A Blog by

You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man.

Temperament matters.

Especially when nuclear weapons are involved and you don’t—you can’t—know what the enemy is up to, and you’re scared. Then it helps (it helps a lot) to be calm.

The world owes an enormous debt to a quiet, steady Russian naval officer who probably saved my life. And yours. And everyone you know. Even those of you who weren’t yet born. I want to tell his story…

It’s October 1962, the height of the Cuban missile crisis, and there’s a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean that’s been spotted by the American Navy. President Kennedy has blockaded Cuba. No sea traffic is permitted through.

Photograph by NY Daily News Archive, Getty
Photograph by NY Daily News Archive, Getty

The sub is hiding in the ocean, and the Americans are dropping depth charges left and right of the hull. Inside, the sub is rocking, shaking with each new explosion. What the Americans don’t know is that this sub has a tactical nuclear torpedo on board, available to launch, and that the Russian captain is asking himself, Shall I fire?

This actually happened.

The Russian in question, an exhausted, nervous submarine commander named Valentin Savitsky, decided to do it. He ordered the nuclear-tipped missile readied. His second in command approved the order. Moscow hadn’t communicated with its sub for days. Eleven U.S. Navy ships were nearby, all possible targets. The nuke on this missile had roughly the power of the bomb at Hiroshima.

“We’re gonna blast them now!”

Temperatures in the submarine had climbed above 100 degrees. The air-conditioning system was broken, and the ship couldn’t surface without being exposed. The captain felt doomed. Vadim Orlov, an intelligence officer who was there, remembers a particularly loud blast: “The Americans hit us with something stronger than the grenades—apparently with a practice depth bomb,” he wrote later. “We thought, That’s it, the end.” And that’s when, he says, the Soviet captain shouted, “Maybe the war has already started up there … We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

Had Savitsky launched his torpedo, had he vaporized a U.S. destroyer or aircraft carrier, the U.S. would probably have responded with nuclear-depth charges, “thus,” wrote Russian archivist Svetlana Savranskaya, understating wildly, “starting a chain of inadvertent developments, which could have led to catastrophic consequences.”

But it didn’t happen, because that’s when Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov steps into the story.

Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya
Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya

He was 34 at the time. Good looking, with a full head of hair and something like a spit curl dangling over his forehead. He was Savitsky’s equal, the flotilla commander responsible for three Russian subs on this secret mission to Cuba—and he is maybe one of the quietest, most unsung heroes of modern times.

What he said to Savitsky we will never know, not exactly. But, says Thomas Blanton, the former director of the nongovernmental National Security Archive, simply put, this “guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

Arkhipov, described by his wife as a modest, soft-spoken man, simply talked Savitsky down.

The exact details are controversial. The way it’s usually told is that each of the three Soviet submarine captains in the ocean around Cuba had the power to launch a nuclear torpedo if—and only if—he had the consent of all three senior officers on board. On his sub, Savitsky gave the order and got one supporting vote, but Arkhipov balked. He wouldn’t go along.

He argued that this was not an attack.

The official Soviet debriefs are still secret, but a Russian reporter, Alexander Mozgovoi, an American writer, and eyewitness testimony from intelligence officer Orlov suggest that Arkhipov told the captain that the ship was not in danger. It was being asked to surface. Dropping depth charges left then right, noisy but always off target—those are signals, Arkhipov argued. They say, We know you’re there. Identify yourselves. Come up and talk. We intend no harm.

What’s Happening?

The Russian crew couldn’t tell what was going on above them: They’d gone silent well before the crisis began. Their original orders were to go directly to Cuba, but then, without explanation, they’d been ordered to stop and wait in the Caribbean. Orlov, who had lived in America, heard from American radio stations that Russia had secretly brought missiles to the island, that Cuba had shot down a U.S. spy plane, that President Kennedy had ordered the U.S. Navy to surround the island and let no one pass through. When Americans had spotted the sub, Savitsky had ordered it to drop deeper into the ocean, to get out of sight—but that had cut them off. They couldn’t hear (and didn’t trust) U.S. media. For all they knew, the war had already begun

We don’t know how long they argued. We do know that the nuclear weapons the Russians carried (each ship had just one, with a special guard who stayed with it, day and night) were to be used only if Russia itself had been attacked. Or if attack was imminent. Savitsky felt he had the right to fire first. Official Russian accounts insist he needed a direct order from Moscow, but Archipov’s wife Olga says there was a confrontation.

She and Ryurik Ketov, the gold-toothed captain of a nearby Russian sub, both heard the story directly from Vasili. Both believe him and say so in this PBS documentary. Some scenes are dramatized, but listen to what they say …

As the drama unfolded, Kennedy worried that the Russians would mistake depth charges for an attack. When his defense secretary said the U.S. was dropping “grenade”-size signals over the subs, the president winced. His brother Robert Kennedy later said that talk of depth charges “were the time of greatest worry to the President. His hand went up to his face [and] he closed his fist.”

Video Still From ''Missile Crisis: The Man Who Saved the World''
Video Still From the PBS documentary, “Missile Crisis: The Man Who Saved the World.

The Russian command, for its part, had no idea how tough it was inside those subs. Anatoly Andreev, a crew member on a different, nearby sub, kept a journal, a continuing letter to his wife, that described what it was like:

For the last four days, they didn’t even let us come up to the periscope depth … My head is bursting from the stuffy air. … Today three sailors fainted from overheating again … The regeneration of air works poorly, the carbon dioxide content [is] rising, and the electric power reserves are dropping. Those who are free from their shifts, are sitting immobile, staring at one spot. … Temperature in the sections is above 50 [122ºF].

