Protolanguages: Decoding Words from the Past?

Protolanguage Tree for the Hypothetical Proto-Mayan Language

Protolanguage Tree for the Hypothetical Proto-Mayan Language
Attribution: Régis Lachaume
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Protolanguages are hypothetical ancestors of modern languages. For example, modern Maya, as well as other ancient Mesoamerican scripts (Olmec, Zapotec, Classic Maya to name a few) are believed to have descended from an original language called Proto-Mayan (see chart). Needless to say, decoding protolanguages is a massive undertaking. Here’s more on a new computer system which appears to do the job quickly and with decent accuracy from the University of British Columbia:

University of British Columbia and Berkeley researchers have used a sophisticated new computer system to quickly reconstruct protolanguages – the rudimentary ancient tongues from which modern languages evolved.

The results, which are 85 per cent accurate when compared to the painstaking manual reconstructions performed by linguists, will be published next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We’re hopeful our tool will revolutionize historical linguistics much the same way that statistical analysis and computer power revolutionized the study of evolutionary biology,” says UBC Assistant Prof. of Statistics Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, lead author of the study…

(See the rest at University of British Columbia)

The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript?

In 1912, antique book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich purchased a strange unreadable manuscript near Rome. Despite a century of efforts, it has defied all code-breaking attempts. What is the Voynich Manuscript?

Page 78 of the Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript (Page 78)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript?

At this very moment, a conference is underway in Rome, a sort of 100-year celebration of Voynich’s purchase. Various experts will hold presentations with such topics as:

  • Forensic investigations of the Voynich MS
  • Voynichese word structure and statistics
  • Statistical Properties of the Voynich Manuscript Text – How Can we Make Sense of Contradicting Results?

So, what do we know about the Voynich Manuscript? Well, not very much as it turns out. Its author is unknown. It has been carbon-dated with 95% accuracy to 1404-1438, making it ~600 years old. The earliest known owner is believed to be Emperor Rudolf II (1552 to 1612). It contains about 240 pages, many of which are filled with drawings of unidentified plants, astrological diagrams, and images of strange women bathing in basins that are connected to each other with elaborate pipe networks (see the picture above).

The text itself remains a complete mystery. The Voynich Manuscript was written from left to right and appears to lack punctuation. The exact alphabet used is unknown. However, 20-30 letters would account for almost all of the text. Unfortunately, all attempts to map these letters on to existing languages have fallen short. Many scholars have put forth possible explanations for the mysterious text, ranging from unknown dialects to some form of code. But no one knows for certain.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

All this begs the question, is the Voynich Manuscript even authentic? Over the past few decades, numerous scholars have speculated it’s actually some kind of ancient hoax. However, if it’s a hoax, it’s one of epic proportions. The Voynich Manuscript is incredibly complex with many subtle characteristics.

At this point, we must conclude our knowledge of the Voynich Manuscript is slim and driven more by what we don’t know than what we do. Still, researchers continue to study it, looking for that elusive breakthrough. Maybe one day soon, someone will crack the text and at last, we’ll be able to learn the tome’s true secrets.

Egyptian Heritage Under Attack?

On Sunday, a fiery inferno claimed Egyptian maps and historical manuscripts, some of which were over 200 years old. Is Egypt’s heritage under attack? How can ancient books be protected?

Ancient Books: Is Egypt's Heritage under Attack?

“Great pyramid and sphinx, Egypt” (1912): Ancient Books – Is Egypt’s Heritage under Attack?
Source: The Library of Congress

Ancient Books: How can Scholars Protect Egyptian Heritage?

The Cairo-based fire was seemingly part of the anti-government protests which currently engulf the nation. And now, there is some talk of “foreign entities” (most likely UNESCO) taking sovereignty over historic Egyptian sites for preservation purposes. Fortunately, much of these ancient books and other works had been digitized. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I support the digitization of ancient books and rare historical documents such as Sir Isaac Newton’s papers. Eventually, all ancient books, maps, and other documents will succumb to the ravages of time and violence. A digital copy might not be as good as the real item…but it’s the next best thing and it can be stored in many places. Anyway, here’s more on the story from the Guardian:

Volunteers in white lab coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the back of a pickup truck along the banks of the Nile in Cairo, rummaging through stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts that were little more than charcoal debris.

The volunteers, ranging from academic experts to appalled citizens, have spent the past two days trying to salvage what’s left of some 192,000 books, journals and writings, casualties of Egypt’s latest bout of violence.

