The 10,000 Year Explosion; How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

As frequent readers may know, I have a penchant for evolutionary biology, I am as well read as I am conversant on the topic.  I picked this book up on a whim, without a knowledge of the author(s), and I have been disappointed.  This is not among my favourite books, both in general and specifically relating to human evolution. It’s written well, though it is heavy on data and light on conclusions.

I appreciate the idea they tried to get across, that evolution has not left mankind behind, which is unexpectedly controversial, but yet seems to be common sense.

I would hesitate to recommend this to a friend, and probably would steer friends with less familiarity on this topic toward other titles.  All in all, I don’t necessarily agree with their conclusion, and I bet I’m not alone.  I give it a two out of five.

So The Yeti Is A Polar Bear? I’m Unconvinced

In the span of the last year there have been many ups and downs in the field of Bigfoot research.  New films, videos and pictures have been presented, new foot impressions and even some hand impressions have been cast, some showing more promise than others of course.  Some new hoaxes have been revealed and some older hoaxes have finally been exposed.

And finally, DNA sequencing has made its mark on the Sasquatch question, though unfortunately that mark was more like graffiti than anything else – I’m referring to Ketchum, of course.  As of Thursday, October 17th though, the potential for genomic science to blast open the gates on the enigmatic Bigfoot has again been highlighted, though while many are claiming that the mystery is solved, some of us, myself included, are less sure.

In a series of press appearances, Professor of Human Genetics at The University of Oxford and Fellow of Wolfson College (UK), Dr. Bryan Sykes has begun talking about what some are calling ‘ground breaking conclusions’ in his unpublished paper on the genetic analysis of two separate samples of what are reported to be Yeti hairs.

Image courtesy AP Media

Now that’s kind of a mouthful, and there is much to talk about.  The news about his discovery is being talked about in the usual places; Bigfoot forums and Facebook pages, Twitter, various paranormal websites, as well as several news outlets, including Huffington Post and MSNBC.  Sykes study apparently reveals that the infamous Yeti is in fact a previously believed to be extinct Snow Bear indigenous to the Himalayas.

About a year ago, Professor Sykes put out a call across the Bigfoot/Yeti research community, asking for skin, hair and other biological samples to be submitted for genetic evaluation.  His call was answered and among the samples he received, were hairs thought to belong to the elusive Yeti found in and around the Himalayan Mountain Range.  The first was a 40 year old sample submitted by a French mountaineer.  This hair sample was allegedly taken from the corpse of a Yeti in the Western Himalayas near the Indian region of Ladakh.  The other relevant sample was a hair found a decade ago, near Bhutan, some 800 miles to the east.

Both hair samples, when sequenced and compared to a database of animal genomes, proved to be a match to a creature long thought extinct.  The samples, which are only identified as belonging to a Yeti by the people local to their discoveries, shared a genetic fingerprint with a 40,000 year old polar bear jaw bone found in the Norwegian Arctic.

Questions about whether the match between these samples and the polar bear suggest that the original species has survived in the mountains or if this represents a hybrid species of bear distantly related to the original species and currently known bear species, provides much to think about.  And the fact that the samples were found so far apart is suggestive of there being a breeding population of these animals across a large range, rather than there being a few examples of a small population now extinct.

It seems that Sykes revelations are difficult to refute, and I admit that the science is probably solid.  There is no logical objection to the assertion that these particular hair samples are that of an unknown or forgotten species of bear.  What I question however, is whether those samples are indicative of an answer to the overall Yeti issue.

Dr. Bryan Sykes, courtesy of Britain’s Channel 4 – Bigfoot Files

All are speaking as though Sykes study is the be-all-and-end-all of Yeti DNA research, but the truth is, the paper has yet to be published.  In this regard the situation very much mirrors the Ketchum debacle, but there are some key differences.  Sykes investigation is set to be discussed in a three-part TV documentary titled Bigfoot Files, beginning this Sunday, but the necessary peer-review has not taken place.

I’m not necessarily calling his conclusions suspect, as I neither possess the expertise to do so, nor are they particularly surprising (in contrast to Ketchum’s).  Whether those samples do actually conform to the genetic profile of this particular polar bear species is almost beside the point, but we should be consistent in our criticism of the advancement of fact based not on peer-review but on sensationalist news coverage.

In reality, this study sheds little light on the Bigfoot/Sasquatch/Yeti phenomenon, and while Sykes warns that his conclusions are likely to be felt as a blow to the egos of the Bigfoot community, I’d take this opportunity to point out that his conclusions relate only to those samples investigated.  We are, as was he, forced to accept that the samples he received were in fact those of two separate Yetis, for which there is no evidence beyond anecdotal and faded testimony.  Without having had an opportunity to examine his paper, one cannot conclude that he has in fact been working with Yeti DNA.  And I’m not entirely certain the details of his paper can adequately answer that question either.

It’s interesting, for sure, that he’s found a genetic link between these samples and the polar bear, and one can easily see how such an animal could be confused for a bipedal anthropoid, especially given the environmental conditions associated to many Yeti sightings.  Polar bears are known to stand and walk upright on occasion, their fur is, ostensibly, similar in colour and texture to that reported in Yetis and their vocalizations could be said to be similar as well.  But this is all speculative supposition that is, quite honestly, unrelated to Sykes investigation.

Sykes’ insight and commentary are welcomed into the community of Bigfooters and I look forward to getting a closer look at his work, both in his paper – which has been submitted for publication, though where I do not know – and in his coming book The Yeti Enigma: A DNA Detective Story, which is set to be released next spring.  Though I remain cautious about embracing the furor this story seems to be generating.

Dream A Little Dream of Me: Lucid Dreaming and its Techniques

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.



“The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to that primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was conscious ego and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach.”

CARL JUNG, The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man


“Dreams make all men authors.”



“I have dreamed a dream, but now that dream is gone from me.”

King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel II (Hebrew Bible)

We humans have been obsessed with the dream world since, it seems, the beginning of time.  The above quotes from all manner of literature illustrate that not only are we a culture built on dreams, but that the entire notion of living an alternate life in a fantastical world of magic and latent psychology is romanticized and existential of our collective memory.

