Mini-tsunami hits Malta?

Maltese residents in Msida and Birżebbuġa were alarmed in recent days as the sea rose above its usual levels, flooding low-lying roads.
The cause of the high waters was not climate change or tidal forces but a phenomenon referred to by experts as an 'atmospheric tsunami', technically known as seiche waves or locally as milgħuba. Several instances of it have been recorded in coastal areas around Malta in recent years.

The seiche waves are caused by fluctuating atmospheric pressure that makes open sea waves rise and fall. This is a result either of an area of high pressure out at sea or an area of low pressure at the coast causing the sea to rise. It can also be caused when the wind blows steadily from the same direction for a prolonged period of time. The water oscillates, like in a bathtub when sloshing from one side to the other.

The waves are very similar to tsunami waves but are much smaller and the result of a completely different mechanism, with tsunamis the result of tectonic activity such as earthquakes.

While the phenomenon is unrelated to global sea level rises resulting from climate change, it could offer a snapshot of the challenges Malta could face in this regard in the coming decades.

Maltese experts have warned that a rise in sea levels would affect the entire island, with coastal areas exposed to increased flooding and eventually becoming submerged.

Malta: The island of terror

Daphne Caruana Galizia (1964-2017) was an investigative journalist in Malta. Her weblog consistently made life uncomfortable for the powerful, whether in banks or the prime minister’s office. On 16 October, 2017, she was less than a mile from home when her Peugeot 108 exploded and burst into flames, killing her instantly. An explosive had been planted under the car and remotely detonated. Hers was the fifth death by car bomb on Malta in the past few years, and none of the other cases have been solved.
In December, with help from the FBI and Dutch forensic experts, Maltese authorities arrested 10 people and eventually charged three Maltese nationals (Alfred and George Degiorgio, and Vincent Muscat) with carrying out the attack. They deny all charges.

The journalist had faced death threats and libel suits for years. "Our mother’s death warrant could have been signed two years ago," Matthew Caruana Galizia, one of Daphne’s three sons, said.
Caruana Galizia’s one-woman blog, 'Running Commentary,' reported on money laundering, the Italian mafia on Malta, and a controversial program begun in 2014 that allows wealthy foreigners to purchase Maltese passports; especially for wealthy Russians. Her most recent revelations pointed the finger at Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and two of his closest aides, connecting offshore companies linked to the three men with the sale of Maltese passports to and payments from the government of Azerbaijan.

Caruana Galizia was harassed for years, had 34 ongoing libel cases her. The family home had been set on fire twice. Pet dogs had been found killed.

The bigger question —the one that has reverberated far beyond Malta— remains unanswered: Who ordered the killing?

Do not drink from the River Nile

In November 2017, a public storm of outrage erupted on social media in Egypt after a video was shared on Twitter. It showed Egyptian Pop singer Sherine Abdel Wahab (1980) making a light-hearted comment at one of her concerts about Egypt’s Nile river when her audience requested her to sing her famous song 'Mashrebtesh Men Nilha' (translation: 'Have You Not Drunk from the Nile').
During the twelve seconds segment of the video, Sherine quipped: “You’ll get bilharzia [schistosomiasis] if you drink from the Nile.” She then suggested that her audience drink bottled mineral water Evian. “It is better,” she said.

The Egyptian Ministry of Health responded to Sherine’s remark in the video, stating that it has long combated the parasitic disease that once plagued Egypt, and 'reduced its prevalence to 0.2 percent,' reported the news outlet Egypt Today.

While some Egyptian people criticized Sherine and vowed to stop listening to her songs, others supported and defended her. Then, the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate decided, after conducting the necessary investigations, on banning Abdel Wahab from singing in Egypt for two months. This period ended on January 14, 2018.

But her ordeal did not end there. After she was already banned from singing in Egypt for 'mocking' the Nile River, in February 2018, Sherine was also sentenced to six months imprisonment and fined for 'insulting Egypt.' The court also ordered Sherine to pay a fine of 5,000 EGP.

Sherine apologized for her remarks, saying that the video was recorded during her concert in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) in 2016.

This bullying treatment of a woman is a dark and troubling signal of a society ruled by still immature and medieval men.

EU rules stop 20 tonnes of EU-funded Maltese salt from being sold

In 2003, a storm contaminated the salt pans in Salini, located between the Coast Road and Kennedy Grove on Malta. The event forced salt production to a sudden halt. Restoration of the Salini salt pans involved a total investment of €7 million and was financed by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development 2007-2013 and the project was completed by 2015.
The salt pans in Salini are the most viable pans on the island. Because of the high yield of the salt pans, EU rules state that the salt cannot be sold in the EU. Not one gram of salt was collected in 2016. Around 20 tonnes of salt was collected from only two pans in 2017 – none of which can be put on the market due to EU rules.

The very fact that EU funds were used to restore the salt pans prevents them from being sold, because it would create a dominant market player. Considering the substantial size of the yield – 20 tonnes – it could easily flood the internal market of Malta. Normally you would think that the excess amount of salt could be exported to other EU countries, but EU rules state otherwise.

The salt is currently being held in a storage at Salina, and the obligation not to market the salt is valid until 2020.

Just two employees are currently working on the production of salt and perforing some maintenance.

The French Paradox

The French Paradox is a theory that summarizes the apparently paradoxical observation that French people have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD), while having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats. This is in apparent contradiction to the widely held belief that the high consumption of such fats is a risk factor for CHD. The paradox is that if the thesis linking saturated fats to CHD is valid, the French ought to have a higher rate of CHD than comparable countries where the per capita consumption of such fats is lower.
The French paradox implies two possibilities. The first is that the hypothesis linking saturated fats to CHD is not completely valid (or, at the extreme, is entirely invalid). The second possibility is that the link between saturated fats and CHD is valid, but that some additional factor in the French diet or lifestyle mitigates this risk.

So, which additional factor in the French diet is the most likely? It has been suggested that France's high consumption of wine is a primary factor in the trend. Some research implies that that moderate drinkers are less likely to suffer heart attacks than are abstainers or heavy drinkers. Therefore, the alcohol in wine might be a factor in the French paradox. However, several studies found no real difference between alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, spirits).

These days, science mainly looks to antioxidants, such as resvertrol, to explain the cardioprotective effects of wine, though definite proof is still lacking[1]. But the bitter tannin in grapes has been largely overlooked. Tannic acid has shown to be antimutagenic, anticarcinogenic and antibactericidal. Tannic acid also displayed cardioprotective effects [2].

In conclusion, the most repeated result of wine consumption is on lipid metabolism (the synthesis and degradation of lipids in cells), attributed mainly to ethanol, while wine's micro-constituents seem to have a role mainly in reducing sub-clinical inflammation[3].

