Category Archives: History

Did human sacrifice drive complex societies

IN 1598, a European miner working in the Bolivian highlands stumbled across a 10-year-old Andean girl who was still alive, despite having been walled up inside a funerary tower three days earlier. Several decades had passed since the Inca Empire—the most sophisticated in the world at that time—had fallen, but its practices lived on among the Incas’ descendants in the region, including human sacrifice. The practice held on a little longer after this incident. Around 20 years later, a boy, who had escaped from local chiefs attempting to bury him alive, took refuge in a Spanish community in the Peruvian Sierra. But the tradition was incompatible with the moral outlook of the new Catholic regime, and die it did, eventually…

Ritual human sacrifice portrayed in Codex Magliabechiano

This article first appeared in The Atlantic on 27 February 2018. To continue reading, click here.

Amelia Earhart redux

JULY 2nd of last year marked the 80th anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, a pioneering aviatrix, and her navigator Fred Noonan over the Pacific Ocean, as they attempted a circumnavigation of the globe in a twin-engined Lockheed Electra monoplane. The many theories about the pair’s demise, aired once more on that occasion, fall into two broad groups: they crashed into the sea and drowned, or they crashed onto Nikumaroro, a remote island, where they perished from hunger. An American forensic anthropologist has new evidence that greatly increases the likelihood of their having suffered the second fate…

This article appeared in The Economist print edition of 10 February 2018. To continue reading, click here.

Let’s build

AT POVERTY POINT, Louisiana, a remarkable monument overlooks a bend in the Mississippi river. Built around 3500 years ago, entirely from earth, it consists of six concentric, semicircular ridges radiating out from a central “plaza”, together with five mounds. Mound A, the largest, towers 22 metres – the equivalent of a seven-storey building – over the lush floodplain. North America wouldn’t see another monument on this scale for 2000 years…

Moai, Easter Island

This article first appeared in New Scientist on 10 January 2018. To continue reading, click here.

Notes from underground

ON 3 November 1793, in the thick of The Terror, the porter of the disaffected Val-de-Grâce abbey in Paris took advantage of the general commotion to slip into a stairway that led into the network of tunnels under the capital, and set off in search of treasure…

This article first appeared in The Idler around 1 January 2018. To continue reading, subscribe here or hunt it down in WHSmiths or bookshops.

Playing the long game

IN the long grass beyond the last hut, slabs of greyish-white shark meat dry on wooden racks in the sun. This village, which I’m visiting as the paying guest of an ecotourism company, lacks electricity, has a single fresh water pump and is inaccessible by road. Like many others along the west coast of Madagascar, it looks to the sea for its food, income and transport. Malagasy villages tend to specialise when it comes to marine resources, and this one’s speciality is shark…

This article first appeared in Geographical Magazine in December 2017. To read it in full you have to subscribe.