4225_5We do it every night, all of us.  Animals do it too.  Though they may have a better time remembering them than we do.  The common statistic given is that 95% of all dreams are not remembered, and when you consider that the average person will spend upwards of six years of their lifespan in dreamland, that means that all that fervor is based on only 5% of that world.

Our interest in dreams has spawned whole cannons of philosophical and scientific work.  Some of the greatest minds in psycho-philosophy have been virtually obsessed with the mechanics of it, the meaning behind it and the potential it holds for explaining the fundamentals of the human psyche.  From that effort has come the current scientific era of dream study, called oneirology, which is primarily concerned with understanding how dreams work physiologically, rather than dream analysis, which concerns itself with interpreting meaning behind the imagery and the psychology of dreams.

There are no less than a dozen competing scientific theories on dreams, covering everything from neurobiology to evolutionary biology, but one area of dream study that continues to elude adequate explanation is Lucid Dreaming.

Hypnos and Thanatos, Sleep and His Half-Brother Death, an 1874 painting by John William Waterhouse

Hypnos and Thanatos, Sleep and His Half-Brother Death, an 1874 painting by John William Waterhouse

You may already be familiar with the concept, which is that the dreamer, through whatever means, becomes aware that they are dreaming within the dream.  That’s really all there is to it, but there are details and variations that need to be explained.

It’s not really as simple as said above, but the main aspect of the phenomenon is that the dreamer be aware of the dream.  Once that is achieved the dreamer might then either wake up, voluntarily or not, or begin to exert some level of control over the progress of the dream from that point.  It’s not necessary that they start making sweeping changes to the landscape of performing aerobatic feats that would make circus performers green with envy, some would simply continue to observe as things play out naturally, so to speak, while understanding that the events were not real.  Most who think about lucid dreaming do aspire to a high degree of manipulation and freedom in the dream-state, and much of the current research has focused on that goal.

There are two types of lucid dream, or rather, two methods of induction.  DILD or dream-induced lucid dreaming, and WILD or wake-initiated lucid dreaming.  The difference is simply that DILD occurs when the dreamer initiates lucidity during the dream, WILD is a state of lucid dreaming initiated from a waking state.

Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's Dream

Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream

The earliest known mention of lucid dreaming in a scientific writing is believed to be French sinologist and oneirologist Hervey de Saint-Denys’ 1867 Les rêves et les moyens de les diriger; observations pratiques (Translation: Dreams and the Ways to Direct Them: Practical Observations), wherein he coined the term lucid dreaming or le rêve lucide (there is some argument over this point, as some claim that Dutch author and psychiatrist Frederick van Eeden did so in 1913[1]).  Denys was one of the earliest oneirologists and as a result of his own fascination with dreams, he undertook to document his dreams every night from the age of 13 years.  He was the first to propose methods for learning how to dream lucidly or to take control of one’s own dreams.

Likely people have being doing this for many centuries, or perhaps thousands of years on an accidental basis, though undoubtedly some had figured out ways to induce it in themselves voluntarily.  The ancient concept of Yoga nidra is closely related to lucid dreaming and is the pursuit of honing the ability to remain conscious of one’s external environment during meditation.  Yoga nidra techniques are often touted as methods of inducing lucid dreaming, which differs only slightly in practise.  The concept is also known in early Buddhist teachings and Vedic traditions.  These days there are many books and even classes one can take to learn these methods and embark on their own self-directed study of dreams.

There are some basic techniques one can undertake to begin the process:

  • Active visualizations while awake: spending time actively thinking about dreams that you remember, visualising the imagery and exploring the dream consciously, while occasional and deliberately asking one’s self “am I dreaming”, is apparently a good method for preparing one’s mind for the experience of becoming aware within the dream-state.  Ostensibly, the idea is that such visualizations allow you to practise the act of taking control over the dream.
  • Dream Journaling:  in support of the above, dream journaling – which is to document your dreams every morning, as soon after waking as possible – will foster or make easier the task of visualizing past dreams in order to practise becoming aware.
  • Maintain a consistent and healthy sleep schedule: obviously, sleeping regularly is of paramount importance to mastering lucid dreaming.  In addition, since dreams most readily happen during the REM sleep cycle, it’s important to maintain a consistent schedule in order to ensure that you’re able to reach REM sleep consistently around the same time of night.

There are also some technological toys that can aid in achieving a lucid state while dreaming.  So-called brainwave generators or brainwave entrainers, which manipulate brain activity through periodic stimulus, whether aural or electromagnetic, are said to be effective at assisting lucid dreaming.  There are also several smartphone apps that can assist with documenting/analysing sleep patterns and facilitating the MILD and WBTB methods by automating the wake-up process.

Beyond the above, there are more complicated techniques and schools of thought, such as Stephen LaBerge’s mnemonic induction technique (known as MILD).[2]  Which is essentially deliberately waking yourself from a dream-state by alarm clock, then focusing on the dream you were having, and then attempting to fall asleep again to re-enter the same dream while retaining an element of control over it.

There’s also the WBTB (or wake back to bed) technique, which is sometimes touted as one of the more successful options.  It’s essentially the same as MILD, except you’re directed to focus specifically on lucidity or control over dreaming (whatever dream you focus on is unimportant), and then again falling asleep with remaining in control at the forefront of your consciousness.

"The Knight's Dream", 1655, by Antonio de Pereda

“The Knight’s Dream”, 1655, by Antonio de Pereda

Beyond that, general meditation, mindfulness and an awareness of your own emotional state and psyche are given as important parts of the process, and a mastery of these things will bring you to a point, mentally, where you are more open to the end result.

It should be noted that skeptics of some renown find the entire concept of lucid dreaming to be simply ridiculous.  Some, such as philosopher Norman Malcolm suggest that the element of control in the dream is an illusion.  Famously quoted as:

“I dreamt that I realised I was dreaming, dreamt that I was affecting the course of my dream, and then dreamt that I woke myself up by telling myself to wake up.”

The idea being that whatever control one feels they have in a dream, the dream remains only a dream.

