NASA book explores how archaeology could contribute to understanding Extra-terrestrial Communication

A new book released by NASA as part of the official NASA History Series examines the contributions that archaeology and anthropology can make to contemporary SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research. The authors draw analogies between deciphering the language and symbology of long-lost civilizations and decoding messages that may arrive from ‘other worldly’ origins.

The new book titled ‘Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication’, edited by Douglas A Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, is a collection of chapters by different authors who explore latest research regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

In the opening introduction, Vakoch sets out how the field of archaeology can contribute to this search: “As we search for analogies to contact at interstellar distances, archaeology provides some intriguing parallels, given that its practitioners – like successful SETI scientists – are charged with reconstructing long-lost civilizations from potentially fragmentary evidence”.

Anthropologist Ben Finney and historian Jerry Bentley draw a comparison between the decoding of ancient scripts, including Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics, and how we may be able to understand and possibly communicate with an extraterrestrial civilization, particularly through the ‘universal language’ of mathematics and astronomy. For example, when scholars began decoding ancient Mayan hieroglyphs, their earliest successes were in recognizing the basic numbering system used by the Maya, as well as their calendar systems, which were based on the visible motions of the Moon and Sun.

“Math and science provided the foundation for communication, just as many SETI scientists have predicted will be the case for interstellar communication,” wrote Vakoch.

Initial understanding of Maya glyphs came through recognition of mathematical and astronomical concepts.

In the book’s last chapter, “Constraints on Message Construction for Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” William H. Edmondson, senior research fellow at the University of Birmingham in England, draws upon another analogy by suggesting that ancient rock art may be an example of the type of symbolic communication that would be used by extraterrestrial civilizations and studying rock art could therefore help us understand possible communication from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

“It is helpful to review some parallels from human existence that pose problems for us today,” wrote Edmondson. “One of these is “rock art,” which consists of patterns or shapes cut into rock many thousands of years ago. Such ancient stone carvings can be found in many countries.”

Edmondson maintains that posing the idea that ancient markings were created by aliens is helpful for reframing the way we go about searching for signals from other worlds – and how we make contact.

“We can say little, if anything, about what these patterns signify, why they were cut into rocks, and who created them,” he wrote. “For all intents and purposes, they might have been created by aliens.”

A replica of an unusual cup-and-ring-marked stone from Dalgarven, North Ayrshire, Scotland. Wiki Commons

However, not all scholars share the same optimism about using knowledge from these fields to understand any possible communication from outer space. Archaeologist and anthropologist Kathyrn Denning, in her article ‘Learning to Read: Interstellar Message Decipherment from Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives’, urges caution when choosing the models we use to understand interstellar communication. Denning points out that while information theory can provide a quantitative measure of the complexity of a communication system, it does not tackle the challenge of determining what the communication means. She further points out the false analogy between breaking a code constructed by other humans, and understanding a message from an extraterrestrial where we cannot assume any shared language.
Nevertheless, Voynach insists that exploring these issues are vital for preparing for a possible future in which contact arrives from extraterrestrial origins:
“These scholars are grappling with some of the enormous challenges that will face humanity of an information-rich signal emanating from another world is detected. By drawing on issues at the core of contemporary archaeology and anthropology, we can be much better prepared for contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, should that day ever come.”
Following a frenzy of media reports claiming that NASA announced ancient rock art is extra-terrestrial, a gross misrepresentation of the book’s message, NASA pulled the book and press release from their site. The book is still available as a free download from here.

Featured image: Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. Credit: Wikpedia

New satellite images reveal rape and pillage of Egyptian landscape

Egypt has long been aware of its problem with looters trying to get their hands on a slice of the riches that lie buried beneath the Sahara sand. But just how severe the problem is, was not fully realised until a series of satellite images revealed the extent of it, shocking government officials and archaeologists alike, according to a new report in National Geographic . Every little dark spot depicted in the featured image represents a place where looters have been digging in the hope of finding treasure, and since the political revolution of 2011, the problem has become much worse.

According to archaeologist Sara Parcak, looters will strip Egypt of most of its archaeological heritage within the next 25 years unless something is done to stop it. Her satellite survey project, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, has examined more than 4,000 archaeological sites in Egypt using Google Earth satellite imagery, and already tens of thousands of looting pits have been identified across the landscape.

Archaeologists survey damage caused by looters at Abu Sir el-Malaq, Egypt. Photo source .

The problem in Egypt has been exacerbated by bigger and bolder steps being taken by treasure hunters, who are now swapping spades and shovels for bulldozers and dynamite. The resulting landscape looks like a minefield (see above). Although Egypt employs about 1,200 guards at archaeological sites, most make only about $40 a week, leaving them tempted by generous bribes. Others may be scared off by armed gangs.

