Monday, 18 September 2017

Interesting new developments extinct Denisovans

Extinct Denisovans from Siberia made stunning jewellery - but did they also discover Australia? 

The Siberian Times by Olga Gertcyk
14 September 2017
Time for rethink on capabilities of lost species of ancient man as academics ponder amazing DNA link between today's Aboriginal people and Altai cave dwellers.

Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts has urged deep study of ancient migration routes to understand how the Denisovan DNA exists to this day in the native people of Australia. Picture: Richard Roberts
The distance from the only currently known home of the Denisovans in Altai region to the nearest point of Australia is roughly akin to the length of the Trans-Siberian railway, and yet it is looking increasingly likely that these ancient species of humanoids somehow made this epic journey deep in pre-history, perhaps 65,000 years ago.
Separate evidence from the Denisova cave in southern Siberia certainly shows they had myriad talents at least 50,000 years ago, even if their ultimate fate was extinction. 
Yet remarkably their DNA lives on in the Aboriginal people of Australia and the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea to a far greater extent than in any other modern-day populations worldwide.
Richard Roberts and Maxim Kozlikin
Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts (left) and Dr Maxim Kozlikin (right) in Denisova cave. Picture: Richard Roberts
Moreover, on their way towards Australasia, they appear to have interbred sufficiently with other early humans to have provided Tibetans with the EPAS1 gene that enables them to survive in high-altitude low oxygen environments.
Pictures shown here illustrate their remarkable Paleolithic handiwork from artifacts - for example a stunning green-hued chlorite bracelet, a marble ring, and beads from an ostrich eggshell necklace, all at least 50,000 years old, but possibly soon to be revealed by scientists as significantly older -  found in a cave they shared variously with Neaderthals and Homo sapiens.
Now Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts, director of the Centre for Archaeological Science at the University of Wollongong, has urged deep study of ancient migration routes to understand how the Denisovan DNA exists to this day in the native people of Australia. 
Richard 'Berth' Roberts in the lab
Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts in his laboratory in the Centre for Archaeological Science at the University of Wollongong. Picture: Richard Roberts
'Many of ancient people's migration routes went through the territory of Russia, via the Altai mountains,' he told 'If we don't get to the bottom of what happened regarding human evolution in Altai, we will never understand evolution in say, China. 
'The first migration wave of Homo erectus left Africa about two million years ago, moving in two main directions: via the Middle East to the south of Europe, the Caucasus, to the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees, and through the western areas of Asia. 
'To the east they most likely moved via two routes as well. One must have gone south of Himalayas and Tibet via Indostan to Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. The other, Northern one, most likely went via Central Asia and Siberia. 
'Perhaps two of these streams met at some point. We will learn it by meticulous dating of all finds... 

The Denisovans influenced not only Aboriginal people (up), but also modern Tibetans (bottom). Pictures: Steve Evans, Dr. Ruediger Wenzel
'To me personally the most interesting question is how 4% of Denisovan' DNA got into the Aboriginal people? Look where Australia is, and where Altai is! How is it possible?!'
The distance as the crow flies is some 8,500 kilometres, and doubtless any such Denisovan migration happened over multiple generations and many millennia - yet there is also the question of a treacherous sea crossing long before boats or rafts were known to have been invented, even if sea levels then were 110 metres lower than today because of the Ice Age. 
People first came to Australia some 65,000 years ago, but who were they, and how did they cross the so-called Wallace's Line separating Asia from Australia, which at the time involved eight separate sea crossings? 
Map GV
The distance between the Denisova cave and Australia as the crow flies is some 8,500 kilometres. Picture: The Siberian Times
'That's a very interesting and controversial question,' said Prof Roberts, a regular visitor to Russia, whose pioneering dating methods are being used to fix the Denisovans in time. 
'We assume they were modern humans, that is members of our species, Homo sapiens, because we have no evidence to the contrary. 
'We don't have any fossil remains of the humans, we have only the stone tools left behind, pigments, ochres, all the other attributes that are very typical of what modern humans use whenever they arrive somewhere,' he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Wallace Line
People first came to Australia some 65,000 years ago, but who were they, and how did they cross the so-called Wallace's Line separating Asia from Australia, which at the time involved eight separate sea crossings? Picture: Maximilian Doerrbecker
'And it came with the whole kit and caboodle. All these sites come with the sorts of things we imagine modern humans are using to make all the symbolic things we associate with ourselves. 
'But the reality is we don't actually know who were the first people into Australia by species.'
He cannot rule out Denisovans, he said, because of the presence of their DNA in Aboriginal people. 
'We know that Aboriginal people in Australia contain both Neanderthal DNA, as do you and I, we have Neanderthal DNA, but neither you nor I have Denisovan DNA, which is another group of people actually the home base, as it were, up in Siberia, Denisova Cave in southern Siberia in Russia. 
Denisova's finds

Denisova's finds
Handiwork made of bones and teeth, find in 11th layer of Denisova cave. Pictures: Anatoly Derevyanko, The Siberian Times
'But it's miraculously in Aboriginal people at the present day in much greater quantities than any other people around the world. How did it get into Aboriginal people? 
'That's still very much a moot point and we're not sure. 
'Did Denisovan people themselves make it across Wallace's Line, a big biogeographic boundary separating Asia from Australasia? We don't know. 
'These are very much still questions that we want to get a handle on, so who were the first people into Australia? We still think it's modern humans but perhaps it might have been Denisovans. It's a question mark still hanging there.'

