Croesus and the Oracle

As the legend goes, Coretas the goat herder and his flock wandered across a high ridge overlooking a valley of pine and laurel. He stopped by a cluster of rocks while his goats drank from a spring.

Something shifted in their bleating. Leaping around the rocks, spear at the ready, he discovered his charges standing over a rift in the rocks. His goats were staring into the fissure, swaying strangely.

The shepherd approached. A sweet smell was on the air; his thoughts began drifting. Strange visions of things long past and yet to be. He fell to his knees in prayer to Gaia, the earth mother: the visions must be rising from her sacred place beneath the earth.

Coretas shared the story of his encounter with the Goddess on his return home. Those that visited the chasm found their own visions, and spoke strangely while under her influence. Occasionally the Goddess would drive men, in spontaneous frenzy, to leap to their deaths on the rocks. 

For safety, a divine intercessor was appointed: a ritually purified priestess called Pythia. A cult grew up around her. This legendary story becomes concrete with a shrine constructed around 1400 BC, rediscovered by French archeologists in 1892 AD. At the heart of the shrine, in a chamber only she could enter – called the adyton – Pythia perched on a tripod over the fissures to draw in the divine influence and issue her riddling prophecies.

Left: Painting of King Aegeus consulting Pythia from 440BC (Zde / CC BY-SA).
Right: Modern painting of Pythia. Collier, John, “Priestess of Delphi”, 1891, Wikimedia.

For the next two thousand years, pilgrims journeyed to Delphi on sacred days to offer gifts and sacrifices in exchange for the oracle’s divine thoughts. At first, they consulted her only on personal matters: resolution of feuds, religious decisions, marriages, travel plans and business ventures. In time, her reach would grow far beyond anything she could imagine.

To build the significance of the site and perhaps to wrest control from the all-female priestesses, the worship of Gaia was stripped away and it was reconsecrated around 800 BC to Apollo, son of Zeus. As a concession, Pythia would retain her role, but her divinely-inspired pronouncements would ever after be interpreted by the prophetes: Apollo’s male priests. 

Pythia was always chosen from among the peasant women of Delphi. No special education or qualification was required . After a young virgin consecrated as Pythia was seduced, or raped, – risking the wrath of Apollo for despoiling his sacred vessel – women had to be over 50 years old. They did not have to be virgins, but they did have to keep chaste during their tenure as Pythia.

Just how much influence could the predictions of an uneducated elderly peasant woman from rural Delphi have on the wider world? It was a deadly misunderstanding that would cement her reputation and lead even kings and emperors to seek her advice, advice that would transform the ancient world.

Croesus was worried. The undisputed ruler of Lydia, covering most of Asia Minor, was an enviable position. His reign had been marked by stability and great prosperity, as was his fathers before him. In his youth, he had led his army on a series of successful campaigns securing him all of what is now western Turkey. His empire’s wealth was legendary, built on gold mines, important trading ports, and its position as a gateway between Central Asia and the Mediterranean. 

Greece and Asia Minor, c. 550 BC.

Nearly fifty years old, he was no longer the rampager of his youth. He had grown satisfied with his status and become more inclined to spectacle than warfare. In their sumptuous dress and jewelry, his courtiers at Sardis strove to outdo each other, but Croesus outshone them all. Under Croesus, the enterprising Lydians invented the use of coins as currency. In time, Lydia’s pure gold and silver coins, each stamped with the symbols of their kingdom and hinting at its great wealth, travelled far beyond their borders. Such wealth can attract trouble – and trouble was brewing to the east.

Where Croesus was inclined to rest on his laurels, Cyrus was a hungry young whirlwind. The ruler of the Persians, a minor people in the vast Median empire, wanted much more. For Cyrus’ ambitions to be realised, the unpopular Medes would have to go. This novice king would first need to convince his men to risk everything in rebellion against their emperor:

He pointed out to them a barren, thorny spot, and ordered them to clear and cultivate it. When with great labour and fatigue they had completed this task, the next day he ordered them to bathe and clean themselves, and come to a sumptuous feast which he had prepared for them.

After they had spent the day in such luxury, he asked them which of the two days they preferred. They replied that the present day was as much preferable to the former, as happiness is to misery. “It is in your power then,” said Cyrus, “to obtain happiness. Free yourselves from your slavery under the Medes.”

The Persians, struck by the greatness of this proposal, revolted and appointed Cyrus to be their king.

Polyaenus, Stratgems of War. Book 7, 6.7. Source: Attalus

Having convinced his people, Cyrus next talked the Median general into defecting, leaving their army in disarray. His men now easily overran the capital and ended one-hundred and fifty years of Median rule. Cyrus now found himself ruler of a huge region from the Indus river in the East, through modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and eastern Turkey. And just over his new border in the West, the fabulously wealthy Lydians.

News of the Medes’ defeat shook Croesus. His upstart Persian neighbour, near seven-fold his size, had toppled his Median ally and brother-in-law. Thirty-five years earlier, Croesus’ father had fought the Medes to a stalemate when, in the midst of a battle at the Halys river, the Gods had blotted out the sun in the sky. Both sides at once sought peace, agreed to set their border at the Halys and the Median emperor married Croesus’ sister. Such omens were not to be ignored.

Now Croesus had to weigh crossing the gods and the Halys to face this unknown foe. Could Cyrus’ nascent empire fall as easily as the Medes’ had? A hasty offensive might seize vast territory, avenge his brother-in-law, and restore security to his kingdom. It was a gamble, but the Lydians were consummate gamblers: they invented dice. First he wanted to make sure the odds were in his favour, and who better to ask than the Gods themselves.

Lydia paled in comparison to Persia, but Cyrus was fresh to power. Could now be the moment to strike?

The glamorous king was no fool. If Croesus could be sure of an oracle’s prophetic power, he could wield this to defeat his Persian foes. With seven messengers and one question, he tested the best-known oracles around the ancient world. Each messenger was dispatched from Sardis with strict instructions to present their oracle the question at the same time on the same day. The question was simple: what is our king doing right now?

Exactly one hundred days after his messengers had departed, Croesus boiled up some tortoise and lamb in a bronze cauldron. As each messenger trickled back into Sardis, Croesus grew more frustrated. All had failed him. Finally, Pythia’s message arrived from distant Delphi. Croesus threw up his arms in joy. For on her message was written:

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea; I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless. The smell has come to my sense of a hard shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with a lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot: the cauldron underneath it is of bronze, and bronze is the lid.

Herodotus, Histories I, 47. Source: LacusCurtius.

Croesus was effusive, heaping worship on Apollo and lavish gifts on Delphi. He had a stone palace built there just to house all the treasures he sent. This gesture set a new standard and in time many leaders would vie to outdo it. But, unlike Delphi, Croesus would not benefit. He next sent a messenger to ask, would he succeed in a war against Cyrus?

The oracle’s answer is one of the most famous predictions in history. Pythia advised:

If Croesus made war on the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire.

Herodotus, I, 53.

Croesus without delay mobilised his forces to march against the Persian empire. Crossing the Halys, he seized and plundered a key fortress. Cyrus and his forces arrived and the two armies fought to a stalemate. Croesus, believing he had put Cyrus in his place for now, retreated back over his border and disbanded for winter. No one fought in winter.

But Cyrus was not one to wait about. He launched into Lydia, routing Croesus’ army and besieging Sardis. In a desperate final battle, fighting to save his own skin, Croesus was captured and dragged before the Persian Shah of Shahs. The once-mighty Lydian was sentenced to be burnt alive, tied to his own gilded throne.

Only now did the realisation finally sink home; he had missed a critical ambiguity: the empire he would destroy was his own.

Croesus at the stake. From an Attic red-figure amphora, ca. 500–490 BC. Wikimedia.

