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The Deepest Shipwreck Ever Found

by Aliya Whiteley

The oceans still hold many secrets. We're only just beginning to find ways to explore the deepest trenches, using technological advances to look at the strange creatures and landscapes that inhabit the total darkness found thousands of feet below the surface.

But though they've been difficult to access, there are also human artifacts at those depths—objects that have sunk to lie, undisturbed, for many years. Humans have been making boats since prehistoric times; who knows how many wrecks now lie in the deep?

The question of just how many wrecks lie in the deep is difficult to answer, but according to Guinness World Records, the deepest shipwreck that has been identified so far is a German blockade runner from World War II—the SS Rio Grande. In early January 1944, it was sunk by two U.S. ships in the South Atlantic Ocean. It lies at a depth of about 18,900 feet—more than 3.5 miles below the surface—and was discovered on November 28, 1996, using side-scanning sonar technology. Two days later, the company responsible for the find, Blue Water Recoveries, confirmed the wreck using a remotely operated vehicle.

It’s impossible to even guess at how many shipwrecks might yet lie in the deepest parts of the oceans (the Mariana Trench reaches a depth of about 36,000 feet). Just to give some perspective, more than 150 ships sank in January 1944 alone.

Not all sunken ships are wartime casualties, of course. One of the oldest shipwrecks found thus far was a cargo ship that was discovered off the coast of southern Turkey in 1982. The Uluburun wreck is 3300 years old. The cargo it carried has been recovered by divers, and included copper, tin, glass, ebony, weapons, food, elephant tusks, hippopotamus teeth, tortoise shell, and amber beads. Some personal items from the crew were also recovered, including a scarab made of gold that bears the seal of Nefertiti, wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten. It now resides in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. More recently, divers in Greece have found wrecks dating as far back as 525 BCE.

It’s staggering to imagine how many crafts, and how many people, must have been claimed by the sea over the centuries—that technology is now, finally, allowing us to find.

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6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Unveil an Unusual New Theory For How Easter Island’s Statues Were Made
Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Moai statues of Easter Island present one of the world's greatest technical mysteries. The stone heads (actually full bodies) that dot the island in the South Pacific are massive and number in the hundreds, prompting archaeologists to wonder how they got there in the first place. Now, as Newsweek reports, a group of researchers believe they're closer to finding an answer.

European sailors first arrived on Easter Island in 1722 and were greeted by a native population of 1500 to 3000. Along with the residents were 900-odd statues carved from solid rock, meaning there were fewer than four people for every massive monolith.

How was such a thin population able pull off such an impressive feat of architecture? According to researchers from Chile, New Zealand, and the U.S., it's possible they had help. Their new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution suggests that the statues were carved and erected at a time when Easter Island supported a much larger population. Using data from the island, they estimated just how high the island's numbers may have reached.

Easter Island has the agriculture potential to sustain a maximum population of 17,500, researchers say. This estimate is based on the weather and soil quality of the island, 19 percent of which is capable of growing the sweet potatoes that fed inhabitants. "Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred," lead author Cedric Puleston said in a statement.

If the Moai were constructed by a much larger group than the Europeans encountered, that would clear up some of the mystery surrounding the island. But it would also raise more questions. How, for instance, did the population fall so quickly in the few centuries between the statues' construction and first contact with Europeans? One theory is ecocide, which happens when an area is exhausted of its resources faster than it can replenish them.

The mystery of how the towering monoliths were transported across the island after they were built still remains. The indigenous people told Dutch explorers that the Moai walked themselves, an explanation an MIT professor put to the test when he designed a 2000-pound sculpture that could be shimmied long distances. But despite the numerous theories, hard evidence related to the figures' origins remains scarce.

[h/t Newsweek]

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