The debate between the captain and Arkhipov took place in an old, diesel-powered submarine designed for Arctic travel but stuck in a climate that was close to unendurable. And yet, Arkhipov kept his cool. After their confrontation, the missile was not readied for firing. Instead, the Russian sub rose to the surface, where it was met by a U.S. destroyer. The Americans didn’t board. There were no inspections, so the U.S. Navy had no idea that there were nuclear torpedos on those subs—and wouldn’t know for around 50 years, when the former belligerents met at a 50th reunion. Instead, the Russians turned away from Cuba and headed north, back to Russia.

Photograph courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711199
Photograph courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711199

Looking back, it all came down to Arkhipov. Everyone agrees that he’s the guy who stopped the captain. He’s the one who stood in the way.

He was, as best as we can tell, not punished by the Soviets. He was later promoted. Reporter Alexander Mozgovoi describes how the Soviet Navy conducted a formal review and how the man in charge, Marshal Grachko, when told about conditions on those ships, “removed his glasses and hit them against the table in fury, breaking them into small pieces, and abruptly leaving the room after that.”

Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya
Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya

How Arkhipov (that’s him up above) managed to keep his temper in all that heat, how he managed to persuade his frantic colleague, we can’t say, but it helps to know that Arkhipov was already a Soviet hero. A year earlier he’d been on another Soviet sub, the K-19, when the coolant system failed and the onboard nuclear reactor was in danger of meltdown. With no backup system, the captain ordered the crew to jerry-rig a repair, and Arkhipov, among others, got exposed to high levels of radiation. Twenty-two crew members died from radiation sickness over the next two years. Arkhipov wouldn’t die until 1998, but it would be from kidney cancer, brought on, it’s said, by exposure.

Nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous. Handling them, using them, not using them, requires caution, care. Living as we do now with North Korea, Pakistani generals, jihadists, and who knows who’ll be the next U.S. president, the world is very, very lucky that at one critical moment, someone calm enough, careful enough, and cool enough was there to say no.

Thanks to Alex Wellerstein, author of the spectacular blog Restricted Data, for his help guiding me to source material on this subject.

A Blog by

My Manic-Depressive Cereal Spoon Just Lost Consciousness

I’ll get to the spoon in a minute. But first I’d like to mention zippers. Because the guy who made the spoon once had a problem with zippers. He thought he could make a better zipper. Here’s what he came up with:

Illustration of a man walking out of a door with his fly zipper down, and then a beep going off reminding him to zip it up
Illustration by Dominic Wilcox
Illustration by Dominic Wilcox

OK, the advantage gained may be awkwardly small (or just awkward), but that’s Dominic Wilcox. He’s part artist, part satirist, part engineer, part maniac. He likes to make things better, though “better” to him may feel suspiciously un-better to you.

illustration of an engagement ring with a ring on either sign that have signs pointing to the engagement ring, to draw attention to it
Illustration by Dominic Wilcox
Illustration by Dominic Wilcox

Still, his ideas keep coming. I’ve got two favorites. The first is his GPS Shoe, a gorgeous pair of real soft leather shoes with teeny LED lights embedded in the leatherwork. Dominic says he “thought about The Wizard of Oz and how Dorothy could click her shoes together to go home,” and so in this video, he shows us a pair of self-directing shoes that would take someone “home” (or anywhere else they might want to go). He went to a Northamptonshire shoemaker, then to a computer-savvy engineer, and together they came up with a pair that, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, allows you to click your heels, which then links your shoes up to a GPS satellite. If you’ve told your computer the street address of where you’re going, all you have to do is walk outside and look down.

Video still showing a pair of shoes with red, blinking lights that tell directions embedded in the toes
Video Still from “No Place Like Home,” by Dominic Wilcox
Video Still from "No Place Like Home," by Dominic Wilcox

Your left shoe points (with a teeny winking light) in the proper direction; your right foot indicates how far you have to go. In the video Dominic’s shoes take him across Northamptonshire straight to the gallery where they will be displayed. He comes to several corners and park paths that fork, and his shoes make all the choices. He just walks. He calls this project “No Place Like Home.”

Video still of a man at a fork in the road, looking down at his shoes for direction
Video Still from “No Place Like Home,” by Dominic Wilcox
Video Still from "No Place Like Home," by Dominic Wilcox

Dominic Wilcox works mostly in London, takes commissions, and hires his designing brain out to big companies for what I imagine are big bucks. There is something deeply radical about this man. I can’t put my finger on it, but his inventions are in no sense tame. When a company hires him, he delivers their message, but he does it with such crazy power, such force, that instead of giggling and moving on, he makes you wonder, Are they mad? What were they thinking? The messages hit, but a little too hard. Which is his secret power. Dominic is so good, he’s subversive.

OK, now we’re ready for the spoon.

Dominic made it for the Kellogg’s cereal company. It’s a spoon with two googly eyes. Cute to look at and designed to be adorable, it’s a breakfast spoon for eating cornflakes or Rice Krispies. He calls it the Get Enough Robot Spoon.

But here’s the thing about this spoon. He’s given it moods. It starts sleepy, with its eyes closed. When you put it to use, when you scoop it into a bowl, it seems to awaken, drawing power from repeated scooping. The more you eat, the more awake it gets, to the point that—at the height of breakfast—its eyes start to roll in its head. It seems to be on a crazy cereal high, driven wild by consumption. But once you put it down, or should you choose to carry it with you all day long—yup, dedicated cereal eaters must always be prepared; see the video below—the spoon grows quiet from disuse, and falls eventually into a haze, then a heavy lidded quiet, and then into something that feels like a depressive sleep. I may be reading too much into this, but take a look. See what you think.

Do you get the feeling that if you stop eating cereal, you may be killing your pet spoon? I’m just asking.