Could this stunning bracelet be 65,000-to-70,000 years old?
World oldest needle found in Denisova cave. Picture: Mikhail Shunkov, Vesti
Scientists Professor Alan Cooper, of the University of Adelaide in Australia, and Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum in the UK, have already suggested in a Science opinion article that this is precisely what happened. 
'In mainland Asia, neither ancient human specimens, nor geographically isolated modern Indigenous populations have Denisovan DNA of any note, indicating that there has never been a genetic signal of Denisovan interbreeding in the area,' said Professor Cooper, Director of the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. 
'The only place where such a genetic signal exists appears to be in areas east of Wallace's Line and that is where we think interbreeding took place - even though it means that the Denisovans must have somehow made that marine crossing.'


Denisovan necklaces and pendants. Pictures: Mikhail Shunkov, The Siberian Times
Prof Stringer said: 'The recent discovery of another enigmatic ancient human species Homo floresiensis, the so-called Hobbits, in Flores, Indonesia, confirms that the diversity of archaic human relatives in this area was much higher than we'd thought...
'The morphology of the Hobbits shows they are different from the Denisovans, meaning we now have at least two, and potentially more, unexpected groups in the area.
'The conclusions we've drawn are very important for our knowledge of early human evolution and culture. Knowing that the Denisovans spread beyond this significant sea barrier opens up all sorts of questions about the behaviours and capabilities of this group, and how far they could have spread.'
For him 'the key questions now are where and when the ancestors of current humans, who were on their way to colonise New Guinea and Australia around 50,000 years ago, met and interacted with the Denisovans.
Marble ring
Marble ring found in the cave. Picture: Scientific Russia
'Intriguingly, the genetic data suggest that male Denisovans interbred with modern human females, indicating the potential nature of the interactions as small numbers of modern humans first crossed Wallace's Line and entered Denisovan territory.'
The Denisovans also influenced modern Tibetans, according to Rasmus Nielsen, a faculty member of the Center for Theoretical Evolutionary Genomics, at Berkeley, University of California. 
He investigated how Tibetans can withstand the effects of hypoxia in low-oxygen environments. Seven years ago his team published a paper indicating the EPAS1 gene was the cause of this this beneficial mutation. 
The gene regulates the body's reaction to low oxygen environments, allowing Tibetans to produce fewer red blood cells and less hemoglobin, it was reported. 
Could this stunning bracelet be 65,000-to-70,000 years old?

Could this stunning bracelet be 65,000-to-70,000 years old?

Could this stunning bracelet be 65,000-to-70,000 years old?

Could this stunning bracelet be 65,000-to-70,000 years old?
A stunning green-hued chlorite bracelet, found in 2008 in a layer that contained remains of Denisovans. Pictures: Anastasia Abdulmanova, Konstantin Tynayev
Yet it did not originate from Neanderthals but there was an exact match with Denisovans. 
Back in Denisova cave, some 150 km km south of the city of Barnaul, finds like the bracelet, a ring, and beads as well as the world's oldest needle, were all made in layers of this underground complex identified as being occupied by Denisovans, after tiny fragments of these archaic humans were found and analysed. 
Initially this jewellery and other artifacts was dated as being between 40,000 and 50,000 years old, with the latter currently the officially accepted figure. 
Now, however, as previously disclosed by The Siberian Times, scientists from Russia, the UK and Australia are reexamining the dates of these objects amid suspicions that they are as old as  65,000-to-70,000 years. 
A stunning discovery by team of Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography. Picture: Anatoly Derevyanko
At 50,000 years the know-how involved in these items - the bracelet has a hole made by  drilling and rasping devices - are already breathtaking. Any older, and it challenges our entire understanding of the technological development of man. 
Russian scientists say the bracelet was found in 2008 in a layer that contained remains of Denisovans (homo altaiensis) rather than Homo sapiens  or Neanderthals, although all these groupings shared the cave at various times, and interbred. 
'The bracelet is stunning - in bright sunlight it reflects the sun rays, at night by the fire it casts a deep shade of green,' said Professor Anatoly Derevyanko, former director of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, in Novosibirsk.
Could this stunning bracelet be 65,000-to-70,000 years old?