Pythia’s prediction had driven Croesus to gamble his entire kingdom, and lose. His defeat was to have a lasting impact through ancient history. Success brought great wealth to Persia, inspired Cyrus and demoralised his enemies; in the coming decades Persian armies would march across the western Mediterranean and Levant, forming the superpower of the ancient world. Lydia had been an important buffer state between central Asian empires and the fractious world of the Greek city-states. Over the next seventy years Cyrus and his successors would conquer Babylon, take Egypt, and invade Greece twice.

A frieze from the tomb of Cyrus’ grandson, Xerxes, showing the ethnicities of his soldiers who were drafted from the many peoples he ruled. (A.Davey / CC BY)

With Persian supremacy boosted by Pythia’s fateful prophecy, you might think leaders would be wary of oracles bearing cryptic advice. You would be wrong. The Gods were dangerous beings to deal with, but the surety of divine help to navigate an unpredictable world was too tempting. As legend grew around Pythia’s ability, more and more emissaries of kings, emperors and assemblies would seek her sanction for new rulers, colonies, law codes, wars, and peace treaties. In Sparta her pronouncements legitimised the kings and their heirs, and across the Mediterranean she launched colonies and conflicts. Pythia’s advice would leave a mark on countless lives and change the course of history. Wars would be fought to control access to Delphi and the oracle’s pronouncements.

Croesus set a standard which many states and rulers vied to outdo in the munificence of their offerings and gifts. This artist’s impression of ancient Delphi shows the fabulous treasure houses and scuptures gifted to the shrine. Tournaire, 1894. Wikimedia.

An even greater irony may hide beneath the story that made Delphi’s reputation as a player in high politics. Perhaps Croesus’ story has been intentionally warped.

Some historians have suggested it is much more likely the oracle gave Croesus an unambiguously positive prediction of success against Persia. This created a problem for ancient storytellers and historians, keen to make the narrative more sensible after the events. How could Apollo have been so wrong? Surely greed had driven the wealthiest man in the world to overreach? Meanwhile, the Delphians were keen to downplay the error. 

Pre-modern history often offers a natural symmetry where transgressions are punished and the just triumph. Such morality fables are the kind of stories humans seem attuned to seek; they help us weigh up our own decisions and make predictions about how others will respond. In time the ambiguous prophecy may have slipped into the story, stitching together a narrative that saved Delphian pride, confirmed Apollo’s power, damned Croesus’ campaign, and pleased its audience. 

If so, Delphi’s triumph is built on Pythia’s failure. 

Given the clout of the prophetess at Delphi, historians have long argued over how much understanding and resources she brought to bear on her predictions. Was Pythia offering sound political advice drawn from local knowledge, or working from intuition and whim? Some have even argued that her predictions were based on drug-induced hallucinations.

Hampered by the limited historic record and archaeological evidence for the ancient period, the modern theories remain uncertain.

For the ancient writers, the source of Pythia’s divine inspiration was clear: Apollo’s own breath rose from the fissure beneath her. As she sat on her tripod in the inner sanctum, breathing in his breath, the God himself possessed her. Pythia’s prophecies were issued in the first person; Apollo spoke directly through her. Her statements were interpreted by the male priests, the prophetes, who translated them into poetic verse and delivered them to the petitioners.

They say that the seat of the oracle is a cave that is hollowed out deep down in the earth, with a rather narrow mouth, from which arises breath that inspires a divine frenzy; and that over the mouth is placed a high tripod, mounting which the Pythian priestess receives the breath and then utters oracles in both verse and prose

Strabo, Geography, 9.3.5. Source: Persus Digital Library

The sweet-smelling “breath” rising from the fissure gained new significance in the late 1800s as medical anaesthetics came into popular use. The early anaesthetics, nitrous oxide, ether and chloroform, were all sweet-smelling gases, intoxicating and hallucinogenic when inhaled in low concentrations.

From the 1890s, French archaeologists excavated the ancient ruins. They found no great chasm or evidence of volcanic activity. Just as scientific advancements in medicine and geology were offering a possible mechanism for intoxication by volcanic vapours, French findings threw cold water on the matter for a century.

The other ways of thinking about the Delphic oracle fall broadly into two camps: cynical or true believer.

The cynical theory goes that Delphic officials were closely informed on political affairs and offered strategic, thoughtful, but sometimes self-serving predictions. Officials knew the questions well in advance. The oracle was either party to the scam or gave whatever ambiguous imagery came to mind. The priests adapted these to suit a pre-chosen answer. In this view Delphi operated as an biased ancient think-tank, sometimes providing thoughtful predictions and advice for decisions of state and sometimes advice that advanced Delphian interests.

The true believer theory goes that the Delphic officials and Pythia were impassioned servants of Apollo. The oracle gave whatever response came to mind, the prophetes shaped this into an interpretation befitting the question. If this were right, while the prophet and priests might layer on some personal bias or belief subconsciously, the predictions should offer little consistency.

To find the truth, two classicists, Parke and Wormell, trawled through ancient texts for decades to locate and analyse the Delphic prophecies for consistent patterns in political alignment. They carefully filtered out as best they could the prophecies they thought likely to have been doctored or imagined.

They found the advice given was practical, based on consistent religious and moral principles. This can be explained either by conscious intervention or that the questions provided by the oracle were likely loaded by the petitioners, who were seeking divine sanction for a pre-composed decision. There are also patterns indicating political biases and self-serving predictions, which points us towards the cynic camp.

The question boils down the same one we would like to honestly know of modern spirit mediums: are they deliberate deceivers, or merely self-deceiving? In that light, the example of Croesus can go either way. Either the Delphians were cagily hedging their bets with the ambiguous answer which was right – as either way an empire would fall. Or, they were giving the Lydians just what they wanted to hear – better a happy customer.  Or, the idea simply popped into Pythia’s head on the day.

A neat synthesis of these views arrives when you consider the religious convictions of day. Few modern spirit mediums are true frauds. Most likely everyone at Delphi truly believed Apollo could enter and inspire Pythia. The priests further believed that in translating Apollo’s words into poetic verse they were experiencing a shadow of that inspiration. The priests and Pythia carried with them into the temple a sense of what answer the petitioner was likely seeking, their own moral convictions, and the political interests of Delphi. Thus prepared, the priests were almost always pleased to find themselves able to reassemble Pythia’s pronouncements to point towards an answer consistent with that which they hoped for.

So, what about the drug theory?

In 2002 a multi-disciplinary team published a controversial paper reviving the extraordinary idea that the ancient Pythia may have been inspired by huffing hallucinogens. They found evidence of geothermal activity and trace quantities of intoxicating gases, including ethylene, in a nearby spring. Ethylene is a close relative of ether and was used as common anaesthetic until the early nineteenth century. Low concentrations of ethylene and other mind-altering petrochemicals released through fissured porous limestone beneath the temple floor could have oozed into the inner sanctum of the temple: fuel for Pythia’s visions.

The temple is positioned at the intersection of two fault lines. Diagram from Spiller (2002).

But the fumes remain frustratingly elusive. The substances found are common and the quantities minuscule. They may have dissipated over the centuries, but further tangible evidence is lacking. To have an effect, the gases would have been concentrated enough to be flammable. But there is no record of explosions at the site.

While tempting, the historic references to pneuma, variously translated as “breath”, “fumes” and “vapor”, are hard to lean on as evidence. The Greeks had no real understanding of gas. These terms are best understood in the context of ancient Greek philosophy where they are used so liberally they describe many invisible mechanisms, including the then unknown forces that made blood flow or the earth fill with minerals.

As many classicists have argued, while an intoxicated Pythia may offer a satisfying explanation, it papers over the gulfs in thinking between modern and ancient cultures. Perhaps the boundless faith of the centuries of pilgrims to the site and phenomena of oracles is best understood in context of the immense power of psychological suggestion and belief:

If you tell an elderly peasant woman that on a certain day, at a certain time, she will become the mouthpiece of Apollo, you do not need to be a hypnotist to get the desired result.

Hugh Lloyd Jones, The Delphic Oracle (1976).

