Invasion of the Viking women!

The cartoon version of my Scandinavian ancestors has swarms of fiercely bearded men charging off of their longships into monasteries, where they lopped the heads off priests and plundered the gold and silver from the altars. While I admit that I find that imagery quite romantic and appealing, the truth was more complicated: they were also settlers and traders. Also, the beards may have been less common than we thought—an examination of Viking graves in East England, graves that were assumed to have belonged to men because they contained swords and shields, has revealed a surprise. When they examined bones directly to determine sex, almost half of them were female.

Women may have accompanied male Vikings in those early invasions of England, in much greater numbers than scholars earlier supposed, McLeod concludes. Rather than the ravaging rovers of legend, the Vikings arrived as marriage-minded colonists. “Although the results presented here cannot be used to determine the number of female settlers, they do suggest that the ratio of females to males may have been somewhere between a third to roughly equal,” the study concludes.

One major caveat: old decayed skeletons that are often fragmentary or broken can be hard to sex. Skulls are subtle and sex differences are variable; pelves are pretty reliable in modern skeletons, but thousand year old bones? All bets are off. What you really want is DNA analysis, which is more expensive and which this study did not do.

But now I’m curious about something. Burying women with swords may have just been a mark of respect or wealth, and not at all indicative of their use in life, but I know some graves have revealed evidence of violent death in battle; were any of those women? I’d be surprised if more than a small minority of Viking women were actually involved in warfare, but there is a mythical and historical tradition of the Germanic and Celtic tribes having women fighting, so it would be interesting to see some verification of that.

Also, I’m married to a purebred Scandinavian woman, so I want to know if there is a possibility of some deep-seated berserkergang genes in her makeup, so I’ll know not to piss her off. Wouldn’t want to forget to take the garbage out, and have some howling Valkyrie chasing me around the house with a sword, you know.

(via Making Light)

Happy 189th Birthday, Gregor!

It’s really a shame he didn’t live to be even 78 or so, so Gregor Mendel could have lived to see his work recognized.

I also wonder what he would have thought to know that even godless atheists centuries after his life would know his name and his scientific work so well…

Also, via Google today:


Notice the parental, F1, and F2 generations from left to right, and the 3:1 ratio in the F2s…nice.

The fascinating logic of Cosmic Pluralism

Weird ideas can flourish if enough people share a false preconception, and here’s a marvelous article on the history and philosophy of widely held certainty that other planets were inhabited by people. Not just any people, either: good Christian people.

By the 1700s, there could no longer be any doubt. Earth was just one of many worlds orbiting the Sun, which forced scientists and theologians alike to ponder a tricky question. Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?

To many thinkers, the answer was an emphatic “no,” and so cosmic pluralism – the idea that every world is inhabited, often including the Sun – was born. And this was no fringe theory. Many of the preeminent astronomers of the 18th and 19th century, including Uranus discoverer Sir William Herschel, believed in it wholeheartedly, as did other legendary thinkers like John Locke and Benjamin Franklin. How could so many geniuses believe in something so silly?

It’s a good read. The key idea that was leading everyone to this patently false conclusion was teleology, the notion that everything in the universe had a purpose, coupled to another belief, that that purpose had to be us.

Lest you think this is just ancient history and that we’ve moved beyond it, here’s a story about a contemporary crank with peculiar ideas about alien life.

Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10 percent of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth.

If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.

“They may have different color skin, but even we have that,” he said.

Andrei Finkelstein runs a program that resembles SETI — and if I wanted to start a real argument here I’d tell you that SETI is about as quaintly absurd as Herschel’s belief that people lived on the moon. So I won’t tell you that. Yet.

Sometimes, we make progress

It takes decades, though. When did you last hear anyone seriously advocate a flat earth? How many Republican presidential candidates would raise their hands if asked if they believed the earth was flat? Sure, you can find a few far out fringe cranks who babble about it, just as there are a few geocentrists around, but it’s a dead idea — not even Ken Ham pushes it, although I am wondering, since the Bible does support it literally, whether he doesn’t secretly suspect the astronomers have been lying to him for all these years.

But there used to be more noisy flat-earthers around. A complete copy of a map by Orlando Ferguson from 1893 showing his flat earth model has been found, and it’s gorgeous and hilarious. Here’s his Biblical interpretation of the shape of the earth:


Spectacular! Unfortunately, the book that justifies this is lost, and all we have left for support are the notes on the map: Four Hundred Passages in the Bible that Condemn the Globe Theory, or the Flying Earth, and None Sustain It. This Map is the Bible Map of the World.” Just like creationists, though, he does emphasize negative evidence: he ridicules physicists with their absurd proposition that the earth is zooming through space.


Let’s hope that a century from now people will look back on the quaint artifacts from the age of Creationism and Intelligent Design as amusing curios that only a lunatic would find plausible.

Our grisly history

History isn’t often pretty. Archaeologists have been excavating a site called Towton, where a major battle was fought in the Wars of the Roses in 1461, and in which 28,000 people died and were buried in mass graves scattered about the battleground. It’s a fascinating story of the soldiers involved in the battle, and they were both diverse and contradicting certain stereotypes about medieval citizens.

The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. It is easier to be precise about younger individuals, thanks to the predictable ways in which teeth develop and bones fuse during a person’s adolescence and 20s. The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest, Towton 16, was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men’s height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest.

This physical diversity is unsurprising, given the disparate types of men who took the battlefield that day. Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall–just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too.

I can identify: the oldest there were up around my age, and certainly in much better physical shape, and there they were battering each other to death. And then there are bits I can’t identify with at all — they shredded each other with savagery. Some of the dead weren’t simply killed in the heat of battle, they were butchered by repeated blows to the head. This was far more brutal than was necessary to fell an enemy.


Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.

The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head—picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25’s brain, felling him.

His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw. It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat.

Yeesh. These were people so much like us, and we can’t have evolved much beyond that point biologically, yet this is an ugly story of what we often call inhumanity, but is probably more typically human.