christian Als)

Thus far, the results have proved disappointing. Damgaard did manage to extract a bit of DNA from Haraldskjaer Woman’s tooth, but the sample proved too small. “I have no way to certify that the 0.2 percent of human DNA in the sample isn’t contaminated,” Damgaard wrote to me, after almost a full year’s work. “You could say that the genomic puzzle has been broken into pieces so small that they carry no information.” He sounded a little melancholy about it but resigned. “The DNA of the Haraldskjaer Woman will be beyond our reach forever, so she can lie down and rest.”

Karin Margarita Frei, professor of archaeometry/archaeological science at the National Museum of Denmark, had somewhat better luck performing a different kind of analysis on Haraldskjaer Woman’s hair. Frei uses strontium isotope analyses in her research. Strontium is present nearly everywhere in nature, but in proportions that vary from one place to another. People and animals absorb this strontium through eating and drinking in the proportions characteristic of the place they’re in at the time—specifically, the ratio of the isotopes strontium 87 to strontium 86. We have pretty good maps for the strontium characteristics of different countries, so by matching a particular body’s strontium makeup to the map, we can tell where its owner has been—and not just at one moment, but over time.

As with DNA, the best places to mine strontium are a person’s teeth and bones. The strontium isotope ratio in the first molar enamel shows where you come from originally, the long bone of the leg will show where you spent the last ten years of your life, and a rib will localize you for the last three or four years. The problem is that bog bodies often have no bones and their teeth are terribly degraded.

Frei had a revelation. Why not gather strontium from human hair? “When I saw Haraldskjaer Woman’s hair in 2012, almost 50 centimeters long, I realized I had the perfect material to investigate rapid mobility, since it works as a kind of fast-growing archive. It was an incredible moment for me,” Frei told me. Strontium, she says, enables her to “trace travels in the last years of a person’s life.”

Hair contains at most a few parts per million of strontium, often much less. And after burial in a bog for a few thousand years, hair is often fatally contaminated with dust and microparticles.

It took Frei three years to develop a technique for cleaning hair and extracting usable strontium samples from it, but when she did, the results were startling. “The small amount of enamel we got from Haraldskjaer Woman’s teeth said she was raised locally, but the tip of her hair told us that in the months before her death she went quite far. The low strontium signature indicates a volcanic area—maybe the middle of Germany, or the UK.”

Frei did a similar analysis on Huldremose Woman, a 2nd-century B.C. bog body found in 1879 in a peat bog near Huldremose, Denmark. Similar results.

“Both women were traveling just before they died,” says Frei. “It made me think that if they were sacrificed, maybe they made the trip as part of the sacrifice. We may have to rethink the whole sacrifice question because of strontium.”

How fruitful a way forward are these high-tech invasions of the flesh? Eamonn Kelly, the Irish bog body scholar, urges caution and humility. “They just don’t know enough to say, this is a person from France who turned up in Ireland. I do think we’re going to get useful scientific advances that we can’t even comprehend now, but there’s also a lot of pseudoscience in the field of archaeology. Scientists give you a particular result, but they don’t tell you about the limitations and the drawbacks.”

In this case, it might turn out that Ole Nielsen is troubling Tollund Man’s dreamless sleep for very little. One of the reasons for taking off Tollund Man’s hat was to send a hair sample to Karin Frei. “Ole has been after me to do this for some time, but Tollund Man’s hair is very short,” says Frei.

Almost a year after telling me this, Frei wrote to give me an early preview of her results. They were meager—much less informative than Frei’s investigations of Haraldskjaer Woman. Frei compared the strontium in Tollund Man’s short hair with the strontium in his femur. Small differences in the strontium isotope’s proportions between the two samples suggest that while he spent his final year in Denmark, he might have moved at least 20 miles in his final six months.

That’s critically important for Nielsen. Every new tidbit unravels another thread in the deeply human mystery of these bog bodies. “It will never end. There will always be new questions,” he says. “Tollund Man doesn’t care. He’s dead. This is all about you and me.”

Editor’s Note: Scientist Karin Frei performed her comparative analysis of the bog body Haraldskjaer Woman with Huldremose Woman, not Egtved Girl, as previously stated in the text.


A drive along the world’s most beautiful road

“Google Maps…?” I offered.

We were about to embark on the most scenic drive of our lives

As the conversation turned to traffic and the best route back to our hotel, I zoned out, rescuing the last slice of pizza and watching the afternoon sun turn everything silvery. A cold gust blew off the South Atlantic and I shivered. Winter afternoons in the Western Cape had a metallic quality: cold but bright, like polished steel.

“Chapman’s Peak Drive is a nice way back into Cape Town,” I heard Cole say in passing.

