Posts Tagged ‘history’

Laser technology known as LiDAR digitally removes the forest canopy to reveal ancient ruins below, showing that Maya cities such as Tikal were much larger than ground-based research had suggested.

By Tom Clynes

In what’s being hailed as a “major breakthrough” in Maya archaeology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala.


Laser scans revealed more than 60,000 previously unknown Maya structures that were part of a vast network of cities, fortifications, farms, and highways.

Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.

“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in using digital technology for archaeological research.

Garrison is part of a consortium of researchers who are participating in the project, which was spearheaded by the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan nonprofit that fosters scientific research, sustainable development, and cultural heritage preservation.

The project mapped more than 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala, producing the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research.

The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested.

In addition to hundreds of previously unknown structures, the LiDAR images show raised highways connecting urban centers and quarries. Complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape.

The ancient Maya never used the wheel or beasts of burden, yet “this was a civilization that was literally moving mountains,” said Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who participated in the project.

“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die,” said Canuto, who conducts archaeological research at a Guatemalan site known as La Corona. “But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America and [Cambodia’s] Angkor Wat, we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”

“LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.”

The unaided eye sees only jungle and an overgrown mound, but LiDAR and augmented reality software reveal an ancient Maya pyramid.

Already, though, the survey has yielded surprising insights into settlement patterns, inter-urban connectivity, and militarization in the Maya Lowlands. At its peak in the Maya classic period (approximately A.D. 250–900), the civilization covered an area about twice the size of medieval England, but it was far more densely populated.

“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million,” said Estrada-Belli, who directs a multi-disciplinary archaeological project at Holmul, Guatemala. “With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”


Hidden deep in the jungle, the newly-discovered pyramid rises some seven stories high but is nearly invisible to the naked eye.

Virtually all the Mayan cities were connected by causeways wide enough to suggest that they were heavily trafficked and used for trade and other forms of regional interaction. These highways were elevated to allow easy passage even during rainy seasons. In a part of the world where there is usually too much or too little precipitation, the flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs.

Among the most surprising findings was the ubiquity of defensive walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses. “Warfare wasn’t only happening toward the end of the civilization,” said Garrison. “It was large-scale and systematic, and it endured over many years.”

The survey also revealed thousands of pits dug by modern-day looters. “Many of these new sites are only new to us; they are not new to looters,” said Marianne Hernandez, president of the PACUNAM Foundation. (Read “Losing Maya Heritage to Looters.”)

Environmental degradation is another concern. Guatemala is losing more than 10 percent of its forests annually, and habitat loss has accelerated along its border with Mexico as trespassers burn and clear land for agriculture and human settlement.

“By identifying these sites and helping to understand who these ancient people were, we hope to raise awareness of the value of protecting these places,” Hernandez said.

The survey is the first phase of the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative, a three-year project that will eventually map more than 5,000 square miles (14,000 square kilometers) of Guatemala’s lowlands, part of a pre-Columbian settlement system that extended north to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The ambition and the impact of this project is just incredible,” said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a University of Calgary archaeologist and Maya specialist who was not associated with the PACUNAM survey. “After decades of combing through the forests, no archaeologists had stumbled across these sites. More importantly, we never had the big picture that this data set gives us. It really pulls back the veil and helps us see the civilization as the ancient Maya saw it.”

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/maya-laser-lidar-guatemala-pacunam/

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

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The pages of the Voynich Manuscript, estimated to have been written between 1404-1438, have puzzled researchers for over a century.

by Michael d’Estries

The 600-year-old book no one can read has been fascinating us for decades, but we’re only recently starting to learn more about it.

Named after the Polish-American bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912, the Voynich Manuscript is a detailed 240-page book written in a language or script that is completely unknown.

Some folks have labelled the Voynich Manuscript as nothing more than an ancient hoax, including Gordon Rugg of Keele University in the U.K., who has spent more than a decade studying the manuscript. Rugg writes in a 2016 paper that the text would be easy to fake if the author was familiar with simple coding techniques. “We have known for years that the syllables are not random. There are ways of producing gibberish which are not random in a statistical sense,” he told New Scientist. “It’s a bit like rolling loaded dice. If you roll dice that are subtly loaded, they would come up with a six more often than you would expect, but not every time.”