Recommended Reading

Spiller, Henry, John R Hale, and Jelle Z De Boer. The Delphic Oracle: A Multidisciplinary Defense of the Gaseous Vent Theory. Journal of Toxicology. Clinical Toxicology 40 (1 February 2002): 189–96.

Lehoux, D. ‘Drugs and the Delphic Oracle’. Classical World 101, no. 1 (2007): 41–56.

Further References

Herodotus. Histories. Loeb Classical Library, 1952. Accessed June 2020.

Siculus, Diodorus. The Library of History, Book XVI. Loeb Classical Library, 1952. Accessed June 2020.

Polyaenus. “Cyrus” in Stratagems of War. Translated by R. Shepherd. London: George Nicol, 1793. Accessed June 2020.

Arnush, Michael. ‘Pilgrimage to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi: Patterns of Public and Private Consultation’. In Pilgrimages in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Antiquity, edited by Jan Elsner and Ian Rutherford, 97–110. Oxford University Press, 2005. Accessed June 2020.

Dodds, Eric R. The Greeks and the Irrational (1951): 68 – 76.

Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. ‘The Delphic Oracle’. Greece & Rome 23, no. 1 (1976): 60–73.

Luckhardt, Arno B., and J. B. Carter. ‘Ethylene as a Gas Anesthetic’. Anesthesia & Analgesia 2, no. 6 (December 1923): 221–229.

The bizarre extinction of an ancient Mediterranean wonder-drug

Around 600 BC some intrepid Greeks, trekking up from the coast to found the colony of Cyrene, came upon a tall, fennel-like plant growing luxuriantly across the moist, forested valleys of Eastern Libya. The locals may have tipped them off to its uses, sparking a ravenous popularity across the Mediterranean world, snuffed out in history’s first recorded extinction.

While silphium was a tasty herb and delicious in the meat of cattle that grazed on it, it became best known for the dried resin made from its juices called laser or laserpicium.

Ancient physicians believed it a gift from the gods.

From their descriptions, we know the plant had a long and dense taproot, thick and hollow stem, milky sap, leaves like celery, and bright yellow clusters of flowers. Botanists today think it was probably a member of the Umbelliferae family (like carrots and parsley) and of the genus Ferula.1 If so, closely related to the pungent culinary herb asafoetida. Silphium may have smelt just as intensely fetid.

Ferula communis, also called giant fennel, close relative of ancient silphium. Source.

Pliny the Elder, keen observer of the natural world and author of Natural History a voluminous masterpiece that describes over nine hundred plants, calls it “one of the most precious gifts of nature” and complains “it would be an endless task to enumerate all the uses”.2

Nevertheless, Pliny records thirty-nine uses of laserpicium, including treating coughs, sore throats, asthma, dog bites, hair loss, indigestion, poisoning, and feeding it to snakes to make them burst. He recommends against using it for toothache, claiming this drove a man to hurl himself from his own roof.

Among his questionable list, Pliny also recommends laserpicium taken orally to induce menstruation. Other Greek physicians also suggest the resin’s use both as a contraceptive and an early abortifacient. That is, the ancient world’s version of ‘the pill’ and the ‘morning after pill’ combined!

Childbirth was a risky business for most of human history, with high mortality rates for women and children. Poor families could not afford to raise many children, many men had mistresses, and prostitution was common.3 Demand for a safe and effective drug would have been high, but did it work?

Though we have no surviving specimen to test, there’s good reason to believe it was effective: other plants of the genus have demonstrated antifertility and abortifacient effects in trials on rodents and humans. A 1963 study found asafoetida effective as a contraceptive and abortifacient in humans.4 A 1985 study determined there was a less than one percent chance of pregnancy in female rats when an extract of 0.6mg/kg of ferujol, an active ingredient common in Ferula plants, was given orally within three days of coitus.5

The evidence is circumstantial, but the ancient world may have believed the plant a potent aphrodisiac.6 Surviving references in literature and poetry link it with male potency and sex. Ancient cultures often divined the medicinal use of a plant from its appearance; this philosophy today is called the sympathetic principle. Cyrenaic coins must have exaggerated the phallic shape of the plant stem and the testicle-like seeds, judging by the surviving Ferula. This was inspired marketing; only the resin was exported. Few outside Cyrene would see the plant.

So emblematic and essential was silphium, Greek Cyrene stamped it on their coins.
This silver coin (332-313 BC) depicts the god Apollo on its obverse. Source.

Certainly, laserpicium was popular and valuable. Cyrene’s economy boomed with exports of their native wonder-drug, becoming for a time the richest in North Africa.7 Universally desired, it was used as currency. Thousands of pounds of laserpicium were held alongside precious metals in the Roman treasury. Julius Caesar withdrew 1500 pounds from the treasury to help fund the Civil War in 49 BC.8

Alas, it was not to last: supply was drying up. As the price soared, Rome’s laserpicium sellers became notorious for passing off diluted or inferior products, such as asafoetida.9 When Emperor Nero (54 – 68 AD) offered to match real silphium for equal weight in gold, only a single stalk could be found.10 Without their unique export, Cyrene diminished.

Why, if it was so wildly popular, did it go extinct? Usually when humans want a plant, it’s a good deal for both. Take corn, for example. Once an obscure grass in South America, there are now one billion tonnes of corn grown around the world. Humans have bred modern corn into sterility with cobs so dense the plant will fall over and die before it can reproduce. Yet, there are more corn plants in the Americas than there are people.

The biggest hurdle silphium faced to corn-like success was biological. It only grew in the Cyrenian mountains. Neither the Greeks, nor the Egyptians, nor ultimately the Romans — who all seized and governed Cyrene from time to time — managed to grow the stubborn plant outside this niche.

Worse yet, it was impossible to cultivate and had to be picked wild.

The mountainous coastline of Eastern Libya, near ancient Cyrene. Source.

We may never know what quirk of biology, weather or geology prevented ancient growers from farming silphium or expanding its wild range. Many would have tried, given its value. One writer has suggested that it could have been a sterile hybrid, the chance offspring of cross-pollination between two other members of the Ferula genus, and propagated itself asexually through its roots.11

For the plant and the industry to survive, thoughtful regulation was needed. The Greeks limited their silphium harvest. By contrast, the bizarre Roman tax-farming system may have killed it off. 

The Roman Senate liked to keep its government small. Like, crazy small. A lot of what we today consider core duties of the state were privatised. Even the collection of provincial taxes was auctioned to the highest bidder. The winner became the publicanus — tax farmer — for that province. Tax farmers had just a few years to go raise as much wealth as they had predicted they could extract. Anything they could make beyond what they had bid, they kept.12

Despite the risk of a lean year, this unusual system made huge money for most tax farmers and for the Senate. The worst excesses were kept in check, at first. By the Late Republic, the system had become corrupt and exploitative. The Senate looked the other way as tax farmers bled their provinces of money and goods. Tax farmers often worked hand-in-hand with magistrates to defraud, rig and rob provinces. Such a system could not last. The emperors, preferring centralised control, put an end to tax farming.13

Relief carving of a Roman tax collector calculating his dues on an abacus. Source.

For Pliny, the blame for the extinction of silphium lay at the feet of these avaricious tax farmers and their magistrate cronies. Silphium needed careful management, and could not survive this grab-and-run government. It was likely harvested faster than it could grow. Grazing land was expanded and exploited. A quicker profit could be turned from sheep, especially if they had fed on silphium. Overgrazing was endemic as the region was stripped for quick cash.

If this wasn’t the final nail in silphium’s coffin, pissed-off locals might have been. The well-travelled Greek geographer, Strabo, describes how nomadic natives attacked the plant to destroy the province’s economy.14 On this campaign of eradication they uprooted plants and cut fences, freeing sheep to eat silphium into extinction.15

Without silphium to export, they must have hoped the Romans would lose interest and leave. It is a cruel irony that the very people who introduced the Greeks to silphium ended up eradicating the plant in a desperate attempt to drive invaders away.