That sounded fine, so we paid up, said our goodbyes and told Google to take us that way – unaware that we were about to embark on the most scenic drive of our lives.

Chapman’s Peak Drive snakes 9km along South Africa’s Atlantic Coast (Credit: Credit: Hougaard Malan/Getty Images)

Chapman’s Peak Drive snakes 9km along South Africa’s Atlantic Coast (Credit: Hougaard Malan/Getty Images)

Over the tree tops I could see a line of buttresses marching away to the south; the Cape Peninsula. The cone-shaped formation of Chapman’s Peak stood to our north, with its namesake road snaking 9km along coastal ramparts and cliffs to the suburb of Hout Bay. We left the restaurant, and our little rental car rumbled along a country road between paddocks ringed by log fences and populated with fat horses.

The road took a few gentle twists as it rose on Chapman’s Peak’s western flank, and Noordhoek Bay spread out behind us. It wasn’t until we took a swooping right-hand bend that we realised we were in for something truly awesome.

Carved out of the west-facing cliffs, Chappies, as it’s known by locals, was constructed between 1915 and 1922 using convict labour. Although named after John Chapman, the skipper of an English ship who visited the area in 1607, the real hero of Chapman’s Peak Drive is Sir Nicolas Frederick de Waal, the first administrator of the Cape Province, who tenaciously pursued the idea of a road even when engineers said it couldn’t be done.

These cliffs are plagued by rockslides, so the engineers eventually chose to situate the road partway up the mountain, where a layer of hard granite would provide a solid foundation and a softer stratum of sandstone above would be easier to excavate. But these sandstone cliffs shed a regular barrage of rock fall onto the road during its first 80 years in service.

Local authorities made moves to improve safety, including forcing closures during inclement weather or when rock fall danger was considered high. But in December 1999, a motorist was killed by a falling rock on a low-danger day, and even as the emergency meetings were convened to decide the fate of the route, wildfires above the road let loose a fresh hail of debris that ultimately closed Chappies to all traffic.

Known to locals as ‘Chappies’, the road took seven years to complete (Credit: Credit: Denby Weller)

Known to locals as ‘Chappies’, the road took seven years to complete (Credit: Denby Weller)

From 2000 to 2003, and again in 2009, the road was closed while engineers employed every new technology imaginable to tame the cliffs above. They computer-modelled the area, then with the aid of Swiss road builders, devised a series of solutions to the constant threat of rockslide.

As we swooped around another of Chappies’ purported 114 bends, I was slightly alarmed to come face-to-face with one of these engineering marvels, a 6m-high ‘catch fence’ – a huge steel net that leaned menacingly out over the road; 1.6km of catch fence protect the road from smaller slides at various locations along its 9km length.

The plunging coastline beckoned me to stop at every lookout, to linger and drink in the view

But Chappies had even bigger wonders in store.

We were briefly distracted from the hulking cliffs as the road took another leftward bend and we were again pointed at the South Atlantic and sparkling Hout Bay. Clouds were forming over the Sentinel, the same weird reverse-waterfalls of vapour that locals dubbed ‘the tablecloth’ when they appeared over Table Mountain. The verticality of the landscape never got old; despite the obvious risks of the route, the plunging coastline beckoned me to stop at every lookout, to linger and drink in the view.

A ‘half tunnel’ was designed to protect the road from small rockslides (Credit: Credit: Michelle Dormer/Getty Images)

A ‘half tunnel’ was designed to protect the road from small rockslides (Credit: Michelle Dormer/Getty Images)

The next inward turn brought us in sight of a 155m-long ‘half tunnel’ that surely defied gravity. Instead of trying to hold back the volley of rocks that came pelting down this bluff, the engineers just carved a gash into the side of the rock and put the road out of harm’s way.

As we neared Hout Bay, the rhythm of the drive established itself: a leftward bend would reveal a breathtaking view of the coast, followed by a rightward turn that showed another incredible feat of engineering. Just before we reached the toll gate, we passed a group of lycra-clad road cyclists – Chappies features in the world’s largest timed bike race.

I glanced over at my fiancé, who has been known to compete in the odd cycling race. A broad smile was spreading across his face. “Maybe for the honeymoon?” I suggested, only half joking.

Chapman’s Peak Drive features 114 bends and a number of engineering marvels (Credit: Credit: Martin Harvey/Getty Images)

Chapman’s Peak Drive features 114 bends and a number of engineering marvels (Credit: Martin Harvey/Getty Images)

By Denby Weller


Where Do Honeybees Go in the Winter?

beekeeping. bumblebee. bee. Nest has queen, drones (males), and worker bees feed hatched larva and seal cells with wax. Honey bees, honeybees colony. Beehive, beeswax, honeycomb, brood. insect

Have you ever seen a honeybee in the winter? Most people in temperate climates probably have not. Without blankets, fires, or adjustable thermostats, honeybees have to stick together pretty closely to stay warm (and alive) in the winter.

