Tag Archives: ancient

Scarabs, phalluses, evil eyes — how ancient amulets tried to ward off disease



An Egyptian winged scarab amulet (circa 1070 –945 BC).

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

Throughout antiquity, from the Mediterranean to Egypt and today’s Middle East, people believed that misfortune, including accidents, diseases, and sometimes even death, were caused by external forces.

Be they gods or other types of supernatural forces (such as a daimon), people — regardless of faith — sought magical means of protection against them.

While medicine and science were not absent in antiquity, they competed with entrenched systems of magic and the widespread recourse to it. People consulted professional magicians and also practised their own forms of folk magic.




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Possibly derived from the Latin word “amoliri”, meaning “to drive away” or “to avert”, amulets were believed to possess inherent magical qualities. These qualities could be naturally intrinsic (such as the properties of a particular stone) or imbued artificially with the assistance of a spell.

Not surprisingly the use of amulets was an integral part of life. From jewellery and embellishments on buildings, to papyri inscribed with spells, and even garden ornaments, they were deemed effective forms of protection.

Amulets have been around for thousands of years. Amber pendants from Denmark’s Mesolithic age (10,000-8,000 BC) seem to have been worn as a form of generic protection.

Jewellery and ornaments referencing the figure of the scarab beetle were also popular all-purpose amulets in Egypt, dating from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (2000 BC).

A solar scarab pendant from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Wikimedia Commons



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Two of the most common symbols of protection are the eye and the phallus. One or both amulet designs appear in many contexts, providing protection of the body (in the form of jewellery), a building (as plaques on exterior walls), a tomb (as an inscribed motif), and even a baby’s crib (as a mobile or crib ornament).

In Greece and the Middle East, for example, the evil eye has a history stretching back thousands of years. Today the image adorns the streets, buildings and even trees of villages.

A tree adorned with the evil eye symbol in a Turkish village.
Marguerite Johnson

The magic behind the evil eye is based on the belief that malevolence can be directed towards an individual through a nasty glare. Accordingly, a “fake” eye, or evil eye, absorbs the malicious intention in place of the target’s eye.

Wind chimes

Greek ‘herm’ (circa sixth century BC).

The phallus was a form of magical protection in ancient Greece and Rome. The Greek sculpture known as a “herm” in English functioned as apotropaic magic (used to fend off evil). Such artefacts, featuring a head and torso atop a pediment — often in the shape of a phallus and, if not, definitely featuring a phallus — were used as boundary markers to keep trespassers out.

The implicit threat is that of rape; come near a space that is not your own, and you may suffer the consequences. This threat was intended to be interpreted metaphorically; namely, a violation of another’s property would entail some form of punishment from the supernatural realm.

The phallus amulet was also popular in ancient Italian magic. In Pompeii, archaeologists have uncovered wind chimes called tintinnabulum (meaning “little bell”). These were hung in gardens and took the form of a phallus adorned with bells.

This phallic shape, often morphing into bawdy forms, presented the same warning as the herm statues in Greece. However, the comic shapes in combination with the tinkling of bells also revealed a belief in the protective power of sound. Laughing was believed to ward off evil forces, as was the sound of chimes.

Tintinnabulum from Pompeii (circa first century AD).
Author provided

One scholarly view of magic is that it functions as the last recourse for the desperate or dispossessed. In this sense, it presents as a hopeful action, interpreted by some modern commentators as a form of psychological release from stress or a sense of powerlessness.

Contemporary ‘magical thinking’

In the context of “magical thinking”, amulets may be dismissed by critical thinkers of all persuasions, but they remain in use throughout the world.

Often combined with science and common sense, but not always, amulets have made a resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The amulets are equally as diverse, coming in all shapes and sizes, and promoted by politicians, religious leaders and social influencers.

A traditional form of adornment and protection in Javanese culture, now popular with tourists, “burnt root” bracelets, known as “akar bahar”, have been sold by community shamans. Indonesia’s Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo, meanwhile, has promoted an aromatherapy necklace containing a eucalyptus potion touted as a preventative against COVID (useless in terms of science but perhaps less dangerous than hydroxychloroquine).

This necklace prompts the question: where does alternative medicine end and magic begin? It is not a new question, since there has been an intersection between magical lore and medical knowledge for thousands of years.




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In Babylon, circa 2000-1600 BC, a condition known as “kuràrum disease” (identified as a ringworm, symptoms of which include facial pustules), was responded to by both magicians and doctors. And in one text there is a “healer” who appears to perform the role of magician and doctor simultaneously.

Other ancient cultures also practised medical magic through amulets. In Greece, magicians prescribed amulets to heal the wandering womb, a condition whereby the womb was believed to dislodge and travel throughout a woman’s body, thus causing hysteria.

These amulets could take the form of jewellery on which a spell was inscribed. Amulets were also used to prevent pregnancy, as evidenced in a recipe written in Greek from around the second century BC, which instructed women to: “take a bean with a bug inside it and fasten it to yourself as an amulet.”

In a contemporary religious context, written amulets replace spells with prayers. In Thailand, for example, Phisutthi Rattanaphon, an Abbot at Wat Theraplai Temple in Suphan Buri, has issued people with orange paper inscribed with protective words and pictures.

Designed to ward off COVID-19, the papers represent the crossover between magic and religion; a paradigm as entrenched as the blurring of magic and medicine in numerous historical and cultural contexts. Thankfully, face masks and hand sanitiser are also available at the temple.The Conversation

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Did ancient Americans settle in Polynesia? The evidence doesn’t stack up



Andres Moreno-Estrada

Lisa Matisoo-Smith, University of Otago and Anna Gosling, University of Otago

How did the Polynesian peoples come to live on the far-flung islands of the Pacific? The question has intrigued researchers for centuries.

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl brought the topic to public attention when he sailed a balsa-wood raft called the Kon-Tiki from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. His goal was to demonstrate such voyages were possible, supporting theories linking Polynesian origins to the Americas.

Decades of research in archaeology, linguistics and genetics now show that Polynesian origins lie to the west, ultimately in the islands of southeast Asia. However, the myth of migrations from America has lingered in folk science and on conspiracy websites.

Pacific migrations: red arrows show expansion from island southeast Asia, blue arrows show Polynesian expansion, yellow arrows show proposed contact with the Americas.
Anna Gosling / Wilmshurst et al. (2011), Author provided

New evidence for American interlopers?