Could this stunning bracelet be 65,000-to-70,000 years old?

Could this stunning bracelet be 65,000-to-70,000 years old?

Denisova cave

Denisova cave

Denisova cave
Denisova cave, some 150 km km south of the city of Barnaul, is the only source of Denisovan's remains. Pictures: The Siberian Times
'It is unlikely it was used as an everyday jewellery piece. I believe this beautiful and very fragile bracelet was worn only for some exceptional moments," he said.
The manufacturing technology used in the bracelet is seen as being more typical of a later period, for example the Neolithic era, which began around 12,000 years ago.
His successor Professor Mikhail Shunkov has suggested that the long-extinct Denisovans were significantly more advanced than Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
Did this technological superiority also help them reach Australia before anyone else?

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Elaborate 16/17th C.burial of young child at the Tazovsky peninsula (Siberia)

Grave of medieval 'infant prince' found in Arctic, one of 9 newly-discovered burials of 'children'

Young boy was laid to rest all alone with two iron knives, his feet trampling on reindeer bones, wearing elaborate headdress decorated with iron rings.

The burials were on the highest points of the spurs, or hillocks, on Arctic rivers. Picture here and below: Alexander Tkachev
These unique burials, not part of ancient necropolises nor close to each other, were each at the pinnacle of raised spurs beside rivers on the remote Tazovsky peninsula.
So far nine burials have been found, but only two opened - and more may be identified. 
The latest to be unearthed during an archeological expedition this summer revealed the remains of a child aged between three and seven dating to the late 15th or early 16th centuries, sent to the next life with a meal of newly roasted venison in his grave. 
The latest to be unearthed during an archeological expedition this summer revealed the remains of a child aged between three and seven. 
One year ago, a boy aged 13 or 14 was found with cross-shaped inlays of white bronze on his funeral gown, it was disclosed. Archeologists suspect the others will be children too, but admit they could be wrong. 
One theory, still to be fully tested, is that the youngsters were buried alone, away from their clans, because they died before being fully initiated into their polar societies. 
There are known burial sites for this time of the indigenous Sikhirtya (Siirtya) people - small, with fair hair and light eyes - called Num-khibya-sikheri I and Num-khibya-sikheri V. The local Nenets call the location 'The Road of Those Who Went To Heaven'.
Burial GV

Burial GV
So far nine burials have been found, but only two opened - and more may be identified. 
These burial grounds do not feature graves of such opulence. 
'There are no 'rich kid' burials. That is why we were so surprised by our finds this summer,' said Dr Alexander Tkachev, head of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography of Tyumen State University. 
The infant 'prince', found this year, had 'elite' headgear embellished with bronze decorations and iron rings, as our drawing shows. 
'We specifically searched for such burials this year, and found eight,' he said. 'We unearthed one of them, at the mouth of the Vesakoyakha River.
Fragments of scull

Bronze ring
'When we noticed the pieces of fur and woollen cloth along with the decorations - and understood it was impressive headwear - we were really shocked.' 
'This was a child, presumably about three or four years old years, but could be up to seven.
'The child was lying on an underlay of birch bark. There were two iron knives in the area of the belt, an arrowhead, and reindeer bones under the feet. 
'The headwear had bronze decorations sewn into it.
He explained: 'The burial was unusually rich for such a little child. In fact, we were rather taken aback.
'When we dug down, we thought the grave was almost empty, but then we saw two knives and were very surprised. 
Iron knives

'When we dug down, we thought the grave was almost empty, but then we saw two knives and were very surprised.'
'When we noticed the pieces of fur and woollen cloth along with the decorations - and understood it was impressive headwear - we were really shocked. 
'We did not expect such a rich child's burial in this place. We took all the ground around the head gear in one piece... not wanting to lose anything. Now, we will work on this in the lab.'
The headdress was 'two layered' - on the outside fur, but lined with a woollen fabric. 
Ornaments were sewn into the elaborate headgear. There were decorative ornaments as well as rings. 
The burials were on the highest points of the spurs, or hillocks, on Arctic rivers. They were shallow, up to 15 centimetres in depth. 
The body lay on a birch bark underlay, the pieces sewn together. A small moat was dug around the burial place. /
'When we dug down, we thought the grave was almost empty, but then we saw two knives and were very surprised.'
Evidence was found of fires on mounds at the graves, with venison being cooked on the bone, perhaps as sustenance on the way to the next life. A construction of wood or branches was set alight. 
'We found the traces of fire, embers and ash,' he said. 
Some burials are 100 metres apart, others separated by a distance of kilometres. 
Dr Tkachev said the dead may have been 'significant members of their society, but died before some initiation rite'. This would explain why 'they were buried separately'. 
He said: 'If we will find adults in similar burials, I will need to reconsider this theory.'
These unique burials were each at the pinnacle of raised spurs beside rivers on the remote Tazovsky peninsula. Picture: The Siberian Times
The burials are from the indigenous Sikhirtya (Siirtya) people. They had arrived from the south some 2,800 years ago.
Nenets people described them as 'very small, with blonde hair and light eyes'. They hunted and fished but also traded with Russians. 
By the mid 17th century they had become assimilated with the Nenets people. 
The new finds were made by Dr Tkachev, archeologist Andrey Slushaev, from Yekaterinburg, and student Katya Gyurdzhoyan. 
They plan to reconstruct the dead child's elaborate headdress. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Marco Polo's Heretical Tales of the East by Francis O'Donnell