When temperatures in the winter drop below 50 °F (10 °C), honeybees retreat to their hives and form a winter cluster to keep warm—sort of like a giant three-month slumber party. But it’s not all pillow fights and fun. The fate of the hive depends on how sufficiently the winter population has prepared for the cold. To survive and keep warm, the honeybee swarm must have a robust population of winter-ready bees, plentiful stores of honeyto eat, and a secure hive. A successful winter cluster is made up of a generation of bees with different physiological characteristics from those of the summer population—bees that are a bit more plump to keep up the heat and have a longer lifespan to last the whole winter (4–6 months instead of only a few weeks).

The social world of honeybees is normally divided into three castes: workers, drones, and queens. But in the winter the male drones die off, leaving only the female castes: the workers and the queen. The all-female swarm of bees crowds together tightly to form the winter cluster, with the queen at the warmest, core section of the group and the workers shaking and shivering around to maintain a survivable heat.

At the center of the winter cluster, temperatures can climb as high as 90–100 °F (32–37 °C), while at the surface of the cluster, or mantle, the temperature fluctuates about the 50 °F mark. To sustain themselves and the heat, the cluster crawls and climbs in formation around the hive to reach their reserves of honey. For most of the winter, the cluster stays intact, but when temperatures outside rise above 50 °F, bees will leave the hive momentarily to relieve themselves of waste. In climates where the temperatures rarely, if ever, drop below 50 °F, the honeybee colony keeps working all year-round.

WRITTEN BY: Jonathan Hogeback

100 Women: The scientists championing their indigenous ancestors’ discoveries

Karlie Noon with a telescopeImage copyrightUNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE
Image captionKarlie Noon has only recently discovered the astronomical heritage of her ancestors

Indigenous peoples around the world have understood the stars, tides and local ecosystems for hundreds of years but experts say their insights have often been overlooked. Now some female scientists are striving to highlight their achievements and collect the scientific heritage of their communities before it disappears.

From Australia to Canada, detailed scientific knowledge of the natural world has been handed down through generations via stories and oral tradition.

But this information is rarely formalised or even distributed beyond small communities.

And its significance within the wider culture of science goes largely unacknowledged, argues Australian astronomer Karlie Noon.

Many textbooks will attribute discoveries to specific Western scientists, “and yet we have physical evidence that contrasts that”.

Ms Noon graduated from the University of Newcastle in western Australia with a joint degree in maths and physics, and has since set about documenting the scientific knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Yolngu people, she notes, knew that the tides varied depending on the phases of the moon. Her own people, the Kamilaroi, have a rich astronomical heritage, which Karlie did not encounter until her early 20s.

The knowledge she has now collected shows a keen understanding of meteorology. A moon halo – a bright ring visible around the moon when there are ice crystals in the air – was used by indigenous peoples all over Australia as a weather predictor.

PleiadesImage copyright  NASA, ESA AND AURA/CALTECH

Oral tradition tells of counting the number of stars between the moon and the halo, to indicate how much rain there would be. Fewer visible stars meant greater precipitation, which, Karlie agrees, would tally with the presence of more water vapour in the air.

Variable stars, whose brightness fluctuates over periods that can range from 100 – 200 years, are also described in stories.

Karlie notes that being able to pick up these changes through generations, and without the aid of visual magnification, means that these peoples were “amazing observers and astronomers”.

The Maori peoples of Aotearoa [New Zealand] also had a detailed knowledge of astronomy, says Ocean Mercier, a senior lecturer at Victoria University in Wellington.

Their knowledge was quite localised, to the extent that names for the stars could differ even between iwi, or tribes.

Descended from the Polynesian voyagers who travelled to the islands of Aotearoa, Maori scientific knowledge also has a rich tradition in wayfinding, or navigating by sea.

“The Earth itself was the compass,” Dr Mercier notes. “The ocean gave the signs for wayfinding.”

Stories tell of wayfinders travelling as far south as Antarctica, encountering “white rocks coming out of the sea”.

Unlike the history of Western science, the role of women as knowledge keepers has always been highly valued in Maori society, says Dr Mercier.

Hindou Oumarou IbrahimImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image captionHindou Oumarou Ibrahim addressing the UN Opening Ceremony of the High-Level Event for the Signature of the Paris Agreement last year

Though there were and still are gendered roles when it comes to particular branches of knowledge, this has the flexibility to vary between iwi, and women play a vital part in the oral tradition, she says.