A new study published in Nature reports genetic evidence of Native American ancestry in several Polynesian populations. The work, by Alexander Ioannidis and colleagues, is based on a genetic analysis of 807 individuals from 17 island populations and 15 indigenous communities from South and Central America.

Other researchers have previously found evidence of indigenous American DNA in the genomes of the modern inhabitants of Rapa Nui. (Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, is the part of Polynesia closest to South America.)

The estimated timing of these interactions, however, raised concerns. Analyses of DNA from ancient Rapa Nui skeletal remains found no evidence of such mingling, or admixture. This suggests the “Amerindian” genetic component was likely introduced later via Chilean colonists.

Ioannidis and colleagues found southern South American Indigenous DNA in the genomes – the genetic material – of modern Rapa Nui, but they claim it represents a second pulse of contact. They also found signs of earlier contact, coming from as far north as Colombia or even Mexico.

More novel was the fact that this earlier signal was also found in modern DNA samples collected in the 1980s from the Marquesas and the Tuamotu archipelagos. The researchers argue this likely traces to a single “contact event” around 1200 AD, and possibly as early as 1082 AD.

Both suggested dates for this first event are earlier than those generally accepted for the settlement of Rapa Nui (1200-1250 AD). The earlier date predates any archaeological evidence for human settlement of the Marquesas or any of the other islands on which it was identified.

Ioannidis and colleagues make sense of this by suggesting that perhaps “upon their arrival, Polynesian settlers encountered a small, already established, Native American population”.




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Follow the kūmara

The 1200 AD date and the more northerly location of the presumed contact on the South American continent are not unreasonable. They are consistent with the presence and distribution of the sweet potato, or kūmara.

This plant from the Americas is found throughout Eastern Polynesia. It gives us the strongest and most widely accepted archaeological and linguistic evidence of contact between Polynesia and South America.

Kūmara remains about 1,000 years old have been found in the Cook Islands in central Polynesia. When Polynesian colonists settled the extremes of the Polynesian triangle – Hawai’i, Rapa Nui, and Aotearoa New Zealand – between 1200 and 1300 AD, they brought kūmara in their canoes.

So contact with the Americas by that time fits with archaeological data. The suggestion that it was Native Americans who made the voyage, however, is where we think this argument goes off the rails.

Polynesian voyagers travelled in double-hulled canoes much like the Hokule’a, a reconstruction of a traditional vessel built in the 1970s.
Phil Uhl / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

A great feat of sailing

Polynesians are among the greatest navigators and sailors in the world. Their ancestors had been undertaking voyages on the open ocean for at least 3,000 years.

Double hulled Polynesian voyaging canoes were rapidly and systematically sailing eastwards across the Pacific. They would not have stopped until they hit the coast of the Americas. Then, they would have returned home, using their well proven skills in navigation and sailing.

While Heyerdahl showed American-made rafts could make it out to the Pacific, Indigenous Americans have no history of open ocean voyaging. Similarly, there is no archaeological evidence of pre-Polynesian occupation on any of the islands of Polynesia.




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The limitations of genetic analysis

Genetic analyses attempting to reconstruct historical events based on data from modern populations are fraught with potential sources of error. Addressing questions where only a few hundred years make a major difference is particularly difficult.

Modelling population history needs to consider demographic impacts such as the massive depopulation caused by disease and other factors associated with European colonisation.

Ioannidis and colleagues took this into account for Rapa Nui, but not for the Marquesas. Estimates of population decline in the Marquesas from 20,000 in 1840 to around 3,600 by 1902 indicate a significant bottleneck.

The choice of comparative populations was also interesting. The only non-East Polynesian Pacific population used in analyses was from Vanuatu. Taiwanese Aboriginal populations were used as representatives of the “pure” Austronesian ancestral population for Polynesians.

This is wrong and overly simplistic. Polynesian genomes themselves are inherently admixed. They result from intermarriages between people probably from a homeland in island southeast Asia (not necessarily Taiwan) and other populations encountered en route through the Pacific.

Polynesian Y chromosomes and other markers show clear evidence of admixture with western Pacific populations. Excluding other Oceanic and Asian populations from the analyses may have skewed the results. Interestingly, the amount of Native American admixture identified in the Polynesian samples correlates with the amount of European admixture found in those populations.

Finally, like many recent population genetic studies, Ioannidis and colleagues did not look at sequences of the whole genome. Instead, they used what are called single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) arrays.

SNP arrays are designed based on genetic variation identified through studies of primarily Asian, African and European genomes. Very few Pacific or other indigenous genomes were included in the databases used to design SNP arrays. This means variation in these populations may be misinterpreted or underestimated.

Summing up

While the results presented by Ioannidis and colleagues are very interesting, to fully understand them will require a level of scholarly engagement that may take some time.

Did contact between Polynesians and indigenous Americans happen? Significant evidence indicates that it did. Do these new data prove this? Perhaps, though there are a number of factors that need further investigation. Ideally, we would like to see evidence in ancient genetic samples. Engagement with the Pacific communities involved is also critical.

However, if the data and analyses are correct, did the process likely occur via the arrival of indigenous Americans, on their own, on an island in eastern Polynesia? This, we argue, is highly questionable.The Conversation

Lisa Matisoo-Smith, Professor of Biological Anthropology, University of Otago and Anna Gosling, Research Fellow, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Shillings, gods and runes: clues in language suggest a Semitic superpower in ancient northern Europe



Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire. Joseph Mallord William Turner, c 1815.
The National Gallery, CC BY-NC-SA

Robert Mailhammer, Western Sydney University

Remember when Australians paid in shillings and pence? New research suggests the words for these coins and other culturally important items and concepts are the result of close contact between the early Germanic people and the Carthaginian Empire more than 2,000 years ago.

The city of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was founded in the 9th century BCE by the Phoenicians. The Carthaginian Empire took over the Phoenician sphere of influence, with its own sphere of influence from the Mediterranean in the east to the Atlantic in the west and further into Africa in the south. The empire was destroyed in 146 BCE after an epic struggle against the Romans.

Carthaginian sphere of influence.
Adapted from Kelly Macquire/Ancient History Encyclopedia, CC BY-NC-SA

The presence of the Carthaginians on the Iberian Peninsula is well documented, and it is commonly assumed they had commercial relations with the British Isles. But it is not generally believed they had a permanent physical presence in northern Europe.

By studying the origin of key Germanic words and other parts of Germanic languages, Theo Vennemann and I have found traces of such a physical presence, giving us a completely new understanding of the influence of this Semitic superpower in northern Europe.