Francis O’Donnell is an artist, author, filmmaker and explorer. He is an alumnus of the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he earned a BFA in Media Arts. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Francis has travelled the world extensively, visiting over sixty countries, and is a member of both the New Explorers Club and the Adventurers Club of Chicago. He has lectured about his exploits around the world in Libraries, Clubs, Universities, and Organizations. Most recently he spent four months at sea as 'Guest Speaker' aboard a Celebrity Cruise line ship. 
His Emmy-nominated PBS documentary, as well as the companion book,  In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, chronicle his historic two-year, 25,000-mile journey retracing the Venetian merchant’s thirteenth-century Travels along the fabled Silk road. Watch the Film, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo. 

The following article he wrote a year ago for the on-line magazine "The Heretic"


    In a Venetian Palazzo, a short stroll from the Rialto Bridge, the curtains were drawn in a dank and darkened room.  People gathered, mulling about a reposed figure, saying good-bye and paying respects.  Here lay, perhaps, the most famous man of his age.  He was surely the most controversial.  A true heretic, the quintessential dissident.  His account about the lands of the East ignited a fire storm of controversy that has lasted until this very day.  He was ridiculed by some and disbelieved, yet he stood firm, having experienced his tales of Asia first hand.  He would share his stories about the wonders of these largely unknown lands to anyone who would listen.  For twenty-five years he did so in the face of daunting  societal pressure to recant.  Yet the book he wrote went on to international fame, becoming a best seller.  It was transcribed into virtually every language in Europe.  The information contained in it went on to change the world! Now, with only hours to live he had given his last will and testament, a priest sat by his side offering him salvation, if only he would change his heretical stories of the East and retract his far-flung lies about the riches and splendors of the Mongol Empire.  According to legend, with this man's dying breath, his last words were this ... "I haven't told you even half of what I have seen" - Marco Polo …

