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Cosmic Science

Listen to a 17,000-year-old conch shell horn

A sliding musical scale from a conch shell horn that hasn’t been played for 17,000 years, signs that Stonehenge was built with recycled rocks, and the world’s oldest known industrial-scale beer brewery: Here’s your daily dose of science on the Web…

Paleolithic horn blares again: What’s thought to be the world’s oldest known conch shell horn can play three notes: C, C-sharp and D.

The 17,000-year-old conch shell was discovered 90 years ago in the cave of Marsoulas, nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. For decades, archaeologists assumed that it was used as a ceremonial drinking cup. But a team led by Carole Fritz, the head of research at France’s Prehistoric Art Research Center, took a closer look and saw signs that the shell had been modified to install a mouthpiece and was shaped to optimize its ability to play musical notes.

In the open-access journal Science Advances, the researchers recount how they recruited a musicologist and a horn player to re-fit the shell with a suitable mouthpiece and produce three different notes.

Sorbonne University archaeologist Philippe Walter told The Guardian that the notes would have reverberated impressively during Paleolithic rituals in the decorated cave. “The power of the sounds produced by the shell is incredible,” he said. “It is more than 100 decibels.”

Want to hear more music played on arguably ancient instruments? Listen to Boston University biologist (and flutist) Jelle Atema play a flute carved from a 4,000-year-old vulture bone, a deer-bone flute that’s thought to date back 30,000 years, and a replica of a 50,000-year-old bear-bone flute that might have been made by Neanderthals.

Stonehenge rocks traced to older ceremonial circle in Wales: Some of the stones that formed the ceremonial circle at Stonehenge were transported hundreds of miles from a similar stone circle in Wales that was built centuries earlier — but then dismantled.

That’s the conclusion of archaeologists who reported their findings last weekend in the journal Antiquity.

Researchers have known for a while that Stonehenge’s slabs of bluestone were quarried in Wales more than 5,000 years ago, but there was an unresolved mystery: Radiocarbon dating suggested that 300 to 400 years passed between the time the stones were quarried and the time they were placed at Stonehenge. What could explain the gap?

Excavation of a Welsh site known as Waun Maun turned up a plausible explanation: Stonehenge’s slabs were a perfect fit for the socket-shaped pits that were left behind at Waun Maun, suggesting that the region’s ancient inhabitants pulled out the stones and carried them to Salisbury Plain during a mass migration.

Four stones that were left behind at Waun Maun helped archaeologists reconstruct the 360-foot-wide circle traced by Waun Maun’s empty sockets — a circle that matched the dimensions of a circular trench that was part of Stonehenge’s original layout.

“There was great excitement, but I think also blessed relief,” University College London archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson told ITV News, “because this had been a real labor of love, trying to untangle this extraordinary mystery.”

5,000-year-old brewery unearthed in Egypt: Archaeologists have found the remains of a sprawling brewery that may have produced the beer for royal burial rituals in Egypt thousands of years ago.

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says the brewery, unearthed in the ancient city of Abydos, was split into eight large sections for beer production, each containing 40 clay pots that were used to warm mixtures of grain and water.

The brewery could have produced as much as 5,900 gallons of beer at a time, New York University archaeologist Matthew Adams said.

Evidence for small-scale beer production goes back as far as 13,000 years, based on an analysis of residues found in a cave in Israel, but the discovery at Abydos suggests that the Egyptians were mass-producing beer during the era of King Narmer, 5,000 years ago.

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Cosmic Science

Joe Biden jumps into science policy with 5 questions

Between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, science policy matters led President Joe Biden’s to-do list for his first day at the White House.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has already taken more than 400,000 American lives and is killing thousands more daily, is clearly the biggest challenge, judging from Biden’s inaugural address.

“We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” he said today. “We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”

But climate change also came in for a prominent mention: “A cry for survival comes from the planet itself — a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear,” Biden said.