Linguistic history

Language can be a major source of historical knowledge. Words can tell stories about their speakers even if there is no material evidence from archeology or genetics. The many early Latin words in English, such as “street”, “wine” and “wall”, are evidence for the influence of Roman civilisation.




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Punic was the language of the Carthaginians. It is a Semitic language and closely related to Hebrew. Unfortunately, there are few surviving texts in Punic and so we often have to use Biblical Hebrew as a proxy.

Proto-Germanic was spoken in what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia more than 2,000 years ago, and is the ancestor of contemporary Germanic languages such as English, German, Norwegian and Dutch.

Identifying traces of Punic in Proto-Germanic languages tell an interesting story.

Take the words “shilling” and “penny”: both words are found in Proto-Germanic. The early Germanic people did not have their own coins, but it is likely they knew coins if they had words for them.

Silver double shekel of Carthage.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

In antiquity, coins were used in the Mediterranean. One major coin minted in Carthage was the shekel, the current name for currency of Israel. We think this is the historical origin of the word “shilling” because of the specific way the Carthaginians pronounced “shekel”, which is different from how it is pronounced in Hebrew.

The pronunciation of Punic can be reasonably inferred from Greek and Latin spellings, as the sounds of Greek and Latin letters are well known. Punic placed a strong emphasis on the second syllable of shekel and had a plain “s” at the beginning, instead of the “esh” sound in Hebrew.

But to speakers of Proto-Germanic – who normally put the emphasis on the first syllable of words – it would have sounded like “skel”. This is exactly how the crucial first part of the word “shilling” is constructed. The second part, “-(l)ing”, is undoubtedly Germanic. It was added to express an individuating meaning, as in Old German silbarling, literally “piece of silver”.

This combining of languages in one word shows early Germanic people must have been familiar with Punic.

Similarly, our word “penny” derives from the Punic word for “face”, panē. Punic coins were minted with the face of the goddess Tanit, so we believe panē would have been a likely name for a Carthaginian coin.

A silver coin minted in Carthage, featuring the Head of Tanit and Pegasus.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

Cultural and social dominance

Sharing names for coins could indicate a trade relationship. Other words suggest the Carthaginians and early Germanic people had a much closer relationship.

By studying loan words between Punic and Proto-Germanic, we can infer the Carthaginians were culturally and socially dominant.

One area of Carthage leadership was agricultural technology. Our work traces the word “plough” back to a Punic verb root meaning “divide”. Importantly, “plough” was used by Proto-Germanic speakers to refer to a more advanced type of plough than the old scratch plough, or ard.

Close contact with the Carthaginians can explain why speakers of Proto-Germanic knew this innovative tool.

The Old Germanic and Old English words for the nobility, for example æþele, are also most likely Punic loanwords. If a word referring to the ruling class of people comes from another language, this is a good indication the people speaking this language were socially dominant.

Intersections of language and culture

We found Punic also strongly influenced the grammar of early Germanic, Germanic mythology and the Runic alphabet used in inscriptions in Germanic languages, until the Middle Ages.

Four of the first five letters of the Punic alphabet and the first four letters of the Germanic Runic alphabet.
Mailhammer & Vennemann (2019), Author provided

This new evidence suggests many early Germanic people learnt Punic and worked for the Carthaginians, married into their families, and had bilingual and bicultural children.

When Carthage was destroyed this connection was eventually lost. But the traces of this Semitic superpower remain in modern Germanic languages, their culture and their ancient letters.The Conversation

Robert Mailhammer, Associate Dean, Research, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Massive spending in a crisis brought bloody consequences in ancient Athens



A steel engraving of the naval battle of Arginusae in 406 B.C.
Allgemeine Weltgeschichte, 1898/Getty Images

Mark Munn, Pennsylvania State University

The jump in federal spending in response to the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic is not a new idea. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the people of ancient Athens had a similar plan – which succeeded in meeting the major threat they faced, but then tore Athenian society apart in a tangle of political recriminations after the crisis had passed.

As a historian of ancient Greece, the most telling parallel I see between current events and that long-ago past is not the plague that broke out in Athens in 430 B.C. I’m more worried by the example of extreme partisan politics that befell Athens a couple of decades later, which I detail in one of my books, “The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates.”

A massive mobilization

In 406 B.C., Athens, a mega-power of the ancient Mediterranean that had built its economy on maritime trade, faced a crisis. Despite recent successes in battle, deep partisan divisions over military leadership had left Athenian forces momentarily vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile, rival city-state Sparta had gained the backing of Persia and was building a navy that could challenge Athens’ control of the sea.

When the Spartans struck, they put the weakened Athenian fleet on the defensive, threatening to crush it and bring Athens to its knees.

In the face of near-certain disaster, the Athenians rallied to respond, accelerating a shipbuilding program already underway by mobilizing all the resources of their Aegean empire. A new tax was passed on personal wealth, and additional money was raised by melting down the golden statues of Victory that had been dedicated on the Acropolis. The resulting coins were spent buying Macedonian pine to make oars to power the triremes, the most advanced naval fighting ships the world had yet seen.

To pull the oars, all able-bodied Athenian men, including knights who normally did not serve in the navy, were called up. Even that was not enough. The Athenians offered citizenship to all resident foreigners and slaves who were willing to serve.

In a little more than a month, the Athenians had assembled a fleet of triremes powerful enough to challenge the Spartan fleet and regain control of the sea.

An enormous battle and victory

In midsummer, 406 B.C., the Athenian and Spartan fleets met in battle in the waters between the island of Lesbos and the coast of Asia Minor. It’s known as the battle of Arginusae, after the small islands off the Asian coast that served as a base for the Athenian fleet; today they are the Turkish islands of Garip and Kalem near the city of Dikili.

Athens won decisively, killing the Spartan commander and destroying nearly half his fleet. The victory was costly: Athens lost 25 out of their 150 triremes, each with a crew of 200 men. A few of the ships were sunk close to shore, and their crews were rescued. But most of the ships lost, carrying more than 4,000 men, were adrift farther out at sea, and went down in a storm that came up in the afternoon of the battle.

Athens was saved. Sparta pleaded for peace, but Athens rejected the terms offered, confident that its navy’s proven strength required no compromises with its foe. The fleet’s commanders, eight of the 10 generals elected annually by the people of Athens, were the heroes of the day. In the elections that followed in the weeks after that battle, six of the eight were reappointed to their commands.

