Laputan Logic
Saturday, March 29, 2003
  tsk, tsk
An echo of ancient tongues

Do some of today's languages still hold a whisper of the ancient mother tongue spoken by the first modern humans? Many linguists say that language changes far too fast for that to be possible. But a new genetic study underlines the extreme antiquity of a special group of languages, raising the possibility that their distinctive feature was part of the ancestral human mother tongue.

They are the click languages of southern Africa. About 30 survive, spoken by peoples like the San, traditional hunters and gatherers, and the Khwe, who include hunters and herders. Each language has a set of four or five click sounds, which are essentially double consonants made by sucking the tongue down from the roof of the mouth. Outside Africa, the only language known to use clicks is Damin, an extinct aboriginal language in Australia that was taught only to men for initiation rites.

There are reasons to assume that the click languages may be very old. One is that the click speakers themselves, particularly a group of hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, belong to an extremely ancient genetic lineage, according to analysis of their DNA. They are called the Ju|'hoansi, with the vertical bar indicating a click. ("Ju|'hoansi" is pronounced like "ju-twansi" except that the "tw" is a click sound like the "tsk, tsk" of disapproval.)

All human groups are equally old, being descended from the same ancestral population. But geneticists can now place ethnic groups on a family tree of humankind. Groups at the ends of short twigs, the ones that split only recently from earlier populations, are younger, in a genealogical sense, than those at the ends of long branches. Judged by mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element passed down in the female line, the Ju|'hoansi's line of descent is so ancient that it goes back close to the very root of the human family tree.

Most of the surviving click speakers live in southern Africa. But two small populations, the Hadzabe and the Sandawe, live near Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. Two geneticists from Stanford, Alec Knight and Joanna Mountain, recently analyzed the genetics of the Hadzabe to figure out their relationship to their fellow click speakers, the Ju|'hoansi. The Hadzabe, too, have an extremely ancient lineage that also traces back close to the root of the human family tree, the Stanford team reports in the journal Current Biology. But the Hadzabe lineage and that of the Ju|'hoansi spring from opposite sides of the root. In other words, the Hadzabe and the Ju|'hoansi have been separate peoples since close to the dawn of modern human existence.

The Stanford team compared them with other extremely ancient groups, like the Mbuti of Zaire and the Biaka pygmies of Central African Republic, and found the divergence between the Hadzabe and the Ju|'hoansi might be the oldest known split in the human family tree.

Unless each group independently invented click languages at some later time, that finding implies that click languages were spoken by the very ancient population from which the Hadzabe and the Ju|'hoansi descended. "The divergence of those genetic lineages is among the oldest on earth," Knight said. "So one could certainly make the inference that clicks were present in the mother tongue." If so, the modern humans who left Africa some 40,000 years ago and populated the rest of the world might have been click speakers who later lost their clicks. Australia, where the Damin click language used to be spoken, is one of the first places outside Africa known to have been reached by modern humans.


see also:
African click language 'holds key to origins of earliest human speech' 
Friday, March 28, 2003
  Watching Bricks Age
Civil engineers and materials scientists have long known that clay bricks and other fired ceramics expand as they age owing to the absorption of water from the atmosphere. In general, however, studies of moisture expansion in bricks have been limited to freshly fired bricks over short timescales. Now researchers from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the University of Edinburgh have experimentally investigated expansion in bricks over periods extending back to Roman times, about 1900 years ago. They conclude that brick expansion is governed by a power law. Specifically, bricks expand in proportion to time, raised to the quarter power, as opposed to the logarithmic expansion with time predicted by studies over shorter time scales. The researchers propose that the power law moisture expansion is consistent with the ceramics absorbing water that diffuses through atomic scale pathways in the material. The new theory should help in the engineering of brick structures intended to last a century or more by allowing designers to account for expansion that might otherwise lead to cracks. The power law may also be handy for archeological dating of bricks and ceramics. For example, archeologists could measure the dimensions of a piece of ceramic, and then bake out any moisture it may have absorbed to determine its size at the time that it was first fired. The age of the sample can be inferred from the contraction as the ceramic dries out.
Wednesday, March 26, 2003
  The Jehoash Inscription is a "blatant forgery"

Back in January, after pondering the remarkable similarities between James Ossuary and the serendipitous discovery of the Jehoash Inscription, I concluded my post by saying "I guess now I'm just waiting for Rochelle I. Altman to buy into this and blow the whole thing out of the water..."

Regular readers would know that I was referring to Dr. Rochelle I. Altman's impressive demonstration that the James Ossuary, while really an authentic antiquity, had a forged inscription "brother of Jesus" appended to it. What's more she tactlessly remarked that the forgery was so poorly executed that one would have to be as "blind as a bat" not to see it.