Public health and environmental issues also led the list of executive actions that Biden approved on his first day. Among the highlights:

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Cosmic Science

More coffins — and mysteries — unearthed in Egypt

The historical hits keep coming from Egypt’s Saqqara dig: Today archaeologists announced the discovery of more than 50 wooden coffins, found inside 52 burial shafts that go almost 40 feet deep.

An excavation team headed by Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s best-known archaeologists, also explored the funerary temple of Queen Nearit — parts of which were found in previous years. Nearit was one of the wives of King Teti, who ruled Egypt more than 4,000 years ago and built a pyramid next to the newly excavated site in Saqqara.

The finds promise to shed light on more than a millennium’s worth of ancient Egyptian history.

“These discoveries will rewrite the history of this region, especially during the 18th and 19th dynasties of the New Kingdom, during which King Teti was worshiped and the citizens at that time were buried around his pyramid,” the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said in a statement published to Facebook.

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Cosmic Science

Check out the oldest known painting of an animal

Archaeologists say they’ve found the oldest known artistic depiction of a natural creature — a painting of a warty pig that’s at least 45,500 years old, found inside a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

“The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as are aware,” study co-author Adam Brumm of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution said today in a news release.

Brumm and his colleagues discovered the painting during an expedition in 2017. It’s part of a scene that appears to show three or four animals facing off against each other on the cave wall.

The painting’s age — reported in Science Advances, an open-access journal — was estimated by using a uranium-series dating technique on mineral deposits that formed over the painting. The researchers behind the find say the artwork could be thousands of years older.

In any case, the reported minimum age beats out the previous record for representational art, which was held by a 44,000-year-old hunting scene found by the same research team in a different Sulawesi cave. The better-known paintings in France’s Chauvet Cave are thought to be a mere 32,000 years old.

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Cosmic Science

Ancient fast-food joint served up spicy language

A just-unveiled excavation at Italy’s Pompeii archaeological site shows that ancient Roman restaurants had a lot in common with modern-day fast-food eateries — including rude graffiti.

But at Pompeii’s snack bar, naughty comments weren’t just scratched on restroom walls. They were right out in the open, inscribed onto the counter where hot food and drinks were served.

The nearly 2,000-year-old fast-food joint, which was known back then as a thermopolium, got rave reviews this weekend when the Archaeological Park of Pompeii opened it up for pictures. The site was first excavated in 2019, but this year, archaeologists dug down all the way to the floor, unearthing marvelous frescoes in the process.

They also found traces of the tasty wares that were once stored inside the restaurant’s vessels and doled out to customers — as well as the remains of someone who died suddenly when Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in the year 79 covered Pompeii with hot ash and debris.

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Cosmic Science

Daily Dose: Satellites spy Arecibo’s ruins from space

Satellite views of Arecibo, a new prize to counter a future food crisis, NASA’s plans for science missions on the moon: Here’s your daily dose of space and science on the Web…

Radio telescope’s ruins seen from above: We’ve already seen the Dec. 1 collapse of  Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo radio telescope from the ground and from the air. Now both Planet and Maxar Technologies are providing views of the wreckage as seen from space. The satellite views were captured on Dec. 6.

Astronomers in Puerto Rico and at other facilities such as West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory are mourning the loss — and there’s already a petition calling on the federal government to back the construction of a new telescope on the site. More than 48,000 signatures have been registered already; the White House will respond if the number hits 100,000 by Jan. 1.

$15 million XPRIZE program targets food of the future: XPRIZE has put together a four-year, $15 million competition to encourage the development of new alternatives to chicken breasts and fish fillets that outperform the originals in terms of environmental sustainability, nutrition and health — while replicating the taste and texture.

The challenge, known as “XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion,” aims to get ahead of a looming global food crisis. XPRIZE is known for creating multimillion-dollar challenges that incentivize technologies such as private-sector spaceflight and super-efficient cars.