      Very little is truly known about Marco Polo and his life.  He is a very enigmatic figure, wildly famous during his own lifetime, but not always for his most important achievements.  To those of us looking back through the ages for clues, he has proven to be extremely private and reclusive.  Most of what we do know comes from two sources, his book and his last will and testament. The latter was written shortly before his death, one cold January morning, in the year 1324.  In it he left the bulk of his estate to his wife Donata and their three daughters.  He made significant provisions for the church. This included his families parish of San Procolo, he also designated a sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, where he would be interred. Listed amongst his most prized possessions was a set of Buddhist prayer beads, a ladies golden tiara, inset with precious gems and pearls, and one golden tablet of authority from the great Khan. Perhaps just as interesting as Marco's ownership of that golden tablet was this instruction “... I release Peter the Tartar, my servant, from bondage … “ Marco also bequeathed Peter 100 lire Venetian denari.”  These two facts, alone, do not prove Polo's stories to be true. However, in law there is something called  “The preponderance of the evidence” where the  “Burden of Proof” is such that the sheer weight of even circumstantial evidence proves a case.  There is no record that exists anywhere, either in China or in Europe that definitively proves the validity of this, his heretical account.  However, Marco's words have been proven largely true by an army of scholars and explorers.  This is where 'yours truly' fits into the story.  Between the years 1993 and 1995, I, along with my colleague, Denis Belliveau, spent two years retracing Marco Polo's entire Silk Road journey.  Our effort was called 'The Return to Venice” the 700th Anniversary Expedition 1295 -1995”.  It would require us to travel more than 25,000 miles across the world largest landmass and back.  Our expedition crossed the borders of some twenty-two countries.  We survived eight war zones and were captured in Afghanistan.  We traversed the world's most formidable, frozen, and desolate landscapes, including mountains, deserts, and jungles.  Our self-imposed prerequisite was absolutely no flying. Why?  Why did we do so?  Curiosity, wanderlust, the search for truth and knowledge?  Like doubting Thomas, whose Tomb in India Marco would be one of the first to describe, it was to see for ourselves!  The list of motivations is long.  It was clearly an opportunity to make a mark in the world and to do something that had never been done before.  Denis and I, in our research, found there had been several failed expeditions to retrace Polo's route before ours.  Our plan was this, to take Marco's book and use it the way a tourist uses a travel guide.  Then, search out all the places mentioned. We proceeded in chronological order, and tried to find what Marco described in the places he visited over 700 years ago.  The result was we found nearly two hundred correlations, direct examples of passages.  Often Marco's words would literally jump off the pages of his book and come to life before our eyes.  They covered the gamut of his diverse account. Astounded, our judgment was that, Marco Polo had to have gone to China and that his account is “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt“ overwhelmingly true.  Using the criterion I mentioned above, Marco would be found guilty in any court of law, of having traveled to Asia during the thirteenth century.  Our findings are mostly chronicled in both our book and PBS Emmy nominated documentary, both entitled “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo”
In his book "Description of the World"  he reveals very little about himself or personal life.  Written as it were before the advent of the printing press, and by scribes who were often priests or monks.  These scribes may have had motivation to change Polo's words.  Clearly the church would not want any favorable insight about competing doctrines being spread.  One statement which surprisingly slipped past the editors quill, was amazingly tolerant and enlightened. When speaking of the life of the Buddha, Marco says,  “For assuredly, had he been a Christian, he would have been a great saint with our Lord, Jesus Christ!”  If that is not grounds for persecution and being brought up by the Holy Roman Church, on charges of heresy, I don't know what is!  Another less extreme example is when he speaks of a certain friend he has made.  He says, “I had a Turkish companion named Zuficar, a man of great intelligence, who spent three years in this province in the service of the Great Khan, engaged in extracting salamander (asbestos).  My companion told me the true facts.”  Today this seems innocent enough but in 1244 B.C.E. Jerusalem had fallen to the Khawarerzemi Turks.  The effect was wholesale slaughter of priests and parishioners in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The believed burial place of Jesus Christ.  The population of the city was also ruthlessly decimated leaving only about two thousand people. This triggered the Seventh Crusade.  So, to speak highly of the Turks, was a bit beyond the pale.  Yet Marco's book reveals more secrets and kind words for other traditions hiding in plain sight.  Like when he describes the power and majesty of the Mongol Emperor of China, Kublai, he says , “I will now tell you of the great achievements of the Great Khan now reigning.  The title Khan means in our language  “Great Lord”.  And certainly he has every right to this title; for everyone should know that this Great Khan is the mightiest man, whether in respect of subjects, territory, or of treasure, who is in the world today or has ever been, from Adam, our first parent down to the present moment.  And I will make it quite clear to you in our book that this is the plain truth, so that everyone will be convinced  that he is indeed the greatest lord the world has ever known. Here is my proof.”  Marco then goes on to describe Il Milione things to prove his point.  First was how Kublai was a mighty warrior, then of the splendor of his court, and of how he would gift his Knights and Barons the sets of costly silken robes.  We learn that Kublai's hunting parties consisted of picking up and moving virtually the entire Imperial court.  Twice a year it would travel with hundreds, if not thousands, of retainers and handlers for the Khan's falcons and hunting dogs.  This slow moving juggernaut traveled north, leaving the oppressive heat of Khanbliq behind and headed to his fabled summer capital of Xanadu , with its pleasure domes, made of movable bamboo, silken covered palaces.
Returning to Venice, after having been away for over twenty years in Asia, Marco was called into service as a Captain in the Venetian Navy.  He was captured by Venice's rival, the Genoese, during the battle of Cruzola, off the coast of Dalmatia.  He was  imprisoned in Genoa about 1298.  This is where the legend begins.  Even these supposed events are up to debate. What is known, there he met Rustichello of Pisa, a writer of Arthurian romances and other novels.  This was relatively new and rare for the time, writing books as entertainment for the average gentry.  The thirteenth century was a world still lost in the dark ages, where monsters, ghosts, and unicorns still existed.  The reader of the day expected such oddities in its stories.  The horror of the Mongolian conquest led to unrest sweeping throughout Europe and stories of the boogieman, instilled fear.  Most still believed the planet to be flat. The knowledge held in books was retained by a select few, those who were educated, and could read Latin or French, thereby giving them power over the masses.  There was no CNN, or BBC, no freedom of information act, no first amendment.  Rustichello must have become enamored with Marco's tales of the East and convinced him to put his singular experiences down on paper for posterity.  We can imagine the two prisoners sitting around a single candle in their rustic chamber as Marco recited and Rustichello furiously jotted down notes, trying to keep up.  Although Marco had great powers of observation, and a deep and abiding curiosity about the world and all things in it, he was born into a merchant family and trained as a such.  Facts and figures, numbers and accounting, counted highly in the family business.  The tally of numbers, in part, lead to the nick-name he garnered after the publication of his work.  He became known as “Il milione” meaning either, as some would have it, a liar, or as others believed, the man with a “Million” far flung stories, because he spoke of cities in China with millions and millions of people.  This was at a time when Venice held only about seventy thousand.  He related stories of untold riches and splendor that was greater than any European potentate's treasury.  In Hangzhou otherwise known as Kinsi or “The City of Heaven”,  he reported that its daily consumption of pepper amounted to 43 cart-loads, each cart consisting of 223 lbs.!  He goes on to say this about the population of China, “Here at every hour of the day are crowds of people going to and fro about their business, so that seeing such a multitude one would believe it a stark impossibility that food could be found to fill so many mouths”.  Again these numbers shocked his audience.  He related stories of unknown peoples, and their culture and customs, like of those who guild their teeth with gold, others who make bread out of the pith of trees, go about completely nude, and tattoo their bodies.  He astounds by telling us about a sect of magicians who would make drinking vessels levitate and who could also cause bad weather to change above the Emperor's palace.

