Alfred Kinsey's Massive Gall Wasp Collection

Before Alfred Kinsey revolutionized the study of human sexuality, he was an entomologist with a very specific and impassioned focus: gall wasps.

Kinsey did his doctoral thesis on the insect and covered 18,000 miles in 36 states collecting samples for his work. His first scientific paper was published in the bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, and when Kinsey died, his wife donated the specimens to the museum (conveniently, they were already there).

You can see part of the enormous Kinsey collection in the AMNH’s most recent episode of Shelf Life. Of the 18 million specimens in the museum's insect collection, an astonishing 7.5 million of them are Kinsey's wasps and associated galls. The collection is so large that it hasn't yet been entirely unpacked. Kinsey had collected leaf samples in his travels and reared the wasps from the galls—those bumps you often see protruding from the smooth surface of a leaf. Galls occur when a female lays her eggs into a plant, and the larva hatches and feeds on the leaf tissue. The galls are the plant’s response to larval saliva, and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Through the collection, researchers are able to learn more about the species and hunt for “ancient DNA,” which simply means DNA in preserved specimens. With a creature as small as a gall wasp, the specimens often need to be destroyed in order to recover any of the DNA. Thanks to Kinsey, those sort of casualties aren’t much of a concern—they’re just a drop in the bucket of his massive assemblage.

In An Introduction to Biology, Kinsey wrote about the joys of collecting: “Most of us like to collect things, and some of us have quite a dose of that instinct. Some folks collect stamps, others collect cigar-bands, or autographs, a pocketful of junk, or dollars and dollars. Whatever their value or lack of money value, all collections are very real possessions to their owner. If your collection is larger, even a shade larger, than any other like it in the world, that greatly increases your happiness.”

Mission accomplished, Al. To see Kinsey's wasps, check out AMNH's Shelf Life below. 

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Scientists Just Found the Oldest Known Piece of Bread
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen

An old, charred piece of long-forgotten flatbread has captured the interest of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians around the world. Found in a stone fireplace in Jordan’s Black Desert, this proto-pita dates back 14,400 years, making it the oldest known example of bread, Reuters reports.

To put the significance of this discovery in context: the flatbread predates the advent of agriculture by 4000 years, leading researchers to theorize that the laborious process of making the bread from wild cereals may have inspired early hunter-gatherers to cultivate grain and save themselves a whole lot of trouble.

“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a researcher with the University of Copenhagen, told Reuters. “It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”

A report on these findings—written by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and University of Cambridge—was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was once thought that bread was an invention of early farming civilizations. A 9100-year-old piece of bread from Turkey was previously regarded as the oldest of its kind. However, the Jordanian flatbread was made by a group of hunter-gatherers called the Natufians, who lived during a transitional period from nomadic to sedentary ways of life, at which time diets also started to change.

Similar to a pita, this unleavened bread was made from wild cereals akin to barley, einkorn, and oats. These were “ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to cooking,” according to a statement from the University of Copenhagen. The ancient recipe also called for tubers from an aquatic plant, which Arranz-Otaegui described as tasting “gritty and salty."

[h/t Reuters]

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