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Not Your Father’s World History Part 4:
“The Sun dimmed... ice formed in summer mornings.”

22 October 2005

Minoan Women
Minoan Women
Courtesy: Anna Swebart

Curious Article No. 13:

From 6000 to 4000 bce southeastern Europeans were using a script called Vinča, which predates by millennia the Egyptian and Sumerian writings and remains undeciphered. The more recent end of this period, about 3500, saw the invention of the wheel by the Sumerians. A bit later in the Austrian Alps, 3325, someone shot Ötzi the Iceman in the shoulder with an arrow. Element isotopes in his teeth and bones indicate he grew up in the Eisack valley, in the southern Tyrol village of Feldthurns. Germans Helmut and Erika Simon found him in 1991.

In apparent response to a seven-tenths of a degree shift in the earth’s axial tilt, the Sahara dried out in two phases, from 4700 to 3500 bce and more drastically from 2000 to 1600. During the first of those phases the Kiffians dispersed in search of better water prospects. Pending DNA analysis, they may turn out to have fathered the ethnic divisions we now know as Berber, Egyptian, Chadic, Cushitic (whose descendents live around the Horn of Africa), and Semitic. At least one subset of the latter group, the Akkadians, made it all the way into Mesopotamia. They first settled side-by-side with the unrelated wheel-inventing Sumerians but through a series of conflicts eventually blended with them to form the nation history records as Babylonia.

A tremendous catastrophe occurred in the autumn of 1627 or 1628 bce. It was the eruption of Thera, on the Greek island of Santorini, which either destroyed or at least fatally weakened the Minoan civilization based on nearby Crete.
Satellite image of Thera
Satellite image of Thera
Minoans had traded as far afield as Spain and Mesopotamia, and they enjoyed paved roads and indoor plumbing. They spoke and wrote in a mysterious language we call Eteocretan and buried their dead in ceramic jars.

The volcano’s plume was probably tall enough that people could easily see it from Egypt, 450 miles (700 km) distant and its ejected volume exceeded 25 cubic miles (100 cubic km). Chinese chronicles recorded, “The sun dimmed… ice formed in summer mornings and there was frost in July. Hot and cold weather arrived in disorder. The five cereal crops withered and died.” They blamed their king for the famine and overthrew him. Many infer that the Exodus of the Bible occurred at this time, that the “pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” refers to Thera's plume. After the Trojan war Crete fell into the hands of the Mycenaeans, who were imperious and bellicose where the Minoans were happy-go-lucky and pacifistic.

King Tutankhamen, who undoubtedly knew all about Thera from his history lessons, died around 1325 bce. His reign was lackluster but he’s famous to us through the quirks of fate that allowed his tomb, whose treasures showcase the very pinnacle of classical Egyptian artisanship, to escape looters. Tut’s favorite perfume, discovered in alabaster jars, featured the rare essence spikenard which had to be imported all the way from the Himalayas.

Despite all the CAT scanning of late we still don't know whether or not King Tut was murdered though the mummy had a broken left thigh which, if not postmortem, could have gone gangrenous. In any event when he died a senescent priest named Ay either forcibly married his widow Ankhesenamen and snatched the throne, or at least intended to. She would have none of that, though, and fled 300 miles (480 km) north to the Nile delta. Now the Hittites in Asia Minor had known Tut as Nibhuruia and his wife more generically as Dahanunzu (“King’s Wife Supreme”). From Memphis she wrote to the Hittite king, in the Akkadian language, “He who was my husband has died. A son I have not. Never shall I take a servant of mine and make him my husband…. They say your sons are many, so give me one son of yours. To me he will be husband, but in Egypt he will be King.” In response the king did send one of his sons, Zananza; but Ay was way ahead of the game and had him bumped off when he reached the Egyptian border. Ay did indeed end up King, either with Ankhesenamen or without her.


By 1200 bce the Olmecs or Zoque had established a preëminent presence on the Gulf of Mexico. They went on to devise one of the New World’s first writing systems (some believe the Zapotecs had a slight edge on this) and to use the zero for the first time anywhere. They left a great deal of dramatic, often heart-rending artwork in the form of figurines, masks, and most famously colossal stone heads weighing up to twenty tons and exhibiting thick lips and wide noses. Many hold that these heads, along with some skeletal remains, indicate a direct migration from Africa on the part of the Olmecs, specifically from the Mende-Loko-speaking region around modern Sierra Leone.

So far mainstream anthropologists don't buy this, though. They point out that the people living on the Gulf of Mexico who still display these same quasi-negroid features carry exclusively Asian DNA. They also judge the epicanthal folds on the stone heads’ upper eyelids to be more Asian than African, and assert that the Olmecs spoke a language from the Zoque subfamily as do some 70,000 Mexicans to this day in the areas of Chiapas, Veracruz and Tabasco.

Necho II
King Necho
Photo: Keith Schengili-Roberts
Some major scientific coups took place between 600 and 200 bce that you don't normally hear about. In 600 bce or so Egyptian king Necho II commissioned a Phoenician crew to circumnavigate Africa. They went clockwise starting from the top of the Red Sea and after three years arrived home at the Nile delta. The main things that shocked them were that as they rounded southern Africa below the equator the sun was in the “wrong” part of the sky and the seasons were reversed.

No more than a hundred years later metallurgists in southern India developed the earliest steel called wootz. It displayed unique swirly patterns on its surface, and a sword made out of it bent to a ninety degree angle would spring back. In the sixth century bce Anaxiamander of Miletus proposed that life developed through natural rather than mythological processes, and that human beings ultimately evolved from fish. During the fourth century bce Aristotle quoted the followers of Pythagoras as saying that the earth is round and orbits the sun. In 330 bce Heraclides of Pontus taught us that the earth rotates daily on its axis and in 240 bce Eratosthenes of Cyrene correctly deduced the earth’s circumference within an accuracy of twelve percent.

Next: Justinian Plague, discoveries, supernovas »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006



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