[1] Weiskirchen, Weiskirchen: Resveratrol: How Much Wine Do You Have to Drink to Stay Healthy? in Advances in Nutrition - 2016
[2] Wu et al: Cardioprotective Effects of Tannic Acid on Isoproterenol-Induced Myocardial Injury in Rats: Further Insight into 'French Paradox' in Fytotherapy Research - 2015
[3] Fragopoulou et al: Wine and its metabolic effects. A comprehensive review of Clinical Trials in Metabolism - 2018

The Mediterranean Diet: Wine

By now we all should know that the Mediterranean diet is a healthy diet. All sorts of positive effects are ascribed to it. The diet consists of olive oil, fresh vegetables, beans, nuts and fresh fish. Only modest amounts of meat and carbohydrates are included in the diet.
I myself think that the easier way of life, a sedentary lifestyle also contributes to a physical and mental health. Less chronic stress, means less stress hormones raging through your body. That chronic stress induces low-level inflammation in your body and your brain.

We already know that several fytochemicals in olives and olive oil (Oleocanthal and Oleuropein) can lower this low-level inflammation, leading to less damage to heart and brain[1][2].

New research found that two phytochemicals, dihydrocaffeic acid (DHCA) and malvidin-3′-O-glucoside (Mal-gluc), are effective in promoting resilience against stress by modulating brain synaptic plasticity and peripheral inflammation. DHCA/Mal-gluc also significantly reduces depression-like phenotypes in a mouse model of increased systemic inflammation induced by transplantation of hematopoietic progenitor cells from stress-susceptible mice. DHCA reduces pro-inflammatory interleukin 6 (IL-6) generations by inhibiting DNA methylation at the CpG-rich IL-6 sequences introns 1 and 3, while Mal-gluc modulates synaptic plasticity by increasing histone acetylation of the regulatory sequences of the Rac1 gene. Peripheral inflammation and synaptic maladaptation are in line with newly hypothesized clinical intervention targets for depression that are not addressed by currently available antidepressants.

Sounds interesting? No, the text above is simply the scientific jargon. What it says in normal language is that phytochemicals in grape juice (or wine) may reduce low-level inflammation that is the result of too much stress[3]. It also improves the transmission of signals in the brain.

While the study was done on stressed mice, 70 percent of them demonstrated improved social interactions, which suggests resilience.

Drinking wine and staying healthy was already called the 'French Paradox'. Should I advise you to drink wine or have you reached that conclusion yourself?

[1] Mete et al: Neuroprotective Effects of Oleocanthal, A Compound in Virgin Olive Oil, in A Rat Model of Traumatic Brain Injury in Turkish Neurosurgery – 2017
[2] Casamenti, Stefani: Olive polyphenols: new promising agents to combat aging-associated neurodegeneration in Expert Review in Neurotherapeutics – 2017
[3] Wang et al: Epigenetic modulation of inflammation and synaptic plasticity promotes resilience against stress in mice in Nature Communications – 2018

Italy's Red Olives

In most cases, olives are green of blackish. On Malta grows a rare variety that produces white olives. See here. But there's also a red olive.
The Bella di Cerignola ('beauty of Cerignola') is an olive cultivar, which originates from the south-eastern Italian province of Apulia and is named for the town of Cerignola. The cultivation of the Bella di Cerignola, reputed to be the largest table olive in the world, has ancient origins. Some authors believe that this cultivar derives from the 'Orchite' olives used in ancient Rome.

According to some it was introduced around 1400 AD from Spain, which might justify its now obsolete synonym of 'Oliva di Spagna'. According to others, however, the synonym simply derives from the type of curing used in Cerignola, which is called the 'Spanish' or 'Sevillano' method. However, since no closely related cultivar has ever been found elsewhere, it can be considered a native variety of the Cerignola area.

But how do green olives turn into red olives? The secret is a food dye called erythrosine (or E127). Which is a bit of cheating nature. The black olives are created by soaking them in ferrous gluconate.

Greek cheese: Mizithra

Mizithra (μυζήθρα), also known as Anthotyros, is one of those cheeses that, depending on where you are in Greece, will be completely different. It is a fresh cheese made from milk and whey from sheep or goat. Or both. The ratio of milk to whey usually is 7 to 3. Production resembles that of Italian ricotta, though mizithra is typically drier and somewhat fattier. The cheese is soft, snow-white, creamy, and moist.

Fresh Mizithra should be consumed within days of it being made. It is reminiscent of British cottage cheese or Italian ricotta.

This type of cheese is widespread throughout Greece. On Cyprus, a similar cheese is known as Anari (Αναρή in Greek, Nor in Cypriot Turkish, Lor in Turkish).

Mizithra can be salt-dried to produce a more mature, more salty cheese. It is then known as skliri mizithra ('hard mizithra'). It has a very powerful smell, reminiscent of a sherry. In its salted, aged form it is considered the best grating cheese of Greek cuisine, resembling parmesan. It is especially suited for sprinkling over hot pasta and other dishes.

Early evidence of plant-based dyeing in Israel

Textile-dyeing has been practised since prehistoric times, using dyes extracted from both plant and animal sources, as well as inorganic materials. But the majority of natural dyes are derived from plants. Plant-based dyes such as woad, indigo, saffron and madder were important trade goods in the economies of Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
[Image: Naama Sukenik]
Archaeological textiles tend to be rare finds. Like any perishable organic material, they are subject to rapid decomposition and their preservation requires special conditions to prevent their destruction by microorganisms[1]. Extremely dry or, alternatively, oxygen-deficient permanently wet environments such as in a peat bog, are the most conducive to the preservation of textiles in their original organic state[2].

Central Timna Valley in Israel is an extreme arid environment and perfect for the preservation of textiles. Many fragments of textiles and cordages were found: 116 fragments were uncovered during the 2013 and 2014 excavation seasons and a few dozens of other textile fragments were uncovered in the successive 2015 and 2016 seasons. The textiles were radiocarbon dated to the early Iron Age (11th-10th centuries BC[3].

What plants were used to colour these textiles? Analysis indicated that the textiles were dyed using two different plants: Madder (Rubia tinctorum) for red and - most probably - woad (Isatis tinctoria) for blue[4]. These plants are among the earliest known in the dyeing craft.

[1] Strand et al:Old Textiles–New Possibilities in European Journal of Archaeology – 2010 
[2] Good: Archaeological Textiles: A Review of Current Research in Annual Review of Anthropology – 2001 [3] Ben-Yosef: Back to Solomon’s Era: Results of the First Excavations at Slaves’ Hill (Site 34, Timna, Israel) in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research – 2016 
[4] Sukenik et al: Early evidence (late 2nd millennium BCE) of plant-based dyeing of textiles from Timna, Israel in Plos One - 2017. See here.