Other skeptics claim that the anecdotal nature of all reports of lucid dreaming mean that they can’t be taken as truth; that the dreamer is either wrong, deluded or lying.

Hollow as this criticism might seem, there is some merit to it, but this should hardly stop anyone from trying and/or studying the concept.

“We are asleep.  Our life is a dream.  But we wake up, sometimes, just enough to know that we are dreaming.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

[1] Frederik van Eeden (1913). “A study of Dreams”. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research

[2] LaBerge, Stephen (2004). Lucid Dreaming: A Concise Guide to Awakening in Your Dreams and in Your LifeISBN 1-59179-150-2

Loitering at the Gate to Eternity: Reviewed

Louisa Oakley Green is a talented writer.  This much I’ll tell you up front.  If you’ve read any of my older work, you’re likely well aware that I have little time for those who would call themselves psychic. This isn’t because I don’t believe it to be possible; I do.  I just have little faith in the verity of those people who would advertise these abilities for personal gain (which is an unfortunate thing for those with genuine gifts, but as they say, it is what it is).

Loitering at the Gate to Eternity: Memoirs of a Psychic Bystanderoffers no such conflict though.  This book is essentially a collection of anecdotal recollections of Green’s husband and his family.  In broad strokes, it tells the story of how her husband, Stephen, and his family seem to have a propensity for psychic and mediumistic talents.  Looking more closely though, one finds this book to be an examination of nearly every form of PSI or ESP that is known, all from the perspective of, not one who has experienced the gifts, but of one who has witnessed the phenomenon from the sidelines.  This perspective is familiar to me in my personal life, and perhaps this contributed to my appraisal of Green’s work.

The subtitle, Memoirs of a Psychic Bystander, is poignant, and becomes a theme throughout the book, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the romance of the stories.  Green expertly illustrates the particulars of each memory as told to her by any number of family members and friends of the family who have either witnessed the phenomenon, like her, or whom possess what seems to be a hereditary propensity for sensitivity.  Beyond that though, she skillfully captures the essence of their experiences and lets the reader live it right alongside her.

Green has admitted to me privately, that she was unsure how I would receive this book, because I have a reputation for approaching such subjects from a pointedly skeptical position.  I do admit that some of what is relayed in Loitering at the Gate to Eternity rubbed me the wrong way, but this is not because Green is wrong, or because I deny that the events are true.  It’s entirely because I require evidence that is not and could never be available.  There are times, it seems, that Green is resigned to the fact that those of us without such gifts will never know the truth of it, but it’s also easy to see that her mind is open and that she has a great love of her husband and her extended family, and of their history.

This book would likely be a turn off for the staunch skeptic, but for those with an open mind, and/or those who enjoy folksy biopic literature, Loitering at the Gate to Eternity is a good choice.

Loitering at the Gate to Eternity: Memoirs of a Psychic Bystander, by Louisa Oakley Green is available for purchase through Amazon in both paperback and electronic format..

Louisa Oakley Green is a guest author on Paranormal People, her ongoing archive can be found here.

Was Oliver the Humanzee a Missing Link in our Evolution?

There’s a lot of confusion these days regarding the concept of evolution.  In general terms it’s a fairly simple process, but the details can be a little harder to grasp.  There are elements of the concept that are almost infamous for their wide misrepresentation by certain segments of society.  One of those is the idea of a transitional species.

That terms refers to individual species that represent the evolutionary path from an older one to a newer one.  The confusion about this idea is embodied by the infamous missing link argument.  That argument originates with ancient Greece and the great chain of life concept, which extended into modern Neoplatonism.  Later adopted by the deist school of thought regarding the origins of life, it details a hierarchical structure to all life as decreed by God.  The progression is given as starting with God and proceeding down through angels, demons (fallen/renegade angels), stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, men, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals.  The missing link is therefore any species we would expect to see bridging any gap between any one of those categories, but which is not represented in the record.

This mindset, though pagan in origin, has dominated religious thought for centuries, and with the monumental breakthrough that was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the primacy of the idea began to break up.  The missing link idea is now one of the most oft-leveled arguments against the validity of the Theory of Evolution.

Popular culture has exploited this confusion for its own purposes many times.  Virtually every monstrosity that has graced the silver screen has been an example of the missing link in one form or another (at least those monsters that originated on Earth).  King Kong, the Planet of the Apes, even Paramount Pictures’ Monsters vs. Aliens with their namesake character, the Missing Link, have cashed in on the idea for much gain.  And who could leave Bigfoot or Sasquatch out of this discussion?  The popularity of the missing link idea seems to have accelerated a general misunderstanding of the process of evolution and there have been a few real life examples of creatures that were thought to be missing links in our evolutionary past.

Archaeopteryx fossil

Archaeopteryx, Australopithecus afarensis, and the tiktaalik are famous examples of purported missing links in the fossil record.  In each case it’s been argued that the fossil showed transitional characteristics between a parent species and a child species, though each has been debunked, so to speak.

A lesser known and far more recent example of a purported transitional species, personified in a living creature, was Oliver the Humanzee.  As his name might suggest, Oliver was a chimpanzee.  He was found and taken from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960 by primate trainers Frank and Janet Berger.  The Berger’s became interested in Oliver, then approximately two years old, because his behaviour and appearance suggested to them that he was a different species of primate than his peers, one much closer to humans.  Oliver’s face was flatter than other chimpanzees and has human-looking characteristics, and he almost exclusively walked upright.  It was said that he preferred the company of humans over other primates and mimicked human behaviour whenever possible.

Oliver lived with the Berger’s for the next 16 years, when in 1977 he was handed over to a small theme park in Buena Park, California.  It seems that Oliver had taken a romantic interest in Mrs. Berger and had become a danger to her after several attempts to mate with her.  The next 21 years of his life had Oliver being showcased as an oddity of the natural world and used as a test subject for scientific and cosmetic research, until he was retired, so to speak, with the primate sanctuary Primarily Primates in Texas in 1998.  At that point he was largely blind and terribly arthritic, but conservationists and rehabilitators provided him with a comfortable existence until his death in 2012.

