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Not Your Father’s World History Part 5:
“A new star appeared... causing alarm.”

23 October 2005

Crowned Lemur
Crowned Lemur

Curious Article No. 14:

The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ce that entombed and preserved the Roman towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and several others was only about one twentieth as powerful as Thera’s but it’s certainly history’s most celebrated. Pliny the Elder, from whom we get sayings like “With a grain of salt,” and “There is always something new out of Africa,” died from asphyxiation in the eruption attempting a rescue. Pompeii’s architecture, frescos, and artifacts of everyday life are universally enchanting and act as a kind of time machine. Much signage and graffiti survives: “The city block of the Arrii Pollii owned by Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius is available for rent starting July 1st. There are shops on the first floor, upper storeys, deluxe rooms and a house. Anyone interested in renting this property should contact Primus, the slave of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius.”

Herculaneum, though, has been getting most of the press lately. A villa there owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law housed a fabulous library. The scrolls are carbonized and scarcely recognizable as such, but infrared imaging now allows epigraphers to resolve their texts. So far many seem to be the works of the Greek philosopher Philodemus, but there may be thousands more awaiting analysis and the mind reels. Skeletal remains in Herculaneum tell us that slaves of the era, though sometimes touchingly trusted, were malnourished and routinely overworked.

Between 235 and 238 ce Rome had an emperor named Maximinus Thrax (Maximinus the Thracian) who was reputed to have stood over eight feet (2.4 m) tall. He was the first “barbarian” (Gothic father, Persian mother) to rule the empire and, quite unlike his ultraliberal predecessor Alexander Severus, persecuted Christians vigorously. Size did not afford security, though, and his Praetorian guards assassinated him during a revolt and carried his head around on a pole.

Madagascar is a tropical island the size of Texas off Africa’s east coast, home to a profusion of unique flora and fauna such as the bizarre aye-aye lemur and the now extinct half-ton elephant bird. It should have been conspicuous to ancient seafarers, and indeed Necho’s Phoenician explorers may well have sighted it (around 600 bce). But Madagascar remained uninhabited until the late Roman period. It’s been common knowledge right along that its founding settlers were Indonesians of some stripe but DNA markers have now clarified this. The bulk of them came from Borneo, 4500 miles (7200 km) away. Nowadays the population’s heritage is about half east African. Coca-Cola depends heavily on Madagascar for its vanilla.

In 525 a monk named Dennis the Short (Dionysius Exiguus), through some rather fanciful reasoning, formalized the date of Jesus’s birth as December 25th in the year 753 after Rome’s founding. From there he declared January 1, Roman Year 754 as Day One, Year One of a new era. One of the first notable authors to reckon dates in this newfangled Anno Domini sense was the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of 751. Denmark struck the first coin so dated in 1234. Though we now know Dennis erred by several years, by 1422 the whole of Europe had adopted his system.

Mosaic of Justinian
A terrible Plague raged between 540 and 594 under the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian and three of his successors. Justinian fell ill to it himself in 542 but recovered. The economy slowed to a trickle, bodies piled up into heaps, dogs and farm animals wandered abandoned, boats drifted menacingly about as their entire crews lay dead, and desperate labor shortages forced the emancipation of the slaves. Tens of millions died, including Pope Pelagius II. Tree rings tell us there was a crippling cold in 536 and 542, which may have driven the rats and their fleas indoors where they had closer contact with humans.

Once again, a meteorite or an equatorial volcanic eruption appears to have been a factor. Syrian Bishop John of Ephesus, who sincerely believed the Day of Judgement was at hand, observed, “The sun grew dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months. Each day it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow.” Japanese and Chinese scribes of the day cited devastating crop failures and yellow dust blanketing the ground. Volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson has identified a mammoth caldera associated with the known volcano Krakatau, under shallow water between Java and Sumatra, showing good evidence of having erupted powerfully in 535.

Between about this time and 1492 somebody first crossed from the Old World to the New, reacquainting the two divisions of humanity that hadn’t seen each other since the Toba eruption over 70,000 years ago. Precisely who that somebody was and whence they sailed is the subject of boundless and impassioned argument.

One very strong candidate is a Chinese Buddhist priest named Hwui Shan [Hoei Shin]. In 458 his party sailed up the Asian coast, along the Aleutians, down the west coast of North America, and possibly as far as Mexico where they lived with the natives for some forty years. He wrote of redwoods, geology (“The ground contains no iron, but it has copper. The people do not value gold and silver.”), the local culture (“They have a system of writing, but they have no fortresses or walled cities, no military weapons or soldiers and they do not wage war in that kingdom.”), and other facets. He did include some tall tales that cause some to doubt the entire story, though in all fairness Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus told plenty of whoppers of their own. Chinese historians have always taken Hwui Shan’s story very seriously, starting with Prince Yu Kie who interviewed Hwui upon his return for the official court records of the year 499. By all accounts the Chinese and the Indians got along very well. This contrasts with the Spanish under Columbus 1000 years later who enslaved, tortured and murdered the Caribbean Taíno, who had initially bent over backwards to help them, by the tens of thousands.

Since the discovery in the 1960s of Norse artifacts at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, the mainstream view has settled on Leif Eriksson as America’s “discoverer.” In 1002 Eriksson’s party set out west from southern Greenland with some of their wives, crossed the mouth of what is now Davis Strait, and came ashore on the extreme northeast tip of Newfoundland to establish their settlement. The people they encountered were the Beothuks, who then numbered around 1500 and had lived on the island for at least 800 years. They were unusual in that they had no agriculture, dogs, or ceramic pottery and lived in relative isolation from other tribes. The Beothuks island-hopped in distinctive birch bark canoes whose sides rose to a cusp in the center. The Norse scorned them as savages, though, and after a few years of killing on both sides and deteriorating weather they called it quits and returned to Greenland. From persecution, disease, and loss of hunting ground, the Beothuks died out in 1829. Their last survivor, a gracious and imperturbable woman named Nancy Shanawdithit, gave many interviews and left sketches and maps describing Beothuk culture for our benefit.

Supernovas are exceedingly rare, so it’s astounding that two of them flared within a single lifetime in the eleventh century. The first appeared in May 1006 in the constellation Lupus. A monk from the monastery at St. Gallen in Switzerland wrote, “A new star of unusual size appeared, glittering in aspect, dazzling the eyes, causing alarm. In a wonderful manner this was sometimes contracted, sometimes diffused, and moreover sometimes extinguished. It was seen likewise for three months in the inmost limits of the south, beyond all the constellations which are seen in the sky.” Astrologer Chou K’o-ming assured his emperor, “The country where it is visible will prosper greatly, for it is an auspicious star... I heard that people inside and outside the court were quite disturbed about it. I humbly suggest that the civil and military officials be permitted to celebrate in order to set the Empire’s mind at rest.”

We now know that this supernova was a Type 1a, the most powerful, and was only 6000 light-years away. The second, a Type 2, appeared in the spring of 1054 in Taurus. The Anasazi Indians in at least three sites in the American southwest appear to have recorded it as did the Maya in what is now known as the Dresden Codex. Its remains still shine as the Crab Nebula. We would all be toast if a Type 1a supernova exploded any closer than 100 light-years or so. Astronomers estimate there are around 14,600 stars within that distance. Let’s cross our fingers.

Next: Polynesian roots, the Black Death, stones from the sky »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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