The Institute of Egypt, a research centre set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during France’s invasion in the late 18th century, caught fire during clashes between protesters and Egypt’s military over the weekend. It was home to a treasure trove of writings, most notably the handwritten 24-volume Description de l’Egypte, which began during the 1798-1801 French occupation. It includes 20 years of observations by more than 150 French scholars and scientists, was one of the most comprehensive descriptions of Egypt’s monuments, its ancient civilisation and contemporary life at the time.

It is probably now burned beyond repair…

(See Cairo Institute Burned During Clashes for the rest)

A Supernova…in Ancient Texts?

In 1006 AD, ancient astronomers and astrologers from around the world witnessed a strange cosmic event. A brilliant light emitted from a strange and new “star” in the sky. The incident lasted for three months and was marveled at separately in places as far apart as China, Egypt, and Switzerland. Did these ancient scientists observe an ancient supernova?

Supernova 1994D (Represented by bright spot on lower left)

“Hubble Space Telescope-Image of Supernova 1994D (SN1994D) in galaxy NGC 4526 (SN 1994D is the bright spot on the lower left)”
Source: NASA/ESA via Wikimedia Commons

What is a Supernova?

A supernova is a stellar explosion. It’s characterized by a bright light, intense radiation, and the high-speed expulsion of the star’s materials. If one happened too close to earth, it could easily lead to mass extinction or even destroy our planet. It has long been strongly suspected that the strange sighting by the ancients was that of a supernova called SN 1006. And it wasn’t just any supernova…it was the brightest one in recorded history. It was followed up in 1054 AD by SN 1054, a second brilliant supernova which created the crab nebula.

In 2009, Japanese scientists traveled to Antarctica to search for physical evidence of these supernovas. They drilled into the ice and brought out 122 meters of core samples. Using known volcanic eruptions as reference points, they discovered “NO3 spikes at times corresponding to 1006 and 1054, as well as a mysterious unknown third event.”

Did a Supernova cause Events Described in Ancient Texts?

The presence of nitrogen oxide in the ice provides the first real physical evidence that a supernova was responsible for the events in 1006 and 1054. When a supernova occurs, gamma rays impact the Earth’s atmosphere, hence the excess NO-3 in ancient, well-preserved ice.

As for the mysterious third event, it would appear that yet another supernova took place during the 11th century. The fact that it wasn’t recorded in ancient texts indicates that it may have been only visible from the southern hemisphere or perhaps, hidden by clouds.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Three large supernovas in a single century? That’s incredible. And its even more impressive when one considers that two of them were the brightest stellar events in history. When everything’s said and done, it seems clear that the 11th century deserves to be recognized as one of the most cosmically active periods of all time.

Deciphering Ancient Texts?

In 1896, two undergraduate students unearthed an underground cache of over 200,000 pieces of papyri. The collection includes letters and other documents dating from 500 BC to 1000 AD. Despite over one hundred years of work, researchers have only managed to transcribe two percent of the ancient texts. They need help to transcribe the rest…YOUR help.

An Example of Greek Papyrus from the Second Century AD
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Treasure Trove of Ancient Texts?

In 1896, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt discovered an ancient dump near the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. With the help of locals, they proceeded to uncover a treasure trove of papyri, digging as far down as twenty-five feet in some cases. The papers, which dated back to Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, included letters, documents, receipts, loans, work contracts, gossip, and other things. After a decade, Grenfell and Hunt brought the recovered papers back to Oxford University where they have remained ever since.

For over a century, researchers have worked to transcribe the documents. In the process, they have made numerous important discoveries, including a lost play by Euripides entitled Melanippe the Wise, lost works from the poet Sappho, and lost letters from the philosopher Epicurus. Amazingly, they also found tiny fragments of a “lost gospel” which appears to describe Jesus exorcising demons.

However, the process has been slow and many of the ancient texts remain unstudied to this day. In fact, Oxford University researchers estimate that only two percent of the documents have been successfully transcribed. Now, they are seeking the help of outsiders to help decode the rest of the works.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

You don’t need to know Greek in order to help. You merely need to visit Ancient Lives and use pattern recognition tools to match letters to symbols. The site will then store your translation and wait for others to view the ancient text. By having multiple people study each fragment, scholars hope to weed out mistakes and discrepancies.

If you have time, please stop by Ancient Lives and lend a hand. Who knows? You might find yourself reading a lost play or a lost letter. You might even find something really important…something that changes history as we know it.