The remaining two generals came home to undergo a mandatory part of public service to Athens: a review of their year in office and an audit of their spending on the public’s behalf.

Rowers in a Greek trireme are carved on a monument dating to close to the time of the battle of Arginusae.
Athens, Athens, Acropolis Museum no. 1339/Mark Munn, CC BY-ND

What happened to the money?

As Athens was preparing for battle, all the generals were entrusted with extraordinary amounts of money to finish and outfit ships, to hire and provision crews and more, all at top speed. In the haste to get the job done, not all the money was accounted for.

This was an opening for partisan prosecutors to investigate. One popular politician, a watchdog of the people’s money, filed charges of financial wrongdoing against one of the fleet’s generals.

The investigation revealed deeper evidence of financial abuse and mismanagement involving other generals as well as the original one accused. All the generals who had commanded during the battle were summoned back to Athens so their accounts could be audited. Four of the remaining six returned home; the other two chose not to return, fearing the consequences that awaited them at home.

An attempt to turn the tables

The generals faced prosecution from political opponents, including men who had served as ship captains during the battle and therefore would know about financial malfeasance in the preparations. If convicted, the generals faced having all their property confiscated and their Athenian citizenship revoked – changing them from national heroes to complete outcasts.

Together, the generals decided to defend themselves by attacking: They accused two of their most prominent opponents, popular political rivals who had been officers under their command, of failing to carry out their duties of recovering the shipwrecked crews. It was a serious charge, alleging responsibility for most of the battle’s casualties, that could have rendered the accusers ineligible to prosecute the generals.

The generals’ strategy backfired. Such serious new charges meant the whole matter was referred to the full Athenian assembly, the sovereign decision-making body of 5,000 to 6,000 Athenians. There, the two accused officers defended themselves against charges of dereliction of duty by producing the generals’ own report from after the battle, which made clear the storm – not human negligence – had made the rescues impossible.

That outraged the Athenians, who were angry at the generals for so transparently trying to escape their own accountability that they would accuse their officers of capital crimes. What began as an investigation of financial wrongdoing had become a contest over blame for the loss of life after the battle. The mood of the assembly determined the outcome, which was that all the generals were responsible for failing to save their men after the battle. The surviving records say nothing about the outcome of the charges of financial wrongdoing.

The verdict called for capital punishment: All six generals who had returned to Athens were put to death by hemlock poisoning.

A private grave relief in memory of an Athenian marine who died at sea; the date is uncertain but most likely from a decade or more after the battle of Arginusae.
Athens, National Archaeological Museum, no. 752/Mark Munn, CC BY-ND

Mob anger – or brutal justice?

The writers who recorded these events were, for the most part, Athenians who were appalled by this horrible display of mob anger. They told their story as a miscarriage of justice, a lesson of Athenian democracy at its worst.

But their condemnation of this angry decision obscures the fact that everything began with enormous spending in response to an urgent crisis. Actions that seemed necessary at the peak of the emergency ended up as cover for misappropriations of public money.

But once the crisis passed, people saw those actions in a different light. Those who were found to have used the panic of the moment as an opportunity for personal gain ultimately paid the highest price. No doubt part of the reason they were judged so harshly was because so many of their fellow citizens had been forced to sacrifice their lives in a battle that enriched the powerful few.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Mark Munn, Professor of Ancient Greek History and Greek Archaeology, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Thucydides and the plague of Athens – what it can teach us now



Pericles Funeral Oration on the Greek 50 Drachmai 1955 Banknote.
Shutterstock

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The coronavirus is concentrating our minds on the fragility of human existence in the face of a deadly disease. Words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” (and “panic”!) have become part of our daily discourse.

These words are Greek in origin, and they point to the fact that the Greeks of antiquity thought a lot about disease, both in its purely medical sense, and as a metaphor for the broader conduct of human affairs. What the Greeks called the “plague” (loimos) features in some memorable passages in Greek literature.

One such description sits at the very beginning of western literature. Homer’s Iliad, (around 700BC), commences with a description of a plague that strikes the Greek army at Troy. Agamemnon, the leading prince of the Greek army, insults a local priest of Apollo called Chryses.

Apollo is the plague god – a destroyer and healer – and he punishes all the Greeks by sending a pestilence among them. Apollo is also the archer god, and he is depicted firing arrows into the Greek army with a terrible effect:

Apollo strode down along the pinnacles of Olympus angered

in his heart, carrying on his shoulders the bow and the hooded

quiver; and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking angrily.

Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.

First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go

a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.

The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.

Plague narratives

About 270 years after the Iliad, or thereabouts, plague is the centrepiece of two great classical Athenian works – Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and Book 2 of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides (c.460-400BC) and Sophocles (490-406BC) would have known one another in Athens, although it is hard to say much more than that for a lack of evidence. The two works mentioned above were produced at about the same time. The play Oedipus was probably produced about 429 BC, and the plague of Athens occurred in 430-426 BC.

Thucydides writes prose, not verse (as Homer and Sophocles do), and he worked in the comparatively new field of “history” (meaning “enquiry” or “research” in Greek). His focus was the Peloponnesian war fought between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, between 431 and 404 BC.

Thucydides’ description of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC is one of the great passages of Greek literature. One of the remarkable things about it is how focused it is on the general social response to the pestilence, both those who died from it and those who survived.

Statue portrait of historian Thucydides outside the Austrian parliament in Vienna.
Shutterstock

A health crisis

The description of the plague immediately follows on from Thucydides’ renowned account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (it is important that Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, whereas Thucydides caught it but survived).

Thucydides gives a general account of the early stages of the plague – its likely origins in north Africa, its spread in the wider regions of Athens, the struggles of the doctors to deal with it, and the high mortality rate of the doctors themselves.

Nothing seemed to ameliorate the crisis – not medical knowledge or other forms of learning, nor prayers or oracles. Indeed “in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things”.

He describes the symptoms in some detail – the burning feeling of sufferers, stomachaches and vomiting, the desire to be totally naked without any linen resting on the body itself, the insomnia and the restlessness.

Michiel Sweerts’ Plague in an Ancient City (circa 1652).
Wikimedia

The next stage, after seven or eight days if people survived that long, saw the pestilence descend to the bowels and other parts of the body – genitals, fingers and toes. Some people even went blind.

Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.

Those with strong constitutions survived no better than the weak.

The most terrible thing was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance.

