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Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils.

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils found in Chile.

These may look like real fossils, but they are actually perfect plastic replicas of 2 million-year-old whale skeletons made using a 3D printer.

This printing technology, which can create 3D versions of objects as diverse as a guns or the brain of a man with no memory, was hyped last week by President Obama when he said that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

The technology certainly saved the day for Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson.

Pyenson had been finishing up a research trip in Chile in 2011 when he decided to check out a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert where workers had supposedly uncovered dozens and dozens of whale skeletons.

“I didn’t really believe the rumors at first,” Pyenson says. But when he arrived, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Pyenson described the experience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

Local museum officials were racing to dig out the skeletons before highway workers paved over the area, Pyenson says. Although the skeletons clearly needed to be removed, a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost. Continue reading →

Ancient Roman cosmetics: Skin cream from the 2nd century A.D.

Roman skin cream from the 2nd century A.D. found in a temple below London Southwark. Credit: Nature

Last week, while working on an article about the chemical make-up of 2000-year-old medicine tablets from a Roman shipwreck, I read that back in 2003 archeologists had unearthed a full canister of cosmetic skin cream, hidden in a Roman temple drain in Southwark, London.

When a Museum of London curator opened up the 2nd century A.D. canister, she found it full of white ointment, awesomely reminiscent of modern-day Nivea cream.

This rare find was then chemically analyzed by University of Bristol’s Richard Evershed, who has a quirky research niche: Figuring out the composition of ancient medical, food and cosmetic concoctions, usually by studying residues leftover on old pottery. (He made news last December by reporting that the fatty deposits on pieces of ancient Polish pottery are Northern Europe’s oldest evidence of cheese-making.)

So what precisely was in the creamy white ointment?

In a 2004 Nature paper, Evershed’s team announced that “the Londinium cream” was primarily made up of animal fat, probably from cattle or sheep. They also detected starch, which was likely isolated by boiling roots and grains in water. In addition, the cream contained a tin dioxide mineral called cassiterite with the chemical formula SnO2.

Then came some reverse engineering. Evershed’s team mixed together a new cream based on the proportions of animal fat, starch and tin dioxide that they had measured in the ancient ointment. Here’s how they describe its aesthetic appeal:

“This cream had a pleasant texture when rubbed into the skin. Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery texture created by the starch. Remarkably, starch is still used for this purpose in modern cosmetics. The addition of SnO2 to the starch/fat base confers a white opacity, which is consistent with the cream being a cosmetic. Fashionable Roman women aspired to a fair complexion, and the Londinium cream may have served as a foundation layer.”

Recreated cream. Credit: Nature.

The researchers go on to say that employing tin to color the ointment white would have been safer than using toxic lead-based pigments, which was common in that era. “White Roman face paint typically comprised lead acetate, prepared by dissolving lead shavings in vinegar.”

They write that it’s not clear whether the cream’s maker intentionally opted for tin because it is non-toxic compared to lead. During the 2nd century A.D., Roman society was slowly becoming aware of lead poisoning… But then again, the chemists of that era weren’t very adept at distinguishing lead from tin, note the authors.

Another possibility is that the cosmetic-maker used tin out of convenience, because nearby Cornish mines had abundant deposits of tin dioxide. Or perhaps our cosmetic-maker was an early pioneer of the buy-local scene.

Dirty Dishes: Fatty residues on pottery fragments point to 6000 B.C. cheese-making

This pottery sherd was part of an ancient strainer used by prehistoric humans to separate cheese curds from whey. Credit: Nature.

Nearly eight thousand years ago in an area that is now called Poland, a prehistoric person skipped dish-duty.

Thanks to this delinquency, researchers in Poland and the UK led by Richard Evershed have been able to analyze the dirty residues on these dishes.

Today the scientists report in Nature that the fatty acid leftovers are Northern Europe’s earliest evidence for cheese-making.

And tomorrow, teenagers everywhere will begin arguing that dirty dishes buried under beds are a gift to future archeologists.

But seriously, archeologists are interested in the onset of cheese-making for several reasons. Continue reading →

A Fun Video About Photo Conservation And The History of Photo-making

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the Getty Conservation Institute with videographer Kirk Zamieroski.

This is a cool video he made about the photo conservation research that takes place in the GCI’s Los Angeles laboratories.

It features the GCI’s Art Kaplan talking about a few of the 100+ different photo-making processes (wowsers!) used since the dawn of photography.

Enjoy!

PS:  ….And if you want to know why some old photos have a brownish “sepia” look, check out this piece about the research of GCI’s Dusan Stulik and Tram Vo.

Annals of Quirkiness: Space Buddha Taken By Nazis.

This sculpture was carved from a meteorite that fell to Earth 10,000-20,000 years ago. Credit: Wiley

Ancient Egyptians made necklaces from meteorites, the Inuit used these extra-terrestrial rocks as an iron source but this is the world’s first space Buddha.

Researchers in Germany led by Elmar Buchner are reporting that a sculpture of the Buddhist god Vaiśravana was carved out of a meteorite fragment that fell to Earth near the border of Siberia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.

It’s the first known example of a religious sculpture carved from a meteorite, said the researchers to the Newscientist’s Colin Barras, who wrote the best of many news stories on the discovery (IMHO).

And that’s not all: The 24-centimeter tall statue “had a colourful past. It was apparently brought to Germany in 1939 by a Nazi-backed archaeological expedition to search for the roots of Aryanism. A swastika on the armoured Buddha’s breastplate may have been a motivating factor in bringing the statue to Germany,” writes Barras.

Buchner and his team proved the statue was made from a meteorite by comparing the relative levels of iron, nickel, cobalt, chromium, gallium and germanium to these elements in pieces of the Chinga ataxite meteorite.

(Incidentally, the Chinga meteorite’s 250 odd fragments were discovered in 1913 at Tanna-Tuva, which has gorgeous stamps and is now a quirky autonomous nation between Russia and Mongolia run by a former sports instructor named Sholban Kara-ool.¬)

But I digress. The only thing that could make this Nazi-seized, space Buddha discovery better is if it becomes the basis for a sequel to Iron Sky, the awesomely terrible (and by this I mean campy great) movie about Nazis on the moon.

Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

This cave art was made around 37,300 years ago, when both Neanderthals and humans inhabited Europe. Credit Pedro Saura.

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics.

Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves.

The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists.

Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.)

This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. Continue reading →

Oldest Cave Art In The Americas

The oldest cave art in the Americas. Credit: PLOS ONE.

Brazilian researchers say they have discovered the oldest cave art in the Americas.

The 10,000-year-old figure was engraved into bedrock in Central Brazil and is most definitely a “he”, as suggested by the oversized phallus.

The figure also has a C-shaped head and three fingers on each hand.

He was discovered during the last days of a seven-year excavation of ancient human shelters in Brazil’s Lapa do Santo region. Archeologists also found bone tools, 27 human burial sites and evidence that the inhabitants probably nourished themselves with small game and fruit. Continue reading →