As mentioned, Oliver was, for a period of more than 20 years, considered to be a living example of a transitional species or missing link between apes and humans.  Many people speculated that he was the first in a line of primates to evolve beyond being a mere animal and could have been the progenitor of an entirely new species of proto-human.

There are many problems with this idea though, not the least of which is the fact that all species are transitional, so the term is functionally meaningless.  When you look at the fossil record for any particular species, it is impossible to determine where along that spectrum of evolution a parent species stopped being what they were and began being what the child species ended up being.  The child of a chimpanzee is always going to be a chimpanzee, except when you look at several hundred or thousand generations.  Then you can see a slow progression from the parent species to the child species, but no one example from the progression can be singled out as a distinct species among its neighbours in the line.

Another problem is that, even if Oliver represented a new species of chimpanzee, what his genetic line would ultimately evolve into would not necessarily or even conceivably be anything like a human, beyond superficial similarities.  After all, we do share a common ancestry with all primates, but we could no more spawn a new type of monkey than could a baboon spawn a lemur.  It just doesn’t work that way.

The argument was settled in 1996 by a geneticist from the University of Chicago, who revealed that Oliver had 48 chromosomes, not 46 like humans, which is consistent with all other chimpanzees.  Further study revealed that his facial features were in line with the standard range of variability shown in the Common Chimpanzee, and that his behaviour and habit of walking upright was an aberration brought about because of his exposure to such behaviour in his early life and his lack of chimpanzee companionship throughout his life.

One of the most disturbing things about Oliver’s story, is the fact that from 1989 when he was acquired by the Buckshire Corporation – who were responsible for some of the worst mistreatment and inhumane living conditions for animal testing – until his true taxonomy was determined in 1996, it was a widely held belief that he represented a new and distinct evolutionary jump from a wild animal to a more civilized proto-human, yet he was still treated as a side show fixture and a commodity to be exploited.  It would be nice to think that humanity has progressed since that point, and that we would treat our companions on this planet with more respect than that, but such ideological thinking is not supported by reality.

Oliver’s story is a sad one, he was singled out for being different and held captive for his entire life.  He suffered horrible tortures at the hands of scientists (as much as a person researching new eye make-up formulations can be called a scientist) and ultimately died never knowing what it meant to be a chimpanzee.  His fate is not unique among his kind, but that makes it no less tragic.  He was not a missing link in our evolutionary history, nor his own.  He was the product of a biological system that is known for producing oddities and aberrations, but one which we humans seem to have only a rudimentary understanding of thus far.  Our pursuit of knowledge should never come at the expense of another living creature.

Has the Voynich Manuscript Mystery Been Solved?

One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog is also one of the earliest.  It’s about the famed and mysterious Voynich Manuscript.  You may remember it, but even if you don’t, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve heard of this cryptic book from times past.

Thus far, the Voynich Manuscript has defied all attempts to decode it, despite the efforts of many learned and skillful code breakers, linguists, and scholars.  Even the American NSA took a shot at it, and failed.

Brought to the public eye by Polish-American rare books dealer Wilfred M. Voynich in 1912.  It was said that he acquired it from Jesuit Priests from Italy, though this story has been questioned for its veracity.  Some claim that it’s an elaborate hoax, perhaps perpetrated by Voynich himself, while others suggest Voynich got swindled by a clever merchant, who manufactured the book as an oddity in search of a buyer.  In spite of this doubt about its true origins, most who have endeavoured to crack the manuscript’s secrets have begun from the position of assuming it has its origins in Europe.  As it turns out though, this assumption has been the main reason no one has been able to decipher it.

Published January 20, 2014 in the peer-reviewed journal HerbalGram, the American Botanical Council put forward a new theory that turns the whole story on its ear.

The authors of the paper, Arthur O. Tucker PhD. – botanist and emeritus professor at the Delaware State University – and Rexford H. Talbert – a retired US DOD and NASA information technologist – apparently took a different approach to the analysis, which led them to the other side of the planet.  Instead of assuming the books origins lie in Europe, they discarded all previous assertions about the book and started anew, beginning with the many illustrations contained therein.

Most of the images in the Voynich Manuscript appear to be botanical in nature, with a few being geometric oddities and others being representations of humans and other animals in various poses and scenes.

Tucker and Talbert compared the botanical illustrations to known plant species, which had been done before, but not as thoroughly.  Instead of limiting their comparisons to plant species found in Europe, they expanded the search to all known plant species, and wouldn’t you know it, they found a few matches.  Surprisingly though, these plants aren’t from Italy or anywhere else in Europe, they’re from Mexico.

Comparing the illustrations to the world’s geographic plant distribution at the time of the book’s first reported appearance (1576-1612), they found significant similarity between some of the images and the soap plant depicted in the 1552 Codex Cruz-Badianus of Mexico.  From that discovery, they were able, eventually, to identify 37 plants, 6 animals, and 1 mineral from the pages of the manuscript.

This alone is a monumental breakthrough in the story of the Voynich Manuscript, but it doesn’t end there.

“A search of the surviving codices and manuscripts from Nueva España in the 16th century reveals the calligraphy of the Voynich Ms. to be similar to the Codex Osuna (1563-1566, Mexico City). Loan-words for the plant and animal names have been identified from Classical Nahuatl, Spanish, Taino, and Mixtec”[1]

These references to Pre-Spanish Conquest languages are exciting, and the prospect of decoding the entire manuscript is tantalizing, but a problem still exists.  With the obvious exception of Spanish, most of these are considered dead languages and there are only a handful of people in the world who study them, let alone whom are capable of deciphering a text containing some 35,000 words.

What does this mean for the mystery of the book though?

The Voynich Manuscript’s enigmatic past has been a cornerstone of the story and a big reason it’s become so popular among the Fortean crowd, not to mention scholarly circles.  That past seems to have been shattered by this discovery, but it’s not all bad.

While it seems clear that Wilfred Voynich wasn’t telling truths in his assertions about the book, whether by his own doing or by virtue of his own gullibility, the language contained in the book has, until now, been undecipherable.  Its value has been only as an exercise in sleuthing and translation.  Now though, the book holds the potential to unlock a previously little-known period of New World history.  A history that has been infamous for hiding its secrets away for centuries.  It could hold the key to dead and dying languages, botanical mysteries, and even anthropological issues that have long defied explanation.

