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How Did Caesarean Sections Get Their Name?

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Reader Alistair wrote in wondering about the supposed origins of C-Sections: “Was Julius Caesar really born this way and is it the origin of the medical procedure?”

The story that the C-section originates—either in practice or in name, depending on who’s telling the story—with the birth of everyone’s favorite Roman Consul has been around for a while and gets repeated often. The 10th century Byzantine-Greek historical encyclopedia The Suda reads, “For when his mother died in the ninth month, they cut her open, took him out…” Even the Oxford English Dictionary gives that story as the term’s origin. Almost every other historical and etymological source, though, is stacked behind the answer “probably not.”

To start, Gaius Julius Caesar (we’ll call him GJC from here on out) certainly wasn’t the first person born via C-section. The procedure, or something close to it, is mentioned in the history and legend of various civilizations—from Europe to the Far East—well before his birth. He wasn’t even the first Roman born that way. By the time GJC entered the world, Romans were already performing C-sections and Roman law reserved the operation for women who died in childbirth (so that the woman and her baby could be buried separately) and as a last resort for living mothers in order to save the baby’s life during deliveries with complications.

Among the still-living mothers, no Roman or other classical source records one surviving the procedure. The first known mother to make it through the ordeal was from 16th century Switzerland (her husband, a professional pig castrater, performed the delivery), and before that the mortality rate is presumed to be 100 percent. This is an issue because GJC’s mother, Aurelia Cotta, is known to have lived long enough to see her son reach adulthood and serve him as a political advisor, despite what The Suda says. Some sources even suggest she outlived him. If little GJC really was born via C-section, Aurelia was exceptionally lucky to not only survive the delivery but also not have anyone make a fuss about it and record her accomplishment for posterity.

Does the C-section at least take its name from GJC? Again, probably not. While The Suda mistakenly has Aurelia Cotta die in childbirth, it does hint at a strong candidate for the origin of “Caesarean section.” The rest of the passage quoted above goes, “…and named him thus; for in the Roman tongue dissection is called ‘Caesar.’” Not quite right, but going in the right direction. In Latin, caedo is “to cut,” so Caesar, both as the name for the man and for the procedure, might derive from some form of the word (like caesus, its part participle). The Roman author Pliny the Elder notes that origin for both Caesar and Caesones, the name of a branch of the Fabian family.

But if “Caesarean section” comes from a word for cut, and GJC wasn’t born that way, how’d the two get connected? That might come from some confusion about Pliny’s writings. Pliny refers to a Caesar being born by C-Section, but not GJC.  Pliny was actually talking about one of GJC’s remote ancestors, specifying that he was the first person to bear the name Caesar* (who exactly that was is unclear) that “was so named from his having been removed by an incision in his mother’s womb.”

But wait, there’s more! The name Caesar may not have necessarily come from the way any of them was born. The Historia Augusta, a collection of biographies of Roman emperors, suggests a few alternate origins for the name:

“…he who first received the name of Caesar was called by this name either because he slew in battle an elephant, which in the Moorish tongue is called caesai, or because he was brought into the world after his mother’s death and by an incision in her abdomen, or because he had a thick head of hair [caesaries is a Latin term for hair] when he came forth from his mother’s womb, or, finally, because he had bright grey eyes [caesiis is Latin for “blind,” and “grey eyes” may refer to glaucoma]…”

If the first Caesar was named for an elephant, his hair or his eyes, the C-section might still be named for the Latin caedo, or actually take its name from the man. In that case, the story that started this whole explanation is a little closer to reality, but simply mixes up its Caesars.

*In ancient Rome, Caesar was a cognomen, a “third name” that augmented the family or clan name, sometimes used to identify a particular branch of the group. In this case, it ID’d the Julii Caesares subdivision of the Julii family.
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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Big Questions
Why Don't Valentine Hearts Look Like Real Hearts?
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Love is in the air this month, and images of two-lobed hearts are all over everything: candy, cards, decorations, you name it. That the heart is symbolic of love and passion isn't surprising—ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, including Aristotle, thought the organ was the center of all emotions. Why the heart symbol you see everywhere in February doesn't look anything like an actual human heart, though, is a little less clear.

The symbol goes at least as far back as the 1400s, when it appeared on European playing cards to mark one of the red suits, though it may even be older than that. The shape is pretty much a mystery, though. There are a few different hypotheses to explain it, but none of them have been confirmed.

One suggested origin for the symbol is that it comes from the ancient African city-state of Cyrene, whose merchants traded in the rare, and now extinct, plant silphium. The plant was used to season food, but doubled as a contraceptive. A silphium seedpod looks like a valentine's heart, so the shape became associated with sex, and then with love.

Another possibility is that the shape is a crude representation of a pubic mound, the vulva, a pair of breasts, buttocks, or a pair of testicles. It may even have come from a poor attempt at drawing an actual heart. A lousy artist, an inaccurate description of the subject, or a malformed model all could have led to that shape.

The Catholic church explains the symbol as coming from a vision that Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque had, where the "Sacred Heart of Jesus"—associated with love and devotion by Catholics—appeared in this shape surrounded by thorns. But Alacoque didn't have this vision until the late 1600s, well after the symbol was already documented. This makes it the unlikeliest of origin stories, but the church's frequent use of the shape was probably a driving factor in popularizing it as a symbol of love.

This story originally appeared in 2012.

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