The double-edgedness of his work doesn’t seem to hurt. Companies love him. He keeps getting commissions, keeps getting attention, and keeps producing new, startling experiments. He’s come up with a way to switch how his ears work, so the left one hears what the right one should hear, and the right one the left. He’s imagined a hotel elevator like no elevator in the world; he’s created the world’s first upside-down bungee jump, where instead of leaping off a cliff attached to a cord, the cliff … wait, I don’t want to tell you. I want to show you. His blog is where you can find most of his inventions, but probably the most pleasing way to discover Dominic is to walk straight into this short, beautiful video from Liam Saint-Pierre. But I’d avoid the square peas.

If you want more (and I’m thinking you do), there’s a Dominic Wilcox book, chock-full of drawings and imaginings, called Variations on Normal and that’s where you can find another part of him: his gift for getting even. While gentle in appearance, Dominic has a little Chuck Norris or Arnold Schwarzenegger in him; it comes out when he’s punishing people in his mind. Check out how he’d solve the guy-who-doesn’t-shut-off-his-cell-phone problem, and how he’d punish a litterer. He can be clever. Even fiendish.

A Blog by

Oldest Decapitated Head in New World Found in ‘Vogue’ Pose

Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest case of decapitation ever found in the New World. The skull belonged to a young man and was buried in Brazil about 9,000 years old, with severed hands covering its face in a mysterious pose—left hand over the right side of the face, fingers pointing up, and right hand over left side, pointing down.

Danilo Bernardo
Photo by Danilo Bernardo
This 9,000-year-old skull, found with severed hands facing opposite directions in front of the face, may be the oldest evidence of decapitation in the New World.

No one, it seems, has ever seen anything like it. Why was this guy decapitated? Why the weird posing of the hands 9,000 years before Madonna’s song “Vogue“? And where’s the rest of him?

André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found the skull, but he still finds it a mystery. He was excavating the Lapa do Santo site in eastern Brazil when he struck upon the head buried under a rock. He kept sifting away the dirt around it, looking for the rest of the skeleton, but it never materialized. Instead, he slowly uncovered the disembodied skull and hands, partially crushed from being buried for thousands of years.

The How

The last thing Strauss, or anyone else, expected to find at such an old site was a decapitated head; the next oldest decapitation in South America is only about 3,000 years old, and practically on the other side of the continent, in Peru. “I’m not a decapitologist,” he says. (That’s not a real title, but given the number of severed heads in human history, maybe it should be.)

The find raised many questions. First, how did these people, who were hunter-gatherers living in a simple society with few tools (certainly no machetes) get the head off? Strauss got a tip from Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee. (Note: I’m taking her online course in human identification now, and it’s fantastic. If you want to learn what CSI is really like, sign up.)

Black noticed a similarity to a modern-day case she’s working on, in which the skeleton of a woman was found decapitated. She saw the same kind of fractures in the neck, suggesting that after the head was partially cut off, it was manually pulled and twisted to finish the job. It would have been difficult, and gruesome, work.

Strauss et al, PLOS ONE
Strauss et al, PLOS ONE

The Where

Lapa do Santo, incidentally, is also where the oldest human skeleton in South America was found, named Luzia, and the oldest rock art, which turns out to be a carving of a man with a giant phallus, dubbed “Little Horny Man.”

So yes, our hunter-gatherer ancestors sound just as interested in skulls and penis art as your average teenage boy today. But before you snicker, remember that these fascinations pop up all over the world throughout human history: sex and fertility, obviously, but also skulls.

Even though many people consider skulls morbid or even sinister today, for most of our existence people have had a fairly cozy relationship with human heads. They’re still pretty popular, too. A John Varvatos skull scarf costs 250 bucks.

In fact, I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a bright purple skull grinning at me as I write. It’s a life-sized ceramic head decorated with turquoise swirls in a Mexican Day of the Dead style. My husband and mother-in-law looked a little concerned when I dashed into a San Antonio gift shop to snatch it from the display window.

But I love my ceramic skull, and it’s part of a long symbolic tradition. People have always cut off heads and kept them, or buried them, or used them for all manner of purposes. Skulls can be war trophies: The Inca emperor Atahualpa drank from the gold-encrusted skull of a rival, maybe his brother. In fact, more than one culture figured out that a cranium makes a great cup. Or they can be more peaceful reminders of our ancestors.

“There is often no link about these similar forms of behavior practiced in different part of the world,” says Silvia Bello, an anthropologist who studies death practices at the Natural History Museum in London. “The fascination of humans for heads and skulls seems to be the common ground.”

The Why

We don’t know why our mystery man in Brazil was decapitated, but it most likely wasn’t as a trophy. There are no holes or scrape marks that would be expected if the head was cleaned for display, and the cranium wasn’t opened to remove the brain (which you would definitely want to do if a head was sitting out on display decomposing).

Andre Strauss
Photo by Andre Strauss
An archaeologist exhumes one of the skeletons found at Lapa do Santo.

Strauss also doubts that he was killed as a rival or outsider. He was a local, based on the signature of strontium isotopes in his bones. He may not have been executed at all; perhaps he died of natural causes or in a fight, and his head was removed and buried in a special way for symbolic reasons that we may never understand.

One hint, though, lies in the fact that the hands were arranged over the face as opposites in that ‘vogue’ pose. (For the sticklers: It’s really not quite like Madonna’s vogue, if you look up photos of her, but I don’t know what else to compare it to.)

“There is an argument for great symbolism in these two hands,” says anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University. “Left and right, that’s dualism.” Opposites were a big theme in Inca and other South American cultures, though it’s not clear whether this opposite pose would have represented something good or bad—maybe both.