NASA lays out science plan for future moon landings: A new report suggests that NASA should send equipment to the moon in advance of the Artemis program’s first crewed lunar landing, which is currently set for 2024. The report lays out strategies for planning science missions near the moon’s south pole, as well as the priorities for study. Those priorities include field geology, sample collection and return, and the deployment of scientific experiments.

To facilitate the effort, the report suggests using uncrewed missions to pre-position tools, instruments and even rovers capable of carrying riders. That meshes with Blue Origin’s plan to ship a ton of cargo to the lunar surface on a robotic Blue Moon lander in 2023. NASA aims to set up an Artemis Base Camp near the moon’s south pole by 2030.

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Cosmic Science

Egypt’s Saqqara site yields still more mummies

It’s only been a month since Egyptian archaeologists took the wraps off the discovery of scores of mummies at Saqqara — and now they’re adding to the site’s store of archaeological treasures.

Today the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced that about 100 coffins dating back as far as 2,600 years have been found inside a network of buried shafts at Saqqara, Egypt’s oldest-known pyramid site. And there’s still more to come.

The Saqqara necropolis. about 20 miles south of modern-day Cairo, has been under excavation for several seasons. This year, it was the focus of a Netflix documentary titled “Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb,” and the most recent finds will be covered next year in a Smithsonian Channel series called “Tomb Hunters.”

Last month’s revelations related to the discovery of 59 decorated coffins dating back to the 26th Dynasty, in the time frame from around 664 to 525 B.C.E. Today’s follow-up focused on coffins and artifacts from ancient Egypt’s Late Period (664 to 332 B.C.E.) as well as the Greek-influenced Ptolemaic dynasty (320 to 30 B.C.E.)

One of the coffins was opened to reveal a nearly perfectly preserved mummy within. An X-ray scan suggested that it was a male who was in his 40s when he died, with teeth in perfect condition.

Wooden statue
Remains of ancient paint are still visible on a wooden statue recovered from the Saqqara site. (Smithsonian Channel Photo / Caterina Turroni)

Mostafa Waziri, general director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told NBC News that the man must have been wealthy and might have had royal connections, based on the way the arms were crossed over his chest. “We still have a lot to reveal,” he said.

In addition to the coffins, 40 “impressive statues” were found at the site, the ministry said in a Facebook posting.

The artifacts will be moved to museums in Cairo, including the yet-to-be-opened Grand Egyptian Museum, for further analysis and display. Still more discoveries will be announced in Saqqara soon, said Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Anany.

Egyptian officials are turning up the spotlight on archaeological finds in hopes of whetting interest in tourism, which has been hard-hit due to political turmoil and the coronavirus pandemic.

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Cosmic Science

Egypt opens up the next archaeological frontier

Nearly a century after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb focused the world’s attention on Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, archaeologists are turning the spotlight to Saqqara, a site that’s separated by hundreds of miles and centuries of time.

This weekend, antiquities officials formally unveiled 59 decorated coffins, or sarcophagi, with untouched mummies inside them. Mostafa Waziri, the general director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told NBC News that the find reminded him of King Tutankhamun’s tomb — which was found almost intact in 1922.

Saqqara is best known as the site of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which was built around 2650 B.C.E. and is considered the oldest surviving pyramid in Egypt. The newly unveiled sarcophagi, however, come from a much later time, around 600 B.C.E.

To put the timing in context, the Pyramids of Giza were built about a century after the Pyramid of Djoser, in the 2560 B.C.E time frame. King Tutankhamun reigned from 1332 to 1323 B.C.E., and Saqqara’s coffins were buried more than seven centuries after Tut.

The wooden sarcophagi were found stacked in three burial shafts that go about 40 feet deep. They’re colorfully painted, and scores of statuettes and other artifacts were buried along with the mummies. One 14-inch-tall statuette, inlaid with red agate, turquoise and lapis lazuli, represents the Egyptian god Nefertam and is said to be inscribed with the name of its owner, a priest called Badi Amun.

