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Scientists Analyze Ötzi the Iceman's Animal Skin Clothing

Europe's oldest known natural human mummy, Ötzi the Iceman, led a pretty hard life. Ötzi died roughly 5300 years ago—likely from an arrow to the back—and experts who examined his body say he suffered from a range of health problems, including a bacteria-infected gut, gallstones, parasitic worms, and maybe even Lyme disease. But right before Ötzi perished, he was at least wearing a warm outfit, National Geographic reports: a bear fur hat, goatskin leggings, and an overcoat made of sheep and goat hides, among other snug items.

This new knowledge comes courtesy of researchers from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Research Academy in Bolzano, Italy. Using sophisticated new DNA analysis techniques, they collected and tested genetic data from Ötzi’s ensemble to find out what animals his clothing was made from. They recently published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

For years, the specifics of Ötzi’s ensemble were largely a mystery. Two German tourists discovered the now-famous mummy in 1991 as they were hiking the Ötzal Alps (which inspired his name) that straddle the Austrian-Italian border. Ötzi’s well-preserved body yielded scientists a wealth of knowledge, but his garments were too damaged to analyze using standard DNA analysis. And while a 2008 study revealed that some of the hair from the mummy’s clothing came from domesticated animals, Live Science points out, experts didn’t know which ones they were.

“Just based on the hair or just based on the type of leather, it’s not easy sometimes to come down to the species level,” study co-author Frank Maixner, a microbiologist, told Smithsonian. “It was clear to have a little bit more insight, we had to go for the DNA.”

Gathering ancient DNA markers was tricky, as the researchers had to consider the possibility that the leather had been treated during Ötzi’s lifetime. Researchers may have also contaminated or damaged the genetic materials over the years. But in the end, they were able to pinpoint ancient DNA markers in nine samples of leather and fur taken from six clothing items.

According to The Guardian, the Iceman used at least five different species of animal to create his clothes. Scientists had previously concluded that Ötzi’s hide coat was made from sheepskin, but they now know it was fashioned from both sheep and goat. The sheep species is closely related to modern domestic European sheep, while the goat hide was harvested from a domestic animal whose descendants still live in central Europe. Researchers think that Ötzi’s coat was likely fashioned from (and possibly patched up with) whatever hides he had access to at the time. 

As for the Iceman’s leggings, they ended up being sewn from domesticated goat leather—not wolf, fox, or dog, as scientists had once suspected. Goatskin might have been more supple than other materials, allowing him to walk with ease. Meanwhile, the shoelaces in his cow leather shoes were crafted from auroch, or wild cattle. 

Not all of Ötzi’s clothing items came from domesticated animals: The fur came from brown bear and Ötzi’s arrow quiver was fashioned from roe deer. This indicates that the prehistoric man might have traded or hunted and trapped for game.

We’ll likely never know whether Ötzi sewed the garments himself or how he obtained their materials. But considering that scientists have identified everything from his last meal to 19 of his living relatives in Austria, it’s safe to assume that the Iceman will continue to reveal even more secrets as time goes by.

[h/t National Geographic]

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Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
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GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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