Random Samples

Science  26 Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6008, pp. 1161
  1. Deathly Pale

    CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA

    Did makeup change the course of Japanese history?

    Possibly, say researchers studying bones from a cemetery reserved for samurai, the nobility during the 1603-to-1867 reign of the Tokugawa military dynasty. Using x-rays and atomic absorption spectrometry, the group found that the bones of infants contained 50 times as much lead by weight as the bones of women did; women's bones, in turn, had higher lead concentrations than those of men. The infants probably suffered lead poisoning, which can cause organ failure and neurological problems, especially in children.

    In Tokugawa-era Japan, upper-class women whitened their faces with a lead-based cosmetic. Children of the nobility could have ingested the makeup while nursing, Tamiji Nakashima, an anatomist at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu, Japan, and colleagues write in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. They add that early exposure to lead “may have left [adult samurai] intellectually incapable of dealing with the political crisis” that led to the Tokugawas' demise.

    Other research also fingers makeup as a source of lead exposure, says Koji Naruse, an archaeologist at the University of Tokyo not involved in the study. But he says it is unclear how infants would have acquired so much more lead in their bones than their mothers had. And the idea that lead contributed to political upheaval is “a fascinating stretch,” says Jeffrey Kingston, a historian at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo. He notes that the rival samurai who overthrew the Tokugawa clan probably had the same childhood exposure to lead.

  2. So Nice, They Dug Him Up Twice

    CREDIT: WIKIPEDIA
    CREDIT: JACOB C. RAVN

    Last week in Prague, inside the chilly Church of Our Lady Before Týn, cameras flashed as workers lifted a coffin from its crypt. Inside lay Tycho Brahe, the medieval astronomer whose copious observations helped Johannes Kepler formulate his planetary laws and whose 1601 death still has historians puzzled.

    Legend has it that Brahe died of a burst bladder because he was too polite to leave a banquet to urinate, but analysis of beard hairs from a 1901 exhumation found mercury, suggesting he died of poisoning. In 2001, medieval archaeologist Jens Vellev (right) of Aarhus University in Denmark asked a priest at the church about reopening the vault to find out for sure. Getting permission from city authorities, however, turned into a 9-year-long slog that Vellev compares, without bitterness, to a Kafka novel. “It was an interesting experience to have the possibility to talk to so many strange and interesting people in so many strange offices,” he says.

    Now Vellev and his colleagues will subject the remains to tests including CT scans and PIXE analysis, which show the elemental makeup of a sample. Vellev doesn't suspect foul play. Instead, he wants to find out what medications the famously eccentric astronomer was taking when he died. Brahe liked to mix his own, Vellev says, and might have done himself in.

  3. They Said It

    “To a deity, the big bang is very sexy. … And with the LHC, we can now simulate it at least as accurately as a porn star can fake an orgasm.”

    —Artist Jonathon Keats explains his latest work, Pornography for God, a special altar in a Brooklyn art gallery displaying a live feed of particle collisions from the Large Hadron Collider.

  4. Surfacing

    CREDIT: AKIRA TANAKA, CEPEAM/BSGI

    These grinning faces, carved into rock by prehistoric people, emerged from the waters of Brazil's Rio Negro last month when a drought brought the Amazon tributary to its lowest level since 1902.

    In the Amazon, rock etchings turn up most often near waterfalls or rapids and stay submerged during the rainy season; some appear only once in a century. The petroglyphs discovered in October were visible for only a week, says Akira Tanaka, a manager at SGI Brazil, which runs an environmental preserve on the land.

    Archaeologists didn't rush to the scene, but if they had, they probably would have found few clues, says archaeologist Edithe Pereira of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém. “Once submerged, any nearby evidence is long gone. There is nothing to excavate,” says Pereira, who, as one of only a few petroglyph researchers in Brazil, has organized diving expeditions to inspect submerged carvings. Partly as a result, she says, only two Amazon carving sites have ever been dated, the older to 11,000 years of age. And a dozen large dams being constructed in the region mean “a lot of sites are going to go underwater forever.”

    Carvings in the American Southwest and elsewhere often show animals, but Amazonian artists preferred smiling or frowning faces. Perhaps, Pereira speculates, as ancient man settled down, “he becomes more important than the animals, so he represents himself, or a shaman.”