But other researchers don’t necessarily agree. In a 2013 study published in the journal PLoS One, Dr. Diego Amancio, a professor at University of São Paulo’s Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, explained how the book’s beautiful gibberish is likely an actual language.

“We show that it is mostly compatible with natural languages and incompatible with random texts,” he writes. “We also obtain candidates for keywords of the Voynich Manuscript, which could be helpful in the effort of deciphering it.”


Deciphering it with artificial intelligence

More recently, Greg Kondrak, an expert in natural language processing at the University of Alberta, used artificial intelligence to try to crack the code. With the help of his grad student, Bradley Hauer, Kondrak used samples from “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which was written in nearly 400 languages, running algorithms to identify the language of the text. Although they hypothesized it was written in Arabic, it turned out the most likely language was Hebrew.

The researchers hypothesized the manuscript was created using alphagrams, where the letters of a word are replaced in alphabetical order. With that assumption, they tried to create an algorithm to read the text.

“It turned out that over 80 percent of the words were in a Hebrew dictionary, but we didn’t know if they made sense together,” said Kondrak, in a statement.

After being unable to find Hebrew scholars to confirm their findings, the researchers turned to Google Translate. “It came up with a sentence that is grammatical, and you can interpret it,” said Kondrak, “she made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people. It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense.”

Without historians of ancient Hebrew, Kondrak said that the full meaning of the Voynich manuscript will remain a mystery.


The beautifully illustrated plants that fill up the pages of the Voynich Manuscript have never been accurately identified.


Bringing the puzzle to the people

It may seem far-fetched, but this famous manuscript could become a bestseller.

Siloe, a small publishing house in Spain specializing in handcrafted replicas of ancient manuscripts, in 2016 was granted the exclusive rights to create 898 facsimiles of the Voynich.

“It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time, it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe,” Juan Jose Garcia, the editor of Siloe, told AFP.

No ordinary scan-and-print project, the Voynich replicas will be meticulously crafted to match every “stain, hole, and sewn-up tear in the parchment,” according to the news agency. The publishing house has even created a secret paste and aging process to make the more than 200 pages of the book appear and feel indistinguishable from the real thing. The process is expected to take a full 18 months to complete.

Siloe had reportedly been petitioning the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, which took possession of the Voynich in 1969, to publish a replica for the last 10 years. The library finally acquiesced after both an increase in scholarly interest in the Voynich and quality assurances from experts associated with previous rare manuscript copies completed by Siloe.

“We thought that the facsimile would provide the look and feel of the original for those who were interested,” Raymond Clemens, curator at the Beinecke library, told the AFP. “It also enables libraries and museums to have a copy for instructional purposes and we will use the facsimile ourselves to show the manuscript outside of the library to students or others who might be interested.”


A work of curious art

Besides its indecipherable characters, the manuscript is also crammed with illustrations of astronomical charts, human figures, and plants, the latter of which have never been positively identified as anything found on Earth. These puzzles have led to the manuscript being classified as everything from the work of aliens to the musings of an inter-dimensional Medieval sorcerer.

Whatever the true answer, you don’t have to shell out the expected $8,000 to $9,000 cost for an exact replica. In addition to offering high-res digital scans of the Voynich pages online, Yale is selling hardcover copies for $50 that include accompanying research on the manuscript.

You can also view a digital overview of the 250 pages of the Voynich Manuscript in the video below.

https://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/blogs/publisher-replicate-600-year-old-Voynich-manuscript

by Michelle Z. Donahue

A baby girl who lived some 11,500 years ago survived for just six weeks in the harsh climate of central Alaska, but her brief life is providing a surprising and challenging wealth of information to modern researchers.

Her genome is the oldest-yet complete genetic profile of a New World human. But if that isn’t enough, her genes also reveal the existence of a previously unknown population of people who are related to—but older and genetically distinct from— modern Native Americans.

This new information helps sketch in more details about how, when, and where the ancestors of all Native Americans became a distinct group, and how they may have dispersed into and throughout the New World.