The demise of 'real' Chardonnay

Just a few decades ago, Chardonnay was a wine that had a complex and rich taste with notes of oak, butter and caramel. Now, the Chardonnay has been recreated to please the American taste: it has become light, with notes of citrus, peach and apple.
Chardonnay is a cross between two ancient grape varieties, the Pinot noir and the Gouais blanc. The Pinot noir, a red wine variety, is a very ancient variety that was already grown in Burgundy (France) in 100 AD. It may be only one or two generations removed from the wild vines (Vitis sylvestris). The Gouais blanc is said to have been introduced in France by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus (276–282) and the variety is thought to originate in Central Europe, with Hungary, Austria and even southern Germany as the most likely candidates. The name Gouais remains something of a mystery, but it is most probably named after a place name: Gouaix, Gouais-les-Saint-Bris, Gouex or Goix. All four are situated in central northern France.

The buttery taste in Chardonnay is the result of so-called malolactic fermentation. Malic acid is the acid you taste in a green apples. Chardonnay contains a lot of malic acid. During its fermentation, the wine is inoculated with a bacteria that converts that malic acid into lactic acid. The compound created from this process is called diacetyl, a yellow or green liquid with an intensely buttery flavour. So, if you do not inoculate your Chardonnay with that specific bacterium, you end up with a light wine.

The Chardonnay grape takes on the minerals of the soil, which means that if you transplant the vine to, say, another continent, it will taste somewhat differently. Furthermore, the grape can be easily 'trained' to express other tastes. And this is what happened in recent years.

We, Europeans like our wines having robust traditional tastes. The Americans are like children and like their wines to be light and fruity. As they are the largest market of wines, the producers of Chardonney followed suit. As mentioned above, the Chardonnay as we knew it hardly exists anymore. It has been replaced by a ghost of itself. Light and not nearly as tasty.

Italy's oldest wine (residue) found on Sicily

While winemaking probably originated in what is now Georgia during the early Neolithic period (ca. 6,000–5,000 BC)[1], its use spread to the Mediterranean. Traditionally, retrieval of seeds has led to the belief that wine growing and wine production developed in Italy in the Middle Bronze Age (1300-1100 B.C.).

From Georgia to Italy is not such a great distance that wine would need around 4,000 years to reach Italy. New research has dramatically pushed the commencement of winemaking in Italy further back in time. A large storage jar from the Italian Copper Age (early 4th millennium BC) just tested positive for wine[2].
Archeaologists conducted chemical analysis of residue on unglazed pottery found at the Copper Age sites of Monte Kronio and Sant'Ippolito in Agrigento, located off the southwest coast of Sicily. The team determined the residue contains tartaric acid and its sodium salt, which occur naturally in grapes and in the winemaking process. Tests of the residue also showed the presence of malvidin, a pigment that gives wine its red colour.

It’s very rare to determine the composition of such residue, because it requires the ancient pottery to be excavated intact. The study’s authors are now trying to determine whether the wine was red or white.

But Sicily was once a Greek colony. It might well be that ancient Greece is the 'missing link' between winemaking in Georgia and Italy.

[1] McGovern et al: Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus in PNAS - 2017
[2] Tanasi et al: 1H-1H NMR 2D-TOCSY, ATR FT-IR and SEM-EDX for the identification of organic residues on Sicilian prehistoric pottery in Microchemical Journal - 2017

Evidence of Neolithic winemaking

Excavations in the Republic of Georgia have uncovered evidence of the earliest wine making anywhere in the world. Archaeologists excavated the remnants of two villages that date back to the Neolithic period, which began around 15,200 BC in parts of the Middle East and ended between 4500 and 2000 BC in other parts of the world.

The Neolithic period is characterized by a series of related activities that include the beginning of farming, the domestication of animals, the development of crafts such as pottery and weaving, and the making of polished stone tools. Now we can add winemaking to that list of novel activities.
During the excavations in Georgia, archaeologists found eight very large-capacity jars, some of the earliest pottery made in the Near East, dating from the early Neolithic period (ca. 6,000–5,000 BC). They probably served as combination fermentation, aging, and serving vessels. Chemical extraction of the residue recovered from these jars confirmed tartaric acid, the fingerprint compound for grape and wine as well as three associated organic acids – malic, succinic and citric[1]. The findings constitute tthe oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine.

The infinite range of flavours and aromas of today’s 8,000-10,000 grape varieties are the end result of the domesticated Eurasian grapevine being transplanted and crossed with wild grapevines elsewhere over and over again. The Eurasian grapevine that now accounts for 99.9 per cent of wine made in the world today, must have Caucasian roots the research shows.

The researchers say the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine Vitis vinifera was abundant around the sites. It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today.

[1] McGovern et al: Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus in PNAS - 2017

Angeliki Frangou: Greek shipping magnate

Angeliki Frangou (1965) is the daughter of Captain Nikolas Frangos. If you are not earning your living in the shipping business, you may never have heard of her. But Angeliki Frangou is founder, CEO and chairwoman of Navios Maritime Holdings Inc., one of the largest and fastest-growing shipping companies. At last count, the Navios group of companies had 211 ships (149 dry bulk carriers, 50 tankers and 12 container vessels) under its command, plus nearly 300 barges and small tankers that ply the Hidrovia river system between Paraguay and the Uruguayan coast.
The shipping business is one of the most unforgiving businesses in the universe. Angeliki Frangou built her own empire and it started in 1990 with the 'Fulvia' (14,000 dwt), a bulk-carrier that lay unloved in the harbour of Rio de Janeiro. Her father, Nicolas Frangos, provided the funds she needed to buy the 'Fulvia'. At one point, her father had about 50 vessels, so money was not really a problem.

Fast forward and the 'Fulvia' was scrapped ages ago, but it was a start. The headquarters of her business in Piraeus. Inside it is adorned with antiques from China's Tang Dynasty, a three-century reign that ended in the year 907 AD, were made of wood and so didn't survive the centuries. 'Ancient Chinese antiquities, I love," Frangou confesses. Her silver-grey hair is short and elegant, she has brown eyes, her eyebrows are dark and thick.
After the success of the 'Fulvia', Frangou went to ship auctions in Brazil to buy and restore orphaned vessels. In 2004 Frangou bought International Shipping Enterprises, which United States Steel Corp. established in the mid-1950s to transport iron ore from Venezuela to Canada and the United States.

Her new company, renamed Navios, became one of the very first dry-bulk shipping companies to list on a stock exchange. Suddenly, Ms. Frangou was an international shipping magnate. Next to Navios Maritime Holdings, she floated two more companies on the NYSE: Navios Maritime Partners and Navios Maritime Acquisition. The trio of public companies has a combined market value of about $1.8 billion. A fourth company, Navios South American Logistics, runs a barge and port business in Uruguay and Paraguay. Angeliki Frangou said she plans to take the South American unit public also.

It just shows that women can be as successful as men.

Greece: Why are Tsipouro and Raki so cheap?