Lastly, Thucydides focuses on the breakdown in traditional values where self-indulgence replaced honour, where there existed no fear of god or man.

As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him.

The whole description of the plague in Book 2 lasts only for about five pages, although it seems longer.

The first outbreak of plague lasted two years, whereupon it struck a second time, although with less virulence. When Thucydides picks up very briefly the thread of the plague a little bit later (3.87) he provides numbers of the deceased: 4,400 hoplites (citizen-soldiers), 300 cavalrymen and an unknown number of ordinary people.

Nothing did the Athenians so much harm as this, or so reduced their strength for war.

A modern lens

Modern scholars argue over the science of it all, not the least because Thucydides offers a generous amount of detail of the symptoms.

Epidemic typhus and smallpox are most favoured, but about 30 different diseases have been posited.

Thucydides offers us a narrative of a pestilence that is different in all kinds of ways from what we face.

The lessons that we learn from the coronavirus crisis will come from our own experiences of it, not from reading Thucydides. But these are not mutually exclusive. Thucydides offers us a description of a city-state in crisis that is as poignant and powerful now, as it was in 430BC.The Conversation

Chris Mackie, Professor of Classics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Ancient spells and charms for the hapless in love



Magic was an every day part of life in the Graeco-Roman empire.
John William Waterhouse

Adam Parker, The Open University

Valentine’s Days is not all love hearts and roses for everyone. For the hapless in love, the day can be a yearly reminder of failed romances, unrequited love and the seemingly unending search for the illusive “one”.

Such problems of the heart span cultures and history. The inhabitants of the Graeco-Roman world suffered the same heartaches and the same emotional highs and lows as we do today. While we are left with apps to swipe on, a greater belief in magic in this period provided interesting opportunities to find love.

Hope was placed on spells, mysterious words and magical objects to grant the gift of love on their users or to take it away from rivals.

Ticks and fish blood

The Greek Magical Papyri are a series of ancient spell books from Egypt from between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD. They are a sort of do-it-yourself guide to magical rituals that offers solutions to problems like finding a thief, keeping calm, curing fevers and demonic possession. Unsurprisingly, love charms feature prominently.

Depending on the lengths a hopeful lover was willing to go (and their level of lust/obsession/desperation) there was something for all levels of effort. Some spells are “simple”: “To get a certain [her] at the baths: rub a tick from a dead dog on the loins.”

Others require a bit more preparatory work. One advertised as the “irresistible love spell of attraction” asks the unlucky lover to use fish blood to write a spell invoking demons on the skin of an ass. They must then wrap it in vetch (a plant with pink flowers) and hide it in the mouth of a recently deceased dog.

Harpocrates seated on a lotus.
The Met Museum

Most spells required a special ingredient to be used in a specific way in combination with arcane words. These spells don’t leave archaeological traces for us to find. One love spell asked the user to have an iron ring inscribed with Harpocrates (the Hellenistic god of silence) seated on a lotus in their hands while they shouted magical words at the moon from a rooftop. Several such gemstones matching this description have been found.

Love potions themselves have a long history and are discussed in several ancient texts. A Demotic (written in ancient Egyptian) spell proposed the following method:

Take the fragment of the tip of your fingernail and apple seed together with blood from your finger… Pound the apple, add blood to it and put it in the cup of wine. Recite [the given spell] seven times over it and you should make the woman drink it at a special time.

This visceral recipe is a variant of a spell that also added semen, and the hair of a dead man to the mixture.

Rings, curses and more blood

Polemious’s gold ring.
The Trustees of the British Museum

A gold ring found in Corbridge, Northumberland, in 1935 is inscribed in Greek with ΠOΛEMIOYΦIΛTPON, “The love charm of Polemius”. Polemius was a man who either wore this ring to enhance his allure and sexual qualities or gave it to the object of his affections. If it was the latter, it may have been given conspicuously as a gift or hidden on or around them as a clandestine token. It is a uniquely personal object from the edge of the Roman Empire that speaks of the unfulfilled desires of a Greek-speaking man over 1,700 years ago.

Curses were used in the ancient world to condemn thieves, protect businesses, ruin rival chariot teams and to create better opportunities for lovers. Sometimes a desired partner was already in a relationship, and cursing their partner (to discredit, harm or kill them) offered a chance to change this. A lead curse tablet from Boetia, Greece, was written by someone jealously in love with a man called Kabeira and tries to damn his wife Zois:

I assign Zois the Eretrian, wife of Kabeira, to Earth and to Hermes — her food, her drink, her sleep, her laughter, her intercourse, her playing of the kithara, and her entrance, her pleasure, her little buttocks, her thinking, her eyes…

Curses were personal, private contracts between a person and a deity. The leaden tablets were often folded over and sometimes pierced with a nail, which often went through the written name of the curse’s target. They were thrown into rivers, sacred springs, hidden in secret places and even dug into the graves of the recently dead.

Magical and medicinal means were also suggested for resolving relatable problems in ancient relationships. Aelius Promotus, an Alexandrian physician, recommended that barley soaked in menstrual blood and wrapped in mule skin could be tied onto a woman as a contraceptive.

Opposingly, Marcellus of Bordeaux (4th-5th century AD) suggested that a waning sex drive could be cured by finding the right aphrodisiac. He suggested wearing the right testicle of a rooster in a pouch around the neck.

Roman magic may have been a cathartic experience for the heartbroken or an exhilarating one for the lovestruck. The idea that people will do whatever is within their power to find love belongs to a long and ever-evolving tradition. These spells, rituals, tokens and curses highlight the essential nature of love and heartbreak in the ancient world and implicitly connects our cultures across time.The Conversation

Adam Parker, PhD Candidate in Classical Studies, The Open University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Iran’s cultural heritage reflects the grandeur and beauty of the golden age of the Persian empire



The ancient Persian symbol of victory in Persepolis, capital of the ancient Achaemenid kingdom in Iran.
Delbars via Shutterstock

Eve MacDonald, Cardiff University

It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering.

The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond.

The Persian Empire in 490 BC.
Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

The direct legacy of the ancient Iranians can be found across the Middle East, the Caucasus and Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

In the 6th century BC, Iran was home to the first world empire. The Achaemenids ruled a multicultural superpower that stretched to Egypt and Asia Minor in the west and India and Pakistan in the east. They were the power by which all other ancient empires measured themselves. Their cultural homeland was in the Fars province of modern Iran. The word Persian is the name for the Iranian people based on the home region of the Achaemenids – Pars.

