01/10/2020

Solving The Mystery Of Ancient Egyptian Head Cones

7:52 minutes

Ancient Egyptian artwork often depicts people wearing ceremonial head cones, but the role of these head dressings remained a mystery. Journalist and author Annalee Newitz talks about the first piece of physical evidence found of these head cones and what they may have been used for. Plus, other stories including a group of scientists who trained cuttlefish to wear 3D glasses to test their depth perception.

A fresco from the tomb of nebamun
Ancient Egyptian art. Credit: British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of The Future of Another Timeline and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about how climate change is fanning the flames of Australia’s deadly bushfire season. But, first, there has been an archaeological mystery.

Ancient Egyptian art depicts all sorts of headwear from crowns to masks, and physical evidence of these have been found except for one piece, the head cone. It has never been seen until now. Annalee Newitz is here to fill us in on that story and other short subjects in science. She’s a journalist and author based in San Francisco and joins us by Skype. Welcome back.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hey. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: What are these Egyptian head cones? Describe them for us, please.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Well, in drawings that we’ve seen painted on walls and also carvings from ancient Egypt, they look a little bit like kids birthday hats with a rounded top. So we’re not talking about the sort of Saturday Night Live style cone heads. These are smaller, and some of the pictures show them with zigzag lines coming out as if they have a scent to them. And so for a long time, archaeologists have wondered what the heck these were.

They’d speculated that they had a perfume in them. Maybe it was something people put on their heads during ceremonies because a lot of the pictures show people kind of partying when they’re wearing them either going to a special dinner or engaging in a religious activity. But we’d never found an example of it anywhere in graves or remains of Egyptian cities.

And so people had actually started to think that maybe they didn’t exist. Maybe they were kind of like speech bubbles in a comic book. People don’t actually wear speech bubbles over their heads, but they draw people with speech bubbles all the time.

But, now, a report came out last month that, in fact, two graves have been found where people were buried with these head cones. And in those two graves at least, they were made of wax, and they were wrapped around some kind of textile. And so now we know that at least a few people were actually wearing head cones.

IRA FLATOW: But no clue from there about what they were used for or whether they were party hats or anything like that.

[LAUGHTER]

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, probably not party hats as we know them. What’s really interesting about this discovery is that it hints at the fact that people might have been using them in a lot of different ways. So these were part of a funeral rite. The people who died were buried with them. And that was possibly just a small group of people who were doing that.

One of the things we forget when we study ancient Egypt is that the Egyptian empire was very diverse. There were people from all different areas, speaking different languages with different cultures. So some of them may have used these cones in funeral rituals. Other people might have used them for other things. And so what we might have discovered is a little bit of Egyptian multiculturalism on top of–

IRA FLATOW: Interesting, interesting.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: –the exciting discovery of the cone.

IRA FLATOW: The cones.

[LAUGHTER]

Let’s move on to something a little more serious, and that is a CDC study saying that young women may be undergoing unnecessary pelvic exams.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. So this was a study that the CDC did with the University of San Francisco here where I’m based. And what they found was in looking at women between the ages of 15 and 20, about 1.4 million of them had undergone pelvic exams that they didn’t need. And that includes what’s called a pap exam, which is used to screen for cervical cancer.

And so what this study really kind of wants people to understand is that currently the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists do not recommend that women have pelvic exams really until they’re 20 or 21 unless they’re pregnant or there is some kind of STI involved. And so the main thing is if your doctor is telling you or your daughter that they need to have an exam like this, you really need to communicate more and find out why because these exams are expensive. They’re really uncomfortable. People shouldn’t have to go through them unless it’s medically necessary.

IRA FLATOW: Good, because there’s a certain amount of risk in having this, right?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. Yeah, because especially for the pap exam which looks for cervical cancer. You can get a lot of false positives the younger you are. So that’s, again, why the American Cancer Society says really don’t get that exam until you’re 21 because it may lead to more and more unnecessary tests.

IRA FLATOW: The next story looks at the domestication of the tomato.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Exactly. So we all know that the tomato is the most delicious fruit. And it evolved in the Americas and didn’t actually come to Europe to get into tasty dishes like spaghetti until about 500 years ago during what’s called the Colombian Exchange when Europeans started taking stuff from the Americas and bringing it back home.

And what now we know from sequencing the genome of the standard big beefsteak tomato that you get in the grocery store is that tomatoes had a really interesting early life. They evolved from very tiny tomatoes that are about the size of a blueberry. They’re still around. They’re called currant tomatoes. And these evolved in South America.

And when humans arrived, they immediately started domesticating a version of this currant tomato that had already grown to be the size of a cherry tomato. And these were utterly delicious, and people domesticated them throughout South America, brought them all the way up to Mexico, and then they underwent a change where these tomatoes stopped being domesticated. They were rewilded essentially, and people stopped really farming them.

And then jump ahead a few thousand years, and then people did start farming them again. And that’s where we get our big giant tomatoes of today. Those domesticated, then rewilded, then re-domesticated cherry tomatoes are what result in our big giant beefsteak tomatoes today.

IRA FLATOW: There was a time there were considered to be dangerous because they were in the nightshade family, right? The Europeans were afraid to eat them.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yep, and then they tasted them. They didn’t die. And they were just like let’s put them in all food forever. But, yeah, they have a great long history from South America.

IRA FLATOW: Well, finally, scientists have trained cuttlefish to wear 3D glasses. I know this is true because I spread that photo on my Twitter feed also.

[LAUGHTER]

Is that the cutest little picture? But there’s some science behind it.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. So cuttlefish, which if you don’t know, are related to– they’re cephalopods. They have 10 arms, and they’re very cute. And they have two eyes that operate independently of each other. That means that they can move their eyes all around on stalks.

And one eye can look behind, and one eye can look ahead. But they also are excellent at doing something that we think of as a human thing where our eyes basically track exactly the same. They always are looking in the same direction. And we have as a result stereoscopic vision which gives us a 3D view of the world because of how our eyes work. So scientists wondered, well, cuttlefish are so good at depth perception.

We know that they can catch shrimp like in the middle of the water just by zapping out their tentacle. So how are they doing it? Do they have some kind of stereoscopic vision? And so this is the moment that I really wish I’d been in the room for this conversation among scientists because they were thinking to themselves, how can we figure out that cuttlefish have stereoscopic vision?

IRA FLATOW: Let’s give them stereoscopic glasses. Those green and orange glasses.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Let’s give them 3D glasses and make them watch 3D movies and see–

IRA FLATOW: And they gave them to them, and they discovered that actually works, huh? They actually could see 3D.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It actually works. They have stereoscopic vision, and now there are videos on the internet of cuttlefish wearing–

IRA FLATOW: I plead guilty.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: –red and blue glasses.

IRA FLATOW: I plead guilty.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It’s delightful.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Annalee. Great story. Annalee Newitz, science journalist and author in San Francisco, California. Have a great weekend.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, you too.

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Alexa Lim is a producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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