The baby’s DNA showed that she belonged to a population that was genetically separate from other native groups present elsewhere in the New World at the end of the Pleistocene. Ben Potter, the University of Alaska Fairbanks archaeologist who unearthed the remains at the Upward River Sun site in 2013 , named this new group “Ancient Beringians.”

The discovery of the baby’s bones, named Xach’itee’aanenh T’eede Gaay, or Sunrise Child-Girl in a local Athabascan language, was completely unexpected, as were the genetic results, Potter says

Found in 2006 and accessible only by helicopter, the Upward River Sun site is located in the dense boreal forest of central Alaska’s Tanana River Valley. The encampment was buried under feet of sand and silt, an acidic environment that makes the survival of organic artifacts exceedingly rare. Potter previously excavated the cremated remains of a three-year-old child from a hearth pit in the encampment, and it was beneath this first burial that the six-week-old baby and a second, even younger infant were found.

A genomics team in Denmark, including University of Copenhagen geneticist Eske Willerslev, performed the sequencing work on the remains, comparing the child’s genome with the genes of 167 ancient and contemporary populations from around the world. The results appeared today in the journal Nature.

“We didn’t know this population even existed,” Potter says. “Now we know they were here for many thousands of years, and that they were really successful. How did they do it? How did they change? We now have examples of two genetic groups of people who were adapting to this very harsh landscape.”

The genetic analysis points towards a divergence of all ancient Native Americans from a single east Asian source population somewhere between 36,000 to 25,000 years ago—well before humans crossed into Beringia, an area that includes the land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska at the end of the last ice age. That means that somewhere along the way, either in eastern Asia or in Beringia itself, a group of people became isolated from other east Asians for about 10,000 years, long enough to become a unique strain of humanity.

The girl’s genome also shows that the Beringians became genetically distinct from all other Native Americans around 20,000 years ago. But since humans in North America are not reliably documented before 14,600 years ago, how and where these two groups could have been separated long enough to become genetically distinct is still unclear.

The new study posits two new possibilities for how the separation could have happened.

The first is that the two groups became isolated while still in east Asia, and that they crossed the land bridge separately—perhaps at different times, or using different routes

A second theory is that a single group moved out of Asia, then split into Beringians and ancient Native Americans once in Beringia. The Beringians lingered in the west and interior of Alaska, while the ancestors of modern Native Americans continued on south some time around 15,700 years ago.

“It’s less like a tree branching out and more like a delta of streams and rivers that intersect and then move apart,” says Miguel Vilar, lead scientist for National Geographic’s Genographic Project. “Twenty years ago, we thought the peopling of America seemed quite simple, but then it turns out to be more complicated than anyone thought.”

John Hoffecker, who studies the paleoecology of Beringia at the University of Colorado-Boulder, says there is still plenty of room for debate about the geographic locations of the ancestral splits. But the new study fits well with where the thinking has been heading for the last decade, he adds.

“We think there was a great deal more diversity in the original Native American populations than is apparent today, so this is consistent with a lot of other evidence,” Hoffecker says.

However, that same diversity—revealed through research on Native American cranial morphology and tooth structure—creates its own dilemma. How does a relatively small group of New World migrants, barricaded by a challenging climate with no access to fresh genetic material, evolve such a deep bank of differences from their east Asian ancestors? It certainly doesn’t happen over just 15,000 years, Hoffecker insists, referring to the estimated date of divergence of ancient Native Americans from Beringians.

“We’ve been getting these signals of early divergence for decades—the first mitochondrial work in the 1990s from Native Americans were coming up with estimates of 30, 35, even 40,000 years ago,” Hoffecker says. “They were being dismissed by everybody, myself included. Then people began to suspect there were two dates: one for divergence, and one for dispersal, and this study supports that.”

“Knowing about the Beringians really informs us as to how complex the process of human migration and adaptation was,” adds Potter. “It prompts the scientist in all of us to ask better questions, and to be in awe of our capacity as a species to come into such a harsh area and be very successful.”

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/alaska-dna-ancient-beringia-genome/

Egyptian archaeologists have discovered a tomb of a prominent goldsmith dedicated to the god Amun and the mummies of a woman and her two children, the antiquities ministry said on Saturday.