Two of the sarcophagi were opened during Saturday’s unveiling in Saqqara. “We found that the two mummies bear the name and the title of the family,” Khaled El-Anany, Egypt’s minister of tourism and antiquities, told reporters.

Waziri said the sarcophagi and the artifacts would be transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum, the massive gallery that’s under construction in Cairo and due to have its formal opening next year.

And there’s likely to be more mummies to come. El-Anany said dozens more sarcophagi could be unearthed at the site. “This is not the end of the discovery — this is only the beginning,” he said.

Saqqara, which is about 20 miles south of modern-day Cairo, could well become a high-profile stop for Egyptology enthusiasts. This April, Egyptian authorities completed a 14-year-long renovation project at the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara and reopened it to the public — unfortunately, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Egyptian officials see archaeo-tourism as a key contributor to the country’s economic recovery in the post-pandemic era. For evidence, you need look no further than the fact that the antiquities ministry has added “tourism” to its official title.

Saqqara’s finds will keep documentary filmmakers and on-screen archaeologists busy as well: The Smithsonian Channel has already announced it’ll be airing a four-part series about the sarcophagi next year, with “Tomb Hunters” as the working title.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

I’ve been an Egyptology fan for decades, and seeing the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit in Seattle still ranks among my top museum experiences more than 40 years after the fact. The mysteries of Tut’s tomb continue to stir the soul nearly a century after its discovery. But there’s much more to ancient Egyptian history than Tut and Cleopatra.

“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” by renowned Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, is a must-read when it comes to the history of the world’s first nation-state. Wilkinson goes all the way back to before the beginning, stressing how the Nile gave rise to civilization and sustained it over the course of millennia.

"The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt"
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson (Random House / Cover design by Victoria Allen)

Wilkinson’s account of the twists and turns of pharaonic rule — including the creation of a ruling elite, the exercise of absolute authority and the role of religion — could well get you thinking about the lessons for our own age. And if you ever get to Egypt to see the ancient sites and Cairo’s new Grand Egyptian Museum, this book could serve as a guide to the meaning behind the monuments.

For all these reasons, I’m making “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” October’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Over the course of the past 18 years, the CLUB Club has recognized books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to become available at your library or secondhand book store.

Past selections have included other tales of bygone civilizations, ranging from “Everyday Life in New Testament Times” to “The Year 1000” to “1491.” But the CLUB Club also highlights tales of sci-fi civilizations, including Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight” (for September) and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (for August).

Check out the backlist, and if you have recommendations for future CLUB Club selections, pass them along in your comments.

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Cosmic Science

When pandemics mix with politics, it’s unhealthy

For years, public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been playing out scenarios for dealing with pandemics, but the one scenario they didn’t count on was that they’d be hamstrung by their own political leaders.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought that that would happen,” said Maryn McKenna, a veteran reporter on infectious diseases. “And yet, seven months into the pandemic here in the United States, that’s pretty much where we are.”

McKenna and others involved in the response to the coronavirus outbreak discussed the role that politics has played in the pandemic, during a presentation organized by the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Today’s session served as the kickoff for a free weekly series of online events focusing on COVID-19, offered for journalists as well as the public in conjunction with the annual ScienceWriters conference.

Panelists agreed that mixed messages from the nation’s leaders have hampered efforts to combat the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans. Just today, Cornell University researchers said their analysis pointed to President Donald Trump as “the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID.”

Such misinformation has taken the form of conspiracy theories about the origins and spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, plus the hype surrounding supposed “miracle” cures and efforts to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak.

Marsha Jones — co-founder and executive director of The Afiya Center, a Texas-based reproductive justice organization — said she’s seen it all before, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.

“I didn’t think that I would ever see a disease so politicized as HIV was ever again, because for some reason I thought we learned,” she said.

Like the HIV epidemic, the COVID-19 epidemic is dealing a particularly heavy blow to people “who get the least amount of funding, who get the least amount of recognition, who have the worst care,” Jones said.

