A 10-year-old was discovered lying on its side in a fifth-century Italian cemetery previously believed to be designated for babies, toddlers and unborn fetuses. Credit: Photo courtesy of David Pickel/Stanford University


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

November/December 2018

In the News:

'Vampire Burial' Reveals Efforts To Prevent Child's Return From Grave - The discovery of a 10-year-old's body at an ancient Roman site in Italy suggests measures were taken to prevent the child, possibly infected with malaria, from rising from the dead and spreading disease to the living. The skeletal remains, uncovered by archaeologists from the University of Arizona and Stanford University, along with archaeologists from Italy, included a skull with a rock intentionally inserted into the mouth. Researchers believe the stone may have been placed there as part of a funeral ritual designed to contain disease - and the body itself. The discovery of this unusual, so-called "vampire burial" was made over the summer in the commune of Lugnano in Teverina in the Italian region of Umbria, where UA archaeologist David Soren has overseen archaeological excavations since 1987. "I've never seen anything like it. It's extremely eerie and weird," said Soren, a Regents' Professor in the UA School of Anthropology and Department of Religious Studies and Classics. "Locally, they're calling it the 'Vampire of Lugnano.'" The discovery was made at La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies, which dates to the mid-fifth century when a deadly malaria outbreak swept the area, killing many vulnerable babies and small children. The bodies of the young victims were buried at the site of an abandoned Roman villa that was originally constructed at the end of the first century B.C. Until now, archaeologists believed the cemetery was designated specifically for infants, toddlers and unborn fetuses; in previous excavations of more than 50 burials, a 3-year-old girl was the oldest child found. The discovery of the 10-year-old, whose age was determined based on dental development but whose sex is unknown, suggests that the cemetery may have been used for older children as well, said bioarcheologist Jordan Wilson, a UA doctoral student in anthropology who analyzed the skeletal remains in Italy. "There are still sections of the cemetery that we haven't excavated yet, so we don't know if we'll find other older kids,

Neanderthal Healthcare Practices Crucial To Survival - Research at the University of York has suggested that Neanderthals embraced healthcare practices, such as assisting in cases of serious injury and the challenges of childbirth. Previous research at the University of York has already suggested that compassion and caring for the injured and dying could have been a factor in the development of healthcare practices, but further investigation has now shown that there was evolutionary drivers behind it too. Researchers investigated the skeletal remains of more than 30 individuals where minor and serious injuries were evident, but did not lead to loss of life. The samples displayed several episodes of injury and recovery, suggesting that Neanderthals must have had a well-developed system of care in order to survive. Dr Penny Spikins, from the University of York's Department of Archaeology, said: "Neanderthals faced multiple threats to their lives, particularly from large and dangerous animals, but in popular culture Neanderthals have such a brutish and strong image that we haven't really thought too deeply about their vulnerabilities before now. We have evidence of healthcare dating back 1.6 million years ago, but we think it probably goes further back than this. We wanted to investigate whether healthcare in Neanderthals was more than a cultural practice; was it something they just did or was it more fundamental to their strategies for survival? The high level of injury and recovery from serious conditions, such as a broken leg, suggests that others must have collaborated in their care and helped not only to ease pain, but to fight for their survival in such a way that they could regain health and actively participate in the group again."

