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The First Americans

September 24, 2012

Not too long ago, I wrote about a controversy that’s been raging in American archaeology for years: Who were the first people to reach America? For most of the 20th century, the question was considered settled — big-game hunters from Asia, crossing via an exposed bridge of land that is now under the Bering Strait. Questioning the orthodoxy of the “Clovis-first” theory was a career-killer.
That’s all changed. My piece for the New York Times runs through the basics and got a great response, hitting #4 on the paper’s most-read list for a day or two. I got into a lot more detail in a story for Nature. New findings in the fields of ancient DNA and modern population genetics, along with traditional archaeological finds and re-interpretations of old discoveries, have overturned the Clovis model and re-opened the question of who the first Americans were and how and when they got to the Western Hemisphere.
It was fun to come back to this stuff, which I’ve been following for a while. Back in 2008, I actually visited Paisley, Oregon, where some of the best DNA evidence for pre-Clovis Americans has been found.

Aerial reconnaissance, 70 years later

May 19, 2012

Last year I interviewed a German geographer with an interesting business: Locating bombs that fell more than half a century ago. Starting with a trove of Allied aerial photographs he bought from a retired teacher, Hans-Georg Carls started a consulting firm that specializes in locating unexploded WWII ordnance. So many duds fell during Allied bombing raids over Germany — which unloaded 2.7 million tons of bombs on the Fatherland — that the country is still terrorized occasionally by massive bombs buried under cities and in random fields. When construction firms are planning a pipeline project or parking lot — or just about anything else that might require heavy equipment — they hire Luftbilddatenbank to analyze old photos taken before and after bombing raids to see if there’s a risk that they might run into WWII-era bombs.

The firm is based just outside of Wuerzburg, a city that was nearly wiped out in a single raid during the war. I wrote about their work for Spiegel Online, and the article was accompanied by a great photo gallery that shows the before-and-after pictures of bombing raids.

Prehistoric porn?

May 19, 2012

The oldest known sculpture of a human being was found in a German cave not far from the Swabian city of Tuebingen a few years ago. When it was pieced back together, it gave archaeologists a bit of a start. Calling the palm sized figurine stylized is a euphemism: It’s basically all tits and, well, vulva. There’s no head, just a little toggle, and the legs are mere suggestive stumps. (The whole thing is made form a single piece of mammoth tusk, and dates to between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago.) The tantalizing question, of course, is what it was for: Was it carved by men as some sort of prehistoric porno, or was it intended as something else entirely, like a fertility totem or a charm to help women through childbirth?

I wrote about the “Venus of Hohlefels” for Smithsonian magazine, which was putting together a special section on “perception.” It’s a great example of how modern preconceptions make it nearly impossible to ever understand what the ancients were thinking and doing across vast stretches of time. What’s funny is that archaeologists will always be very clear that they can’t give a definitive answer, they also can’t resist guessing. And they can’t resist scoffing at each others’ theories, either.

Cave lions! Roar!

November 23, 2011

A new study out of the University of Tuebingen looks at what cave lions, extinct for 12,000 years, ate. What’s really cool is that the techniques they’re using are sensitive enough to tell not just what the big cats were preying on but what their prey was eating — that reindeer ate lichen, or that the cave bears the lions munched on were babies because they were milk-fed. I wrote an article about it for ScienceNOW, and it was also picked up by Wired.com through a content-sharing agreement.

Destination: Dresden

November 9, 2011

National Geographic Traveler‘s November/December issue includes a “top 20” list of hot destinations, from London to Sri Lanka, Sonoma and … Pittsburgh. Also on the list — and featured in the opening spread, below — is Dresden, one of my favorite German cities. My piece for the magazine about the city isn’t online, but it’s on p. 86 of the print magazine, available just about anywhere print magazines are sold.

It’s hard to find a greater concentration of excellent museums in a city of Dresden’s eminently manageable size. As if the dozen or so museums that make up the Staatliche Kunstsammlung weren’t enough, there’s also the unforgettable (and unforgettably named) German Hygiene Museum and the brand-new German Military History museum, with an addition by designed by Daniel Liebeskind. For porcelain freaks, there’s also the Meissen factory just a few kilometers upriver. I’ve written about Dresden a lot, and it’s always a pleasure.

Dresden's Frauenkirche in the snow

Weirdly, because it’s only a few hours from Berlin, I’ve only stayed the night there once. I will have to correct that some time soon. My recommendation to anyone traveling from Berlin to Prague: get off the train in Dresden, for a few hours or a few days.

Radioactive mystery box

November 4, 2011

One of the trickiest, most challenging and most rewarding stories I’ve done in a while is out in the November issue of Wired. In April, I spent a week in Genoa, Italy, trying to find out why a highly radioactive container had been delivered to the port there — and why it was still sitting on the dock more than a year later.

The story, “Mystery Box,” is a peek into the fast-moving, anonymized world of containerized shipping and the risks it holds. The key question facing officials in Genoa: What do you do with a container that’s too radioactive to open, too risky to move and already on Italian soil? It isn’t hard to imagine the scenario repeating itself at ports in Newark or Los Angeles, and the experts I talked to said US officials aren’t exactly on top of evacuation and contingency planning.

I could have written another whole article on the subject of loose radioactive material and dirty bombs, and perhaps some day I will, but in the meantime I’m relieved the story ended as well as it did. In a strange twist, the radioactive source material ended up in Leipzig, Germany, where I spend quite a bit of time.

The piece has already been picked up by Longform.org and I’ve gotten lots of good initial feedback. Check it out and see what you think.

Killing Heydrich

September 30, 2011

The August issue of World War II magazine features my story on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most feared Nazi leaders, on the cover. Heydrich was a scary individual:

One postwar biographer called him “Hitler’s most evil henchman,” a title for which there was stiff competition; Heinrich Himmler, the infamous head of the SS, eulogized him as “an ideal always to be emulated, but perhaps never again to be achieved.” Indeed, Heydrich was the go-to guy for the Nazi leadership’s most sensitive and difficult tasks.

He organized the Wannsee Conference, where the details of the Final Solution were hashed out; he helped orchestrate the Night of the Long Knives, the internal bloodbath that established the SS’s dominance within the Nazi party, and was a personal favorite of Hitler’s. Heydrich was also an arrogant bastard, and that proved to be his undoing. Ambushed by two Czech commandos, Heydrich was killed despite a string of bad luck on the part of the hapless assassins mostly because he insisted on riding around Prague in a Mercedes convertible, rather than an armored car.

The story of the assassination and its repercussions is one of the lesser-known dramas of the war. But it was a pivotal moment. If Heydrich had survived, he might have risen even higher in the Nazi hierarchy — to the detriment of the Allied cause.

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