He spun frightening tales of marauding bandits who murdered or sold into slavery all who were unfortunate enough to cross their path.  These bandits would raise huge dust storms that blotted the sun from the sky so that their victims could not escape.  In an area that is still a 'No Mans Land', between what is now Iran and Afghanistan he said, “In this plain there are a number of villages and towns which have lofty walls of mud, made as a defense against the banditti, who are very numerous, and are called Karaunas, this name is given them because they are the sons of Indian mothers by Tartar fathers.  These Karaunas make a plundering incursion, and have certain devilish enchantments whereby they do bring darkness over the face of day, so that you can scarcely discern your comrade riding beside you; this darkness they cause to extend over a space of seven days' journey.  They know the country thoroughly, and ride abreast, sometimes to the number of 10,000, or more.  In this way they extend across the whole plain and catch every living thing, man, woman, or beast, nothing can escape them!  The old men whom they take are butchered; the young men and the women they sell for slaves in other countries; thus the whole land is ruined, and has become a desert.  I must add the fact that Messer Marco himself was all but caught by their bands in such a darkness as that I have told you of…Howbeit he lost his whole company except seven persons who escaped along with him.  The rest were caught, and some of them sold, some put to death.”

 In many ways Polo became one of the western world's first ethnographers.  He delivered grandly on the promise set forth in the prologue of his book. “Emperors and kings, dukes, marquises, counts, knights, and townsfolk and all people who wish to know about the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world, take this book and have it read to you.  Here you will find all the great wonders and curiosities of Greater Armenia and Persia, of the Tartars and of India, and of many other territories.” (refer to our Gallery, “The Faces and  Places of Marco Polo's Asia”)

This “Book of Wonders” has never been out of print.  There was even a copy chained to the Rialto Bridge for all to read.  Today there are approximately one hundred of these ancient texts that have come down to us.  Sadly the original is long gone.  Of the surviving texts the copy held in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford is most famous for its wonderful illumination showing Polo's departure from Venice.  The problem now looking back for the scholar is to decipher and detect fact from fiction.  Based on a few discrepancies there has always been debate surrounding the authenticity of Polo's account.  Most recently Professor Frances Woods, in her book “Did Marco Polo Go to China?” advances an extremely weak argument.  Her points of contention have long ago been debunked by her peers.  Scholars like renowned Professor of Chinese and Mongolian history, Morris Rossibi of Columbia University, author of  “Kublai Khan: his life and times” or  John Larner whose book called  “Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World” is a personal favorite.  In both their volumes they clearly laid out why it is impossible to disbelieve the bulk of the information between the page of  “The Travels of Marco Polo”.  Woods argues that Polo traveled no further than Persia, theorizing the accounts of his travels were related to him by other Silk Road travelers.  Granted there are some deficiencies in Marco's account, for example, he does not mention the Great Wall, chopsticks, tea, foot-binding, or Chinese calligraphy, all significant omissions.  Perhaps none more glaring than that of the Great Wall, but we must look at this through the perspective of history.  The construction of the Great Wall began about 700 B.C.  Later, the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, founder of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. - 206 B.C.) (famous for his extravagant burial tomb just outside the city of Xian, full of thousands of life sized terracotta warriors) is often credited with the construction, in truth he only connected and extended old fortifications.  So, these walls along the Northern frontier of China were old even to him. Built during turbulent times to stop invading barbarian tribes, these man made barriers did little to stop the onslaught of the Mongolian advance. Tens of thousand of Chinese conscripts and slaves lost their lives in its construction.  It was hated, as so many families lost members too.  It was to them a wall of tears and pain.  Today it is a glowing symbol of an emergent China.  When Marco traversed the Silk Road the wall was old and all but forgotten, a crumbling ruin.  It would have held little significance to him, as a Mongol official.  The Great Wall as we know it today was largely built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, stronger due to superior construction methods, and the use of bricks instead of the traditional rammed earth.