The extinction of silphium set the stage for Cyrene’s own slow end. Eclipsed by Alexandria and Carthage, the city diminished in significance, was later destroyed by earthquake and not properly rebuilt. By the fourth century, the city was abandoned.16

The ruins of Cyrene, in modern day Libya. Source.

Perhaps silphium lives on stubbornly in the ruins. Extinction is difficult to pinpoint. This ancient plant has never been identified, and the region is difficult to search.  Many researchers and historians theorise that it could be one of the Ferula species today found in Libya, or it is still out there to be found.17 Regardless, 2020 is not the year to pack for Libya and hunt for it or enduring fame among historically inclined botanists.

Do not travel to Libya due to ongoing fighting, unstable security, and the high threat of terrorist attack and kidnapping.

Smartraveller, (2020) Australian Government.

Not to mention the international pandemic at time of writing.

The end of silphium may not have meant an end to pre-modern contraception or abortion. Fragmentary texts and references hint at a folk tradition of birth control. The efficacy is very difficult to assess, but some plants found again and again in the historic record show promising effects in recent studies.18

For more on these, try historian John Riddle’s Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance.


Brazan, Madison. “Controlling Their Bodies: Ancient Roman Women and Contraceptives” n.d., 13.“Cyrene, Libya.” Wikipedia, March 25, 2020.,_Libya&oldid=947231866.

Farnsworth, Norman R., Audrey S. Bingel, Geoffrey A. Cordell, Frank A. Crane, and Harry H. S. Fong. “Potential Value of Plants as Sources of New Antifertility Agents I.” Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 64, no. 4 (April 1, 1975): 535–98.

Gorvett, Zaria. “The Mystery of the Lost Roman Herb.” Accessed April 11, 2020.

Koerper, Henry, and A. L. Kolls. “The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage: Marketing a Medicinal Plant.” Economic Botany 53, no. 2 (April 1, 1999): 133–43.

McLeister, Kyle. “Publicani in the Principate” 2016.

Parejko, Ken. “Pliny the Elder’s Silphium: First Recorded Species Extinction.” Conservation Biology 17, no. 3 (2003): 925–27.

Pliny the Elder. “Book 19. The Nature and Cultivation of Flax and an Account of Various Garden Plants. Chapter 15: Laserpitium, Laser, and Maspetum.” In Natural History. Accessed March 28, 2020.

Riddle, John M. “Oral Contraceptives and Early-Term Abortifacients during Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages.” Past & Present, no. 132 (1991): 3–32.

Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Singh, M. M., D. N. Gupta, V. Wadhwa, G. K. Jain, N. M. Khanna, and V. P. Kamboj. “Contraceptive Efficacy and Hormonal Profile of Ferujol: A New Coumarin from Ferula Jaeschkeana1.” Planta Medica 51, no. 3 (June 1985): 268–70.

an image of the inside of a bee hive demonstrating the principal of bee space

Why bees dance, and other curiosities of my favorite insect

Having just become the proud attendant to a beehive on my property, I’ve spent the last few months in a swarm of bee research coming to deeply appreciate this complex, beautiful species.

Here are four of my favourite insights.

Ladies doing it for themselves

All the bees you see are females. Bee hives contain three kinds of bees: workers, drones and queens. The queen lays all the eggs, hatching drones and workers alike. With her elongated abdomen she can lay 1500 eggs per day.

Drones are males; their lives have but one purpose, to find another hives queen and mate. Their giant eyes and wings are used for spotting queens and racing to copulate. They do not contribute to the day to day work in the hive.

The workers are all sterile females. They clean, gather pollen and nectar, protect the hive, process the nectar into honey, look after the drones and queen, raise the young & dispose of the sick and dying.

Any bee you see outside a hive hanging around flowers is a female. All the bees you’ve ever seen are the workers since the drones and queen leave the hive only under very particular circumstances.

Note the physiological differences between (a) drone, (b) queen & (c) worker

The hive mind

A single bee in the garden may seem a unique entity, a distinct living organism. And yet without the queen, drones and thousands of fellow workers, the individual alone would get so cold it felt into a coma, starve, and die.

Is the entire hive better considered a single entity? If each bee is more akin to a cell in a body then the hive is a super-organism. Super-organisms, such as the hive, show an incredible level of coordination and collaboration. 

An example of this incredible coordination is that the humidity, temperature and airflow in a bee hive is precisely regulated, with temperature always between 32 – 35°C. This creates ideal conditions for the growing brood – the bee young. If the hive is too cold, they beat their wings harder, heat pouring off their thousands of hard-working bodies. If the hive is too hot, large groups of bees cluster by the entrance and fan their wings to circulate air through the hive.

Should the hive detect an infection, the workers will deliberately raise the internal temperature to fight the infection off – just as a human body would use a fever.

Bees also use this technique to kill attacking wasps. They will ball up around the wasp, raise their body temperature and cook it to death.

In this super-organism there is no central point of decision making. The idea of a queen as a ‘ruler’ is a misconception handed down in our terminology from the ancient world. The queen is primarily an egg-laying machine. She cannot survive without the workers, who guide and push her around the hive.

This conception of a single entity challenges the boundaries of our thinking. Consider that each part of this mind is a distinct separate piece that independently responds to changes in conditions and that can leave the organism (to forage). All this incredible coordination produced by minds smaller than an apple seed.

Dancing for dinner

Brilliant coordination requires brilliant communication. In the dark inner world of the hive, wafting rich in the smells of honey and pollen, bees strum their abdomen against the wax walls of the honeycomb to create humming and vibrations. Bees walk on a noticeboard singing out with messages. But, the information constantly communicated through these vibrations is not yet fully understood.

Bees also communicate through chemical signals, like ants. A queen out hunting for drones to inseminate her will release a unique pheromone to attract them. Guard workers in a threatened hive release an alarm pheromone. Beekeepers use smoke when opening a hive as it suppresses this alarm chemical.

One aspect of bee communication that is well understood is dancing. When a forager returns with a belly full of nectar from a rich field, she wishes to share this wonderful find with her fellow bees.

Her message will need to convey only two distinct pieces of information: how far to fly, and which direction. She will begin waggling run, shaking her body from side to side like a frenetic dancer. The first piece of information is easy: the length of her dance run translates to distance from the hive. A second of dancing might, for example, equal a kilometer of flying.

As to the direction, on honeycomb the meeting of the hexagonal cells forms a vertical line. In her dance, dancing directly up the line would indicate dancing towards the sun. Each degrees she deviates from the line indicates a corresponding degree away from the sun. Thus her dance direction will indicate the direction her fellow bees need to fly.

If her find is really rich and tasty, she will repeat the dance many times. Bees she bumps into will also practice this new dance and learn the location. Just before the hungry foragers depart the hive, she will share a little nectar with them – helping them to identify the smells and tastes they are seeking.

(A) At the end of her dance she loops left or right and starts again, hence the curving return lines. (B) The two bits of information conveyed are direction relative to the sun and distance.

Insect cities

Few creatures beyond humans could be said to build. Bees not only build, they develop a whole city with elegance, speed and adaptability. This unique structure is constructed entirely by the worker bees.

The bee building material is wax, and their basic unit of design is the hexagon. A bee forms a hexagon cell by extruding wax from a special gland on their abdomen and forming a hexagonal cocoon around their body. Many bees repeat this process at precise spacing apart from one another forming a hexagonal lattice – the honeycomb.

Cells can be cribs for young larvae as they form into bees, or storage containers for pollen or honey. They can be capped to seal in the honey or protect the young.

The builders tightly fit each double sided wall of hexagonal comb to optimise airflow, humidity and temperature. Close spacing also makes it difficult for intruders to access the precious honey. Hive building is as much about security as function.

This precise 9.525 millimetre relationship between each wall can create fascinating designs. As the builders develop their home if one wall curves slightly, each following wall will have to exaggerate the expression of this curve. This necessity creates incredible designs to efficiently fill in whichever space they have chosen for their home.

This comb wall relationship so beautifully shown in this picture is known as bee space.