Due to the fact that the apparent language of the manuscript is a dead one, in that it’s no longer spoken or written by anyone, most of the books secrets remain locked away in its pages.  This discovery is, however, the first breakthrough in this mystery since it made its debut in 1912.

“”Dr. Arthur Tucker has made a breakthrough in the interpretation of the Voynich Manuscript,” stated Jules Janick, PhD, James Troop Distinguished Professor in Horticulture at Purdue University. “He has demonstrated to my satisfaction that it contains images based on Mexican flora and fauna. Clearly horticultural information has provided a smoking gun. The education of the Aztec elite by various Spanish priests in ‘colleges’ in the 16th century provides a plausible narrative for the creation of this manuscript.”[2]

Whatever happens from this point on, the Voynich Manuscript is now redefining its own past and revealing a world unimagined.

[1] Arthur O. Tucker and Rexford H. Talbert. A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript. HerbalGram 2013; American Botanical Council

[2] American Botanical Council Publishes Revolutionary Analysis Unlocking Mysteries of 500-Year-Old Manuscript. Digital Journal press release:

Death Explored: The Hanging Coffins of Sagada

Mankind has had a long-standing obsession with death.  We have philosophised over its implications and the possibilities brought about through its transition.  Whole canons of literature have been written, expounding on its beauty, its finality and its mystery.  All of our religions are founded on the idea that something exists after death and they each prescribe the sometimes very elaborate and ritualistic methods we use the world over for the treatment of the deceased.

Archaeologists and historians assert that the custom of burying our dead is the oldest religious rite in our history.  We’ve been committing the remains of our loved ones to the Earth for at least the last 100,000 years, and probably quite a bit longer.  In fact, the habit of burying the dead is considered a primary indicator for measuring the development of primitive populations.  Though we aren’t alone in this habit, both chimpanzees and elephants are known to bury or cover their fallen companions, though none do so with such pomp and circumstance as we.

The earliest evidence of ritual interment was found in a cave called Es Skhul in Israel, on the slopes of Mount Carmel.  Discovered somewhere between 1929 and 1932, the find at Skhul proved fruitful in anthropological terms, bearing 10 full human skeletons – seven adults and three children.  The bones were covered in a red ochre and were accompanied by a variety of grave goods, from specific animal bones, like a boar’s mandible, to marine seashells.  The remains and artefacts were dated to between 81,000 to 120,000 years old, and further study revealed that the skeletons were of a people who were the first to have the anatomical tools necessary for speech.

The Skhul remains, as well as the Qafzeh remains found in a cave in lower Galilee, which were found around the same time and were dated to approximately 92,000 years, are strong evidence that ritual burial became a feature of the early spiritual life of our ancestors over a period of decades and even centuries before 100,000 years ago.

Since then, we’ve complicated and serialised the process of dying.  We’ve built monuments to commemorate it and churches to celebrate it.  Today in America, death is a $15 billion industry, not including gravestones and monuments.  Of the over two-and-a-half million people who die in the United States annually, a number that rises every year, more than half of them end up in a coffin or casket that ultimately gets buried in a cemetery plot.  The rest are either cremated (and sometimes also buried) or are used for scientific or educational purposes.

The same isn’t necessarily true for the rest of the world though.  While every human culture on Earth holds to some type of after-death ritual, such as burial or cremation, not all dead bodies end up six feet under.

Notwithstanding the various other methods of disposing of the dead, such as burial at sea and even pure neglect, some cultures have taken to stringing their dead up and hanging them from the side of mountains.

Enter the Mysterious Hanging Coffins of Sagada.

Sagada is a region in the Mountain Province of the Philippines, and in this area, as well as parts of Indonesia and China, local peoples have for centuries been hanging their deceased loved ones in ornate coffins from the mountain cliff sides.  This is a tradition that originates with the ancient Bo people of southern China, and is still practised today.

The coffins are traditionally carved out of a single log or piece of wood, often by the deceased during their lifetime.  They are decorated ornately and painted, often in bright colours, and ultimately hung off of cliff faces, or in cave openings.  Sometimes they simply sit on rock outcrops or are suspended by beams.  Families have plots of rock face with a line of ancestors hung one above the other, though not everyone qualifies for this special type of burial.  Depending on the region, these special burials were reserved for tribal elders or persons of spiritual significance, and others were required to have both children and grandchildren, as burial in this manner was/is thought to be of spiritual benefit to the younger generations.

It’s thought that this tradition may have begun as a way to reduce the risk of predation by animals and is a product of the terrain.  Some of the coffins that can be seen on the cliffs at Echo Valley in Sagada are centuries old.

The funeral rites involve elaborate processions, often with the family carrying the corpse to the coffin at the hanging site.  In these cultures, bodily fluids from the deceased were considered to be sacred and to contain the talent and luck of the deceased.  If the procession carrying the corpse came into contact with such fluids, it’s thought to be a good omen.

The deceased would often be dressed in family colours and would be interred with spiritual belongings, and would traditionally be forced into a fetal position before the coffin was sealed.  The dress and position, combined with the hanging of the coffin was believed to bring the deceased closer to heaven and offer a good vantage point from which to watch over their survivors.

The hanging coffins of Southeast Asia are a sight to behold, as is evidenced by the pictures, but it’s said that those who view these vertical graveyards in person are forever changed by the experience.  From the perspective of Western society, these traditions may seem odd or even backward, but like any funerary ritual, they are deeply spiritual and engender powerful emotions for those involved.  Our tradition of burying death under our feet could be said to create an out-of-sight-out-of-mind type of attitude toward our departed loved ones, but  no matter what your personal leanings, there’s clearly no right or wrong way to say goodbye to those who have moved on to whatever awaits us all.

Ghost Ships: Tall Tales or Salt of the Earth?

The MV Lyubov Orlova

Did you read, a couple weeks ago, about the MV Lyubov Orlova?  You probably did, or at least you saw the headlines about it.  You remember…the bio-hazardous ghost ship loaded with cannibalistic rats that’s headed, adrift, toward the UK?