Some of the richest and most beautiful of the archaeological and historical heritage in Iran remains there. This includes Parsgardae, the first Achaemenid dynastic capital where King Cyrus(c. 590-529BC) laid down the foundations of law and the first declaration of universal rights while ruling over a vast array of citizens and cultures.

Relief sculpture from Persepolis: one of the immortals perhaps?
Angela Meier via Shutterstock

Nearby is the magnificent site of Persepolis, the great palace of the Achaemenid kings and hub of government and administration. Architecturally stunning, it is decorated with relief sculptures that still today leave a visitor in awe.

Seleucid and Parthian Iran

When the Achaemenids fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, what followed was great upheaval and also one of the most extraordinary moments in human history. The mixing of Persian and eastern Mediterranean cultures created the Hellenistic Age. The Macedonian King Seleucus (died 281BC) and his Persian wife Apame ruled a hybrid kingdom that mixed Greek, Persian, Jewish, Bactrian, Armenian, Sogdian and Aramaean cultures and religions.

With new cities, religions and cultures, this melting pot encouraged the rise of a thriving connectivity that linked urban centres in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Syria (where many of the Hellenistic sites (such as Apamea) have been devastated in recent years by war and looting). The great city of Seleucia-on-Tigris/Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad on the Tigris river in modern Iraq, became the western capital and centre for learning, culture and power for a thousand years.

Hellenistic rulers gave way to Parthian kings in the 2nd century BC and the region was ruled by the Arsacid dynasty whose homeland, around Nisa, was the northern region of the Iranian world. The Parthian Empire witnessed growing connectivity between east and west and increasing traffic along the silk routes. Their control of this trade led to conflict with the Romans who reached east to grasp some of the resulting spoils.

Facade of Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah in Isfahan city.
Fotokon via Shutterstock

It was also a time of religious transition that not only witnessed the rise of Buddhism, but also a thriving Zoroastrian religion that intersected with Judaism and developing Christianity. In the biblical story of the birth of Christ, who were the three kings – the Magi with their gifts for Jesus – but Persian priests from Iran coming to the side of child messiah, astronomers following the comet.

The Sasanians

The last great ancient kingdom of the Iranians was the Sasanian empire based around a dynasty that rose out of the final years of the Arsacid rule in the 3rd century AD. The Sasanians ruled a massive geopolitical entity from 224-751AD. They were builders of cities and frontiers across the empire including the enormous Gorgan wall. This frontier wall stretched 195km from the Caspian Sea to the mountains in Turkmenistan and was built in the 5th century AD to protect the Iranian agricultural heartland from northern invaders like the Huns.

The line of the Gorgan Wall and fort viewed from aerial photograph
Alchetron, Author provided

The wall is a fired-brick engineering marvel with a complex network of water canals running the whole length. It once stood across the plain with more than 30 forts manned by tens of thousands of soldiers.

The Sasanians were the final pre-Islamic dynasty of Iran. In the 7th century AD the armies of the Rashidun caliphs conquered the Sasanian empire, bringing with them Islam and absorbing much of the culture and ideas of the ancient Iranian world. This fusion led to a flowering of early medieval Islam and, of the 22 cultural heritage sites in Iran that are recognised by UNESCO, the 9th century Masjed-e Jāmé in Isfahan is one of the most stunningly beautiful and stylistically influential mosques ever built.

This was a thriving period of scientific, artistic and literary output. Rich with poetry that told of the ancient Iranian past in medieval courts where bards sang of great deeds. These are stories that we now believe reached the far west of Europe in the early medieval period possibly through the crusades and can only emphasise the long reach of the cultures of ancient and medieval Iran.

Iranian cultural heritage has no one geographic or cultural home, its roots belong to all of us and speak of the vast influence that the Iranians have had on the creation of the world we live in today. Iran’s past could never be wiped off the cultural map of the world for it is embedded in our very humanity.The Conversation

Eve MacDonald, Lecturer in Ancient History, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Holy bin chickens: ancient Egyptians tamed wild ibis for sacrifice



A scene from the Books of the Dead (based at the Egyptian Museum) shows the ibis-headed god Thoth recording the result of “the final judgement”.
Wasef et al./PLOS ONE, CC BY-SA

Sally Wasef, Griffith University and David Lambert, Griffith University

These days, not many Aussies consider the ibis a particularly admirable creature.

But these birds, now colloquially referred to as “bin chickens” due to their notorious scavenging antics, have a grandiose and important place in history – ancient Egyptian history, to be precise.

Using DNA from ibis mummies buried around 2,500 years ago, our research published today explores this bird’s stature in ancient times, and how it was reared.

Our findings suggest ancient Egyptian priests practised short-term taming of the wild sacred ibis. This was likely done somewhere in natural ibis habitats, such as local lakes or wetlands. Also, it was probably done close to the Thoth temple at Tuna el Gebel, in a bid to meet an ibis demand fuelled by religious burial rituals.

We’ve bin chicken out some DNA

The preservation of bodies through mummification is a hallmark of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Unfortunately, unfavourable environmental conditions such as high temperatures, humidity and alkaline conditions often result in scepticism about the authenticity of genetic results from ancient Egyptian human remains.




Read more:
Friday essay: the rise of the ‘bin chicken’, a totem for modern Australia


However, animal mummies in the region are much more common. And the sacred ibis, (Threskiornis aethiopicus), is by far the most common bird mummy in ancient Egypt’s underground catacombs, with more than two million found.

The Egyptian sacred ibis looks very similar to the Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca). We once thought they were both sacred ibises, but the two are actually sister species in the ibis family.

Our analysis of 14 sacred ibis mummies, which we collected ourselves from catacombs, helped reveal the role of this bird in ancient Egyptian society and religion.

We collected sacred ibis mummy remains from the ibis catacomb in Saqqara.
Author provided

We analysed and compared mitochondrial DNA, which is a section of DNA inherited from the mother and passed only through females. In doing so, we were able to compare the genetic diversity among the ancient ibis mummies to that of modern sacred ibis populations in Africa.

All hail the Ibis

Ancient Egyptians thought animals were incarnations of gods on Earth. They worshipped the sacred ibis as the god Thoth, which was responsible for maintaining the universe, judging the dead, and overseeing systems of magic, writing, and science.

It’s not surprising then, that professionally mummified Ibises were sacrificially offered to Thoth at his annually celebrated festival. In fact, offering sacred ibis mummies in ancient Egypt was a common practice between the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC) and the early Roman Period (AD 250).




Read more:
Mummies have had a bad wrap – it’s time for a reassessment


For ancient Egyptian priests, the mummification of animals like ibises was not simply a ritual duty, but also a profitable business. Considering the number of ibis mummies found, one has to wonder how the priests secured supplies for this practice.

Some evidence from ancient Egyptian text suggests the birds may have been raised in dedicated large-scale farms over the long term – either next to or within temple enclosures.

In the writings of the priest and scribe Hor of Sebennytos, from the second century BC, he reported regularly feeding about 60,000 sacred ibises with “clover and bread”. This could be interpreted as domestication, or controlled breeding.

In 1825, French naturalist Georges Cuvier described the skeleton of an ibis mummy from Thebes that he’d unwrapped, saying:

One sees that this mummy must have come from a domestic bird in the temples, because its left humerus was broken and reset. It is highly improbable that a wild bird with a wing broken would have been able to capture prey and escape predators. Hence it would have been unable to survive long enough to have healed.

Researchers today have also suggested the seasonal taming of ancient wild ibises, wherein the birds were reared over a single generation by priests, in natural habitats close to temples. Moreover, it seems they were not domesticated, which would have required breeding in captivity over many generations.

The rearing is thought to have occurred at locations such as the Lake of the Pharaoh, in which a natural basin was filled annually by flood waters from the Nile River.

These actions were almost certainly aimed at collecting a large number of adult birds, which were required for the Egyptian ritual of offering a mummified ibis to please Thoth.

1.75 million birds, then suddenly none?

Millions of sacred ibis mummies have been found stacked floor-to-ceiling along kilometres of dedicated catacombs in Egypt.

It’s believed that about 10,000 mummies were deposited annually in the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara.




Read more:
A recipe for mummy preservation existed 1,500 years before the Pharaohs


This amounts to an estimated 1.75 million birds deposited at this location alone. Another catacomb at Tuna el-Gebel contains approximately four million sacred ibis mummies, the largest known number of any mummified birds at a single Egyptian site.

But these birds disappeared from Egypt around 1850, centuries after the cessation of the mummification practice. How and why they disappeared remains a mystery.

Clearly, the people of today treat the ibis in a very different way to the ancient Egyptians. For the latter, they were sacred birds that held a special place in society.

Perhaps we should remember that and recognise, at least a little, their honoured status in the past.The Conversation

Sally Wasef, Postdoctoral research fellow, Griffith University and David Lambert, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Forgotten citadels: Fiji’s ancient hill forts and what we can learn from them



While most Fijian settlement is coastal, new research into mountain settlements can teach us about this country pre-colonisation. Pictured is the Seseleka hill fort, 420 metres above sea level.
Patrick Nunn

Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast

Far away from Fiji’s golden beaches and turquoise seas lies what might appear to many people – visitors and Fijian alike – another reality. One that is hidden, almost forgotten, yet one that recent research is helping bring out from the shadows.

Fiji is not known for its hill forts, but it was not so long ago that they were almost ubiquitous. Consider the comment of colonial official Basil Thomson in 1908 who noted that “almost every important hilltop in western Viti Levu [the largest island in Fiji] is crowned with an entrenchment of some kind”.

The evidence for people having once occupied mountain tops in Fiji is plentiful yet today barely known and hardly studied. This evidence hits you the first time you see it. You are on a perspiring, muscle-aching uphill walk along one of the steep-sided volcanic ridge lines when suddenly the ground in front of you unexpectedly drops away.

There is a deep ditch artificially cut across the ridge, an impediment to your progress today but doubly so 400 years ago when its base would have been lined with sharpened sticks to impale unwanted visitors. On the upslope side of the ditch you find a stone platform – on which a guard house would have been built – and above, a series of cross-ridge stone walls.

In the case of the hill fort of Vatutaqiri on the Vatia Peninsula (northern Viti Levu), we mapped a series of five concentric stone walls built from hundreds of rocks that must have been rolled uphill from the base of the mountain. Like many such hill forts, the Vatutaqiri summit comprises an artificial mound, in this case some 12 metres high, with a flat top, likely to have been a symbolic refuge and/or a lookout post.

One of the five concentric stone walls on the flanks of Vatutaqiri hill fort, Vatia Peninsula, Fiji.
Patrick Nunn

Researching and dating the hill forts

A three-year research project, just concluded, in collaboration with the Fiji Museum sought to understand the hill forts of Bua (northern Fiji). At the outset, we knew only that such places existed here because written accounts described them.

These include that of Commodore Wilkes of the US Navy who described in 1845 “a high and insulated peak […] which has a town perched on its very top.” We identified this peak as Seseleka, 420 metres above sea level, and mapped and excavated it as part of this project.

Maps of Seseleka hill fort, Bua, Fiji. Map A shows the approach to the summit of Seseleka along steep-sided ridge lines cut by artificial ditches and stone walls. Map B shows the summit of Seseleka with the main residential area to the west (with yavu or stone house platforms) and lookout mounds along its axis.
Patrick Nunn

As shown in our map, the flat-topped summit of Seseleka comprises an ocean-facing terrace with the remains of residence platforms (yavu) slightly below a series of three artificial mounds used as lookouts.

Pot shards and edible shellfish remains are scattered around, the latter well suited to radiocarbon dating. There is also an artificial pool (toevu) on top of Seseleka from the mud in the bottom of which we extracted carbon samples for dating.

The results show that people were living on top of Seseleka as early as AD 1670, probably earlier, utilising earthenware for cooking and storage, periodically going down to the coast to collect shellfish that were brought back for less-mobile inhabitants to consume.

In total, we re-discovered 16 hill forts in Bua and, through a range of techniques from radiocarbon dating to the collection and analysis of oral traditions, have helped fill in some details of this poorly-known period of Fiji history.

A plausible explanation is that some 700 years ago, when sea levels in Fiji fell slightly, a food crisis resulted, which led to warfare and the abandonment of coastal sites for mountain-top ones.




Read more:
Rise and fall: social collapse linked to sea level in the Pacific


A few weeks ago, we returned from a reconnaissance trip looking for hill forts in the high volcanic islands of the Kadavu group (southern Fiji). On the pristine stellate island of Ono, we visited and mapped five hill forts, including ones on the summits of Qilai and Uluisolo, the latter reputed to be the place where the god Tanovu who battled the recalcitrant god of distant Nabukelevu island once lived.

But the least expected find was on top of the mountain named Madre where numerous large rocks have been rolled up onto its summit and arranged, it seems, in ways consistent with megalithic structures elsewhere in the world.

In a first for Fiji, there seems to be the remains of a dolmen (a stone tomb) on the summit of Madre.

The dolmen on the hill fort at the summit of Madre, Ono Island, Fiji.
Patrick Nunn

The Fijian word for village is “koro”, used today to refer to any nucleated settlement, mostly along the islands’ coasts. But up until about the 1830s, the word koro was used only to refer to a mountain-top village, thus the name Korolevu means “big village”, Korovatu means “rocky village” and Koronivalu means “war town”. The study of place names can help illuminate history in countries like Fiji where written history is incomplete.

On Ono Island in Kadavu, the researchers stayed in the villages of Vabea and Waisomo and made several ascents of the formidable mountain behind them. This mountain – and the impressive hill fort that sprawls across it – is named Korovou, meaning “new village”, in this sense a new hill fort built, presumably, after another was abandoned. Where its predecessor was, no one is sure … yet.

The author would like to acknowledge his co-researchers in the three-year study of Buan hill forts – Elia Nakoro and Niko Tokainavatu (Fiji Museum), Michelle McKeown (Landcare New Zealand), Paul Geraghty and Frank Thomas (University of the South Pacific), and Piérick Martin, Brandon Hourigan and Roselyn Kumar (University of the Sunshine Coast).The Conversation

Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


How ancient seafarers and their dogs helped a humble louse conquer the world



Male (left) and female Heterodoxus spiniger from Borneo.
Natural History Museum, London, Author provided

Loukas Koungoulos, University of Sydney

This is the story of how a parasitic, skin-chewing insect came to conquer the world.

For more than a century, scientists have been puzzled as to how an obscure louse native to Australia came to be found on dogs across the world. Heterodoxus spiniger evolved to live in the fur of the agile wallaby.

Despite little evidence to back the idea, many researchers believed it was linked to people from Asia bringing the dingo to Australia in ancient times. Perhaps people later took dingoes infested with this parasite back home, where it spread to local dogs, and onwards from there.




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But when we approached the question again using the most up-to-date information, my colleague Peter Contos and I came up with a completely different explanation – one that better fits what we know of ancient migration and trade in the Asia-Pacific region.

As we report in the journal Environmental Archaeology, this louse probably originated not in Australia but in New Guinea, an island with a long history of intimate connection with seafaring Asian cultures.

Louse on the loose

H. spiniger is a tiny louse that lives on mammals around the world, mostly dogs. Using its clawed legs to hang on, it bites and chews at the skin and hair of its hosts to draw the blood on which it feeds.

As all its closest relatives are specialised parasites of marsupials, mostly other wallabies, logic suggested that H. spiniger must have evolved within Australia. It also seemed logical it would have spread first to the dingo, Australia’s native dog.

Our first task was to figure out just how far away from Australia it had spread; this would inform the likely pathways by which it could have travelled to the wider world.

We looked at museum collections, entomological surveys, and veterinary research reports to generate a map of its worldwide distribution.

Global distribution of H. spiniger.
Lougoulos and Contos, Author provided

The specimens we found, collected from the late 19th century to the present day, showed that this species is found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica.

But in Australia, we couldn’t find a single verifiable instance of the parasite living on dingoes. The only cases were from agile wallabies and domestic dogs.

That meant the prevailing wisdom had been wrong, and we had to look elsewhere for the origins of H. spiniger.

Don’t blame the dingoes.
Blanka Berankova/Shutterstock

Where did it really come from?

Although marsupials are best known from Australia, they are also found in other parts of the surrounding region. The agile wallaby is also native to the island of New Guinea, which was once joined with Australia.

Dogs have also been in New Guinea for at least as long as the dingo has been in Australia. Traditionally, dogs were kept in Papuan villages, and were used to hunt game, including wallabies.

It came as little surprise, then, that we found H. spiniger on both agile wallabies and native dogs in New Guinea – and only a few decades after the first ever identification of the species.

So here was a more likely place in which the first transfer from wallaby to dog took place. But who took them out of New Guinea and into the wider world?

Austronesian voyagers

New Guinea was first colonised by humans around the same time as Australia. But since that time, compared with Australia it has had notably stronger connections with the outside world, reaching back millennia before European colonisation of Australia in 1788.

Around 4,000 years ago, agriculturalists known as Austronesians sailed out of Taiwan to settle several archipelagos in Oceania. With them they brought domestic species of plants and animals, including dogs.

By 3,000 years ago, at the latest, they reached New Guinea. We suggest this was the crucial moment when dogs first picked up H. spiniger.

In the ensuing centuries, Austronesians went on to settle much of Indonesia, the Philippines, Melanesia and Polynesia, and coastal sections of mainland Southeast Asia.

They even settled as far as Madagascar, suggesting their voyages probably took them around the rim of the Indian Ocean, along the margins of India and the Middle East.

Dogs accompanying the migrants probably helped spread the louse, which is found almost everywhere they went.

This spans an enormous distance – from Hawaii to Madagascar – a testament to the ancient Austronesians’ supreme seafaring skills.

New directions

Our research suggests how the parasite first got around the world, but not precisely when. Its journey probably progressed at different times in different places.

The Austronesian diaspora established trade routes between the places they settled, some of which spanned impressive distances across several island groups.




Read more:
How to get to Australia … more than 50,000 years ago


Later, foreign traders connected these communities with greater Asia and Africa. And in modern times, dogs continue to be transported as desirable goods themselves.

Trade and contact has probably led to further, possibly ongoing, dispersal of H. spiniger.

Unfortunately there are no archaeological examples that could demonstrate the louse’s early presence outside New Guinea, because this species prefers hot, humid environments.

A genetic approach is a better way forward. A start would be testing specimens from different parts of the world, to see when different regional populations – if they exist – branched off from one another.

This is particularly important in tracking its spread to the Americas, which likely occurred in recent centuries alongside European colonisation.

This research will help us further understand how migration, contact and trade unfolded in the prehistoric Asia-Pacific region, and how it affected the animal species – including the humblest of parasites – we see there today.


This paper would not have been possible without the contributions of Peter Contos, the work of volunteers on the Natural History Museum’s Boopidae of Australasia digitisation project, and the contributions of the public to Wikipedia Creative Commons, for which we are grateful.The Conversation

Loukas Koungoulos, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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