In Chad’s nomadic Mbororo community, women have not traditionally held positions of power or influence. However Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim has been in the habit of defying convention since she was a child.

Her mother faced a fierce backlash for educating her children, sending “even the girl” to school.

Now just 10% the size it was in the 1960s, the country’s largest body of water, Lake Chad, is a vital resource for people from Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria. It has diminished vastly in Ms Ibrahim’s lifetime and the seasons on which her people depend to care for their cattle are changing rapidly.

“We used to have three seasons – the rainy season, the cold season and then the dry season. Now we do not have a cold season. The rainy season has become very short,” she explains.

Seeing the impact of climate change, which disproportionately affects women and children, who must walk farther and farther to fetch water, Hindou took matters into her own hands.

Lake ChadImage copyright  AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Image captionHindou Oumarou Ibrahim is documenting the changes in Lake Chad

She initiated a 3D mapping project, combining modern technology and the traditional scientific knowledge of her people. Using indigenous understanding of the local landscape, water resources and plant life, a physical model of Baibokoum, a region in the south of Chad, has been created.

This demonstrates to local authorities how well the Mbororo understand their environment, and involves them in planning for its future.

Ms Ibrahim also campaigns internationally on behalf of her people, highlighting the risk of conflict that climate change is creating in nomadic societies because they are being forced to move into new areas in search of pasture.

She has become a leader in her own community, and hopes to inspire more women to do so.

“When they hear… what a little indigenous girl coming from the communities has done… maybe it can give them more courage to fight for women’s rights.”

Ms Noon and Dr Mercier are both passionate about encouraging indigenous people, and specifically women, to participate in the world of mainstream science.

Though indigenous interest in science subjects is high in Australia, and much is being done to improve access, Ms Noon observes that this has not yet translated to a representative enrolment rate at university.

Dr Mercier is hopeful that Western science and traditional knowledge will find a balance.

“Every culture has a science. So it’s really important for the indigenous voice to be there.”

By Mary Halton

The Volcano Under Europe’s Largest Glacier Is Ready to Blow

Bárðarbunga Volcano, September 4 2014

Aseries of increasingly strong earthquakes shook Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano system at the end of October, a warning that it could erupt soon. Iceland is no stranger to seismic activity, but these stronger quakes indicate that the magma pressure in the Bárðarbunga system is rising, possibly in advance of an eruption.

The October quakes measured 3.9, 3.2, 4.7, and 4.7 in magnitude, National Geographic reports.

If Bárðarbunga erupts, it won’t be an immediate danger to locals, since it’s located in a pretty remote part of Iceland. But the effects of an eruption could affect a lot of people many miles from the volcano itself.

When Bárðarbunga last erupted — it did so continually between August 2014 until February 2015 — the dust cloud it emitted, composed mostly of sulfur dioxide, negatively affected air quality in Iceland. But perhaps most memorably, when a volcano called Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland in 2010, the massive dust clouds it produced over Europe caused 100,000 flight cancellations, leaving 10 million people stranded and costing airlines nearly $2 billion, the Telegraph reports.

Bárðarbunga Volcano, September 4 2014
Bárðarbunga erupted from 2014 to 2015, causing massive dust clouds over Europe.

It’s not totally clear what will happen if Bárðarbunga erupts, or even whether it will at all. But its unique set of circumstances indicate that if it does, it could potentially create massive clouds, like Eyjafjallajökull did. According to researchers who investigated the causes and effects of the 2010 eruption, it’s the volcano’s proximity to a huge glacier that helped create all the clouds. “This rapid cooling made the magma contract and fragment into fine, jagged motes of ash,” reported LiveScience in 2012.

Bárðarbunga, which is located under Iceland’s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull, could have some of these same issues, but that all depends on where the eruption occurs. The volcanic system is 120 miles long and 16 miles wide, with some portions located under hundreds of feet of ice. If its magma contacts the surrounding ice, the explosions could be violent, as was seen in 2010.

Bárðarbunga Volcano, September 4 2014
Smoke emitted from the 2014 explosion was largely composed of irritating sulfur dioxide.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a lot for Icelanders, who will likely be effectively evacuated since Iceland is so used to earthquakes and volcanoes. But it does mean that Bárðarbunga’s eruption might spew up some big clouds, potentially affecting other Europeans.

What this potential eruption probably does not mean is that the glacier will meltentirely. The heat from a volcanic eruption can be massive, and it could definitely cause some glacial melting and subsequent flooding. But Bárðarbunga is probably not going to melt the glacier if it erupts.