Looter pit at El Hibeh. Photo: Carol Redmount

The burgeoning demand for antiquities in the U.S. is believed to be fuelling the illicit digging in Egypt and Egyptologists are hoping that the U.S. will adopt new rules to empower customs officials to seize looted antiquities.
In 2013 alone, the U.S. imported some ten million dollars’ worth of Egyptian antiquities, according to experts such as Erin Thompson of City University of New York. Egypt is now calling for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose import restrictions on certain categories of archaeological artifacts entering the US. The advisory committee considering the proposal is continuing to discuss the Egyptian request and will soon make a recommendation on the new law to the State Department.

Featured image: Satellite image depicting looting holes around South Dashur, Egypt. Credit: Sarah Parcak

Noah’s Ark to be reconstructed following instructions on ancient Babylonian tablet

Work has begun on a full-scale reproduction of Noah’s Ark according to an ancient manual written on clay tablet dating back 3,700 years. The reconstruction will form the basis of a new television documentary to be aired on Channel 4 in the UK later this year. It will follow attempts to build the ark according to the ancient Babylonian text , which was recently translated.

The ancient tablet was found in the Middle East by Leonard Simmons, who served in the RAF during the 1940s. However, the artefact wasn’t subject to any research until Simmons’s son Douglas took it to the British Museum in 2008. Linguistic expert Dr Irving Finkel, who described the text as “one of the most important human documents ever discovered”, translated the text on the clay tablet, leading to a new interpretation of the Noah’s Ark story.

The tablet described a Mesopotamian story, which became the account in Genesis in the Old Testament, of Noah and the ark that saved every animal species from the flood waters. The text describes God speaking to Atram-Hasis, a Sumerian king who is the Noah figure in earlier versions of the ark story.

He says: “ Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions and save life! Draw out the boat that you will build with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same.”

Remarkably, the tablet is like a detailed manual which provides precise details about its construction and design. The ancient Babylonian text describes the ark as a round 65-metre diameter coracle with walls 6 metre high, spread over two levels. The craft was said to be divided into sections to divide the various animals into their own sections, and was built using ropes and reeds before being smeared with bitumen to make it waterproof. It even provides details on the two kinds of bitumen and the precise amount of rope needed.

The boat is already in the early stages of construction, with traditional boat-builders in India working to specifications found in the ancient Babylonian tablet.

This is not the first time a full-size ark has been constructed; in 2012 Dutch carpenter Johan Huibers opened to the public his 460ft-long reproduction of Noah’s Ark . However, like the art constructed by Huibers, experts have always assumed that the ark was an ocean-going boat with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves, but according to the Babylonian tablet, one of the key features was that the ark was a round, disc-shaped vessel.

Despite translating the 3,700-year-old instructions on exactly how to construct the ark, Finkel doesn’t believe that it was ever built. For a start there is no reference to how collecting, housing, watering, feeding and caring for hundreds of animals aboard a wooden ship was achieved. There is also no clue as to how the animals managed to travel or where they were going. He believes the tale was likely passed on to the Jews during their exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. And he doesn’t think the tablet provides evidence the ark described in the Bible existed. He said it’s more likely that a devastating real flood made its way into folk memory, and has remained there ever since. Nevertheless, others believe the detailed building instructions found in the ancient tablet are proof that the story of the ark really is true.

Featured Image: Construction begins an Ark to be built to specifications given in a pre-Biblical tablet
Photo: Courtesy of Blink Films and Channel 4.

Chimps have superhuman skills

At the laboratory of Tetsuro Matsuzawa in Boston tests have been conducted on chimpanzees concluding in surprise that they could perform mental tasks that even for the best humans they would have been very difficult or even impossible. However the chimpanzee named Ayumu could very easily conduct those tasks.

It was shown that they have incredible short term photographic memory. Matsuzawa suggests that this serves chimpanzees in the wild to be able to make fast decisions, since it is a matter of life or death.

So the question is if we are indeed ancestors of chimpanzees how is it possible for us not to have those abilities, since natural selection is supposed to give the best features to the next generation? Unless we are not direct descendants of the chimpanzees but rather a different ‘version’. Food for thought…

You can read more here.

300-Million Mechanical Part Found in Russian Coal

The Earth was so young 300 million years ago, the first land animals had yet to evolve into dinosaurs, most scientists believe.

If that’s the case, how do you explain the discovery in Russia of a piece of a gear shift — a common machine part — embedded into a hunk of 300-million-year-old coal. Has this artifact been correctly identified? And if so, who could have made this thing? And for what purpose?

Read full article here.