The finds were made in the Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, famed for its temples and burial grounds.

The tomb dated back to Egypt’s 18th dynasty New Kingdom era – around 15th century BC, said Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al Anani on Saturday.

“The work did not finish yet and we’re continuing and working to find more objects and more tombs,” he said.

The site includes a courtyard and niche where a statue of the goldsmith Amenemhat and his wife and one of his sons, as well as two burial shafts, the ministry said in a statement.

The tomb of “Amun’s Goldsmith, Amenemhat” contained a sculpture carved into a recess of him seated beside his wife, the ministry said.

A portrait of their son was painted between them.

A burial shaft in the tomb led to a chamber where the archaeologists discovered mummies, funerary statues and masks, the ministry said.

Another shaft led to a chamber where the team found the mummies of a woman and her two children.

The woman appears to have died at the age of 50 and tests showed she had suffered from a bacterial bone disease, the ministry quoted bone specialist Sherine Ahmed Shawqi as saying.

The team also discovered 150 small funerary statues carved in wood, clay and limestone.

https://www.trtworld.com/mea/egypt-announces-discovery-of-3-500-year-old-pharaonic-tomb-10361

A woman wearing men’s clothing and claiming to talk directly with God wouldn’t seem to be committing capital crimes.

But in the 15th century, she certainly would have been.

These offenses play a part in the legendary history of Joan of Arc, the teenage heroine who led giant armies to fight against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. She was eventually captured, tried for her crimes, and burned at the stake at the age of 19.

But in modern times, would she be convicted of her crimes on the basis of an insanity plea?

According to a jury of about 200 physicians, forensic psychologists, lawyers, judges, and medical students, the future saint would have been acquitted.

Apparently, having visions of other saints is a sign of mental instability, not heresy.

“She was not mentally responsible for what she had done, as in she was delusional,” Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak, a Carolyn Frenkil and Selvin Passen History of Medicine Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Mackowiak founded the Historical Clinicopathological Conference, held this year at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Davidge Hall, the oldest medical facility in the country continuously used for medical education. While similar groups meet to discuss current cases at the university, every year they choose one historic case to dig into.

In 24 years, they’ve covered cases including Beethoven (syphilis), Florence Nightingale (bipolar disorder with psychotic features), Christopher Columbus (HLA-B27-related reactive arthritis), and Charles Darwin (cyclic vomiting syndrome).

At this year’s conference, held last week, they dug into a case memorialized in tempera paint and currently hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

What Disease Shaped ‘Christina’s World?’

In Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting “Christina’s World,” a woman lies in an open field looking toward a house in the distance.

The woman depicted in the painting, Anna Christina Olson, was a friend of Wyeth. She suffered from a mysterious disorder that slowly degraded her ability to walk, so she’d make her way around the grounds by pulling herself along with her hands.

She was later confined to a wheelchair and died in 1968 at the age of 74.

What exactly was the cause of her symptoms?

Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), according to Mayo Clinic neurologist Marc Patterson.

CMT, named after the doctors who discovered it, is a group of inherited disorders that affect the peripheral nerves, causing symptoms that include loss of muscle and fine motor skills. It remains incurable and one of the most common inherited neurological disorders.

To reach his diagnosis, Patterson reviewed not only the painting but also what was available of Olson’s medical records from what little biographical information her nieces wrote about her.

“This was a fascinating case,” Patterson said in a press release. “This painting has long been a favorite of mine, and the question of Christina’s ailment was an intriguing medical mystery. I think her case best fits the profile of this disease.”

Piecing Together Historical Health Records

Besides Patterson and the rest of the conference’s expertise, the symptoms were checked using a super computer located at Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, which confirmed the diagnosis.

It also affirmed the previous year’s case, Oliver Cromwell, the English monarch who died in 1658. His undoing was a combination of malaria and typhoid fever caused by a salmonella infection.

Mackowiak takes pride in selecting the case and keeping it under an air of mystery before each year’s conference. The cases are often given vague titles, yet he says most people figure it out before they convene.

Beethoven was “The Sound That Failed,” and Alexander the Great was “Death of a Deity.”

Who was “The Greatest Tragedy in the History of Music?”