Whatever the people of Lapa do Santo intended, this decapitation is an important glimpse into the ritual dismemberment of human remains, says Michelle Bonogofsky of the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote a book on decapitations. She has seen skulls plastered, painted, and decorated, but has never seen a skull posed with severed hands.

“I found a head that had two feet in front of it once,” says Verano. “It seemed to be a sign of disrespect. But never the hands.”

Reference: The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil). Andre Strauss et al. PLOS ONE, published online September 23, 2015. http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0137456

A Blog by

Who’s the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?

Editor’s Note: This post has updated to clarify a sentence about the gender of the ancient writer.  

“It’s me!” they’d say, and they’d leave a sign. Leave it on the cave wall. Maybe as a prayer, maybe a graffito, we don’t know.

This was 30,000 years ago. Writing hadn’t been invented, so they couldn’t chalk their names on the rock. Instead, they’d flatten their hand, blow dust over it, and leave a silhouette like this:

a handprint is outlined in an orange/red pigment on the reproduction of the prototype fac simile of the cave Chauvet
Prototype fac simile of the cave Chauvet—Pont d’Arc, negative hand painted by blowing pigments. Photograph by Laurent CERINO, REA, Redux
Photograph by Laurent CERINO, REA, Redux

And for 30, 40 centuries across Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia, this is how cavemen, cavewomen, cave kids, hunters, nomads, farmers, and soldiers left their mark.

Picture of layers and layers of hands painted onto a cave wall in Argentina
Cave of the Hands, Patagonia, Province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph by
Javier Etcheverry, VWPics, Redux
Photograph by Javier Etcheverry, VWPics, Redux

Every one of these handprints belonged to an individual, presumably with a name, a history, and stories to tell. But without writing, we can’t know those stories. We call them hunter-gatherers, cave people, Neolithic tribes. We think of them in groups, never alone. Tens of thousands of generations come and go, and we can’t name a single person before 3200 B.C., not a one. Then, in Mesopotamia, writing appears, and after that people could record their words, sometimes in phonetic symbols so we could listen in, hear them talking and, for the first time, hear someone’s name—our first individual.

So who was it?

Who is the first person in the recorded history of the world whose name we know?

Just Guessing Here

Would it be a she or a he? (I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.) [*Please see note at bottom of post for more on this.]

Drawing of of man and a woman, the woman is crossed out.
All drawings by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Would he be a king? Warrior? Poet? Merchant? Commoner? (I’m guessing not a commoner. To be mentioned in an ancient document, he’d need a reputation, tools, and maybe a scribe. He wouldn’t be poor.)

Drawing of a king, a warrior, a poet, a merchant, and a commoner, with the commoner crossed out

Would he be a person of great accomplishment or just an ordinary Joe? (The odds favor a well-regarded person, someone who is mentioned often. Regular Joes, I figured, would pop up irregularly, while a great king, a leading poet, or a victorious general would get thousands of mentions.)

Drawing of a king sitting in a chair with a trident-like stick, looking at writing in front of him

So I trolled the internet, read some books, and to my great surprise—the first name in recorded history isn’t a king. Nor a warrior. Or a poet. He was, it turns out … an accountant. In his new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari goes back 33 centuries before Christ to a 5,000-year-old clay tablet found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). It has dots, brackets, and little drawings carved on it and appears to record a business deal.

Picture of an ancient tablet depicting beer production Inanna Temple in Uruk
MS1717, © The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London http://www.schoyencollection.com/24-smaller-collections/wine-beer/ms-1717-beer-inanna-uruk
© The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London

It’s a receipt for multiple shipments of barley. The tablet says, very simply:

29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim

“The most probable reading of this sentence,” Harari writes, “is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ ”

Drawing of a man facing the viewer with a speech bubble over his left shoulder that says " of “Oh, Kushim!”

So who was “Kushim”? The word might have been a job title, not a person (maybe kushim meant “barley assessor”) but check the video down below. It suggests that Kushim was indeed a guy, a record keeper who counted things for others—in short, an accountant. And if Kushim was his name, then with this tablet, Harari writes, “we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim’s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted, ‘Kushim!’”

It’s pretty clear Kushim was not famous, not hugely accomplished, certainly not a king. So all of my hunches were off.

But wait. The Kushim tablet is just one of tens of thousands of business records found on the deserts of Iraq. A single example is too random. We need more. So I keep looking and find what may be the second, third, and fourth oldest names we know of. They appear on a different Mesopotamian tablet.

Ancient stone tablet featuring a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars from Mesopotamia
Administrative tablet with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars. 3100-2900 B.C. Jamdat Nasr, Uruk III style, southern region, Mesopotamia. Clay, H. 2 in. (5.3 cm). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Once again, they are not A-list ancients. Dated to around 3100 B.C.—about a generation or two after Kushim—the tablet’s heading is, “Two slaves held by Gal-Sal.” Gal-Sal is the owner. Next come the slaves, “En-pap X and Sukkalgir.” So now we’ve got four names: an accountant, a slave owner, and two slaves. No kings. They don’t show up for another generation or so.

Drawing of four individuals: an accountant, a slave owner, and two slaves

The predominance of ordinary Sumerians doesn’t surprise Harari. Five thousand years ago, most humans on Earth were farmers, herders, and artisans who needed to keep track of what they owned and what they owed—and that’s how writing started. It was a technology for regular people, not a megaphone for the powerful.

“It is telling,” Harari writes, “that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet, or a great conqueror.” Most of what people did back then was business.

Kings come, kings go, but keeping track of your barley—your sheep, your money, your property—that’s the real story of the world.