I could wax on about bees for hours, but I’ll have to save some of it for another article. If you’re interested in further reading, I’d highly recommend looking into native bees. European honeybees are but one among 5,700 known bee species. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley is also a superb and accessible starting point. This captivating read explains a great deal of the science including Seeley’s own pioneering research with a particular focus on bee decision-making which I’ve not even touched on here.

Tales from Rat City

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The aforementioned project is live and kicking!

Tales from Rat City is a Ballarat history podcast that delves into the dark and seedy stories from Ballarat’s rough Goldfields past. We tell real stories, and explore the violent and bizarre world that was – for a time – Australia’s most populated and richest city. Filled to the brim with fortune seekers, and those that preyed upon them. Think Deadwood, with a Gothic Victorian vibe.

It’s a total blast to make and I’m incredibly lucky to work with a small team of talent people to produce it. I am also super privileged to be able to utilise experienced actors to bring to life our primary source material.

We’ll be releasing new episodes monthly, with about 6 to come out this year. At the time of writing we have two released and a third in the works. You can check it all out on the website, or subscribe using any of the major podcast services.

One of Those Damnable Hiatuses

I’m sorry to announce that IW is going on a bit of a hiatus while I work on another project. The good news is my other project is a Ballarat history podcast I’m working on in conjunction with a local historian who specialises in quirky folklore and odd local tales. Ballarat’s rich history is a veritable untapped gold mine (also, you know, full of many actual prolific gold mines). We’ve got some really exciting content and I’m hoping to see it start to come out in March.I’ll post links when that happens.

Once the podcast research and writing is over, I should have some more time to revive IW and get more of the many articles I have trapped in my brain onto a page.

How Drug Prohibition Created Crack Cocaine

For thirteen years the United States conducted an interesting experiment in banning a drug. Nation-wide it banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol. If you lived in the US between 1920 – 1933 and wanted to drink alcohol, you’d have to buy it illegally via the booming black market that sprung up literally overnight. No other period in history offers such a clean example of the effects of banning and then repealing the ban on a single substance.

Prohibition was extensively lobbied for in the US by the temperance movement whose adherents felt that alcoholism was destructive to American families, a major health concern, a cause of poverty, and ungodly. They managed to convince some states to ban alcohol in the late 1800s, but were ineffective at the federal level. When World War 1 broke out the Temperance movement cleverly combined their message with a rising wave of anti-German sentiment and argued there was a linkage between alcohol sales by the American-German owned breweries (such as Anheuser-Busch) and a weakening of the US fighting spirit. They claimed that grain going into breweries was lost potential food for soldiers. Finally they had momentum at the Federal level and in 1920s the US passed the Volstead Act, making the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal nationwide.

Temperance campaigners linked anti-German sentiment, US patriotism and Prohibition in cartoons such as this one to great success.

One of the most important to understand effects of Prohibition was that it made alcohol far more dangerous. Softer drinks, like beer and cider, became virtually non-existent as the logic of the black market perversely rewarded those who could manufacture or smuggle in the strongest alcohol. A bootlegger who transported pure grain alcohol was regardless taking on the same level of risk as one who transported a lesser proportion of alcohol per volume of beverage to lesser profit. Far more profitable and less risky for a bootlegger to deliver an illegal bar 30 bottles of moonshine a night which a proprietor could water down to serve far more customers.


Which is of course why everyone in The Great Gatsby smashes back cocktails, it’s the most accessible beverage. And not just any cocktails. In particular, the era favoured cocktails which were strongly flavoured and sweetened so as to mask the taste of the rough, crudely and inconsistently manufactured high strength liquor. This spirit, cooked up in secret shoddy distilleries or industrial alcohols turned to illicit use,  was commonly called “bathtub gin”, “white lightning”, or “rot-gut”.

Part of Prohibition legislation required companies manufacturing industrial alcohols to add toxic chemicals as a deterrent to people who might try to drink it. When bootleggers did not properly remove this poison in their makeshift labs, drinkers would suffer blindness, paralysis, or death. It has been estimated that almost 30,000 people died in this manner, while roughly 100,000 suffered permanent damage. It’s the Prohibition era that popularises the phrase to ‘drink yourself blind’, because that was literally happening to people. There were also documented cases of people injecting alcohol.

As these anti-Prohibition marchers demonstrate, access to ‘softer’ alcohols was an issue during Prohibition as those not willing to abstain risked drinking more dangerous substances.

You might wonder how a bootlegging gang producing inferior and occasionally deadly products did not lose out to gangs producing better product. However, in a no holds barred black market quality of product is irrelevant as long as you maintain monopoly through violence. The more ruthlessly a gang maintains its monopoly and reputation, the better they secure their market access from competitors. During this period violence caused by gang turf wars sky-rocketed. As did corruption of public officials due to the extraordinary amount of money moving through the black market gangs. Also many individuals, including law enforcement, did not agree with Prohibition and felt comfortable to turn a blind eye to such ‘lesser’ crime.

A classic example of the way product quality was irrelevant to gang success was Al Capone in Chigaco. Al Capone was the head of the Italian Chicago Outfit, a gang who originally operated only on the South Side of Chicago but eventually operated across the US as their network of illegal operations expanded. Capone’s bootleggers ran a product generally considered by Chicago’s drinkers to be rougher and inferior to that of their rival Irish North Side Gang. In fact a particular cocktail widely served in the era and known as the South Side Fizz was developed specifically to mask the poorer taste of this liquor.

The North Side Gang and Capone’s Outfit initially began Prohibition with a truce to split up the city and service their respective districts exclusively. Inevitably a war broke out and despite being the supplier of a superior product, the North Side Gang were comprehensively defeated by Capone’s violent and ruthless hitmen. After that the only option that remained to Chicago drinkers, and other areas where his gang monopolised the market, was whatever the Outfit provided.

St. Valentine's Day Massacre, 1929
The St Valentine’s Day Massacre – at which Capone’s men used machine guns assassinate leading figures of the North Side Gang – shocked America and made Capone’s Outfit a household name.

Officials struggled to capture those responsible for these crimes as much of law enforcement in Chicago was on Capone’s payroll though they eventually succeeded to some extent. Capone, allegedly, had some of the perpetrators of the massacre killed to avoid them falling to police hands and to consolidate his own power.

It is worth noting that overall drinking in the US probably went into decline during this period and numbers of drinkers in the US remained lower until 1940, even after Prohibition ended. I say probably because data about drinking levels during Prohibition is super difficult, as most of it was off the books, and some historians argue that in fact the change in drinking in this period was negligible.

If there was a decline, however, it represented people who were not problematic drinkers in the first place. As actually preventing access to alcohol was near-universally unsuccessful, those that were wanted it or felt they needed it always had access. The people who stopped or cut back during Prohibition were never the kind of problematic drinkers that the law was hoping to reform in the first place. For children (under-age drinking shot up during Prohibition), anyone who kept drinking especially the poor, and serious alcoholics, Prohibition was dangerous if not outright deadly.

But thankfully Prohibition ended, and while we all know while heavy drinking of alcohol might cause problems for some, the majority of people are fine and the experiment of Prohibition is widely considered to have been a mistake.

Now let’s consider cocaine.

Somewhere between 8000 – 3000 years ago native South American cultures began chewing on the leaves of the coca plant. It is a natural stimulant that suppressed appetite, gave them strength and energy and numbed pain. Coca leaves contain around 0.25 – 0.77% cocaine so the effects are markedly milder and do not produce the euphoric high and mania we associate with the isolated active ingredient: cocaine. The effects have been likened to those of caffeine.

Native American cultures did not consider coca leaves to be dangerous in any respect, and indeed given the limited quantity of cocaine in each leaf it is virtually impossible to overdose or suffer adverse effects. While not all Native America cultures chewed or drank concoctions containing coca leaves, those that did considered it both a medicine and religious sacrament. The popular and risk free use of coca leaves as a mild stimulant continues unbroken throughout South American history right up to today.