Tsipouro is a pure grape distillate, similar to the Italian Grappa. It is made every year following the grape harvest. After the grapes are pressed to produce wine, crushed grape skins, seeds, pulp and stems remain in the wine press. These are then distilled to produce a strong spirit. The name Tsipouro is used throughout Greece, except for Crete, where the name Tsikoudia is used. The European Union protects Tsikoudia from Crete as a unique spirit coming from its original place, a fact not many people are aware of.
Raki is of Arabic origin as is shown by the origin of its name ʿaraqiyy means 'of liquor'. Turkey’s traditional drink, Raki, was also originally produced from the residue of grapes left over from the wine making. During the Turkish occupation of Crete, this name was given to the local Tsikoudia. Today, both names – Tsikoudia and Raki – are in use on Crete. The Turkish Raki is not the same as the Cretan one. Turkish Raki are processed with aniseed, resulting in a taste similar to Greek Ouzo.

During your holidays you might have noticed that Greek spirits are rather cheap in comparison to your local brands. This is the result of favourable tax status that is in place to protect small-scale producers who are licensed to produce just enough to cover household consumption.

But the government’s failure to contain illegal bulk sales of both traditional Greek spirits means it ran into problems with the European Court of Justice. If Greece is found guilty of favouring its own producers against foreign ones, all tsipouro and raki will be burdened the full special consumption tax imposed on alcoholic drinks.

The full tax amounts to about €10.20 per liter and the European Commission is demanding that this rate to apply to all alcoholic drinks except those that enjoy a special exemption, as in the case of ouzo. Greece has no special exemption for tsipouro or raki, but still imposes a 50 percent discount on the special consumption tax, amounting to about €5.10 per liter.

The fall of the Roman Empire

Many compelling theories have been put forward as to what really caused the downfall of Imperial Rome. For hundreds of years, the Roman Empire controlled territory stretching from Britain in the north to the Sahara in the south. The capacity to integrate conquered societies into the empire was a source of strength and staying power. The fall of the Roman Empire represented a great step backward in human civilization. We even lost the knowledge to make concrete.
The Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate in the early 5th century AD as Germanic migrations and invasions overwhelmed the capacity of the Empire to assimilate the migrants and fight off the invaders. Did Imperium Romanum simply fade away?

One could argue that the Roman Empire never really disintegrated, because the empire in the East - often known as the Byzantine Empire - survived for almost a millennium after the fall of its Western counterpart and became the most stable Christian realm during the Middle Ages.

What Historians are learning today is that the fall of the Roman Empire may have been caused by the bubonic plague, caused by Yersinia pestis[1]. This bacterium has been the agent of three historic pandemics, including the medieval Black Death. The first pandemic interrupted a remarkable renaissance of Roman power under the energetic leadership of the emperor Justinian. In the course of three years, this disease snaked its way across the empire and carried off perhaps 30 million souls. The Roman renaissance was stopped dead in its tracks, state failure and economic stagnation ensued.

In Roman times, Yersinia pestis was an emerging infectious disease,. The closest known relatives of the strain that caused the Roman outbreak have been found in western China. This fact is consistent with the detail provided by ancient sources that the pandemic erupted on the coast of Egypt, at an entrepôt of the bustling Red Sea trade. The deadly package was ferried into the empire across the vast Indian Ocean trade network that brought silk and spices to Roman shores. The plague was, then, an unintended side effect of nascent globalization.

[1] Harbeck et al: Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6th Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague in PLoS Pathogens - 2013

Château d'If

Until the 16th century, Île d'If was just an islet about 3.5 kilometers west of the Old Port of Marseille in southeastern France. 'If' is French for 'yew tree', so there probably once grew such a tree. Not anymore.

In 1516, Francois I became aware of the potential strategic importance of the island and thought that a fortress would deter anybody who would dare to attack Marseille. Château d'If was built between 1524 and 1531.
[Château d'If on Île d'I]
Having never experienced war, the decision was taken to convert the fortress to a prison at the end of the 17th century. The isolated location and dangerous currents around Château d'If, made it an ideal location for a prison. It was predominantly used as a tool to let people disappear in much the same way as on Île du Diable (Devil's Island), a penal colony in French Guyana.

Both Île du Diable and Île d'If were made famous in novels. Île du Diable was the scene of 'Papillon' (1969), written by Henri Charrière, while Île d'If remains famous for being the setting of Alexandre Dumas' novel 'The Count of Monte Cristo' (1844).

You can always trust the French to create a couple of prisons to put cold fear in the hearts of convicts that were sent there. For instance, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish French artillery officer who was wrongfully accused of treason and summarily convicted in 1894 in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Île du Diable. Two years later, evidence came to light that the real traitor was a Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. It took another three long years before Dreyfus was offered (and accepted) a pardon and was released from prison. Today the shameful history is still known as the 'Dreyfus affair'.
[Rows of cells on Île du Diable]
John le Carré, in his brilliant spy novel, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (1974), named one of the potential traitors and Russian spies after Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy: Toby Esterhase.

The lost world of island dwarfs and giants

Until 12,000 years ago, the native faunas on the islands of the Mediterranean were very different than they are now. They included pony-sized elephants, pig-sized hippos, dwarf gorals with continuously-growing teeth like those of rodents (Myotragus balearicus of Mallorca), dwarf deer with simplified antlers that are longer than their bodies (Candiacervus of Crete), giant rabbits (Nuralagus rex of Menorca) and giant dormice (Leithaia of Sicily and Malta). Those were the days of dwarfs and giants. The smallest elephant that ever roamed the Earth lived on Sicily (Palaeoloxodon falconeri). It had a shoulder height of about one meter and a mere 2-4% of the body mass of its mainland ancestor (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), one of the largest elephants to have roamed the Earth. The smallest hippo on record is from Cyprus (Hippopotamus minor), which had dwarfed to 4% of its ancestral size.

The largest mouse (Kritimys catreus) was native to Crete. It was at least eight times the size of its ancestor and would today be mistaken for a large rat. The giant dormouse of Sicily (Leithia melitensis) was up to almost fourteen times as heavy as its ancestor.

These dwarfs and giants were the norm, rather than exceptions. Once isolated on an island, large mammal species evolve dwarf sizes and small mammal species evolve giant sizes. The pattern is so consistent that ecologists call it the 'island rule'.
[Sicialian dwarf elephant compared to its present day cousin]
Food limitation appears to be an obvious factor. The absence of predators is also an essential factor. Absence of competition has perhaps the greatest effect. With no competitors animals are free to occupy new ecological niches that are appropriate for different body sizes and lifestyles.

Extinct dwarf and giant animal forms have been unearthed on practically all islands around the world, and the Mediterranean islands are no exception. Dwarf elephants in particular had extremely wide distributions in both time and space. They are known from about thirty islands, ranging from the Californian Channel Islands (Mammuthus exilis) in the west to Timor (Stegodon timorensis) in the east.