*Note from Robert Krulwich: I see that this column has offended a whole bunch of you. Yes, as many of you point out, my viewpoint was white, male (and hung up on fame and power) and many of you have serious, and totally legitimate arguments with my assumptions. Now that I read your comments, I’m a little surprised, and a touch ashamed of myself. But the thing is—those were my assumptions. They were wrong. I say so.

This is a blog. So it’s designed to be personal, and confessional. So I want you to know who’s talking to you, and if you think I’m way off base, by all means, let me know. And in the end, if you read the totality, my column and your responses, the story I wrote gets deeper and richer. You call me out on my assumptions, you offer some of your own, and what actually happened, what it was really like to be alive 5,300 years ago becomes… well, an argument among moderns about ancients that we will never meet.

Scholars aren’t unanimous about who’s name is oldest in the historical record. Yuval Noah Harari’s new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind gives the crown to Kushim. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago goes for Gal-Sal and his slaves in their 2010-2011 annual report. Andrew Robinson, in his Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction also champions Gal-Sal, but his book came earlier, so maybe Harari has scooped him. Here’s the video that argues for Kushim:

If the name Gal-Sal strikes some of you as familiar, it appears in the title of a 1942 Rita Hayworth/Victor Mature movie, My Gal Sal, about a songwriter who falls crazily in love with a singer on the vaudeville circuit named Sal (short for Sally Elliot). I watched it. It’s terrible. Kushim, meanwhile, survives. According to the blog Namespedia, it turns out that lots of Russian families call themselves Kushim to this day, and in the U.S., it’s a relatively popular first name. They’ve even got Kushim bar graphs!

A Blog by

George Washington’s Oh-So-Mysterious Hair

That hair you’ve seen so many times on the dollar bill? That hair he’s got crossing the Delaware, standing by a cannon, riding a horse in those paintings? His hair on the quarter? On all those statues? The hair we all thought was a wig? Well, it wasn’t a wig. “Contrary to a common belief,” writes biographer Ron Chernow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington: A Life, George Washington “never wore a wig.”

I’m stunned.

Illustration of George Washington on a quarter
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Turns out, that hair was his. All of it—the pigtail, the poofy part in the back, that roll of perfect curls near his neck. What’s more (though you probably already guessed this), he wasn’t white-haired. There’s a painting of him as a young man, with Martha and her two children, that shows his hair as reddish brown, which Chernow says was his true color.

Picture of a painting of George Washington with Martha Washington and her two children
The Courtship of Washington, John C. McRae, 1860 Image Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

The whiteness was an effect. Washington’s hairstyle was carefully constructed to make an impression. It wasn’t a sissyish, high-society cut. It was, back in the 1770s and 1780s, a military look, something soldiers or want-to-be soldiers did to look manly. “However formal it looks to modern eyes,” Chernow writes, “the style was favored by military officers.”

Illustration of George Washington in profile, emphasizing his long hair, which is down in this illustration
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Think of this as the 18th-century equivalent of a marine buzz cut. In Washington’s time, the toughest soldiers in Europe, officers in the Prussian Army, fixed their hair this way. It was called a queue. British officers did it too. So did British colonials in America.

Here’s how it worked. Washington grew his hair long, so that it flowed back toward his shoulders.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair being gathered before putting it into a ponytail
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Then he’d pull it firmly back, broadening the forehead to give him, Chernow writes in his biography, “an air of martial nobility.” The more forehead, the better. Nowadays we notice chins. But not then. Foreheads conveyed force, power.

The look was achieved with appropriate muscularity. In the British Army a tough hair yank was a rite of passage for young officers; it was common to yank really hard.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair being pulled backwards before being put into a ponytail
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

A military journalist, Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, describes a British soldier from that time who says his hair and skin was pulled so fiercely, he didn’t think he’d be able to close his eyelids afterward.

Once gathered at the back, hair was braided or sometimes just tied at the neck by a strap or, on formal occasions, a ribbon. Washington would occasionally bunch his ponytail into a fine silk bag, where it would bob at the back of his head.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair tied in a bow
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Then he would turn to his side hairs, which he “fluffed out,” writes Chernow, “into twin projecting wings, furthering the appearance of a wig.” George Washington “fluffing out”? That’s such an odd image. Artist Wendy MacNaughton, my partner in crime, sees it this way:

Illustration of George Washington in profile, emphasizing his curled hair
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

You should close your eyes and see him fluffling in your own way.

Next question: How did those side curls stay curled? Betty Myers, master wigmaker at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, wrote to me that it was common to grease one’s hair with pomade. Oily hair helped. We don’t know how often Washington shampooed, but the less he showered, the firmer his fluffs.

And now, to the whiteness. Washington’s hair wasn’t splotchy. It was like a snow-covered mountain, evenly white. This was accomplished by sprinkling a fine powder on the head. There were lots of powders to choose from, writes Myers, including “talcum powder, starch, ground orris root, rice powder, chalk, [or] even plaster of paris …” Washington probably used a finely milled (expensive) product, which was applied, cloud-like, to his head. To keep from gagging in a powder fog, it was common to cover the face with a cone of coiled paper, like this:

Illustration of George Washington covering his face with a cone while he powders his hair
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

The powder was sometimes applied with a handheld bellows. An attendant would pump a cloud of powder from a small nozzle and let it settle on the hair. But Washington, says biographer Ron Chernow, would dip a puff, a snakelike bunch of silk striplings—into a powder bag, then do a quick shake over his bent head. Maybe a slave would do this for him. When being powdered, it was traditional to wear a “powdering robe,” basically a large towel tied around the neck, to keep from being doused.