Ghost Objects In The Sky - Astronomers typically study objects that are visible night after night or explode suddenly, like supernovas, but Casey Law is scouring vast amounts of data in search of bright objects that disappear, never to be seen again. That search turned up the first of what may be many "ghost" objects in the sky: in this case, an extremely bright source of radio emissions that blazed into existence in the 1990s and then faded out over next 25 years. Based on the extreme brightness of the radio source and the type of galaxy in which the flare-up occurred, Law argues that it was the afterglow of the explosion of a massive star, which would have emitted an undetected long-duration gamma-ray burst. Gamma-ray bursts, whose origins are still contentious, are among the most intense flashes in the universe because much of their explosive energy is collimated into a tight beam, like that from a lighthouse. "We believe we are the first to find evidence for gamma-ray bursts that could not be detected with a gamma-ray telescope," said Law, an assistant research astronomer in the Department of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. "These are known as 'orphan' gamma-ray bursts, and many more such orphan GRBs are expected in new radio surveys that are now underway." Gamma-ray bursts, such as that detected last year accompanying gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars, are rarely seen because the source of the gamma rays - a relativistic jet of material emerging from the explosive merger - must be pointing directly at Earth. Perhaps only one in 100 explosions can be seen from Earth by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, for example.The fact that these explosions are followed by a decades-long radio afterglow provides a way for astronomers to find the rest of these explosive events, not just those heralded by a gamma-ray burst. Finding many more gamma-ray bursts will help resolve a major question in astronomy today: What are these massive stellar explosions that generate gamma-ray bursts, and what's left behind afterward?

How The Brain Learns During Sleep - Researchers from Ruhr-Universitšt Bochum and the University of Bonn have investigated which activity patterns occur in the brain when people remember or forget things. They were interested in how the brain replays and stores during sleep what it had learned before. The team recorded the brain activity of epilepsy patients who had electrodes implanted into their brain for the purpose of surgical planning. One result: During sleep, the brain even reactivates memory traces that it can no longer remember later on. Dr. Hui Zhang and Professor Nikolai Axmacher from the Department of Neuropsychology in Bochum describe the results together with Associate Professor Dr. Juergen Fell from the Department of Epileptology in Bonn in the journal Nature Communications, published on 5 October 2018. For the experiment, the test participants were given a series of pictures to memorize. They then took an afternoon nap. When looking at a picture, the activity in the brain shows a pattern that differs somewhat from picture to picture. The researchers were able to measure these differences in high-frequency activity fluctuations - called gamma band activity. They analyzed brain activity not only during the learning task, but also during sleep. They then tested which images the participants could remember after sleep and which they could not. The gamma band activity that was typical of certain motifs occurred not only when looking at the images, but also during sleep. The brain reactivated the activity patterns - both for images the participants later remembered and for those they later forgot. "The forgotten images do not simply disappear from the brain," concludes Hui Zhang. The decisive factor in whether an image was forgotten or retained was not the reactivation of the image-specific gamma band activity, but the activity in a brain region that is important for memory: the hippocampus. This region shows extremely rapid fluctuations in activity, called ripples. A picture was only recalled later on when the reactivation occurred at the same time as the ripples in the hippocampus. This phenomenon only occurred during certain sleep phases, but not when the participants were awake. Specifically, whether an image is remembered or not depended on another factor, namely how detailed the image was processed in the brain. The researchers differentiated the gamma band activity measured when viewing the images into a superficial and a deep processing stage. The superficial processing took place during the first half second after the presentation of the image, the deeper processing after that. Only when the gamma band activity from the deep processing phase was reactivated during the ripples did the participants later remember the image. If the activity from the early processing phase was reactivated, the image was forgotten.

3D Printers Have 'Fingerprints,' A Discovery That Could Help Trace 3D-Printed Guns - Like fingerprints, no 3D printer is exactly the same. That's the takeaway from a new University at Buffalo-led study that describes what's believed to be the first accurate method for tracing a 3D-printed object to the machine it came from. The advancement, which the research team calls "PrinTracker," could ultimately help law enforcement and intelligence agencies track the origin of 3D-printed guns, counterfeit products and other goods. "3D printing has many wonderful uses, but it's also a counterfeiter's dream. Even more concerning, it has the potential to make firearms more readily available to people who are not allowed to possess them," says the study's lead author Wenyao Xu, PhD, associate professor of computer science and engineering in UB's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The study will be presented in Toronto at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Computer and Communications Security, which runs from Oct. 15-19. It includes coauthors from Rutgers University and Northeastern University. To understand the method, it's helpful to know how 3D printers work. Like a common inkjet printer, 3D printers move back-and-forth while "printing" an object. Instead of ink, a nozzle discharges a filament, such as plastic, in layers until a three-dimensional object forms. Each layer of a 3D-printed object contains tiny wrinkles -- usually measured in submillimeters -- called in-fill patterns. These patterns are supposed to be uniform. However, the printer's model type, filament, nozzle size and other factors cause slight imperfections in the patterns. The result is an object that does not match its design plan. For example, the printer is ordered to create an object with half-millimeter in-fill patterns. But the actual object has patterns that vary 5 to 10 percent from the design plan. Like a fingerprint to a person, these patterns are unique and repeatable. As a result, they can be traced back to the 3D printer. "3D printers are built to be the same. But there are slight variations in their hardware created during the manufacturing process that lead to unique, inevitable and unchangeable patterns in every object they print," Xu says.