Between 1855 – 60 German chemists developed and improved a process to isolate cocaine from the coca leaves. Cocaine rapidly became a popular ingredient across the US, UK and Europe as a topical anaesthetic and injected general anaesthetic, as well as recreationally as a stimulant in beverages and snuff alongside caffeine and tobacco.

The popular understanding of cocaine and other narcotics in this period varied remarkably. To some they were part of a pernicious foreign influence on white culture, to others they were remarkable medicines whose potential was just beginning to be understood and to others they were simply a product to be sold like caffeine or alcohol. For example, Antarctic explorers Shackleton and Scott both took cocaine tablets with them to Antarctica to assist with crossing long distances. Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes used cocaine to assist him in solving cases. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the stories from 1891 – 1921 and interestingly ultimately Doyle has Sherlock’s sidekick Watson assist to wean him off the drug. Famously, the original recipe for Coca Cola included cocaine which is where the beverage gets its name.

Cocaine infused Coca Cola was, ironically, sold as a temperance beverage. That is, as a moral alternative to alcohol.

In the 1910s/20s the US trend towards Prohibition of alcohol also included the criminalisation of other substances. The US government had already recognised the addictive and dangerous potential of high doses of substances such as cocaine and opium and had passed laws in various states regulating sale, as well as a federal law required the labelling of medicines that contained such substances in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Criminalisation, however, was a different matter. Often the justification for criminalisation relied on racist fearmongering and outright falsehoods. For example, cocaine was widely reported to be linked with crime amongst black Americans. Opium was linked with the Chinese corrupting white women, marijuana with Mexicans committing rape and murder. Take for example these comments by The Opium Commissioner of the United States, Hamilton Wright, at the first international meeting on drug regulation in 1909:

“…it has been authoritatively stated that cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes of the South and other sections of the country… One of the most unfortunate phases of smoking opium in this country is the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives or cohabitating with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities.”

New York Times article by prominent criminalisation crusader and doctor Edward Williams, 1914. Prohibition here refers to the restrictions imposed in some states prior to Federal adoption.

Wright, who himself was an alcoholic and later fired as he kept coming to work drunk, and his fellow crusaders succeeded in convincing the US to regulate and restrict the sale of cocaine, opium and marijuana. This was achieved in the US by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 which criminalised these substances, overnight turning drug addicts into criminals and creating a black market for the distribution and sale of these substances. Regulation followed by criminalisation occurred at around this time across the world, but became widespread during this era.

After this cocaine pretty much fell off the radar until the 1970s and 1980s when it became linked with various famous celebrities causing an upsweep in popularity as a status symbol drug. Due to the perverse nature of black markets, cocaine importers in this era had every incentive to deliver a product of both the highest possible strength of effect and the highest possible addictive potential. At some point in the early ’80s they started selling crack cocaine: the extremely pure, smokable crystalline form of cocaine.


Crack was ideal to dealers and importers as it could be sold in smaller quantities, to more people. It was cheap, simple to produce, ready to use, and highly profitable for dealers to develop. In effect, criminalisation had created a market flooded with crack cocaine to the exclusion of all weaker equivalents just as Prohibition had done with the often deadly rot-gut.

And crack was both more addictive, and more dangerous. In 1985, cocaine-related hospital emergencies in the US rose by 12 percent, from 23,500 to 26,300. In 1986, these incidents increased 110 percent, from 26,300 to 55,200. Between 1984 and 1987, cocaine incidents increased to 94,000. Cocaine became the third most commonly abused substance in the US after marijuana and prescription drugs, and remains so today. Just as under Prohibition, illegal cocaine usage also affects children as there is little incentive to stop dealers from peddling it to kids.

As gang wars again exploded across crack affected US cities in the 1980s, the tendency was to blame the effects of crack cocaine and the disintegrating impoverished black communities themselves. Anyone arguing that these issues were in fact symptoms of criminalisation was treated, or attempting to distinguish between stronger and weaker forms of cocaine was treated with derision. And to be fair it was difficult to argue that cocaine should be de-criminalised when the evidence for the negative effects to both individual health and wider communities was clear. American culture no longer had much awareness of the milder versions of the drug nor the negative effects of criminalisation.

Whereas in Peru where coca tea is still widely drunk, responded to cocaine or crack cocaine addiction (they are after all the same drug) by treating addicts with coca tea. This proved to be highly effective. Relapses fell from an average of four times per month before treatment with coca tea to one during the treatment. The duration of abstinence increased from an average of 32 days prior to treatment to 217 days during treatment.

And similarly, the epic amounts of money to be made in the illicit cocaine trade has been shown to have a massive impact on the corruption of US officials in every single agency whose domains overlap with the imposing this criminalisation. Just for example, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report in 1989 implicated CIA officials in supporting Nicaraguan rebels in smuggling and producing cocaine.

And, just as with Prohibition and in the original criminalisation debates of the 1920s, racism and fearmongering was part of the picture. Crack cocaine usage has been linked in the US media and by politicians with black communities, though it correlates more closely with poor education and poverty which often coincides with being black in the US. Thus it was widely considered in the US, and still is in some circles, to be a black problem. Cocaine on the other hand is linked with more affluent white middle class Americans and is seen to be a lesser issue

Even the law in the US has been argued as reflecting this racism and disparity of concern between substances. From 1986 to 2010 the law required a 100:1 ratio to be used by judges in considering the amount of crack versus powder cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory minimum prison sentences – meaning that possession of five grams of crack cocaine would mandate the same minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine. Thankfully this was reduced to an 18:1 ratio in 2010, as evidence has shown the differences between the two drugs to be exaggerated and many have complained the discrepancy reflects a racial bias.

2007 American political cartoon criticising the 100:1 sentencing ratio

The single biggest different between Prohibition and today is that during Prohibition everyone alive remembered an era of regulated but de-criminalised alcohol consumption, and thus could clearly see that criminalisation was exacerbating the issue, not the alcohol itself. When it comes to cocaine (and other substances) is as though Prohibition had lasted 100 years, and the only form of alcohol anyone could recall was pure industrial alcohol frequently laced with poison. In such a world, arguing for the legalisation of alcohol would sound crazy as the only thing people associated it with was hardcore addicts living such lives of misery that they were willing to risk blindness and death in order to drink.

However, when Prohibition ended the US did not explode in a frenzy of drunken mania and death. Rather rates for alcohol consumption remained fairly consistent while adverse health outcomes and crime declined because people who were willing to drink rot gut were happier and safer drinking legal alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups first began in the early 1930s as people who did wish to seek support for alcoholism were able to without fear of criminal conviction. The gangs lost a major source of income and tellingly across the 20th century, all the remaining major American crime syndicates moved into selling other illegal substances.

Thankfully as the US is starting to legalise marijuana and countries like Portugal have totally decriminalised possession of all substances, the hard learned lessons of Prohibition are perhaps finally being re-discovered.

This article has focused on the comparison between alcohol and cocaine for sheer simplicity, but I invite readers to consider applying the same logic to all other modern narcotics and see if a little research yields surprisingly similar results. In future an article may look into the fascinating history of opium and heroin, and the history of psychedelics.

This website does not advocate the use of illegal substances, merely open-mindedness, compassion, and sensible drug policy.

Squid ‘Pseudomorphs’, the French un-Revolution & Dog Wool

  • Squids use their ink in a more complex way that you might imagine. When feeling threatened by an approaching predator (or human diver), they might turn black, and eject mixtures of dark ink and mucus to create clouds of ink that will linger and hold shape for longer. These ink clouds, called ‘pseudomorphs’, are roughly the same volume as the squid.  The squid will then turn pale and dash away. The confused predator will strike for the dark shape, losing track of the squid. Some species (such as sea turtles) having been tricked a few times by pseudo-morphs, stop trying to attack squids. Squids have also been seen using their ink when hunting. Squids sometimes spray a cloud of ink broadly around their prey, leaving it disorientated and unable to determine where the attacking squid will strike from.