No, not Prince, David Bowie, or even John Lennon. It was Mozart, who died of acute rheumatic fever.

Another part of the mystery is that these historical House M.D.s rarely have full autopsy reports or even a single medical record for their subjects, so there is quite a bit of detective work. That only adds to the fun.

In the case of Booker T. Washington, researchers found his great-grandson, who is a physician and helped find Washington’s great-granddaughter. She gave them access to his medical records.

While syphilis was first suspected as a potential cause of death, a blood test done at Rockefeller Hospital in New York City tested negative.

In 2006, the clinicopathological conference determined the slave-turned-advisor to the president died of nephrosclerosis and hypertensive cardiomyopathy. In other words, the man worked his heart to death.

Other cases had to be decided on what was written in the legends.

In the case of Pericles, dubbed “the first citizen of Athens,” researchers went off of descriptions of what happened during the plague that also claimed his sons and first wife.

“To say we provide shocking new information would be an exaggeration,” Mackowiak said.

Mackowiak provides more information on these cases in his two books, “Post-Mortem: Solving History’s Great Medical Mysteries” and “Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World.”

For him, every case, every conference meeting highlights how although doctors believe what they’re doing right now is correct, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will look back and see how wrong they were.

“There is no perfect knowledge,” Mackowiak said. “You do the best with what you have.”

http://www.healthline.com/health-news/medical-researchers-solve-historic-deaths#6

By

by Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News, Johannesburg

Scientists have discovered a new human-like species in a burial chamber deep in a cave system in South Africa. The discovery of 15 partial skeletons is the largest single discovery of its type in Africa.

The researchers claim that the discovery will change ideas about our human ancestors.

The studies which have been published in the journal Elife also indicate that these individuals were capable of ritualistic behaviour.

The species, which has been named naledi, has been classified in the grouping, or genus, Homo, to which modern humans belong.

The researchers who made the find have not been able to find out how long ago these creatures lived – but the scientist who led the team, Prof Lee Berger, told BBC News that he believed they could be among the first of our kind (genus Homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago.

Like all those working in the field, he is at pains to avoid the term “missing link”. Prof Berger says naledi could be thought of as a “bridge” between more primitive bipedal primates and humans.

“We’d gone in with the idea of recovering one fossil. That turned into multiple fossils. That turned into the discovery of multiple skeletons and multiple individuals.

“And so by the end of that remarkable 21-day experience, we had discovered the largest assemblage of fossil human relatives ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa. That was an extraordinary experience.”

Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum said naledi was “a very important discovery”.

“What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of human-like creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa. Only one line eventually survived to give rise to us,” he told BBC News.

I went to see the bones which are kept in a secure room at Witwatersrand University. The door to the room looks like one that would seal a bank vault. As Prof Berger turned the large lever on the door, he told me that our knowledge of very early humans is based on partial skeletons and the occasional skull.

he haul of 15 partial skeletons includes both males and females of varying ages – from infants to elderly. The discovery is unprecedented in Africa and will shed more light on how the first humans evolved.

“We are going to know everything about this species,” Prof Berger told me as we walked over to the remains of H. naledi.

“We are going to know when its children were weaned, when they were born, how they developed, the speed at which they developed, the difference between males and females at every developmental stage from infancy, to childhood to teens to how they aged and how they died.”

I was astonished to see how well preserved the bones were. The skull, teeth and feet looked as if they belonged to a human child – even though the skeleton was that of an elderly female.
Its hand looked human-like too, up to its fingers which curl around a bit like those of an ape.

Homo naledi is unlike any primitive human found in Africa. It has a tiny brain – about the size of a gorilla’s and a primitive pelvis and shoulders. But it is put into the same genus as humans because of the more progressive shape of its skull, relatively small teeth, characteristic long legs and modern-looking feet.

“I saw something I thought I would never see in my career,” Prof Berger told me.

“It was a moment that 25 years as a paleoanthropologist had not prepared me for.”

One of the most intriguing questions raised by the find is how the remains got there.

I visited the site of the find, the Rising Star cave, an hour’s drive from the university in an area known as the Cradle of Humankind. The cave leads to a narrow underground tunnel through which some of Prof Berger’s team crawled in an expedition funded by the National Geographic Society.