The dwarf elephant of the Greek island of Tilos (Palaeoloxodon tiliensis) may well have continued to exist into the Holocene and protohistoric age. See here. The Aetokremnos site on Crete is known for its rich fossil deposit containing many thousands of hippo bones from the Cyprus dwarf hippo (Hippopotamus minor), apparently in association with artifacts from Palaeolithic people.

Ancient DNA: Ancient Minoans and Mycenaens were (almost) the same

The discovery of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations on the island of Crete and on mainland Greece in the late 1800s gave birth to modern archaeology and opened a direct window into the European Bronze Age. This period of history had previously been glimpsed only through Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey.
The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete beginning in the third millennium BC and was very advanced both artistically and technologically. The Minoans were also the first literate people of Europe. The Mycenaean civilization developed in mainland Greece in the second millennium BC. It shared many cultural features with the Minoans.

The origins of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples, however, have puzzled archaeologists for more than a century. It is widely believed that they derived from different ancestral populations.

Researchers reported the first genome-wide DNA sequence data on the Bronze Age inhabitants of mainland Greece, Crete and southwestern Anatolia[1]. They analyzed tooth DNA from the remains of 19 ancient individuals who could be definitively identified by archaeological evidence as Minoans of Crete, Mycenaeans of mainland Greece and people who lived in southwestern Anatolia.

Next, they compared the Minoan and Mycenaean genomes to each other and to more than 330 other ancient genomes and over 2,600 genomes of present-day humans from around the world.

The results show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically highly similar – but not identical – and that modern Greeks descend from these populations. The Minoans and Mycenaeans descended mainly from early Neolithic farmers, likely migrating thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age from Anatolia, in what is today modern Turkey[2].

"Minoans, Mycenaeans, and modern Greeks also had some ancestry related to the ancient people of the Caucasus, Armenia and Iran," explained Lazaridis.

[1] Lazarides et al: Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans in Nature – 2017
[2] Lazarides et al: Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East in Nature – 2015

Fava beans and salt water wetlands

The borders of northern parts of The Netherlands were always somewhat vague. The tidal Waddensea creates a dynamic landscape. A 'kwelder' is a low-lying part of an intertidal area that isn't regularly inundated anymore. It's both part of the sea and part of the land. But most of all it seems raw nature.
Near the little Frisian village of Paessens appearances do deceive. In prehistoric times kwelders were man-made and there are still farmers who let their cattle graze on the nutritious fields of salt-tolerant plants.

Between approximately 600 BC and 1200 AD, people were making their living on the open, unprotected salt marsh. Archeologist Mans Schepens from Groningen University wondered if you could grow fava beans (Vicia faba) on that rich, but salty ground[1]. To many archaeologists, the fact that crop cultivation was possible at all, is already quite astonishing, but in prehistoric times farmers would grow a smaller variant (Vicia faba minor) on these kwelders. They were known as paardenboon ('horsebean') in the province of Friesland en molleboon (a 'mol' being a kind of wok) in neighbouring Groningen.
Normally a kwelder is wet, cold and windy. Schepers thinks that those are simply the perfect conditions for the fava bean, because lice do not like windy conditions and slugs do not like the marshy environment.

[1] Schepers: Crop diversity in the Dutch and German terps area in 17th Conference of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany - 2016

Where was the River Styx situated?

In Greek mythology, Styx (Ancient Greek: Στύξ) is both a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and Hades, the Underworld. Hades is also the name of its ruler. Styx is also a goddess with prehistoric roots in Greek mythology as a daughter of Tethys, after whom the river is named and because of whom it had miraculous powers. Charon is the ferryman who transferred the dead to the Underworld.
The river Styx converges with other rivers at the center of the underworld on a great marsh, which sometimes is also called the Styx.

So, we have a river and a deity with the same name and we have an underworld and its ruler with the same name. What do these names mean?

The word 'Styx' is cognate with Greek stygos 'hatred', stygnos 'gloomy', and derives from stygein 'to hate', 'abominate'. Both the words 'Hades' and 'Charon' are reputedly of unknown origin, which always makes me suspicious. Every linguist seems to try to find an etymology by comparing a Greek word to the languages of its neighbours, but always tend to forget its most influential and powerful neighbour: Egypt.

The question is therefore: can we find an etymology in Egyptian that mirrors the Greek version. The answer is: yes, we can.

In Egyptian, stkn (remember they didn't use vowels in Egyptian) is a causative of tkn 'approach' with the specific sense of 'to induct, bring on doom'. Hades received his/its name from ḥdi as a verb with the meaning 'to be destroyed' and as a noun 'damage', 'destruction'. Diodoros believed that the name Charon (Kharon) was Egyptian:
The other myths about Hades, current among the Greeks, also agree with the customs which are practised even now in Egypt. For the boat which receives the bodies is called baris and the passenger's fee is given to the boatman, who in the Egyptian tongue is called charon. And near these regions, they say, are also the 'Shades'.
But the baris was also the ship of Osiris and dead pharaohs were also transported on a baris to their final resting places. The journey from Osiris to the Underworld was therefore reenacted time and time again.

We can identify the Egyptian god of the Underworld Anubis in this description of Hades. 'Anubis' was  the Greek rendering of this god's Egyptian name. In the Old Kingdom (ca 2686 BC–ca 2181 BC), the standard way of writing his name in hieroglyphs was composed of the sound ı͗npw followed by a 'jackal' over a ḥtp sign.

The problem is that there does not seem to be a plausible Egyptian root of the word 'Charon', but it is possible that it has an etymology from the West-Semitic deity Ḥrn, vocalized as Horon in the Bible and known as the 'Lord of Hell'. Still, the region was frequently conquered by Egypt and we might assume that Hades ultimately has Egyptian roots.
[Ancient branches of the Nile]
Thus with a river with several tributaries that end in a great march. Which other river can that be other than the river Nile? But what of all these words that signify death and doom? These are very reminiscent of the spells from the 'Book of the Dead', the ancient Egyptian group of magical and religious texts. The spells are meant to help the dead progress through the many challenges in the underworld (the Duat) to the afterlife. Pharaohs who had died were transferred in boats via the river Nile to their lavishly decorated tombs in the Valley of the Death. These tombs were protected by powerful spells that would ensure that they were not violated.
[Book of the Dead]
Based on the evidence it seems very probable that the concept of the River Styx was borrowed from Egypt and 'transplanted' to Ancient Greece. My conclusion is that the River Styx is non other than the River Nile.

Was Marco Polo born in Croatia?

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant, traveller and citizen of the Venice Republic. He learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa.
The Republic of Genoa defeated Venice in the Battle of Curzola off the coast of Dalmatia in 1298 and Marco Polo, then a galley commander, was taken prisoner to eventually spend his time in a Genoese prison dictating his adventures to a cell-mate. He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married and fathered three children.