  • While we’re on the topic, the colour tone sepia was originally named for the kind of squid from which a brownish ink was traditionally derived. This ink was used widely by the Ancient Greeks and Romans and remained an occasionally used artists’ ink until the invention of synthetic inks in the 19th and 20th century. If you ever felt crafting in Minecraft was at times implausible, consider that there was a time artists and writers looked to catch a fresh squid and harvest its ink in order to ply their craft.

Leonardo da Vinci, for example, used sepia squid inks.


  • There is a French political party that is seeking to restore the monarchy. While the French revolted against, deposed and executed their King in 1792,  they did have later Kings and (self-titled) ‘Emperors’. The last true king/emperor of France was Napoleon III, who initiated and then spectacularly lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1870/71. So for around 145 years France has been a republic, and yet the Alliance Royale political party regularly campaign in French elections on a platform to restore this office. The party has not said who exactly they would like to place on the throne, though they have identified the 83 year old Henri d’Orleans as a viable candidate.


  • The name Topeka, the capital city of Kansas, can be pronounced entirely without moving air over your vocal chords. While people normally aspirate (the fancy term for passing breath over your vocal chords to make sounds) to pronounce To – Pe – Ka, each sound can be made using just the clicking of your lips and tongue. Such noises are called click consonants, and you can learn lots more about them in this great video by linguistics YouTuber Artifexian.


  • There existed an Eastern Mediterranean island Bronze Age culture in the Aegean Sea around Greece/Turkey around 3000 – 2000 BC of which virtually nothing is now known save for their extremely striking white stone sculptures. These remarkable modernist looking geometric sculptures were made by a culture that has been dubbed Cycladic Culture. Such was the demand for Cycladic sculptures that a black market trade sprung up mid last century. The extent of the looting means that the context is missing for these rare pieces and we may never know what they meant to the communities who made them.

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  • In 1959 an experiment was set up by Soviet scientist to attempt study evolution and domestication processes by selecting from a breeding population of red foxes for the most docile and tame behaviours. Behaviours such as tail wagging and licking the hands of researchers were selected for using controlled breeding. Over the 57 years since the project began this has lead to a distinct tame ‘domesticated fox’ population which exhibits a wider array of fur colours, tends to raise its tail and droops its ears like a dog, and is quite tame. Hand-reared wild foxes will be tame for the first few years, but once they reach adulthood they generally become hostile to humans. These experimental domesticated Russian foxes can be bought, but you’d need to live somewhere that would permit their importation and approximately US $8000:


  • Speaking of lesser known domesticates, there was a native American dog bred for its wool! The sadly extinct breed of Salish Wool Dog was unique to the Salish Peoples of the Eastern Coastal US. The Salish Peoples raised their wool dogs in isolated populations on islands or in gated caves to prevent their intermingling with their non-wool village dogs. The white wool dogs were of the Spitz dog breed which includes huskies and Shiba Inu. The blankets created from their fur were highly prized by native communities. The dogs gradually became interbred and lost their unique characteristics thanks to the introduction of sheep and the break-up of native communities due to introduced diseases. The last identified Salish Wool Dog died in 1940.

A Salish Wool Dog in a 19th c. painting of Coast Salish weaving

The Quietest Place in the UN, How to Speak Hobo & Antarctic ‘Natives’

In no particular order, we submit this list of strange facts for your perusal:

  • In 1978 in an attempt to bolster their claim to Antarctic territory, Argentina airlifted a pregnant citizen to Antarctica so that her child would be born there. The first ‘native Antarctican’, Emilio Palma, was part of a wider political push by Argentina to secure their claim on the continent which is not recognised by any of the other Antarctic Treaty signatories, and which overlaps considerably with the British and Chilean claim. In total now there have been 11 ‘native Antarticans’ – that is, people born on the continent. Of these 8 were Argentinean who have also sent the most citizens of any nation to the continent as part of their political campaign to reinforce their claim.



  • Saliva is just filtered blood. Your salivary glands filter out the haemoglobin and various other components that have no place in your mouth. This is why some tests, such as those measuring hormone levels, can be conducted by swabbing your saliva.


  • “Chimpanzees, with whom we share 98 percent of our DNA, have strong social inequality. They display a dominance hierarchy or “pecking order” in which alpha individuals dominate all others, beta individuals dominate all but the alphas, and so on down the hierarchy to the lowliest omega.

    When we look at hunters and gatherers, we see a dominance hierarchy as clear as that of chimpanzees. It is, however, a hierarchy in which the alphas are invisible supernatural beings, too powerful to be overthrown by conspiracy or alliance, and capable of causing great misfortune when disobeyed. The betas are invisible ancestors who do the bidding of the alphas and protect their living descendants from harm. The reason human foragers seem, superficially, to have no dominance hierarchy is because no living human can be considered more than a gamma within this system.

The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery & Empire – Flannery & Marcus


  • Wikipedia lists a wonderful glossary of 1940s hobo slang, which gives great insight into life within this marginalised itinerant group. Some of the lingo has become more mainstream, such as a the big house [prison] and main drag [main street], but plenty was new to me:
    Barnacle a person who sticks to one job a year or more
    Boil Up specifically, to boil one’s clothes to kill lice and their eggs; generally, to get oneself as clean as possible
    California blankets newspapers, intended to be used for bedding on a park bench
    Carrying the banner keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing
    Easy mark a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
    Road stake the small amount of money a hobo may have in case of an emergency
    Sky pilot a preacher or minister

    Hobos also utilised a code of symbols that could be scratched into surfaces to act as a guide for others in the know:



  • The United Nations Headquarters in New York features a meditation room personally designed and opened in the 1950s by then Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Dag felt the UN headquarters needed a place of silence and stillness for world leaders to come in moments of critical decision making. Dag, a man deserving of his own article for his remarkable life and impact on the UN, wished the room to feel accessible to people of any religious or atheistic background.

    Personally, I think a room dedicated to silence in a building used for critical, far reaching debate and decision making is a very cool idea. But the internet is rife with  angry conspiracy theorists who believe that this room is evidence of the influence at the UN of the Illuminati/New World Order/Masons. Terrified Christians who fear that it means the UN is run by Satanic/Occult/Pagan Cults. And people who can’t pick so argue all of the above.

    The centre of the room features a six and a half ton block of rough hewn iron ore. Dag wrote of this: “We all have within us a centre of stillness surrounded by silence. The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction, between war and peace. Of iron man has forged his swords, of iron he has also made his ploughshares. Of iron he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it?”

    UN Meditation Room. There are low stools against the unseen back wall.

Rediscovering the Inka: The Land of the Four Quarters

In history nothing gets more exciting, at least for me, that finding a culture that at very first impression feels alien and inaccessibly different. A sense of looking at a culture where the very certainties and fundamentals of what I might think a civilisation might display are all absent or changed beyond recognition. Where, to even attempt to imagine the thoughts and feelings of day to day citizens is as yet beyond me. All this excites me because it means there is something worth reading more about, to get inside and try to understand their alternative ways of thinking, living and organising.

One of the great areas of human history to brush up against this sensation is the wonderful and insufficiently explored world of the pre-Columbian Americas. It is a great swathe of human history that is rarely depicted in modern films/TV & which holds almost no place in popular culture aside from the most cursory stereotypes. And that’s quite understandable, for a long time there has been little understood about many of those cultures. However, a great wealth of research across the Americas in the last few decades and provided an increasingly rich picture of technology, life, governance, religion & culture. The great sweep of these breakthroughs and insights are well depicted in Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

The whole book is amazing, and each culture depicted within in fascinating and distinct. I might try to draw more from it in another article, but for an excellent example of the ‘dizzyingly alien culture’ sensation, you could do little better than look at the Inka.

Award-winning Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi captured images of native life and culture in the 1930s. These people lived then (and now) much as they lived under the Inka.