Picture of a drawing of a woman having her wig powdered
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled 'The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande', showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Which leaves one last puzzle. Washington was a careful, self-conscious dresser. When he appeared at the first Continental Congress, he was the only important delegate to wear a military costume, choosing, Chernow writes, the “blue uniforms with buff facings and white stockings” of the Virginia citizen militia while adding his own “silk sash, gorgets, [and] epaulettes.” Later, he’s described dancing at balls in black velvet. So if Washington liked dark clothes, how’d he keep the powder from showing? The man would have been covered in dandruff-like sprinkles. (Editor’s Note: One of our readers, Mike Whybark, shared a painting that makes me wonder … Maybe his shoulders did look a little snowed-on.) Myers, the wig scholar, says that’s why Washington bunched his ponytail into a silk bag, to keep from leaving a white windshield wiper splay of powder on his back when he was dancing with the ladies (which he liked to do). As for keeping the powder off one’s shoulders, how Washington did that—if he did do that—nobody could tell me. Probably every powder-wearing guy in the 1760s knew the secret, but after a couple of centuries, whatever Washington did to stay spotless is lost to us.

Illustration of George Washington, on the left, with white powder on his houlders, and on the right without white powder on his shoulders
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

We can stare all we like at his shoulders and wonder, but the truth is, there are some things about our first president we may never, ever know.

Illustration of George Washington winking with his hair perfectly fixed
Illustration by
Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Wendy MacNaughton draws people, cats, bottles, scenes, faces, places. If, totally out of the blue, I call her and say, “Can you imagine Leonardo da Vinci’s personal notebook or George Washington getting his hair done?” she just giggles and draws. And a week later, I’m doing a happy dance. If you want to see what she’s up to right now, you’ll find more of her work here. And if you enjoy presidential hair stories, here’s the other Big Guy, Abe Lincoln, on a day in 1857 when he clearly lost his comb. Hairstylists shouldn’t look—it’s too scary.

A Blog by

Can You Tell a Woman by Her Handprint?

Edit, 12/14, 10:59pm: This post has now been updated with responses from the new study’s lead author.

A few months ago I wrote a story for National Geographic News that seemed to pique a lot of readers’ imaginations, and understandably so. It was about a study by Dean Snow reporting that, contrary to decades of archaeological dogma, many of the first artists were women.

Neat, right? But now there’s a twist in the tale: Another group of researchers is claiming the study’s methods were unsound. Snow has his own critiques of the criticism (more on that later). I’m less interested in who’s right than a fundamental question behind the controversy, and one that is relevant to all archaeological investigations: What does the present have to do with the past?

Snow’s study, published in the journal American Antiquity last October, focused on the famous 12,000- to 40,000-year-old handprints found on cave walls in France and Spain. Because these hands generally appear near pictures of bison and other big game, scholars had long believed that the art was made by male hunters. Snow tested that notion by comparing the relative lengths of fingers in the handprints. Why? Because among modern people, women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers.

Snow first scanned the hands of 111 people of European descent who lived near Pennsylvania State University, where he is an emeritus professor of anthropology. By comparing male and female hands on specific measures — such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger — Snow developed an algorithm that could predict the sex of a given handprint. He also validated the algorithm on a second set of modern hands (50 males and 50 females).

The algorithm was only weakly predictive — with an accuracy of just 60 percent — because there’s a lot of overlap between the hands of modern men and women. But the equations were far more accurate when used on a set of 32 ancient hand stencils. The various measurements of these hands fell at the extreme ends of the modern sample, making it easy for the algorithm to categorize them as male or female. Snow found that 24 of the 32 prints — 75 percent — were female.

These hand stencils found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain, were made by a man (left) and a woman (right), according to Snow’s study. Photos by Roberto Ontanon Peredo.

The new study, published Monday in the Journal of Archaeological Science, challenges Snow’s reference sample. A team led by Patrik Galeta of the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Czech Republic, collected handprints from 100 contemporary people in southern France and then ran those measurements through Snow’s algorithm.

Galeta found that Snow’s algorithm predicted female hands fairly well, but was useless for males, making it overall a bad predictor of sex. The study showed, in other words, that sex differences in hands among modern people living in Pennsylvania are not the same as differences among modern people living in France. “Our understanding is that hands of French males are on average smaller than U.S. males,” Galeta notes. And that, he adds, “is why U.S. methods failed to correctly identify French males.”

The bottom line: if two modern populations don’t match, then how can we possibly say anything about handprints tens of thousands of years old?

“What this shows is that a basic assumption that everyone has been making is wrong, which is that we can take a contemporary human population and use it as a model across space and time,” says archaeologist David Whitley of ASM Affiliates, an archaeological consulting firm in Tehachapi, California. Whitley was not involved in either study.

This might explain, Whitley adds, why researchers studying these old handprints have often come to contradictory conclusions. Before Snow’s work, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of the cave prints and reported that most of them came from adolescent boys.

Snow, however, doesn’t agree with the criticisms of the new study. “I would stand by my guns here,” he says.

He sees two possible reasons that his algorithm didn’t work on the new French sample. One is that the Czech researchers didn’t use his algorithm in the same way that he did. Snow did his analysis in two steps, running the data first through an equation related to the length of the hand, and then running those results through another equation based on the ratio between the index and ring finger. The Czech researchers, in contrast, looked at the two equations separately.

Alternatively, it could be that the Czech researchers didn’t measure hand length the same way Snow did, he says. Snow measured from the tip of the middle finger to the creases where the wrist meets the palm. “If you measured the length of the hand using some other terminus at the base, you might lose a centimeter or so of the overall length,” Snow says.

So who’s right, and how can this be resolved? “I would have to see their data, and they would have to see my data, and we would have to work it out,” Snow says.