And even as the outbreak is raging, disadvantaged communities are struggling with the repercussions of systemic racism and urban unrest. “We’re living in a dual epidemic,” Jones said.

Science is suffering along with society, said Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. His group became the focus of controversy early in the pandemic because it helped train Chinese virologists in Wuhan, which was the outbreak’s global epicenter.

The training effort was part of a federally funded program called PREDICT, which aimed to anticipate cross-species viral outbreaks. The Trump administration let the program expire last year, just before the first COVID-19 cases came to light — and EcoHealth Alliance faced heavy criticism largely because of unfounded accusations that the virus was unleashed from the Wuhan virology lab.

“It’s the right wing, it’s QAnon, it’s people spending hours in their basements doing ‘research’ on the internet to dig up stuff that sounds like a conspiracy,” Daszak said. “And of course, with so much online presence, the president not only allows that to happen, but also promotes it, and seems to believe it himself.”

Scientists tend to be uncomfortable about getting into the political fray, but Daszak said inaction may no longer be an option. “During the HIV pandemic, science got political, and scientists got political,” he said. “It’s no good keeping quiet. You’ve got to push back, and push back strong, and tell the truth about what’s going on. … If you keep quiet, you’ve just basically consigned science to the trash heap.”

So what is to be done? The panelists said the political outlook could brighten next year. There’s already an effort in the works to get a virus surveillance program called Stop Spillover funded, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to revive PREDICT.

McKenna said Biden could also reverse cutbacks in public health spending and shore up the CDC’s data-gathering operation.

But politicians aren’t the only ones who can play a role in repairing public policy on pandemics, Daszak said.

“You’re journalists,” he told the online audience. “So get out there and speak the truth, and push back.”

McKenna said it’s crucial for all journalists to be trained to cover the different facets of coronavirus coverage, ranging from biology to business, from epidemiology to education.

“We should rethink the silos within which we exist as journalists … because it’s entirely possible that a science and public health story like the coronavirus pandemic will come in and cut across all those silos, and demonstrate the degree to which we have not trained each other in the mutual knowledge that we all need,” she said.

Daszak said truth-telling shouldn’t be confined to a newsroom setting.

“Go talk to your neighbors and friends,” he said. “And also, you know, the folks with the Trump sign outside their house. Go have a chat with them, see what they think about masks and school openings. Listen to them, and say a couple of things, a couple of facts, nothing heavy, and just let it settle and move away. … We need a societal change in our understanding of things like this pandemic.”

Jones stressed that you don’t need to be a politician — or a journalist, or a public health worker, for that matter — to parry the pandemic.

“The greatest changes don’t necessarily have to happen in the political arena. “There are changes that can happen outside of that, that will inevitably impact what’s happening in the political arena,” she said.

She advised starting with the place where you have the most influence, even if it’s outside the traditional halls of power.

“If that’s at your house, if that’s on your porch, in the park, in the gym — wherever it is that you have the most power, and you can have the most convincing conversation where you’re talking with somebody who can create change, that’s what you do,” Jones said.

From the CDC: How to protect yourself and others

The next presentation in the “COVID-19 Science and Coverage” series is scheduled for Oct. 7, starting at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT). The theme is “Reporting on the Pandemic.” Panelists include STAT senior writer Helen Branswell; Laura Helmuth, editor in chief of Scientific American; Patrice Peck, creator of the newsletter Coronavirus News for Black Folks; and Zeynep Tufekci, a contributing writer at The Atlantic

Full disclosure: I’m the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, which is one of the organizers of the series. FiveThirtyEight senior science writer Maggie Koerth, a CASW board member, moderated today’s session. 

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Cosmic Science

Wonder and whimsy on the Web

Ever since Cosmic Log was founded, back in 2002, we’ve passed along links to tales that caught our eye elsewhere on the Web. With Twitter’s rise, there’s typically less need for that kind of aggregation — but just in case you’re not following me religiously at @b0yle, I’ll occasionally pass along a selection of the Web’s wonder and whimsy, like this one: