What was Greek Fire?

In 672 AD, Theophanes the Confessor reported that “Kallinikos, an artificer from Heliopolis…had devised a sea fire which ignited the Arab ships and burned them with all hands. Thus it was that the Romans returned with victory and discovered the sea fire.” What was this strange Greek fire?

What was Greek Fire?

Greek fire was an ancient incendiary weapon of mass destruction. In the hands of the Byzantine Empire, it was a terrifying force. Greek fire differed from other similar weapons in history in four curious ways. First, it burned continuously, even underwater. Second, it consisted of a liquid substance. Third, it was propelled through the air via pressurized siphons (see picture above). And fourth, when used in battle, it was accompanied by “thunder” and “smoke.”

The exact formula for this strange weapon was a closely guarded secret and has since been lost to time. One 11th century scholar, George Kedrenos, speculated that the family of Kallinikos kept the formula a secret for centuries, even up until his time. Regardless, modern researchers speculate that possible ingredients might’ve included sulphur, naphtha, petroleum, quicklime, or phosphorous. In his article, Greek Fire: The Best Kept Secret of the Ancient World, 1LT Richard Groller makes an interesting case for petroleum.

“It is very probable then, that the basis of the earliest Greek fire was liquid rectified petroleum or volatile petrol. Petrol itself would not be very effective in flame-projectors since the projected jet dissipates too rapidly. But thickened almost to a jelly by dissolving in it resinous substances and/or sulphur the particular admixture, coupled with the mechanical means of projecting it, together constituted a great achievement of chemical engineering.” ~ 1LT Richard Groller

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Like all weapons, Greek fire had its limitations. It exhibited limited range and enemy vessels soon learned to keep their distance from it. Also, heavy winds and other conditions limited its effectiveness while causing serious safety problems for its users. Still, for a short period of time, Greek fire was the most terrifying and devastating weapon known to man.

The Riddle of the Sphinx

A sphinx is a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. According to the ancient Greeks, any traveler who wished to enter Thebes had to first solve “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” Those who failed to answer it correctly were strangled and eaten. What was the riddle? And who finally bested the Sphinx?

The Riddle of the Sphinx?

The origin of the sphinx is unknown. It appears in many ancient traditions, with the oldest surviving example coming from Turkey around 9,500 BC. Thanks to the Great Sphinx of Giza, the creature is most commonly associated with Egypt. It seems probable that this is the inspiration for the sphinx recorded in Greek mythology.

The Egyptians generally depicted the sphinx as male and multiple in number. It was considered a guardian. In Greek mythology, on the other hand, there’s just one Sphinx. She’s depicted as having the body of a lioness, the head of a woman, and the wings of an eagle. Her tail had a serpent head at the end of it. Oh, and she was definitely NOT a guardian.

According to Greek mythology, Hera sent the Sphinx from Ethiopia to Greece in order to punish the city of Thebes for King Laius’s kidnapping and raping of a boy. The Sphinx took up residence on a high wall outside Thebes. She watched over the only entrance to the city and any would-be visitor was required to answer the Riddle of the Sphinx in order to gain passage. Those who failed to give the correct answer were strangled and eaten! In the earliest texts, the Riddle of the Sphinx is not revealed. However, later texts give it as such:

“Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening upon three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?”

Do you know the answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx?

Answering the Riddle of the Sphinx?

One day, Oedipus came along and finally solved the Riddle of the Sphinx. The correct answer was “man.”

“Man, who walks on all fours in infancy, walks upright on two legs in the midday of his life, and hobbles about with a staff in old age.” ~ Oedipus

Some accounts state that there was a second Riddle of the Sphinx.

“There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first.”

The answer to this Riddle of the Sphinx was “day and night.”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

After Oedipus solved her riddle, the Sphinx threw herself off the wall and broke into pieces on the rocks below. Alternative versions state that she strangled herself or that she refused to acknowledge the answer and he was forced to kill her. Regardless, Oedipus’s victory is often recognized as a transition of sorts. With the death of the Sphinx came the end of ancient religious practices. In their wake would rise a new force…the ancient Olympian gods.

Secrets of the Amazonian Witch Doctors

During the 1500s, a group of European missionaries traveled to South America hoping to convert the locals to Christianity. To their horror, they discovered that Amazonian witch doctors actively used a strange potion…a potion which they considered “the work of the devil.” But modern analysis indicates that this mixture, known as Ayahuasca, is far from evil. Could this secret of the ancient witch doctors improve millions of lives today?

Ayahuasca: A Secret of the Amazonian Witch Doctors?

Last month, we explored Kalata-Kalata, a strange medicinal tea prepared by African witch doctors that could eventually help researchers save millions of lives. We also got a visit from the very interesting Sean McLachlan who interviewed an African healer earlier this year (and who, incidentally, has a new Civil War horror novel coming out shortly). Our latest foray into the world of witch doctors comes via a new documentary from Nick Polizzi entitled The Sacred Science.

In his film, Polizzi observes “eight people from all different walks of life, with varying physical and psychological ailments, as they embark on a one-month healing journey into the heart of the Amazon jungle.” One of the treatments highlighted by the documentary is Ayahuasca, “a hallucinogenic drink used in the Amazon region to cure everything from depression to cancer.”

What is Ayahuasca?

Although many recipes exist, the best known version of Ayahuasca is made by boiling two separate plants. This creates a mixture containing a powerful hallucinogenic known as DMT (which is a Schedule I drug in the United States) along with a secondary substance which acts to orally activate the DMT.

Ayahuasca has several notable effects on the human body. It speeds up the heart rate and blood pressure. It creates psychedelic effects. Most importantly, Ayahuasca kills worms and tropical parasites while also inducing vomiting and diarrhea that allows the human body to expel other parasites.

Ayahuasca is viewed with great interest from many people, due in part to its seemingly magical healing abilities. According to a newly-produced miniseries entitled, The Witch Doctor Will See You Now, “it seemed to have a powerful curative effect on the chronic pain and asthma sufferers who drank it for the show.”In addition, a 1993 scientific investigation indicated that “the medicine was not harmful, and that people who took it were actually healthier than people in the control group.”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The legal status of Ayahuasca remains questionable in many places throughout the world due to its dependence on DMT. However, efforts are underway to legalize it, both for religious purposes as well as for medicinal ones.

It seems to me that Ayahuasca and DMT deserve a closer look from modern science. But the medicinal properties are not the only things that need examination. The origin of the mixture itself remains shrouded in mystery. The two plants used in its creation are located hundreds of miles away from each other and are surrounded by over 80,000 plant species known to exist in the Amazon. Separately, these plants have no effect. But when combined, they create a powerful synergistic potion. So, who discovered Ayahuasca?

And how in the world did they unravel its mysterious secrets?

Secrets of the Witch Doctors?

African witch doctors have long used a certain tea to help pregnant women induce labor and delivery. The ingredients of that concoction are now being exhaustively studied by scientists. Could the secrets of the witch doctors save millions of lives?

Kalata-Kalata & Secrets of the Witch Doctors?

During the 1960s, a Norwegian doctor named Lorents Gran visited the Democratic Republic of Congo. While assisting with a Red Cross relief mission, he noticed that witch doctors used a medicinal tea named kalata-kalata. Made from the plant Oldenlandia affnis, it was used to help pregnant women speed up child delivery. He analyzed the tea and discovered that the active ingredient was a peptide, which reduced pain and caused the uterus to contract. This peptide has since been named kalata B1. It would take another twenty years before this peptide was “characterized as a macrocyclic peptide.”

Since then, the study of these macrocyclic peptides, now called cyclotides, has grown substantially. Recently, Dr. David Craik from the University of Queensland in Australia was interviewed on the subject for the American Chemical Society’s video series called Prized Science: How the Science Behind ACS Awards Impacts Your Life. In the video, entitled, New Drugs – From a Cup of Tea, Dr. Craik showed how his research could turn these cyclotides “into new drugs for treating health problems, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and even AIDS, which affect millions of people worldwide.”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Most peptides, which are really just small chunks of protein, cannot be taken orally since they are too weak to hold up to the digestion process. However, cyclotides have a powerful internal structure that allows them to withstand digestion. This is why the witch doctors were able to subject the kalata-kalata tea yo boiling while maintaining its healing powers.

Excitingly, the cyclotides show tons of medicinal promise. Someday soon, millions of people may find themselves taking life-saving drugs derived from cyclotides. And they’ll owe it all to modern science…as well as the mysterious and wonderful ingenuity of generations of African witch doctors.

A Supernova…in Ancient Texts?

In 1006 AD, ancient astronomers and astrologers from around the world witnessed a strange cosmic event. A brilliant light emitted from a strange and new “star” in the sky. The incident lasted for three months and was marveled at separately in places as far apart as China, Egypt, and Switzerland. Did these ancient scientists observe an ancient supernova?

What is a Supernova?

A supernova is a stellar explosion. It’s characterized by a bright light, intense radiation, and the high-speed expulsion of the star’s materials. If one happened too close to earth, it could easily lead to mass extinction or even destroy our planet. It has long been strongly suspected that the strange sighting by the ancients was that of a supernova called SN 1006. And it wasn’t just any supernova…it was the brightest one in recorded history. It was followed up in 1054 AD by SN 1054, a second brilliant supernova which created the crab nebula.

In 2009, Japanese scientists traveled to Antarctica to search for physical evidence of these supernovas. They drilled into the ice and brought out 122 meters of core samples. Using known volcanic eruptions as reference points, they discovered “NO3 spikes at times corresponding to 1006 and 1054, as well as a mysterious unknown third event.”

Did a Supernova cause Events Described in Ancient Texts?

The presence of nitrogen oxide in the ice provides the first real physical evidence that a supernova was responsible for the events in 1006 and 1054. When a supernova occurs, gamma rays impact the Earth’s atmosphere, hence the excess NO-3 in ancient, well-preserved ice.

As for the mysterious third event, it would appear that yet another supernova took place during the 11th century. The fact that it wasn’t recorded in ancient texts indicates that it may have been only visible from the southern hemisphere or perhaps, hidden by clouds.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Three large supernovas in a single century? That’s incredible. And its even more impressive when one considers that two of them were the brightest stellar events in history. When everything’s said and done, it seems clear that the 11th century deserves to be recognized as one of the most cosmically active periods of all time.

Medical Secrets of the Ancients?

Modern antibiotics work by attacking specific parts of pathogens. While this works in most cases, some pathogens merely develop resistance to the antibiotics. Recently, biologists developed an innovative and promising way to combat these terrifying “superbugs.” Can ancient secrets of the medical world save lives today?

Evolutionary Arms Race: Superbugs versus Antibiotics

Superbugs present a steep challenge to modern medicine. Through a process of evolution, they learn how to defend themselves. This leads to a sort of “evolutionary arms race” with the superbugs on one side and antibiotics and adaptive immune systems on the other.

Now, a team of biologists from the Victoria Department of Primary Industries have proposed a new method for battling superbugs. They want to utilize ancient secrets. In other words, they wants to make use of molecules from the strongest “innate immune systems” found in nature. Innate immune systems, which are considered “an evolutionarily older defense strategy,” defend against infection in a more generic way than antibiotics or the adaptive immune system.

“The molecules of the innate immune system use simple chemistry to target the lipids in cell membranes. They can either disrupt and weaken bacterial membranes, or subtly alter the properties of the host’s healthy cells so that pathogens can no longer attack them.” ~ Wendy Zukerman, New Scientist

Unfortunately, the animals that tend to possess the strongest innate immune systems are only distantly related to humans. Thus, their molecules would most likely prove toxic if introduced into people.

Ancient Secrets of…Wallabies?

So, a team of researchers led by Professor Ben Cocks have focused their efforts solely on mammals. One promising candidate is the wallaby. A baby wallaby lacks an adaptive immune system. Worse, it lives in its mother’s pouch, which is filled with “bacteria closely related to the superbugs affecting humans in hospitals.” But thanks to their innate immune systems, they manage to survive and thrive nonetheless.

The wallaby innate immune system contains numerous cathelicidin peptides that appear effective in battling superbugs without causing toxicity to humans. The research team discovered that five of these peptides may have evolved from a single ancestral peptide. Working backwards, they managed to reproduce an ancient secret…the original peptide. This “resurrected” peptide has not been seen since the djarthia, a distant wallaby ancestor, roamed the Earth some 59 million years ago.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

59 million years? That’s definitely an ancient secret. In fact, it’s just a couple of million years younger than the dinosaurs! And since this extinct peptide has been out of commission for so long, any resistance built up by bacteria has probably been long forgotten. So, it’s no surprise that the ancient peptide appears amazingly effective and broad-based.

“Lab tests showed it destroyed six of seven multidrug-resistant bacteria, and was 10 to 30 times more potent than modern antibiotics such as tetracycline.” ~ Wendy Zukerman, New Scientist

Going forward, Cocks hopes to use computers and synthetic biology to recreate even more therapeutics from ancient mammals. For the time being, this new peptide will most likely be used to battle mastitis, a serious problem in the dairy industry. But someday soon, this ancient secret may enable humanity to overcome a wide variety of superbugs.

Dinosaurs…with Feathers?

In popular media, dinosaurs are often portrayed as large, lumbering creatures with leathery, drab, gray skin. But a shocking new find suggests that this might be incorrect. Were dinosaurs really covered in…fluffy, colorful feathers?

Did Dinosaurs have Feathers?

It’s a story seemingly ripped from the pages of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. While working in western Canada, a team of scientists led by Ryan McKellar discovered strange remnants encased in amber. Out of some 4,000 samples, he pulled eleven dinosaur feathers which range from 70 to 90 million years old and “include simple filament structures similar to the earliest feathers of non-flying dinosaurs — a form unknown in modern birds — and more complicated bird feathers ‘displaying pigmentation and adaptations for flight and diving.'”

“Now, instead of scaly animals portrayed as usually drab creatures, we have solid evidence for a fluffy colored past.” ~ Dr. Mark A. Norell, American Museum of Natural History, New York

Good lord. So, what kind of colors are we talking about here? Red? Blue? Dare I say pink? No, nothing like that. It turns out the feathers contain certain trace metals, which suggest that they were once colored black, brown, and a reddish-brown.

As for which dinosaurs sported these feathers, well, we don’t know for certain and there’s a good chance that they came from an as-yet-to-be-identified species. However, we do know that they lived toward the end of the Cretaceous Period. At that particular moment in time, “the forerunners of birds were well on their way to taking wing.” But that doesn’t mean these recently discovered feathers were used for flight. Most likely, they were used for thermal regulation instead.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

As with all new discoveries, it’s important to take these findings with a grain of salt. Eleven feathers, after all, can only tell us so much. Still, the discovery indicates that creatures with primitive feather structures may have been living in the same era as creatures with more advanced structures. If true, this would change the way scientists currently view feather evolution.

Also, over the past few years scientists have gathered an increasingly large body of evidence indicating that feathers were “a fundamental and widespread characteristic” among certain types of dinosaurs. Although fossil feather research is still in its infancy, future advancements may allow us to determine the exact pigments of these feathers. When that happens, the dull gray dinosaurs of our imagination might just give way to a brand new world of magnificently colored beasts.

Nazca Lines…in the Middle East?

They’re invisible from the ground. But from the air, these stone structures materialize, forming strange wheel-like patterns. What are these ancient “geoglyphs” that stretch across the Middle East?

What are Geoglyphs?

Geoglyphs are large ground-based drawings. They’re formed by either placing or removing stones, gravel, or earth. While nearly impossible to see from up close, the resulting lines form amazing images when viewed from aircraft.

The most famous geoglyphs in the world are found in southern Peru’s Nazca Desert. But the Middle East has its own version of the “Nazca Lines.” They first gained some prominence during the 1920s. As Royal Air Force pilots flew airmail routes over Jordan, they noticed strange designs far below them. According to RAF Flight Lt. Percy Maitland, the stone structures were known among the locals as the “Works of the Old Men.”

Recently, a team led by Professor David Kennedy from the University of Western Australia conducted a “long-term aerial reconnaissance project” of the Middle East. Using aerial photography and satellite-mapping technologies, they identified thousands of geoglyphs scattered across the region.

These geoglyphs take the form of “wheels” with diameters ranging from 82 to 230 feet. They’re often found on lava beds near other stone structures such as “kites (stone structures used for funnelling and killing animals); pendants (lines of stone cairns that run from burials); and walls, mysterious structures that meander across the landscape for up to several hundred feet and have no apparent practical use.”

The wheels remain unexcavated but researchers believe that they may have been created more than 2,000 years ago.

“In Jordan alone we’ve got stone-built structures that are far more numerous than (the) Nazca Lines, far more extensive in the area that they cover, and far older.” ~ Professor David Kennedy

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, what was the purpose of these strange structures? In the past, archaeologists thought they were remnants of ancient houses or cemeteries. But Professor Kennedy disagrees, due to the widespread nature of the wheels as well as the lack of a consistent pattern.

One interesting suggestion is that the wheels represented places of worship or ritual. But until excavations are initiated, it’s impossible to be sure.

The New Missing Link?

In 2010, archaeologists discovered the first fossils of Australopithecus sediba, a human-like species that lived in Africa about 1.9 million years ago. Now, extensive analysis shows that these fossils don’t belong to just any old extinct hominids…they might actually represent a direct link in the evolutionary chain of humanity. In other words, a missing link.

The Missing “Missing Link”?

It’s commonly thought that early humans and chimpanzees parted evolutionary ways about five to seven million years ago. The genus Homo proceeded to evolve even further, leading to numerous species and subspecies. Through a process of extinction and introgression, all of these other creatures eventually disappeared, leaving modern man as the sole surviving members of the Homo genus.

But the exact path of human evolution remains a mystery, due to the difficulty in locating ancient transitional fossils (aka missing links). However, its generally accepted that modern humans can trace their lineage back to Homo Erectus, which may have been the first hominid to leave Africa. The ancestors to Homo Erectus are less certain, with scientists taking sides among numerous candidates.

Is Australopithecus Sediba a Missing Link?

In 2010, a team led by Professor Lee Berger announced the discovery of the remains of two early protohumans in South Africa. The bones consisted of an adult female and a boy who most likely died when they fell into an underground cave. The protohumans were dubbed Australopithecus sediba.

After further examination, Professor Berger and his team now believe that this new species, although older than other species typically considered ancestors to Homo Erectus, was actually more advanced in terms of anatomy and likely capabilities. This has led the team to announce that Australopithecus sediba is a more likely candidate for the ancestor for Homo Erectus than the usual suspects. If true, that would make it “on the direct evolutionary line to us.” In other words, it could be a missing link.

“We have examined the critical areas of anatomy that have been used consistently for identifying the uniqueness of human beings. Any one of these features could have evolved separately, but it is highly unlikely that all of them would have evolved together if Australopithecus sediba was not related to our lineage.” ~ Professor Lee Berger, The University of the Witwatersrand

Some of the evidence backing this assertion include:

  • Age: The fossils were dated to 1.977 to 1.980 million years ago, making it old enough to be an ancestor to Homo Erectus.
  • Brain: While smaller than older fossils, the boy’s brain was probably more similar to modern humans in terms of shape. This may indicate “the start of the reorganization of the brain that would be necessary to make us what we are today.”
  • Hand: The adult female’s right hand shares far more in common with modern humans than with apes.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, is Australopithecus sediba a direct ancestor to Homo Erectus and thus, a direct ancestor to us? Is it a missing link? As of this point, scientists aren’t completely convinced. However, many seem to think that it’s a distinct possibility.

“One lineage of Australopithecus almost certainly led into the first member of our own genus called Homo, and from then eventually emerged modern humans. But some of them are side branches, and we’re trying to work out which ones are and which ones aren’t – and that’s why this finding is so important. In many ways, these fossils are the ‘smoking gun’ just before the emergence of our own genus.” ~ Dr. William Harcourt-Smit, American Museum of Natural History

The site where the Australopithecus sediba remains were found is believed to contain more fossils. If so, those fossils may strengthen Professor Berger’s case…and in the process, help to rewrite the history of human evolution as we know it.

What’s Inside an Ancient Chinese Tomb?

Recently, archaeologists unearthed a Zhou Dynasty tomb in China’s Henan Province. What did they find inside this 3,000 year old grave?

What was the Western Zhou Dynasty?

The Zhou Dynasty was the longest lasting dynasty in Chinese history. Historians believe it began in 1046 BC and lasted until 256 BC. However, the ruling Jī family only wielded military and political control over China from 1046 BC to 771 BC, a period which is often referred to as the Western Zhou Dynasty. It was marked by the introduction of iron, impressive bronzeware, and the evolution of Chinese script into its modern form.

Recently, while constructing a hospital in Luoyang, workers discovered underground structures. Archaeologists excavated the area and unearthed a perfectly-preserved tomb dating back to the Western Zhou Dynasty. They consider it “the most complete find of any tomb of its era.” So, what did they find inside it?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The excavation unveiled numerous pits. Some of these pits contained pottery, copper weapons, jade objects, and bronzeware. However, these finds paled in comparison to the main pit where archaeologists uncovered the remains of five wooden chariots and twelve dead horses. Although the chariots have rotted away, the ash residue remains as you can see in the pictures at the links above. The horse skeletons were found lying on their sides, indicating that they were probably killed before burial.

The tomb probably belonged to a mid-level official. In life, he was most likely of limited importance. But in death, he and his tomb are providing valuable insight into funeral customs as well as other aspects of the Western Zhou dynasty.