Experts aren’t, or weren’t sure exactly where Lyubov Orlova is, in fact they aren’t even totally sure it’s still afloat.  It left port at St. John’s Newfoundland in 2012 under tow, en-route to the Dominican Republic for scrap/salvage, after it was seized by a Canadian charter company in 2010 in consideration of debts owed by the ships Yugoslavian owners.

The 38 year old cruise vessel broke free of its tow during a storm and has been adrift somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean ever since.  The call to alarm by British mariners isn’t really based on solid information though, since most believe the ship sank long ago.  Some of its lifeboat emergency beacons have activated, indicating that they came into contact with water (as they’re designed to do), which would suggest that it did indeed capsize, but some are yet to be activated, which gives some people cause to believe it may still be headed to the Devon coast of Britain.

An 1861 painting of The Amazon, which was later renamed The Mary Celeste

Disease ridden and filled with cannibal rats, the MV Lyubov Orlova is a decent representative of the long maritime tradition of ghost ship stories.  You may be familiar with some of the more famous names in this tradition, such as the Flying Dutchman of ancient maritime folk lore – which was adapted by the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise and attributed to the fictional Captain Davey Jones – and perhaps the Mary Celeste, a merchant brigantine found abandoned and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean in December of 1872.  The experienced crew of the Mary Celeste was never found, and there was no apparent reason for them to have abandoned what was still a seaworthy vessel, with six months’ worth of food and supplies still on board.

Among that fine seafarer’s tradition there are some names that, though they may be little known, deserve to have their story told.

The S.S. Ourang Medan, a Dutch cargo vessel used to run goods in and around the Indonesian islands, is one of those stories.  The Ourang Medan, which apparently means ‘Man of Medan’ in the Malay language, whereas Medan is the name of the largest city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is the subject of one of the weirdest ghost ship stories going.

An artists depiction of the mythical Flying Dutchman

In February 1948, it was reported that several ships in the area of the South Atlantic received a radio distress call from an unidentified radio operator apparently aboard the Ourang Medan.  The mayday included a simple Morse code message which read:

“All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge.  Possibly whole crew dead.  I die.”

Having had their day ruined by receipt of that creepy message, a number of ships began searching for vessels in distress, including the American vessels the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star.  It was the crew of the Silver Star who eventually found the Ourang Medan adrift near the Strait of Malacca.  Upon boarding her in a valiant rescue attempt, the Silver Star crew were horrified to find corpses littering the ship, most in terrifying death poses, including one dog with a snarl forever frozen on its face.

Soon after boarding, however, a mysterious fire broke out and forced the investigating crew off of the boat.  Once safely back aboard their own ship, the crew then watched as the Ourang Medan burst into flames, exploded and eventually sank to the bottom of the South Atlantic Ocean.

No one knows what happened.  No one knows what they were carrying, or if they encountered marauders or mutiny, but it seems clear that something strange happened on the decks of that ship.

Several theories have been put forward.  Among them are warnings about transporting dangerous goods and the dangers of cabin fever at sea.  Some people suggest that a situation such as that depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining may have led to the crew’s demise.

The leading theories at this time are that the Ourang Medan was carrying, or perhaps smuggling, war-time supplies such as nerve gas agents or possibly a combination of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerine.  It’s thought that seawater could have leaked into the cargo hold and interacted with these chemicals, releasing poison gas and eventually causing an explosion.

Others suggest that the old ship could have experienced engine trouble, which released carbon monoxide, causing the crew to asphyxiate and ultimately leading to an engine fire.

These kinds of common sense, real-world explanations may work to explain the situation, but Fortean investigators have some more interesting theories, as you might imagine.

Morris K. Jessup wrote in his book The Case for the UFO (Citadel 1955), that the crew of the Ourang Medan were attacked by alien forces.  He highlighted the reports of the deceased crew apparently pointing to an unknown entity in their death poses, as evidence that some kind of real force or entity was involved in their deaths.

Others have claimed that demons or ghosts might have been involved, but it seems strange that few people have considered that real life pirates may have been responsible.

Whichever explanation you favour, it’s important to note that there are some who claim the whole thing is nothing more than myth.  Several researchers and skeptics have delved into this story only to come away scratching their heads.  It turns out that there is no record of the S.S. Ourang Medan operating in the Indonesian islands, nor is there a record of the incident in journals or registers of the time.  This might not be surprising if she was indeed a smuggler’s vessel and considering the year, but there should be some record.  Lloyd’s Register (or Lloyd’s Shipping Register) has no mention of such a ship being built, anywhere (though it could have been built under a different name and then rededicated later).

The American ship Silver Star does exist, but there is apparently no record that she ever participated in a rescue operation like that described above.  On top of it all, the wreck of the Ourang Medan has never been located, which in and of itself is not a deal closer, since it’s a big ocean and the exact location of the incident is not known, but it adds to the reasonable doubt.

However you want to cut it, the tradition of ghost ships has a history of exaggerating or fabricating wild tales that mystify and amuse those of us who identify with such things.  The ocean is a mysterious character in the human story, we know so little about it, and those who spend their lives exploring it and working on it embody that mystery.  There’s no shortage of weird tales of sea monsters, perfect storms, fish that got away, and of course the ever shadowy ghost ship.

They are the storytellers, and we wait to be entertained…

A Doorway to Another Realm: Do Star-Gates Exist?

The Gate of the Sun at Tiwanaku

The Gate of the Sun at Tiwanaku

We humans are hopelessly obsessed with death.  We expend an incredible amount of time and energy wondering about, worrying about, and preparing for that inevitable end to each of our lives.  All of our religions are founded upon the idea that there is an afterlife, an existence beyond our corporeal selves.  It’s been that way for a long time, too.

One of the primary indicators of early human culture is whether or not the people in question undertook to bury their dead.  This happened as far back as 100,000 years ago, but the mindset that lead to it is likely much older than that.  As a species, our preoccupation with death and its attendant features is likely as old as our ability to comprehend what it means to be dead.

