Metal Salvagers Are Destroying World War II Shipwrecks in Asia

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iStock

Military shipwrecks are viewed as underwater graveyards, but some illegal salvage divers view their metal hulls as goldmines. Their quest for scrap metals and valuable materials has led to the partial or complete destruction of up to 40 World War II ships in southeast Asia, according to a detailed account by The Guardian.

Crews of divers pretending to be fishermen or researchers have raided submerged ships around Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. They might have been looking for steel scrap metal, or copper cables, phosphor bronze propellers, and radiation-free steel, the last of which is used in scientific and medical equipment.

Some ships have been found cut in half, while others have been completely removed. But these divers aren't just destroying history, according to veterans and archaeologists—they’re also desecrating grave sites, as the 40 destroyed or damaged ships may have held around 4500 corpses. They belonged to World War II servicemen from countries including the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, and Japan.

Important British warships like the HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter, and HMS Electra—all of which sank in the Java Sea in 1942—have fallen victim to scavengers. So have the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, which sank off the coast of Malaysia in 1941.

Australia, meanwhile, has suffered the loss of the HMAS Perth, which met its end in 1942, near the islands of Java and Sumatra. Nearly 60 to 70 percent of its hull is gone, according to archaeologists. And Japanese ships have also been destroyed, with hundreds still remaining vulnerable underwater. All of these ships likely had the bodies of crew members onboard.

UK and U.S. officials have requested that Indonesia protect historic sunken warships. In the meantime, Cambodian, Chinese, and Malaysian-registered vessels have all been spotted hovering around wrecks, and shipwreck scavenging appears to be on the rise. The UK Ministry of Defence is asking the Indonesian government to step in, according to a spokesperson quoted by The Guardian: "A military wreck should remain undisturbed and those who lost their lives onboard should be allowed to rest in peace."

[h/t The Guardian]

Homo Erectus Might Have Been Really Lazy

Shipton et. al,
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE (2018)

Of all the human species that once roamed the world, only one remains—us. Why did our primitive cousins go extinct? For Homo erectus, something like laziness may have played a role, Cosmos reports.

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE explores the role that H. erectus's lack of drive may have contributed to its extinction. The international team of researchers based their analysis on an excavation of a paleolithic site in central Saudi Arabia, finding that the tools H. erectus made were of consistently lower quality than what tool makers in later periods used. Their tools were constructed with whatever material was easiest to get, rather than what would make the best tools.

And it wasn’t because better materials weren’t available. "At the site we looked at, there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill,” study co-author Ceri Shipton of the Australian National University said in a press release. “But rather than walk up the hill, they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom.” He added, “They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources, they seem to have thought, ‘why bother?’”

A row of stone tools excavated from Saffaqah
Some of the stone tools
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE, (2018)

Meanwhile, other hominin species, like our own Homo sapiens, were happily clambering up mountains to seek out better materials for their tools. Shipton suggests that H. erectus lacked the tendency toward exploration and curiosity that has helped our species thrive.

This “laziness,” combined with changes to their environment, was likely what did in H. erectus. As the humid environment around them became drier, H. erectus seemingly didn’t adapt: They didn't invent new kinds of tools to deal with the changing landscape, nor did they relocate or travel farther afield. The research team found the tools largely near dry river beds, suggesting that H. erectus neither progressed technologically nor modified their behavior for their altered habitat.

H. erectus did manage to walk upright as we do—a first in human evolution—and it was likely the first hominin to expand their habitat beyond Africa. But the combination of these two newly identified shortcomings may have contributed to H. erectus's demise.

[h/t Cosmos]

Intriguing New Theory Might Explain the Fate of Easter Island's Civilization

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iStock

Standing up to 33 feet high and weighing 81 tons, the huge moai statues of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) are the most recognizable artifacts of a thriving civilization that peaked at the middle of the last millennium. For hundreds of years, Polynesian peoples lived on the small island 2300 miles west of Chile and developed a complex culture. By the 1700s, when Europeans first arrived, much of the society was decimated.

For years, scientists thought they knew why—but fresh archaeological evidence has provided an alternative theory.

The Journal of Pacific Archaeology published a paper [PDF] this week contradicting the commonly held belief that, in the 1600s, Rapa Nui's inhabitants descended into a Lord of the Flies–like era of infighting and violence as a result of dwindling resources. According to new research, the island’s population may not have devolved into barbarism. Instead, they were collaborating on toolmaking.

University of Queensland archaeologist Dale Simpson, Jr. theorized that the raw materials used in the carving tools would reveal clues about the dynamics of the community. He and his colleagues collected 17 tools found near the moai, including axe-like toki. Using a mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of the tools and samples from stone quarries on the island, Simpson and his colleagues found that most of the toki came from a single quarry.

Simpson believes this is evidence that Rapa Nui's people had not fallen into violent conflict, but were instead sharing resources—or at least allowing one another access to a favorite quarry for tool production. If the islanders were split into factions, it’s unlikely that whoever was controlling the quarry would permit rivals to make use of it.

If accurate, it would join other recent theories that are drawing a revised picture of Rapa Nui's civilization. Explorers once described a surplus of spear-like objects presumably used for combat, but modern researchers examining the tools (called mata’a) in 2015 found that their surfaces were too blunt to pierce skin and were probably used for tilling soil.

While Simpson's take on the newly discovered carving tools is an intriguing theory, researchers aren't ready to rewrite history just yet. Other scholars, including study co-author Jo Anne Van Tilburg, point out that raw materials for the tools could have been seized by force or some form of coercion.

More research will be needed to see if Simpson’s new theory holds up. If it does, it would present a new wrinkle in the storied history of Rapa Nui.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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