So far, so good. But the problem is that Marco Polo's exact date and place of birth cannot be found in the Venetian archives, which is strange because these were among the very best in Medieval Europe. So, while he is mentioned as a citizen, he seems not to have been born in the city of Venice. At the time Venice was a powerful mercantile nation that had vastly expanded its boundaries.

Some historians believe that Marco Polo was born on the now Croatian island of Korčula, then called Curzola by Venetians[1].

So many Slavs (not slaves) from the Dalmatian Coast arrived as sailors in Venice, that the long quay by St. Mark's was and is known as Riva degli Sciavoni ('Quay of the Slavs'). Marco Polo was buried in a Slavic quarter in Venice.

If Marco Polo was originally from – modern day – Croatia, he would also have have a Slavic name. And, as some think, he had: Marco Polo was once called Marko Pillic.
[Supposed home of Marco Polo on Korčula/Curzola]
Is this theory based on fact or is it simply conjecture to boast tourism in Croatia? It might well be that it is a bit of both. If Marco Polo was born on Korčula/Curzola, he would have been regarded as a Venetian, because the island was part of Venice. That the island is now part of Croatia is not important.

[1] Olga Orlić: The curious case of Marco Polo from Korčula: An example of invented tradition in ScienceDirect - 2013  

Malta's white olives

Once, when the Knights of the Order of Saint John, also known as the Knights of Malta, occupied Malta from 1530 to 1798, plump, bone-white olives were known across Europe as perlina Maltese (Maltese pearls).
The white olive is just one of hundreds of varieties of the European olive (Olea europaea). One of its botanical subclassifications is Leucocarpa, from the Greek leukos (white) and karpos (flesh or pulp). White olives not only grow on Malta, but can also be found in Italy, Morocco, Libya, Greece and Portugal, where they often go by local names, including bianca (Italian 'white'), biancolilla or cannellina (after their resemblance to white cannellini beans). Researchers who have studied the white olive’s genetics say that its unique color, or lack thereof, is simply a quirk of nature.

White olives originate from mutations affecting the production of anthocyanins, the pigments typical of what you see in conventional ripened olives, so that at the full ripening stage they do not become black.

White olives are a rare sight. They are seldom commercially available today and, historically, why they have been valued ornamentally and even religiously. In the southern Italian region of Calabria, for example, white olive trees in the gardens of churches and monasteries provided sacramental oil used to anoint high-ranking church officials and Byzantine emperors.
Oil from white olives resembles that from black and green olives, yet it has a much shorter shelf life. That is because it has comparatively low levels of bitter-tasting antioxidants that also make for a natural preservative. Therefore, white olive oil tastes sweeter than many other olive oils.

Italian knights introduced white olives on Malta in the 14th or 15th century. The bajda (Maltese 'white') is probably an Italian cultivar brought from southern and central Italy as an ornamental plant. That's partly the reason why today no wild white olive trees in Malta exist and only a few old, individual trees remain.
[The oldest white olive tree. Designated 'national treasure']
That number of old trees was down to precisely three when Sam Cremona first set eyes on one in 2010. “It was in a nunnery, in a garden that once belonged to the knights,” said Cremona. At first, he thought the startlingly white olives might be diseased or albino aberrations. However, after taking some to an olive conference in Spain, he learned that Malta possessed a rare treasure.

“They told me, ‘Ah, we know about these white olives. We used to have them, but we don’t have them anymore,’ because they were a variety that had disappeared in Spain, where they were known as ‘Maltese olives,’” Cremona stated. Of the island nation’s 12,000 olive trees today, only 70 are white olive trees.

The taste of the white olive is described as delicious—bitter top, citrusy middle, briny finish.

A Cypriot snack: Tsakistes vs. Çakizdez

Elies Tsakistes (ελιές τσακιστές) means 'crushed olives' in Greek and they are - yes - crushed olives which are harvested when green. They are a hugely popular snack on Cyprus.
First the olives have to be crushed (be careful not to break the pip). Then they are immersed in fresh water. You should refresh the water every day. Repeat for as long as necessary until the olives aren't bitter any more. Then drain and salt liberally. Add a slice of lemon. Let stand for 12 to 36 hours, according to how salty you want the olives to be. Transfer the olives to a jar, packing them tightly in order to fit as many as possible.

Right, this is the Greek Cypriot version. However, the island has been divided since 1974 when northern Cyprus was invaded by Turkish troops to 'liberate' the 'oppressed' Turkish Cypriots. The northern part of the island has now been under Turkish influence for almost 45 years and you might wonder if this tasty snack has survived.

Well, it certainly has: Elies Tsakistes is called çakizdez on northern Cyprus and it is just as much appreciated there as by its southern brethren.

A Turkish dictionary claims that çakizdez is related to tsaki'zw which means 'to break' but the word is just a Turkified loan from Greek. It simply shows that occupation cannot conquer taste and kitchens.

Growing grain in ancient Mesopotamia

A recent study sheds new light on the agricultural and political economy that underpinned the growth of some of the world’s oldest cities in Mesopotamia, in present-day northern Syria[1].

Analysis of charred ancient grains reconstructed the conditions under which crops grew, building up a picture of how farming practice changed over time. Labour-intensive practices such as manuring/middening and water management formed an integral part of the agricultural strategy from the seventh millennium BC.
However, as populations in these early cities swelled, increasing demand for more food, farmers strove to cultivate larger areas of land, rather than plough more resources - such as manure - into existing, more intensively managed fields. Earlier research showed that amino acid δ(15)N values of grains and fava beans could provide proof if crops were grown in manured or unmanured soil[2].

Extensive, land-hungry agriculture relies heavily on the ability to access more arable land and to exploit specialized plough animals, both of which could be monopolized by powerful families and institutions.

The findings of this research therefore reveal how the growing importance of arable land, which could be controlled by the ruling few, led to increasing social inequality as urban populations grew.

‘We found that the rise of early cities in northern Mesopotamia depended on radical expansion of the scale of farming,' Professor Amy Bogaard said. 'As a result, cereals were grown under increasingly poor soil conditions: with less manuring and replenishment of nutrients. It was a solution that enabled enormous urban agglomerations to develop, but was risky when environmental or political conditions changed. Examining how prehistoric farmers coped with changing conditions could yield some useful advice for modern day governments facing similar pressures of growing populations and changing environments.'

[1] Styring et al: Isotope evidence for agricultural extensification reveals how the world's first cities were fed in Nature Plants – 2017
[2] Styring et al: The effect of manuring on cereal and pulse amino acid δ(15)N values in Phytochemistry - 2014 

The origin of fava beans

If you've been paying attention during history lessons at school, you might remember that agriculture was once the key factor that helped people to settle down. The ability to produce and store food-surplus drastically reduced the risk of famine and it was the very first step to create villages, complex societies and eventually entire empires.

It was once thought that cereals were the first agricultural products that were successfully planted and harvested. Plant domestication, most scientists think, made its debut around 8,000 BC, with grain storage cropping up about 9,000 BC. An ancient site in Israel yielded a collection of grains (wild wheat and barley), which was dated to about 21,000 BC[1].