But, for as long as we’ve believed that there is a place, or several places even, that our loved ones travel to in their long, dark sleep, we’ve also tried to find ways to reach that place without the mess of dying.  This has been done in a number of ways; from mediation and chanting, to psychedelically induced spirit journeys, and to the physical embodiment of portals between this world and the next.  Those portals offer an interesting look at the impact of afterlife belief on our cultures.

An artists rendering of the Plutonium in Turkey

An artists rendering of the Plutonium in Turkey

In March 2013, a team of archaeologists from the University of Salento (Italy) stumbled across what has been dubbed ‘the gate to hell’ in southwestern Turkey.  It is believed that this portal to the afterlife, in this case the Greek Underworld, is a temple used to worship the Greek god Pluto.  Its traditional name is Pluto’s Gate or the Plutonium, and it was used by priests to demonstrate the power of Pluto and Kore – the lords of the underworld – to steal the life of whomever entered the portal.

A part of the World Heritage site of Hierapolis (now called Pamukkale), the Plutonium (which is Latin for Pluto) consisted of a shallow pool in which priests would sit to prepare themselves for rituals, a series of steps which served as an observatory for congregants, and a crude doorway into a natural underground chamber, from which deadly poisonous gases emanated.  The ceremonies at this site often included animal sacrifices, such as bulls, wherein they would lead the animals into the cave and then drag them back out once the fumes had overtaken them.

There are other, less morbid examples of portals to the afterlife in our history though.

gateofsunboliviaLong have we known that the ancient people of what is now Bolivia and Peru in South America, had a penchant for elaborate temple construction and ritual, all in an effort to please and sometimes to communicate with their gods.

One spectacular example of ancient architecture dedicated to the transition between the here-and-now and the hereafter is the Gate of the Sun in what is now called Tiwanaku (also Tiahuanaco) in Bolivia.  The peoples who built and occupied Tiwanaku are largely unknown, as the settlement is dated to the pre-Incan era of 300-1000 AD, and the culture responsible apparently had no written language.  The Gate of the Sun is a 4 meter wide by 3 meter high stone archway that stands on an open terrace.  The arch is adorned with 48 carved squares, each with an effigy or winged figure looking toward a central character whose identity is unknown.  That central character is a carved figure of a man, with 24 radial lines surrounding its head, which may represent sunlight.  This figure also holds two staffs, which some believe represent lightning and thunder.

As mentioned, we know next to nothing about the Gate of the Sun, but some have presented theories about its use.  From an astrological observation post and primitive calendar, to a portal to the realm of the sky gods.  Author and famed ancient alien proponent David Childress points to similarities between Tiwanaku’s Gate of the Sun and the legendary H-blocks at Pumapunku and claims that these sites are evidence of lost fund-knowledge from unknown prehistoric civilizations, such as Atlantis or Lemuria.  He and others proclaim that the archway of the gate may have been, and perhaps still is, an actual portal to another realm.  The precision of the carvings and block cuts at Pumapunku are widely held to be much too advanced to have been the product of a culture as primitive as the Incas or those before them.  Childress also draws parallels between the Gate of the Sun and the Gate of the Gods.

The ruins of the ancient city state of Tiwanaku, where the Gate of the Sun stands prominently, is situated near the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, which is where the Aramu Muru portal is located.

Aramu Muru is actually found on the outskirts of a small town called Juli in the Hayu Marca hill.  It and Tiwanaku are within the province of Chucuito, which is commonly known as The Rome of America.  Aramu Muru is actually a rock face in the high-altitude mountains of Lake Titicaca that has been smoothed to a nearly flat surface with a roughly six foot high T-shaped alcove cut out of its centre at ground level.

Puerta de Hayu Marca at Aramu Muru, Lake Titicaca

Puerta de Hayu Marca at Aramu Muru, Lake Titicaca

That alcove is called Puerta de Hayu Marca, or in English, the portal of Hayu Marca, or more popularly, the Gate of the Gods.  Most in mainstream archaeology view Puerta de Hayu Marca to be an unfinished construction project, as it consists only of the single rock face and alcove, and has no obvious purpose.  There are traditional stories about the Gate, however, that show it to be quite important in Peruvian/Bolivian culture.

It’s said that the Gate of the Gods is a portal to the underground, and that it was used by a priest to travel to the underworld in order to hide the great golden disc of Coricancha away from the invading warriors of other lands.  Locals have long told stories of strange looking beings – tall, slender and not of this Earth – coming through the portal.  Some think, namely Childress and other ancient alien proponents, that the disc of Coricancha was actually some sort of alien technology used to activate and control the portal, which they believe is some kind of star-gate.  In fact, paranormal writer Jerry Willis claims to have travelled through the gateway himself during his own investigation of the area, though that should be taken with a grain of salt.

puerta-dioses-2Lake Titicaca itself, being the highest altitude freshwater lake on the planet, is the subject of a great many stories involving strange lights, UFO’s and other odd phenomenon.  In fact the whole area of Chucuito holds a wealth of strange stories and archaeological mysteries, and when you add in the various theories about this culture being a remnant of lost cultures the world over, it’s hard not to romanticise the findings and the people of the area.

Did ancient human cultures not only hold a belief in other realms of existence but also find a way to access those realms through some sort of lost knowledge, or perhaps knowledge offered by ancient visitors to Earth?  Mainstream science says, probably not, and that’s based on the lack of evidence for the existence of such knowledge and/or visitors, but there are learned men and women who disagree.

The Brien Foerster – Paracas Skull Fiasco UPDATED

[Don’t miss the updates at the bottom]

Ica, Peru is an exciting place, if you happen to be interested in ancient cultures and archaeology.  Many old world curiosities have come out of this region of the world, like the Ica Stones for instance, and in fact, one of the most impressive collections of ancient textiles came from Ica.  That may seem quite the opposite of exciting to you, but to those of us who study such things, the findings of Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello in the Paracas peninsula of the Pisco province of Ica, have been ground-breaking in terms of understanding at least one lost culture of Peru.