Small women were chosen because the tunnel was so narrow. They crawled through darkness lit only by their head torches on a precarious 20 minute-long journey to find a chamber containing hundreds of bones.

Among them was Marina Elliott. She showed me the narrow entrance to the cave and then described how she felt when she first saw the chamber.

“The first time I went to the excavation site I likened it to the feeling that Howard Carter must have had when he opened Tutankhamen’s tomb – that you are in a very confined space and then it opens up and all of a sudden all you can see are all these wonderful things – it was incredible,” she said.

Ms Elliott and her colleagues believe that they have found a burial chamber. The Homo naledi people appear to have carried individuals deep into the cave system and deposited them in the chamber – possibly over generations.

If that is correct, it suggests naledi was capable of ritual behaviour and possibly symbolic thought – something that until now had only been associated with much later humans within the last 200,000 years.

Prof Berger said: “We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human. Have we been wrong all along about this kind of behaviour that we thought was unique to modern humans?

“Did we inherit that behaviour from deep time and is it something that (the earliest humans) have always been able to do?”

Prof Berger believes that the discovery of a creature that has such a mix of modern and primitive features should make scientists rethink the definition of what it is to be human – so much so that he himself is reluctant to describe naledi as human.

Other researchers working in the field, such as Prof Stringer, believe that naledi should be described as a primitive human. But he agrees that current theories need to be re-evaluated and that we have only just scratched the surface of the rich and complex story of human evolution.

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34192447

The world’s oldest psychiatric institution, the Bethlem Royal Hospital outside London, this week opened a new museum and art gallery charting the evolution in the treatment of mental disorders.

The original hospital was founded in 1247 in what is now central London and the name spawned the English word “bedlam” meaning chaos and madness.

In the 18th century visitors could pay to gawk at the hospital’s patients and, three centuries later, stereotypes about mental illness still abound.

“The museum is to do with challenging the stigma around mental health and one of the main ways you can do that is actually get people to walk onto the site and realise that this is not a frightening, threatening and dark place,” Victoria Northwood, head of the Archives and Museum, told AFP.

The bleak period in the history of mental treatment is addressed but not dwelled upon in the museum.

Iron and leather shackles used until the mid-19th century to restrain patients are displayed behind a wall of mirrors so they cannot be seen directly.

A padded cell is deconstructed and supplemented with audio of a patient describing what is was like to be locked inside.

The exhibition is full of interactive exhibits, including a video where the visitor is challenged to decide whether to commit a young woman, in denial about the dangers of her anorexia, to hospital against her will.

The decision is surprisingly difficult and it shows the complexity in diagnosing ailments linked to the brain, which we still know comparatively little.

“We are just getting across that this is not a black and white issue. It is not very easy. Human beings aren’t very easy,” Northwood said.

Art features strongly throughout the space, starting with the imposing 17th century statues “Raving Madness” and “Melancholy Madness” by Caius Gabriel Cibber, which used to stand at the entrance to the Bethlem hospital when it was in central London.

Also included are paintings by current or former patients, like Dan Duggan’s haunting charcoal “Cipher” series of a man’s elongated face—a testament to the 41-year-old’s inner turmoil.

Duggan, who made several suicide attempts and was detained three times under the mental health act including at Bethlem, said art was an instrumental tool in his recovery.

“A lot of the time you spend in hospital, particularly a psychiatric hospital, is very prescribed.

“When you’re engaged in a creative process, you’re able to be free of all of that for a while and the power is back in your hands to do whatever you want to do,” he said.

Visual artist and dancer Liz Atkin grew up in an alcoholic household. She developed dermatillomania or Compulsive Skin Picking from the age of eight as a way to manage the stress.

“I could have ended things in a very different way,” said Atkin, now aged 38.

Atkin received treatment and works with patients at the anxiety unit of Bethlem, which is now located in spacious grounds about one hour south of London.

She said the new museum and gallery is a unique space to encourage healing.

“Making artwork isn’t a complete cure and I personally don’t think that I’m cured, but I think it provides a very powerful outlet for some of those things that are hard to talk about.”

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-02-world-oldest-psychiatric-hospital-museum.html