She later apparently said that the "blind as a bat" quip wasn't really meant for public consumption and shouldn't have gone into the article. I can certainly imagine that it may have rubbed some people up the wrong way. But tactlessness can be refreshing too, especially when in the service of someone who really knows their stuff and can so effectively cut through the bullshit.

By contrast, Hershel Shanks of Biblical Archaeology Review played a sort of P.T. Barnum character throughout the whole affair and worked hard (and continues to work hard) to milk this story for all was worth and flogging his magazine in the process. When finally presented with questions raised by her paper, he is quoted as demanding: "And just who is this Rochelle Altman anyway? Has anyone ever heard of her?". I'm pretty sure he knows her by now.

Shanks was obviously not interested in engaging in scholarly analysis but rather wanted to win the point by innuendo and personal attack. After admitting he could not follow her analysis, he decided to imply that she had no right to participate in the scholarly discussion.

...To climax his remarks, Shanks paused dramatically and said in a calm yet forceful voice, “All questions are legitimate. What is not legitimate is to vilify and castigate those who attempt to learn.” This was an interesting way to conclude, I thought, given what he had just said about Dr. Altman.

It's probably worth recounting the uncanny similarities between the two discoveries here: and now, both have Rochelle Altman declaring them fakes.
Like the second inscription on the ossuary of "James," the "Joash" tablet inscription fails to pass the crucial first forensic examination. In both cases, however, an authentic antiquity was deliberately destroyed by the addition of fraudulent text. In the case of the ossuary, we have the desecration of a grave and no rest for the bones of poor Ya'akov bar Yosef. In the case of the "Joash" tablet, we have the possibility that a genuine artifact from the first temple has been used as a mere "surface" for a faked inscription.
The problem, as Altman sees it, is that forgers are getting better and better. Furthermore they are obviously using scientific papers like this one as instruction manuals for refining their fakery. As Nadav Neeman, of Tel Aviv University said when discussing similarities between the inscription and his own work published in 1998 "The `Jehoash inscription,' whose authenticity was verified this week by the GSI, is too similar to the theory I explained in my study," and concludes "one of two things - either I hit the nail on the head, and my theory was confirmed fantastically, or the forger read my theory and decided to confirm it." In other words, a match like this, is just too good to be true and is therefore highly suspect.

Altman feels that it is a double-edged sword when it comes to publishing articles that debunk shonky artifacts because this inforamtion can only but help the forgers get better at their craft. However, she argues, it's important to balance this with the benefit of having a well-informed and less credulous public.

So how can she be so sure it's a fake? Here are the key features which cast doubt on the stone:

  1. The script is a mixture of styles and fonts. Sometimes even mixed within a single word.
  2. Wrong use of the tetragrammaton yhvh, i.e. the name of God, on a covenant from a king of Israel
  3. Irregular use of stress and duration notation
  4. Haphazard use of punctuation
  5. The tablet is the wrong shape and indicates that it was probably used for a book of laws
  6. The size of the tablet indicates that it was probably used for a book of laws
To the modern reader, these errors might not seem like such a big deal. But it is worth considering the role of the scribe in the ancient world, especially one that has been entrusted to engrave the words of the King for the most important Temple in the country. According to Altman, errors like these simply do not happen in royal texts. An error would be in effect an act of treason, the price would be death.

Finally, just like the Ossuary, Altman concludes that the Jehoash Tablet really is a genuine ancient artifact and in all likelihood one from the First Temple which probably even bore an early version of the Torah inscribed upon it. The irony here (and also the tragedy) is that if the forgers hadn't decided to use it as a "blank slate" for their forgery and irreparably defaced it in the process, they may have actually already been in possession of a priceless treasure!

Apart from the Jehoash debunking aspects, this article is well worth reading in its own right. There's plenty of interesting things here about ancient writing systems and how they fit within their cultural contexts. For other examples of the Altman in action, take a look at:

Final Report on the James Ossuary
The writing world of the Dead Sea scrolls

Thanks to inet for bringing this article to my attention.


Tuesday, March 25, 2003
  The Twin Rivers

Herodotus's famous sentence 'Egypt is a gift of the Nile' is often quoted. In many respects, it can also be said of Mesopotamia that she is a gift of the twin rivers. From time immemorial the Tigris and the Euphrates have deposited their alluvium on a bed of sedimentary rocks between the Arabian platform and the Iranian highland, creating amidst deserts a plain which in size and fertility has no equivalent in the 2,300 miles of barren land stretching from the lndus to the Nile.