So far neither group has made contact with the other, though both parties seem willing. and the Czech group has not yet responded to my queries about their work. (If and when they do I’ll be sure to update this post.) The Czech group, for the record, rejects both of the explanations Snow proposed, saying that they used the algorithm and measured the hands exactly as Snow did.

Even if the Czech group is right, Snow says the main conclusion doesn’t change. “Even with their sample, they can show as well as I can that there were some women in them caves,” he says. “They might argue, well was it 50-50 or 70-30 or 80-20, but that part of it doesn’t concern me so much.”

Experts have been arguing over the identity of these handprints for decades, and that debate isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s part of good science. But I think this story also says something interesting about archaeology.

Archaeologists are constantly turning up objects from the distant past, and their job is to figure out what (or, in this case, who) they were. They begin, naturally, by making assumptions based on the objects and people we’re familiar with today. “It’s an issue we always confront — making ‘presentist’ projections onto the past,” Whitley says.

In the case of these handprints, the projection relates to our bodies. But it could be anything. “If you find a pot, then just calling it a pot assumes you have some understanding of what it was,” Snow says. “We all make inferences. You just have to be reasonably comfortable with your inferences.”

A Blog by

DNA Lego Bricks Produce Nano-Sculptures

For tens of thousands of years, humans have created sculptures by carving pieces from a solid block. They have chipped away at stone, metal, wood and ceramics, creating art by subtracting material. Now, a group of scientists from Harvard University have figured out how to do the same thing with DNA.

First, Yonggang Ke builds a solid block of DNA from individual Lego-like bricks. Each one is a single strand of the famous double helix that folds into a U-shape, designed to interlock with four neighbours. You can see what happens in the diagram below, which visualises the strands as two-hole Lego bricks. Together, hundreds of them can anneal into a solid block. And because each brick has a unique sequences, it only sticks to certain neighbours, and occupies a set position in the block.

This means that Ke can create different shapes by leaving out specific bricks from the full set, like a sculptor removing bits of stone from a block. Starting with a thousand-brick block, he carved out 102 different shapes, with complex features like cavities, tunnels, and embossed symbols. Each one is just 25 nanometres wide in any direction, roughly the size of the smallest viruses.


A Blog by

Wormholes in old books preserve a history of insects

Absence can speak volumes. The lack of sediment in a flat piece of ground—a track—can testify to the footstep of a dinosaur that once walked on it. The lack of minerals in a solid shell—a hole—can reveal the presence of parasite that was once trapped in it. The world’s museums are full of such “trace fossils”, but so are many of the world’s art galleries.

The image above is taken from a woodcut currently residing in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. It was made by etching a pattern into a block of wood, so that the remaining raised edges could be dipped in ink and used to print an image. These woodcuts were the main way of illustrating European books between the 15th and 19th centuries, and were used for at least 7 million different titles.

But as you can see, the print is littered with tiny white holes. These are called wormholes, and inaccurately so—they’re actually the work of beetles. The adults laid their eggs in crevices within the trunks of trees. The grubs slowly bored their way through the wood, eventually transformed into adults, and burrowed their way out of their shelters. The artists who transformed the tree trunks into printing blocks also inherited the exit-holes of the adult beetles, which left small circles of empty whiteness when pressed onto pages.

The beetles only emerged a year or so after the blocks were carved. The holes they left must have been frustrating, but remaking them would have been expensive. So the blocks were kept and reused despite their defects, unless the beetles had really gone to town. The holes they left behind preserve a record of wood-boring beetles, across four centuries of European literature. These holes are trace fossils. They’re evidence of beetle behaviour that’s been printed into old pages, just as dinosaur tracks were printed into the earth.

Now, Blair Hedges from Pennsylvania State University has used these fossils to study the history of the beetles that made them.


A Blog by

Why did people start mummifying their dead in the driest place on Earth?

One does not simply start mummifying one’s dead. Mummification is a technically challenging business that involves sophisticated tricks for preparing a corpse. It’s also steeped in intricate cultural traditions. How does such a practice start?

Chilean scientist Pablo Marquet has tried to answer that question by studying the world’s oldest mummies – those created by the Chinchorro people of northern Chile. The Chinchorro were preserving their dead some two thousand years before the Egyptians started doing so. Rather than just mummifying their elites, the Chinchorro preserved all of their dead – man and woman, elderly and infants. They went to great pains to do so. They would remove the organs and muscles of their dead, reinforce the skeletons with sticks, and fill the bodies with earth and vegetation to get the right shape.  They covered the body in a mud coat and clay mask, and decorated it with colour.

Marquet thinks he knows why these practices began. Rather than simply looking at cultural factors, he has intimately tied the practice into changing climates and shifting population sizes. At the time that they started mummifying cadavers, the Chinchorro had gone through a population boom, driven by rich coastal seas. But they also lived in the Atacama Desert: the so-called driest place on Earth. In such an arid environment, any buried corpses would have taken their time to decay, if they did at all. The very land around them naturally mummified the corpses, and the Chinchorro simply followed suit.


A Blog by

Why humans stand on giant shoulders, but chimps and monkeys don’t

We are like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. This metaphor, famously used by Isaac Newton, describes how humans build on what has come before. Everything in our culture is the result of knowledge and skills that have slowly accumulated over time. Without this “cumulative culture”, we wouldn’t have our deep scientific knowledge, rich artistic traditions, or sophisticated technology. Simply put, you can’t make a car from scratch – first, you need to invent the wheel.

Are we alone in this respect? Certainly, many other animals can learn knowledge and skills from each other, and many of them have cultural traditions. But Newton’s metaphor involves not just the spread of knowledge, but its gradual improvement. We build on the past, rather than just passing it along. As generations tick by, our culture becomes more complex. Do other species show the same ‘cultural ratchet’?