Science Quote of the Month - "We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science or technology" - Carl Sagan


What's New at the Museum:

Making of a Christmas Classic - It's the time of year when TV stations reach back into their vaults and pull out holiday classics. There is one film that has a longevity that most Christmas films can only hope for. It's known as Babes in Toyland or March of the Wooden Soldiers. (An encore of our classic story). >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this?

Ask the Curator:

The Zapotec's Little Tunnels - I've heard of tunnels found in buildings from the Zapotec empire, somewhere in Central or South America. These tunnels, as I have heard, were too small for adults or normal-sized children to enter, but still had little staircases carved into them, and ceremonial-type items were found in them. I can't find much information on them- are they real? Are people still trying to explore them? Any idea what they were used for? Many thanks - Tango.

The Zapotec Empire of central American (now Mexico) existed from about 500 BC to 700 AD, and reached peak population of around 16,500 around 500 AD. At this point in time they abandoned their old capital and built a new one, Monte AlbŠn, atop a high plateau in the valley of Oaxaca. Beneath the central plaza of this city runs a labyrinth of small tunnels. The tunnels, many only a foot high, are - as you note - too small for adults and most children. Some appear to have steps and are connected chambers containing artifacts like human skeletons and funerary objects. Despite Monte AlbŠn being one of the most studied archeological sites in the Americans, the reason behind the tunnels is unknown, but ideas have been proposed ranging from water drainage to a transportation system for diminutive aliens. One explanation seems to be that the tubes were used for sighting the different positions of the sun, moon and stars as they moved across the sky, but the existence of the chambers snd artifacts seems to also suggest a ritual connection.

This, by far, is not the only mystery about Monte AlbŠn. On the north side of the site is an area called "The Gallery of Dancers" with many stone tablets carved with reliefs of human figures in contorted positions. Nobody is exactly sure what these figures mean, except that they are not really dancers. The leading theory is that they may be human sacrifices.

Perhaps we could understand more about the city and its strange features if we could read the Zapotec hieroglyphics that cover city walls. While the language is still spoken in Mexico, the meanings of the glyphs have been lost and only a handful are now known. Without a key, like the Rosetta Stone which allowed Egyptian script to be deciphered, the translation of these texts may never be known.


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In History:

King Tut's Tomb Discovered - On November 4th of 1922, the entrance to King Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered in Egypt in the Valley of the Kings by English archaeologist Howard Carter. One of Carter's excavators happened upon a stone step, which turned out to be the first step in stairwell that ran down to the rock tomb. Tutankhamen's mummy, with his grave goods, was found completely intact giving archeologists an unparalleled window into Egypt's culture. To read more click here!


In the Sky:

Possible Naked Eye Comet for the Holidays - Comet 46P/ Wirtanen may be visible to the naked eye around mid-December as it swings around the sun and heads back into the outer reaches of our solar system. If it does reach that level of brightness it will be the first in the last five years that can be seen from the Northern Hemisphere. The comet will come within 7.2 million miles of the Earth and be visible near the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters.



Headless Chicken Monster - Scientists have gotten some good video of an Enypniastes eximia sea cucumber walking along the ocean bottom in the Southern Ocean off eastern Antarctica. This odd creature has been given the nickname "the headless chicken monster" because of it resemblance to a roasted chicken that walks. This is the first time this species has been found in this region. Check it out on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJvv2gAj_xc



Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

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