...Both the Tigris and the Euphrates have their sources in Armenia, the former to the south of Lake Van, the latter near Mount Ararat. The Euphrates, 2,780 kilometres long, first follows a zigzagging course across Turkey, while the Tigris, notably shorter (1,950 kilometres), almost immediately flows northwards. When they emerge from the Taurus mountains the two rivers are separated from each other by some 400 kilometres of open steppe. The Euphrates, which at Jerablus is only 150 kilometres from the Mediterranean, takes a south-easterly direction and leisurely makes its way towards the Tigris. Near Baghdad they nearly meet, being a mere thirty-two kilometres apart, but they soon diverge again and do not mingle their waters until they reach Qurnah, 100 kilometres north of Basrah, to form the Shatt-el-'Arab. In antiquity, however, this wide, majestic, river did not exist, the Tigris and the Euphrates then running separately into the sea. This general pattern of river courses can be divided into two segments. To the north of a line Hit-Samarra the valleys of the Twin Rivers are distinct. The two streams cut their way across a plateau of hard limestone and shale and are bordered by cliffs with the result that the riverbeds have moved very little in the course of time, the ancient cities - such as Karkemish, Mari, Nineveh, Nimrud or Assur - still being on, or close by, the river banks as they were thousands of years ago. But to the south of that line the two valleys merge and form a wide, flat alluvial plain - sometimes called the Mesopotamian delta - where the rivers flow with such a low gradient that they meander considerably and throw numerous side-branches. Like all meandering rivers they raise their own beds, so that they frequently flow above the level of the plain, their overflow tending to create permanent lakes and swamps, and they occasionally change their course. This explains why southern Mesopotamian cities, which were once on the Euphrates or on its branches, are now forlorn ruin-mounds in a desert of silt several miles from modern waterways. Changes in riverbeds are extremely difficult to study in retrospect and to date with accuracy, but they certainly occurred in antiquity. It is, however, remarkable that the ancient Mesopotamians managed to keep their rivers under control, since the two principal branches of the lower Euphrates followed approximately the same course for about three thousand years, passing through Sippar, Babylon, Nippur, Shuruppak, Uruk, Larsa and Ur, that is to say from 25 to 80 kilometres to the east of its present main channel. As for the Tigris, all that can be said about its ancient course in southern Mesopotamia is that it probably was the same as the course of the Shatt el-Gharraf, one of its present branches: straight from Kut el-lmara to the neighbourhood of Nasriyah. It seems to have played a relatively minor role in that region, either because its bed was dug too deep into the alluvium for simple canal irrigation or because it was surrounded - as indeed it is now - by extensive marshes1.

The climate of central and southern lraq is of the "dry, subtropical" variety, with temperatures reaching 120 F. (50 C.) in summer and an average winter rainfall of less than ten inches. Agriculture therefore depends almost entirely upon irrigation, though the dimensions and profile of the plain, as well as the rate of flow of the rivers, preclude the cheap and easy "basin type" of irrigation as practiced, for instance, in Egypt, where the overflow of the Nile freely inundates the valley for a time and then withdraws. Since the combined flood periods of the Tigris and the Euphrates occur between April and June, too late for winter crops and too early for summer crops, the fields must be supplied with water at man's will, and this is achieved by a complex system of canals , reservoirs, dykes, regulator-sluices and the like ("perennial irrigation") . To create an efficient network of canals and to maintain them against rapid silting-up are clearly colossal and unending tasks which require large labour forces and the cooperation of many communities - factors which contain the germs of both local strife and political unity. But this is not all: year after year, two grave dangers threaten the Mesopotamian farmer. The more insidious of the two is the accumulation in flat, low-lying areas of the salt brought by irrigation and collected in the water-table which lies just beneath the surface. If no artificial drainage is installed - and it seems that such drainage was unknown in antiquity - fertile fields can become sterile in a comparatively short time, and in this way, throughout history pieces of land of ever-increasing size had to be abandoned and reverted to deserts. The other danger lies in the capricious rate of flow of the twin rivers. While the Nile, fed by the great lakes of East Africa acting as regulators, has an annual flood of almost constant volume, the volume of the combined floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates is unpredictable, for it depends upon the variable amount of rain or snow which falls on the mountains of Armenia and Kurdistan. If low waters over a few years mean drought and famine, one excessive flood often spells catastrophe. The rivers break through their embankments; the low land as far as the eye can see is submerged; the flimsy mud-houses and reed-huts are swept away; the crop is lost in a huge muddy lake, together with the cattle and the belongings of a large part of the population. It is a spectacle the horror of which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed the last great Iraqi inundation, in the spring of 1954. Thus Mesopotamia constantly hovers between desert and swamp. This double threat and the uncertainty it creates as regards the future are believed to be at the root of the "fundamental pessimism" which, for some authors, characterizes the philosophy of the ancient Mesopotamians.

Despite these drawbacks, the plain watered by the Tigris and the Euphrates is a rich farming land and was even richer in antiquity before extensive salinization of the soil took place. The entire population of ancient lraq could easily feed on the country and barter the surplus of cereals for metal, wood and stone, which had to be obtained from abroad. Though wheat, emmer, millet and sesame were grown, barley was - and still is - the main cereal, since it tolerates a slightly saline soil. Agricultural methods were, as might be expected, primitive, yet at the same time thorough. They are described in fairly great detail in an interesting text known as 'a Sumerian Farmer's Almanac', written about 1700 B.C. According to this text - which purports to be a farmer's instructions to his son - the field was first watered with moderation, trampled over by shod oxen, then carefully dressed with axes to make its surface even. Ploughing and sowing were carried out simultaneously by means of a wooden seeding-plough that went 'two fingers' deep into the soil, the furrows being approximately two feet apart. Later, while barley was growing, the field was inundated again three or four times. The same document also describes the harvesting, the threshing by wagon and sled, and the winnowing. As in the Book of Ruth, the farmer is exhorted to 'make the earth supply the sustenance of the young and the gleaners' by leaving on the ground some of the fallen ears.

The initial watering and ploughing were performed in May-June, and the main harvest usually took place in April of the following year; but a catch-crop was often possible after the winter rains. The fields remained fallow every other year. There is no doubt that the alluvial soil of central and southern Mesopotamia was very fertile in antiquity, but the figure of two- or three-hundredfold given by Herodotus and Strabo for the yield of corn is grossly exaggerated, and to state that the yield of wheat in the extreme south of Iraq in about 2400 B.C. could compare favourably with that of the most modern Canadian wheat fields seems to be over-enthusiastic. In fact, all figures put forward by modern authors must be taken with caution since they are based on very few cuneiform texts some of which may be misleading; moreover, they only apply to a certain period and a certain region. However, the recently suggested overall estimate of forty- to fifty fold (i.e. about twice the average figure in central lraq in the fifties) appears to be acceptable. The hot and humid climate of southern Mesopotamia and the availability of ample water supplies in that region also were conditions highly favourable to the cultivation of the date-palm which grows along rivers and canals, 'its feet in water and its head in the scorching sun'. in the words of an Arabian proverb. We learn from ancient texts that as early as the third millennium B. C. there were in the country of Sumer extensive palm-groves, and that artificial pollination was already practiced. Flour and dates - the latter of high calorific value - formed the staple food of ancient Iraq, but cattle, sheep and goats were bred and grazed in the uncultivated areas and in the fields left fallow, while rivers, canals, lakes and sea provided fish in abundance. A variety of fruit and vegetables, including pomegranates, grapes, figs, chickpeas, lentils, beans, turnips, leeks, cucumbers, watercress, lettuces, onions and garlic, was also grown in gardens sheltered by the palm-trees and watered by means of a very simple water-lifting instrument (dalu) which is still used under its old name. There is no doubt that, apart from occasional famines due to war or natural disasters, the Mesopotamians generally enjoyed a rich and varied diet and were much better off in this respect than their neighbours of Syria. Iran or Asia Minor.

Excerpted from: Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux. (Penguin Third Edition 1992)

1 - not so anymore, alas. Since this text was printed in 1992, Iraq's famous wetlands have been devastated by a drainage network of canals. Ostensibly to reclaim agricultural land from the marshes, the real purpose was to destroy the way of life of 200,000 Ma'dan, Shia "Marsh Arabs". Only pockets of wetlands remain but with severely damaged eco-systems and much of the drained countryside is heavily contaminated with salt and unusable for agriculture.

Click to see images of each archaeological site

Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.

October 06, 2002 / October 13, 2002 / October 20, 2002 / October 27, 2002 / November 03, 2002 / November 10, 2002 / November 17, 2002 / November 24, 2002 / December 01, 2002 / December 08, 2002 / December 15, 2002 / December 22, 2002 / December 29, 2002 / January 05, 2003 / January 12, 2003 / January 19, 2003 / January 26, 2003 / February 02, 2003 / February 09, 2003 / February 16, 2003 / March 02, 2003 / March 09, 2003 / March 16, 2003 / March 23, 2003 / March 30, 2003 / April 13, 2003 / April 20, 2003 / April 27, 2003 / May 04, 2003 / May 11, 2003 / May 18, 2003 / May 25, 2003 / June 01, 2003 / June 08, 2003 / June 15, 2003 / June 22, 2003 / June 29, 2003 / July 06, 2003 / July 13, 2003 / July 20, 2003 / July 27, 2003 / August 03, 2003 / August 31, 2003 / September 07, 2003 / September 21, 2003 / September 28, 2003 / October 05, 2003 / October 19, 2003 /

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