Recent discoveries of early-domesticated cereals show that the Middle East is rich with examples of early forms of agriculture. Several notable examples of cultivation and domestication of legumes such as fava bean and chickpea have been discovered in the Levant[2].
Recently, large amounts of fava beans (Vicia faba) were found in the Lower Galilee in Israel[3]. The remains of the legumes were collected from floors and pits dating to an early phase of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (ca. 9,000 BC). Radiocarbon measurements of the legumes dated the findings between the 8250 BC and 7900 BC. These findings represent the earliest evidence of intensive farming of legumes in the southern Levant.

While findings of lentil and pea are quite common in the Levant in earlier phases, remains of fava beans are rare, and mostly found in the southern Levant. Recently, wild specimens of faba beans have been discovered in the Epipalaeolithic campsite el-Wad and dated to 12,000 BC[4].
Thus, we have people eating wild fava beans since around 12,000 BC and eating domesticated fava beans around 8,000 BC. From then on, the frequency of findings of fava bean begins to increase.

What came first, you might ask, the domestication of grains or the domestication of fava beans? The answer might be lost forever in the mists of time.

[1] Weiss et al: The broad spectrum revisited: evidence from plant remains in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – 2004
[2] Caracuta et al: The onset of faba bean farming in the Southern Levant in Science Reports – 2015
[3] Caracuta et al: Farming legumes in the pre-pottery Neolithic: New discoveries from the site of Ahihud (Israel) in PloS One – 2017
[4] Caracuta et al: 14,000-year-old seeds indicate the Levantine origin of the lost progenitor of faba bean in Scientific Reports – 2016

Fava: the Ancient Mediterranean Bean

As part of the Old World legumes –together with chickpeas and lentils— fava was a most nutritious bean that fed ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Called ‘broad bean’ by the British and tuinbonen or 'garden beans' by the Dutch, it has been found in Neolithic sites in Israel dated back to 10,000 BC. Fava beans are the only crop known to have been domesticated in what is today Israel.

Fava remained a valuable source of protein throughout the Old World. For Greeks, like for most people in southern Europe and northern Africa, fava –both the fresh pods and the dried beans– remain an important legume and are cooked in a variety of ways. Israelis mix them into their hummus. Egyptians eat them mashed for breakfast.
[Fava bean frittata
A famine was supposedly the origin of the Sicilian tradition. Once fava beans were simply used as fodder for cattle. The hungry farmers cooked these beans and survived. Sicilians serve fava beans in frittatas or cook them with garlic.

Greeks don’t peel the shelled fava, an easy but somewhat tedious kitchen chore. Italians, however, insist that they have to be peeled.
On the island of Crete you get a handful of freshly harvested fava pods with raki (ρακή), the local grape-based pomace brandy. People shell and munch the fava as we do peanuts.

While scientists have been quite successful in tracing the domestication of wheat and other grains to specific areas ranging from Turkey to Iran, they had been less lucky with legumes, said Valentina Caracuta, an archaeobotanist[1]. One problem is that unlike grains, domesticated legume seeds have no visible characteristics that clearly distinguish them from wild varieties, she explains. If it has not gone extinct, the wild ancestor of today’s beans may be found in the area where it was first domesticated, Caracuta said. Recently, she found traces of a wild fava bean, growing on Mount Carmel (Israel), some 14,000 years ago[2].

[1] Caracuta et al: The onset of faba bean farming in the Southern Levant in Scientific Reports - 2015
[2] Caracuta et al: 14,000-year-old seeds indicate the Levantine origin of the lost progenitor of faba bean in Scientific Reports - 2016

Monaco grows (again)

Being just 2,02 square kilometers in size, the Principality of Monaco ran out of space years ago. Monaco is a bit like The Netherlands. Both countries are bordered by the sea and territorial expansion means reclaiming land from that very sea.

Now, a new expansion project is underway in Monaco that will add six hectares of land to the country on the eastern side of the main port. Work on this project is set to begin at the end of 2017 and should be completed by 2025. These 6 hectares are 0,06 square kilometers, which means that Monaco grows almost three percent in size. Which is a lot, relatively speaking.
The project includes the construction of an eco-neighbourhood primarily consisting of 60,000 m² of housing, public facilities, an extension to the Grimaldi Forum, a public car park, a marina with pedestrian wharves, a landscaped park, a seafront promenade and a shaded, planted walkway running the length of the Japanese Garden[1].
The maritime infrastructure will consist of a landfill enclosed by a band of 18 trapezoid shaped reinforced concrete caissons, each one 26 meters tall and weighing 10,000 tonnes. These pre-cast units will be constructed in a floating dry dock and then launched and towed to the installation site where they will be sunk onto a prepared seabed and then filled with rock. These units have wave absorption chambers fitted to their seaward side which will help to reduce breaches by strong swells and protect the exposed areas of the project. Once these outer protection caissons are in place the area behind them will be filled with rock material with most of the 250,000 tonnes of rock needed for this project being shipped in from quarries in Sicily.

Next up: an island.

[1] Monaco Life: First phase of land reclamation begins – 2016

Spain: Gibraltar vs. Olivença

Mention Gibraltar and Spanish pride will take over from their common sense. Gibraltar is located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and measures just 6.7 square kilometers. It was captured by the British in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). The Spanish Crown formally ceded the territory 'in perpetuity' to the British Crown in 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht. Spain later unsuccessfully attempted to recapture the territory, but reclamation of Gibraltar remains government policy ever since.
The Spanish government also refuses to acknowledge Gibraltar's territorial waters or its airport which is built partly on reclaimed land and on the isthmus, claiming that these were not explicitly covered by the treaty.

So, the Spanish lay claim to Gibraltar, but they conveniently forget that they still occupy a territory that it has held illegally for 211 years: the towns of Olivença and Talega (Olivenza and Táliga in Spanish). This border town was Portuguese from 1297 to 1801, when the Spanish army, along with French troops, invaded. The Treaty of Vienna of 1815 returned Olivença and Talega, its outlying villages and a tranche of land near the Guadiana River to Portugal, but Spanish forces never left[1].
They even outlawed the Portuguese language and prevented a bridge linking it to Portugal to be rebuilt until this day. Spain’s refusal to return the town and surrounding countryside (750 square kilometers and home to some 11,000 people) is very reminiscent of the situation of Gibraltar.

If Spain ever wants Gibraltar back, then it should first consider ceding Olivença and Talega to Portugal and honour its obligations under the Treaty of Vienna of 1815.

[1] La Vanguardia: Olivenza todavía es zona de conflicto internacional - 2016

A mother goddess (for sale)

My very own mother goddess (found in southern Italy, near Bari). Possibly several thousands of years old.
The item is for sale at any reasonable offer.