In 1925, Julio Tello, the father of indigenous Peruvian archaeology, felt he was close to exposing the lost Paracas culture, and after a few years in field, he finally cracked the case for the Paracas when in 1927 he uncovered a necropolis in the desert that contained 429 ancient mummy bundles.  This find proved the case for the Paracas culture, and it opened up vast avenues for research, including a study of the various patterned textiles used in the burial bundles.

The Paracas people, for whom the entire Paracas peninsula is named, inhabited the coastal region from 800 BC to 100 AD, which makes them one of the oldest known Andean cultures.  They had an aptitude for irrigation and water management, and their culture was rich in art and spiritual practices.

This is all well and good, it’s interesting but hardly headline worthy, at least not 87 years after the discovery, but there’s more to this situation than meets the eye.

The Paracas culture were one of the ancient Andean peoples who practised skeletal modification.  They would bind the heads of their infants with rope, cloth and wooden boards in order to elongate their skulls.  This was done for spiritual or religious reasons, and scholars believe it was an effort to make themselves look more like their deities.

The resulting skull shape does indeed seem otherworldly, and they’ve captured the attention of a great many Fortean researchers and Ancient Alien theorists.  World famous Ancient Aliens proponent and author David Childress has long theorised that these elongated skulls are the product of contact between extraterrestrial beings at or before the height of the Paracas culture.  He has alternately asserted that the Paracas skulls are either the result of attempts by humans to emulate these alien visitors, who may have been perceived as gods, or that they are the actual aliens.

An artist’s impression based on a Paracas skull. Photo credit: Marcia Moore / Ciamar Studio

Owner/curator of the local Paracas History Museum, Juan Navarro, has a collection of some 35 preserved examples of Paracas elongated skulls, as well as many other historical artefacts related to the Paracas culture.  The skulls are said to have a cranial capacity of 24-40% larger than a regular human skull, which some claim is evidence that their brains were bigger and they were thus more intelligent than modern humans or humans of the same era.  This is not necessarily true, but we’ll get to that.

In 2011, alternative history author Brien Foerster, and self-proclaimed expert on ancient elongated skulls, apparently convinced Navarro to allow several samples to be taken from the museum for analysis.  Hair samples, including roots, a tooth, skull bone and skin samples were taken from five different skulls and were given to the late Lloyd Pye, of the Starchild Project fame, who then allegedly passed them on to an unnamed geneticist in Texas for DNA analysis (we can only hope it wasn’t DNA Diagnostics). [See update below]

Well, it seems Foerster would like us all to believe he has preliminary results of that analysis in hand, and through an appearance on JustEnergyRadio, he has released some rather spurious details that on first glance seem quite intriguing, but upon closer inspection, aren’t really all that impressive.

Several bloggers who specialize in the paranormal, have published posts telling of these preliminary conclusions, claiming that the DNA offered unexpected results.  Headlines such as ‘Initial DNA analysis of Paracas elongated skulls released – with incredible result’ are giving people the wrong impression of the situation.

Foerster is claiming that mitochondrial DNA was found in at least one sample and that analysis of that DNA showed mutations that don’t conform to mutations known in humans or other animals.

“It had mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) with mutations unknown in any human, primate, or animal known so far. But a few fragments I was able to sequence from this sample indicate that if these mutations will hold we are dealing with a new human-like creature, very distant from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans.”

What does that mean?

Not much really.  At best it’s inconclusive.  The DNA would be identified as human, but with anomalies; anomalies that could be caused by any number of contaminants or procedural flaws.  It could be that this DNA really does provide unusual results, but the only thing that can be said of it at this point is that it requires further study.  The sensational release of unconfirmed and unverifiable information such as this on a radio show, is not worthy of the attention this story is receiving.

Brien Foerster with an elongated skull

The problems don’t stop there, though.

Who is doing this analysis and where/when can we expect peer-reviewed publication of these results?  Foerster isn’t telling, which sends up a huge red flag.  In the quote above, Foerster refers to himself as doing the “sequencing”.  Is this a slip of the tongue?  He’s definitely not a geneticist.  Secondary to this is the way in which he has “released” these findings, which is reminiscent of Melba Ketchum’s Bigfoot debacle of 2012.  This is not the way science is done, though some might argue that he is not a scientist, and not much argument would be found in response.

Some people are buying into what seems to amount to Foerster’s latest effort to sell books, without really thinking about the situation critically.  The Paracas elongated skulls are strange, but the features people like Foerster and Childress hold out as evidence that they have an other-worldly origin doesn’t really hold up to close scrutiny.

There are fossilized skulls of a race of proto-humans called the Boskop Man.  They were found near a small town in South Africa of the same name, and these skulls sparked a heated debate among anthropologists and archaeologists when they were presented in 1913.  They were given as evidence for a species of human that had a significantly larger brain and therefore greater intelligence than contemporary species.  The Boskop skulls offered a cranial capacity of 40-50% larger than any other known humanoid species, but it’s been demonstrated that this doesn’t necessarily equate to greater intelligence.  More isn’t always more.

The Paracas skulls, aside from looking strange, are anatomically identical to regular skulls, and since we know how and why their culture undertook skeletal modification, it seems credulous to inject conspiracy where none exists to begin with.

Where ever you see this story posted in the next couple weeks, be sure to ask how the poster verified the information Foerster is offering.


As mentioned above, at the time of writing Brien Foerster hadn’t publicly identified the Texas geneticist that was processing these DNA samples, but Sharon Hill over at Doubtful News, along with some other sleuths, have determined that it is indeed Melba Ketchum of DNA Diagnostics who is performing the analysis.  This information places this story squarely into the ‘seriously sketchy’ category, if it wasn’t there already.


This story is turning into a circus over at Doubtful News, as Foerster has threatened legal action against Sharon Hill (who used this post as the basis for hers), and has now directly denied the involvement of Melba Ketchum…sort of.  He says he is working with her on this project, but that she didn’t work on the samples in question.

On top of everything, it’s been suggested that he may have violated international import/export laws, or at the very least Peruvian export laws, which require credentialed permits to remove any kind of archaeological material from the country.  It appears Foerster had no such permit, though this is as yet unconfirmed.