The fact that Polo fails to mention chopsticks, tea, foot-binding, Chinese calligraphy, can all be easily enough explained away.  Not having the facility to  speak Chinese is understandable as well.  Marco was a functionary in the Yuan court.  He would have both little need or opportunity to either write or converse in Chinese.  It is clear he had command of and was literate in not only Persian which was the 'Lingua Franca' of the Silk Road, at that time, but both Arabic and Turkish, which were major languages spoken along the Silk Road.

Imagine again, we are in that prison cell with Marco and the most infamous ghostwriter in history, Rustichello de Pisa. You can hear Rustichello saying something like this, “Trust me, trust me, your memories and notes are full of wonderful and amazing facts.  People will love them.  I am a skilled writer.  I know what people want, let me punch it up a bit here and there.  It will guarantee more people will read the account of your travels.  It will become a best seller.  Who will ever know?  A little exaggeration never hurt a soul.”  It has been proven by textual comparison that several  passages, especially those regarding battle scenes, have in many cases been almost lifted verbatim from previous volumes written by the Pisan.  These initial inconsistencies and subsequent omissions or embellishments have corrupted and tarnished Marco's name and account in what has become a Medieval game of telephone, stretched across the pages of various texts, down through the ages.  Perhaps innocently enough, a scribe thinks,  “Hum, let me improve upon this and add the most current up-to-date knowledge,” so one adds this and another subtracts that, and before you know it Marco Polo and his story are altered, lost.  We can only guess, no I take that back, there is no way to truly appreciate the amount of knowledge that has been lost, no more than we could fathom what treasured ancient volumes were incinerated with the burning of the Library of Alexandria or irreplaceable mathematical and scientific texts, destroyed with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad.

Marco's book is comprised of four sections, or books. The first section describes the lands of the Levant and Central Asia. Book Two describes China and Kublai Khan's court.  Book Three describes most of coastal and eastern China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and a large portion of coastal east Africa. Finally, Book Four describes wars among the rival Mongol clans and regions of the far north, like Siberia. Many fine scholars have agonized over the one hundred or so surviving copies. Two giants in this quest were Giovanni Battista Ramusio, and Luigi Foscolo Benedetto.  Ramusio was the first to attempt collating the many diverse manuscripts and provide a critical edition. He did so leaning heavily on a fourteenth century Latin manuscript he considered to be "perfectly correct", a view modern scholars do not share.  Many beloved apocryphal tales start here with Ramusio such as: the Polo's not being recognized upon their return home after twenty-four years away because,  “They had the smack of their Tartar about them, having all but forgotten their native language”.  This was until they cut open the lining of their cloaks and a fortune of gems came streaming forth.  Even Marco's deathbed scene and utterances may be a romantic fabrication.  The oldest surviving Polo manuscripts are in an old Franco-Italian dialect, spoken in Venice at the time.  One group of manuscripts, called "F", was favored by Benedetto as the basic original texts.  It was Benedetto who identified Rusticello da Pisa as the original compiler. To my mind, Sir Henry Yule is Marco's redeemer.  His translation and epic compilation is still the 'Go To' book on Marco Polo. Yule was a Scottish Orientalist educated at both the University of Edinburgh and the College of London.  He published and edited many travel books, “The Travels of Marco Polo”, being the most important.  Henry was commissioned in the British army and served in India.  This began his fascination with the people and the region.  Upon retirement he devoted his leisure time to medieval history and geography of Central Asia. From his library he would research and send out inquiries throughout the world, to statesmen, foreign diplomats, early explorers, and soldiers in the field, anyone who might have a grain of knowledge or new information. Many areas in China, especially the desert regions, were being traversed for the first time by western scholars and adventurers, since Polo himself.  He investigated each and every word and sentence of Polo's account.  After sifting through this huge jigsaw puzzle, he carefully notated every entry in his translation, along with the various options.  A monumental undertaking, made by this amazing hero of the Marco Polo story. A. C. Moule, Paul Pelliot, and Leonard Olschki are just a few of the others who have made huge contributions in the field.
Since perspective is so important, let us go back again, this time a bit further to the genesis of the whole story. Marco tells us that his father and uncle, having traveled on a previous trading mission to the court of Kublai Khan, returned home to Venice and the west now employed as emissaries of the Great Khan. The text says that Kublai being an open minded ruler welcomed the Pope to send him Holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and one hundred learned scholars in the seven arts, meaning educated priests. He would then, it was said, judge for himself the worthiness of Christianity visa vie the other religions vying for influence at his court.