Masticha of Chios

Mastic is an aromatic resin offered to us by the mastic tree (Pistacia Lentiscus), a shrub growing on Southern Chios. It is locally known as 'the tears of Chios'. Since ancient times, mastic has been seen as the emblem of the island of Chios. The mastic tree (or large shrub) can grow up to four meters high. While the tree is endemic in the entire Mediterranean region, the mastic grown on Chios is regarded 'different' than those that grows elsewhere.
The ingredient forms as a droplet (the 'tear') on the mastic tree. It starts its life as a juice. It is dried in the sunlight and then changes into brittle, almost transparent and yellow-colored granules. When you chew these granules, they turn into a bright and opaque sort of gum. At first, the flavour is bitter, but after a while it gets a refreshing pine-like taste sensation.

Mastic is a spice that is used to flavour a liqueur known as Masticha of Chios. It is produced on the island of Chios and is the outcome of the distillation of mastic, a process that distinguishes it from a plain mastic liqueur.

The producers of the island of Chios realized the importance of mastic early on and, as a result, one of their very first products in the 18th century was Mastic Ouzo, resulting from the distillation of anise seeds together with natural mastic.

Later, they experimented on the production of liqueur made of mastic by distilling the mastic’s granules, obtaining a natural mastic distillate and, in turn, adding pure alcohol and sugar to produce the Masticha of Chios Liqueur.
Local tradition has it that the Masticha of Chios Liqueur should be served accompanied by a dessert after each meal or alongside coffee. The traditional Masticha of Chios Liqueur is also an excellent choice in a shot, ice cold at all times, or even as an aperitif, served with plenty of crushed ice.

Why did mammoths and mastodons really disappear?

Dinosaur went extinct some 65 million years ago. The rock layers of that time tell a story of a cosmic impact: iridium is found in a thin layer that marks the end of the Cretaceous era and the beginning of the Tertiary era. Which is why scientists call the event Cretaceous-Tertiary (or K-Pg). But it wasn't only iridium that was found in that layer, a similar anomaly was the presence of platinum.

Both anomalies represent the atmospheric fallout of rare elements resulting from an extraterrestrial impact.
Around 12,800 years ago, the mammoth, mastodon and saber-toothed tiger suddenly disappeared. This was the onset of the Younger-Dryas. Although early humans are blamed, nobody knows for certain what the exact cause of the extinction was. The discovery of widespread platinum at archaeological sites across the United States has provided an important clue in solving this enduring mystery[1].

“Platinum is very rare in the Earth’s crust, but it is common in asteroids and comets,” says Christopher Moore, the study’s lead author. He says the K-Pg dinosaur extinction was the result of a very large asteroid impact, while the Younger-Dryas onset impact is likely the result of being hit by fragments of a much smaller sized comet or asteroid, possibly measuring up to a kilometer in diameter. The Younger-Dryas impact event is not yet associated with any known impact crater.

He says the Younger-Dryas coincides with the end of the Clovis paleoindian culture and the extinction of more than 35 species of ice-age animals. Moore says that, while evidence has shown that some of the animals were on the decline before Younger-Dryas, virtually none are found after it. Moore thinks that this would indicate an extinction event for North America.

Current views tell us that the mastodon became extinct in the New World 130,000 years ago, but recently the bones of a mastodon were found under a freeway construction site in California. These bones were battered and broken by modern humans[2]. The problem is that Homo sapiens reached North America only about 15,000 years ago. So, you see, there's a problem. Scientists now speculate about a radical new early date for the arrival of ancient humans in America.

The problem can more easily be solved by stating that mastodons were still alive around 15,000 years ago.

[1] Moore et al: Widespread platinum anomaly documented at the Younger Dryas onset in North American sedimentary sequences in Scientific Reports - 2017
[2] Holen et al: A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA in Science - 2017. See here

One of us: Altamura Man

Neanderthals are a species or subspecies of Hominids within the genus Homo that went extinct some 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans share 99.7% of their DNA. Since humans have inherited 1 to 4 percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, we must have had sex with our ancestral brothers and sisters (scientists call this 'interbreeding')[1]. To produce offspring, both species must be genetically very close. Therefore my suggestion is that it would probably be better to regard both modern man (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) as subspecies of Homo sapiens, which means that the former should be called Homo sapiens sapiens and the latter Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
In 1993, a fossil hominin skeleton was discovered by cave explorers in the karst caves of Lamalunga, near Altamura, in southern Italy. The remains were embedded in rock and were covered in a thick layer of calcite, leaving only the head and part of a shoulder visible. They lie in a karst borehole rich in limestone amid running water. It was thought that excavating the remains would cause irreparable damage and thus, they have remained in situ for over twenty years, leaving researchers to rely on casual observation for their studies. For that reason, there was some debate initially about morphology and age.

Recently, the retrieval from the cave of a tiny fragment of the right shoulder blade allowed the first dating of the individual, indicating that it belongs to Homo neanderthalensis (or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), with some peculiarities that appear consistent with a date of around 150,000 years[2]. Thus, the skeleton from Altamura represents the most ancient Neanderthal from which endogenous DNA has ever been extracted. And that's a feat in itself.

[1] Lari et al: The Microcephalin Ancestral Allele in a Neanderthal Individual in PloS One – 2010. See here.
[2] Lari et al: The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura (Italy) in Journal of Human Evolution – 2015

Tilos Dwarf Elephant

When fossil remains of dwarf elephant or dwarf mammoths were found in the Mediterranean basin, these remains were once usually attributed to trade[1].
Two groups of remains of dwarf elephants have been found on the island of Tilos. Since no migration route between the any other island can be proved, the species should be named Tilos Dwarf Elephant (Elephas tiliensi). It was the latest paleoloxodontine to survive in Europe. They didn't become extinct until around 4000 BC, so this elephant survived well into the Holocene and thus was alive during the the start of the Egyptian civilisation.

The Tilos dwarf elephant is the first dwarf elephant whose DNA sequence has been studied. The results of this research are consistent with previous morphological reports, according to which it is more closely related to Elephas than to Loxodonta or Mammuthus[2].

The most recent research confirms that the origin of the Tilos and Cyprus elephantids is consistent with a lineage within the genus Elephas, while the DNA-sequence from the Cretan sample falls clearly within the mammoth clade[3]. Thus, the scientific name of the Cretan Dwarf Mammoth Mammuthus creticus rather than Elephas creticus, seems to be justified for this form.

[1] Theodorou, Symeonides : The excavations of the last ten years at Charkadio cave on Tilos Island, Dodekanese, Greece in The World of Elephants – 2001
[2] Poulakakis et al: Molecular phylogeny of the extinct pleistocene dwarf elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri from Tilos Island, Dodekanisa, Greece in Journal of Molecular Evolution – 2002
[3] Poulakakis et al: Ancient DNA forces reconsideration of evolutionary history of Mediterranean pygmy elephantids in Biology Letters – 2006