Lewis Dean from the University of St Andrews tried to answer that question by presenting human children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys with the same task: a puzzle box with three, increasingly difficult stages, each one building on the last.


A Blog by

OpenLab: The Renaissance Man, and how to become a scientist over and over again

I originally wrote this feature about the amazing Erez Lieberman Aiden back in June. It’s been one of the most popular posts on Not Exactly Rocket Science over the past year, and it was recently nominated for inclusion in the latest edition of Open Lab, the anthology of the world’s best science blogging. For that reason, I’m giving it another airing.


Erez Lieberman Aiden is a talkative witty fellow, who will bend your ear on any number of intellectual topics. Just don’t ask him what he does. “This is actually the most difficult question that I run into on a regular basis,” he says. “I really don’t have anything for that.”

It is easy to understand why. Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field – say, neuroscience or genetics – Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s “culturomics” study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. “I guess I just view myself as a scientist,” he says.

His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact. “I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,” he tells me. “I’m constantly looking at what’s the most interesting problem that I could possibly work on. I really try to figure out what sort of scientist I need to be in order to solve the problem I’m interested in solving.”

It’s a philosophy that has paid dividends. At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard. In 2010, he won the prestigious $30,000 MIT-Lemenson prize, awarded to people who show “exceptional innovation and a portfolio of inventiveness”. He has seven publications to his name, six of which appeared the world’s top two journals – Nature and Science. His friend and colleague Jean-Baptiste Michel says, “He’s truly one of a kind. I just wonder about what discipline he will get a Nobel Prize in!”


A Blog by

Beauty is in the brain of the beholder

What happens when I stare at Portrait of Madame X or listen to Air on a G String? Both at intensely beautiful to me, but they are different experiences that involve different senses. Nonetheless, the sight of Sargent’s pigments and the sound of Bach’s notes trigger something in common – a part of the brain that lights up when we experience feelings of beauty, no matter how we experience them.

Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London watched the brains of 21 volunteers as they looked at 30 paintings and listened to 30 musical excerpts. All the while, they were lying inside an fMRI scanner, a machine that measures blood flow to different parts of the brain and shows which are most active. The recruits rated each piece as “beautiful”, “indifferent” or “ugly”.

The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones – the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.

Several studies have linked the mOFC to beauty, but this is a sizeable part of the brain with many roles. It’s also involved in our emotions, our feelings of reward and pleasure, and our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, Ishizu and Zeki found that one specific area, which they call “field A1” consistently lit up when people experienced beauty.


A Blog by

The Renaissance man: how to become a scientist over and over again

Erez Lieberman Aiden is a talkative witty fellow, who will bend your ear on any number of intellectual topics. Just don’t ask him what he does. “This is actually the most difficult question that I run into on a regular basis,” he says. “I really don’t have anything for that.”

It is easy to understand why. Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field – say, neuroscience or genetics – Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s “culturomics” study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. “I guess I just view myself as a scientist,” he says.

His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact. “I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,” he tells me. “I’m constantly looking at what’s the most interesting problem that I could possibly work on. I really try to figure out what sort of scientist I need to be in order to solve the problem I’m interested in solving.”

It’s a philosophy that has paid dividends. At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard. In 2010, he won the prestigious $30,000 MIT-Lemenson prize, awarded to people who show “exceptional innovation and a portfolio of inventiveness”.  He has seven publications to his name, six of which appeared the world’s top two journals – Nature and Science. His friend and colleague Jean-Baptiste Michel says, “He’s truly one of a kind. I just wonder about what discipline he will get a Nobel Prize in!”


A Blog by

A child couldn’t paint that – can people tell abstract art from a child’s or chimp’s work?

If you wander through New York’s Museum of Modern Art, you’ll eventually come across Painting Number 2 by Franz Kline, a set of thick, unruly black lines on a white canvas. Elsewhere, you will find one of Mark Rothko’s many untitled works, consisting of various coloured rectangles. And in front of both paintings, you will inevitably find visitors saying, “A child could paint that.”

To which Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner replied: “Could they?”

The duo wanted to test the assertion that abstract expressionist art is devoid of talent – that it could be done by a mere child, or even an animal. With keyboards and enough time, monkeys could surely duplicate Shakespeare, but with a paintbrush and a few hours, could a monkey produce a Rothko?


A Blog by

Prehistoric Brits made the world’s earliest skull-cups

Here are some we made earlier...

“The skull of Wynric Lance, failed claimant to the throne of Eirea, does not make as good a wine goblet as Lord Shryke had imagined, the despot revealed Monday. “This damn thing is practically impossible to drink out of,” said Shryke at a banquet celebrating the defeat of the Army Of Light… Shryke concluded that while he might end up drinking from Lance’s skull “occasionally, for show,” he plans to retain his set of brass flutes for everyday use.” – The Onion

Stock fantasy villains might like to drink from the skulls of their enemies, but the practice has its roots in historical reality. For thousands of years, humans have turned each others’ skulls into containers and drinking cups. Now, Silvia Bello from London’s Natural History Museum has found the oldest skull-cups ever recorded in a cave in Somerset, England.

Gough’s Cave is found in the Cheddar Gorge near Bristol. It’s a treasure trove of human remains, including Cheddar Man, the country’s oldest complete human skeleton. He lived around 9,000 years ago, but the cave’s oldest human fragments date back even further.

These include three skull-cups that Bello recovered in excellent condition. Two belonged to adults and one to a 3-year-old child. All of them were made by the Magdelanian culture, a group of prehistoric people who lived in Western Europe. No one knows how they used the grisly cups, but it’s clear that they manufactured them with great control. They all bear a large series of dents and cut-marks that were precisely inflicted.