The Inca existed a remarkably short time, having risen to the pre-eminent power of South America only a few generations prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Their pattern of rule was remarkably effective at absorbing their neighbours, leading to a gradual expansion. Their territory at it’s hight extended across the central West coast of South America. Unlike any other dense major empire, their territory was largely very high altitude. With the Inka there is this odd sense of seeing the nascent rise of an monolithic culture & empire, something very unusual cut shorter than it was to otherwise endure by outside forces.

Inka stonework, totally intact despite centuries of neglect – Martin Chambi

In some areas Inka technology was both wholly distinct and more advanced than that of the invading conquistadors. While the Inka had not learned to smelt iron into steel, indeed they had almost no non-ornamental use for metal, they and most Andean cultures had a very different approach to building and tools, a wholly unique and still undecipherable form of storing information using fibres and knot, a highly structured society lacking in both currency and markets, and all this supported by an exceptionally sustainable form of nature-mimicking agriculture.

Small modern example of an South American reed boat

“Mechanical engineering depends on two main forces: compression and tension. Both are employed in European technology, but the former is more common – the arch is a classic example of compression. By contrast, tension was the Inka way.

To make boats, Andean cultures wove together reeds rather than cutting up trees into planks and nailing them together. Although smaller than European ships, these vessels were not puddle-muddlers; Europeans first encountered… an Inka ship sailing near the equator, three hundred miles from its home port, under a fine load of cotton sails. It had a crew of twenty and was the size of a Spanish caravelle.

Famously, the Inka used foot-thick cables to make suspension bridges across mountain gorges. Because Europe had no bridges without supports below, they initially terrified the Spanish.”


An Inka suspension bridge. Each year local villagers come and rehang new ropes. Spanish accounts report bridges supporting the weight of armoured and mounted troops.


But these people the Spanish encountered certainly did not call their culture or country ‘Inka‘. Inka is a position, it means ruler or lord. The Inka are the ruling class of a people who would have referred to themselves as Tawantinsuyu. A suyu is an region/province, and Tawan-tin-suyu means ‘the four suyu’.

The Tawantinsuyu referred to the four administrative regions that made up the empire, at the meeting point of which sat the capital, Qosqo. Qosqo was divided into four regions representing the four provinces. In a system not unlike that used to keep wayward nobles in line in Tokugawa Japan, all of the lesser lords were required to maintain a house in their corresponding quarter and live part the year in the capital. The suyu streched NW, NE, SW & SE from the capital. Through roughly equal in size at first, their significance changed as the empire grew bounded by the highest reaches of the Andies to the East and the ocean to the West.


The city of Qosqo was accessed by four roads, from the four provinces and at their meeting point in the centre of the this carefully planned city was an enormous plaza of white sand. The square was edged by massive stone temples and manors, the exterior walls of which were covered in plates of solid gold polished to reflect the sun. The entire effect was a space of extraordinary light, symbolising the sun god at the centre of the cosmos.

This whole city was a symbolic display of the Tawantinsuyu understanding of the cosmos. In the Andes, half the year the Milky Way appears in the sky running diagonally ‘North-East’ to ‘South-West’ and the other half slanting ‘South-East’ to ‘North-West’. The Tawantinsuyu understood the Milky Way to be a sort of divine river providing life-giving water to the Mother Earth, it’s shifting roughly enough corresponding to the wet and dry seasons.

In all, the geography of Qosqo and the wider empire was a sort of mirror to the nature of the universe. All this was over seen by a patriarchal hereditary Emperor known as the Sapa  Inka (“the only ruler”).

The Spanish demolished and built over the foundations of Qosqo, now known as Cusco. Here you can see Inka stone foundations beneath the Spanish church.


Layered onto this cosmography was a system of sacred lines connecting sacred sites, tombs, and stones. Carved symbols, significant sites, and lines lay across the capital and out into the empire. A Jesuit missionary to South America wrote that, just to keep track of this abundance of shrines and lines the empire ‘had more than a thousand men in the city of Qosco who did nothing but remember these things.’

This might not be quite accurate. Spanish chronicles talk of Inka consulting knotted strings called khipu by running their fingers across their knotted and braided surfaces. It was assumed that the entwined and knotted strings were perhaps used as a mnemonic aid or abacus. However it has been discovered that this system was also used as a totally unique form of writing, a system of information storage. Unfortunately the Spanish destroyed all the khipi they could get their hands on, as they were angered when local histories contradicted their accounts.

Six hundred are known to have survived. Of these 20% seem to be non-numerical, that perhaps store writing. The unique nature of this system is telling in that our language barely has words for it. To describe a three-dimensional system of woven braided, coloured and knotted ropes as writing is grossly inaccurate and yet one of the few words we have for ‘storing information’. The closest comparison I can think of is a sort of 3D Braille tapestry. The complexity and unique nature of khipu is such that it has not yet been decoded, but it is possible that it soon will be.



Amazingly, the Inka elite built an empire that had no need for currency or markets. In a sort of extremely autocratic socialism, everything was provided by the state which owned everything. People were assigned work units by age and gender and when within these units they were fed, clothed and housed by the state. And this system was extremely effective, their warehouses were overflowing with surplus goods and they were able to literally eradicate hunger.

When the Inka elite were to absorb a new territory they did so with exceptional patience. The Sapa Inka, Pachakuti (a self picked name meaning ‘World Shaker’), ruled from 1438 -1471 AD. During his reign he established a pattern of crafty annexations and expansions. Take the coastal valley of Chincha. In 1450 Pachakuti sent a major army headed by his adopted brother to visit this valley. The frightened local leaders were amazed when he showered them in gifts and assured them of his good intentions. In return for the gifts he asked only to set up a permanent outpost staffed by Inka elites and to open trade.

A decade later another force arrived, lead by Pachakuti’s son. He befriended the local leadership and explained the benefits of laying out their governance along the same lines as the Tawantinsuyu. The valley’s leadership, impressed and awed by the Inka, drafted the entire population into service, dividing them into cohorts by age and sex and given them a strict hierarchy. These work units were given tasks such as building roads to connect the valley to Qosqo, developing surplus agricultural land and building warehouses to store it – all under the guidance of the Inka elites.

Pot Seller – Martin Chambi

Around 1490 came a visit from an army headed by Pachakuti’s grandson bringing escalating demands for land and duties for the labour cohorts. The generous reciprocity was fading, but by now the Chincha leaders’ economy was enmeshed in the Tawantinsuyu system, they had hundreds or thousands of people doing the empire biding, and they were surrounded by other Inka outpost communities and vassals. It was easier to maintain positions as lesser elites within the Inka hierarchy than risk conflict.

In all newly absorbed territory, such as Chincha valley, the Inka now forcibly resettled work groups from other far away areas of the empire in large numbers and gave them land. The newcomers were encouraged to keep their own dress and customs. To communicate these groups had to use Ruma Suni, the language of their conquerors. In the short term this created political tensions the Inka exploited to keep the incorporated local elites weak, and in the long term would have eroded differences between the groups leading to a homogeneous Tawantinsuyu culture.

The next Sapa Inca continued Pachakuti’s expansions, doubling the empires size. Then came a civil war between two of his sons on who would lead the empire. The winner inherited an empire stretching basically the entire West coast of South America. It had reached perhaps its natural apex, with communication stretched to a maximum. Without horses, communication had to be conducted by runners along the extensive system of stairs and roads running the empires’ Andean spine.

Native men in traditional dress, much as the Inka runners would have worn

Because the Inka believed that idleness lead to rebellion, the Emperor had work brigades undertaking endless construction projects. Some practical, but some pointless such as moving a mountain from one location to another and building three nearly parallel highways to connect two towns.

In a pattern that was repeated over much of the Americas, waves of diseases introduced by Europeans, but especially smallpox, may have killed as much as 50% of the Tawantinsuyu population, not to mention the ensuring civil war created by the power vacuum. All this even before the Spanish and Tawantinsuyu met. It is perhaps no surprise that the divided, war-weary and decimated Inka system fell quite as easily as it did to the conquistadors. That fateful encounter and it’s aftermath is an excellent story in itself but one for another article.