The Polo family were not the first, or only, European travelers to the Mongol Empire.  Other European travelers journeyed to the court of earlier Mongol Khans. A few examples are Andre de Longjumeau, William of Rubruck, and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine.  They all undertook either Papal missions or missions for king and crown.  In truth, the Polo brothers, Niccolo and Matteo, Marco's father and uncle respectively, may have already been double agents, working for the Catholic Church.  There is no question that these earlier embassies were sent at the very least as fact finding missions.  Some were
outright attempts to make allies of these “Devil's Horsemen” in the church's floundering crusades against Islam. They were mostly rebuffed, but the information garnered during these reconnaissance missions were without doubt useful. Tactics, troop strength, disposition, command structures, as well as the personality and intent of its leaders, are all found in Marco's account of the Mongol military.  So, the two elder Polo's on that first mission, without young Marco in tow, may well have used their position as successful merchant traders as a cover. This, too, is but an assumption, one hinted at by some scholars and held by me with some conviction.  What does this all mean and where does it leave us?  One thing for sure Marco's account has left us a rich legacy of fanatical if not heretical tales.  Below I have included a few of my favorites.

“The Old Man of the Mountain” was an Islamic Sheik who Marco informs us was   considered a “Heretic” by fellow Muslims.  He was the founder of a sect, the assassins, medieval terrorists, who did their master's bidding by murdering whomsoever they were instructed to.  Villainous zombies who had been drugged into a stupor and promised an eternity in Paradise should they die on their mission.  This Paradise was built by the Old Man to emulate the one promised by the prophet to all those who die for the faith, as martyrs.  This story of Marco's is based on fact, and he goes on to tell us of its final outcome. “It came to pass, in the year of Christ's Incarnation, 1252, that Alatu, Lord of the Tartars of the Levant, heard tell of these great crimes of the Old Man, and resolved to make an end of him.  So he sent a great army to that castle, and they besieged it for three years. The Old Man was put to death with all his men and the castle with its Garden of Paradise was leveled to the ground.  And since that time he has had no successor; and there was an end to all his villainies.”

“The Desert of Lop is so great it would take a year or more to ride from one side of it to the other and at least a month to cross it where narrowest.  It is composed of hills of sand, and not a thing to eat is to be found on it.  There is a marvelous thing to relate of this Desert. When a traveler at night lags behind or falls asleep, he will hear spirits talking.  Sometimes the spirits will call him by name; and thus a traveler has often been led astray, never to find his party. In this way many have perished.  Sometimes the stray traveler will hear … the hum of a great cavalcade and will follow the sound; and you shall hear the sound of a variety of musical instruments, and still more commonly the sound of drums.  When day breaks they find that they are in an ill plight. Even during the daytime one hears those spirits talking.”  Can this echo of the past be the origin of the childrens game played in a pool?  Marco – Polo – Marco – Polo !

“It is a fact that all over China there is a kind of black stone existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood.”  Continuing he says that they will burn all night long and that they have access to other fuels but  prefer these stones over wood because they burn better and cost less.
“The real truth is that Salamander is no beast, as they alleged in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth; it is not an animal of nature who lives in fire.  Once extracted this substance is taken and crushed, and is divided into fibers.  It is then washed, to remove all the earth and leaves only fibers like wool.  These are then spun, and made into napkins.  Whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put back into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow.  This is the truth about the Salamander, any other account of the matter is fabulous nonsense!”
There is not one field of study that Marco's account doesn't touch upon, be it, Geography, Geology, Zoology, Gemology, Astronomy, Oceanography, Anthropology, Botany etc... With him we travel through the art, culture, and histories of more than a dozen nations. We learn about all of the world's major and secondary religions, included but not limited to, Animism, Shamanism, and Zoroastrianism.  Marco reveals and introduces us to most of the human family.
The list goes on and includes magic, myth, and fantasy.  In the plethora of this kaleidoscopic adventure we encounter a mixed bag of absolutely correct facts and several  instances where he gets the facts slightly incorrect.  For example his description of Kublai's attempts to invade Japan, he mixes up events from two separate invasion fleets. What he does, however, is to introduce us to the island nation for the first time in history.  Also, he added the word kamikaze to our lexicon, as the Khan's fleet was lost to the 'Divine Wind' of these storms.  Aside from a few false reports and misrepresentations, he more often than not tries his best to debunk falsehoods.  As he had in the story of the “ Salamander” or when he explained that the unicorn was simply a rhinoceros, and that the “Pygmies” sold to unwitting sailors are little more than shaved monkeys. (Orangutans)  The true wonders of Polo's book are the real things he details for the first time in history, like a huge mountain sheep that has come to bear his name, the “Marco Polo“ (Ovis ammon Polii) or the fact that paper money was used as currency in China, unimaginable in a time when gold, silver, and tangible goods were the only form of exchange.  On those small slips of paper, he tells how each one is designated separately according to its denomination, via a form of printing, still hundreds of years off in Europe, again the list is long.

According to the text Marco was in the employ of the Great Khan for his entire seventeen years stay. He acted as an ambassador to the court, charged to reporting back on all he had observed. Now, after years of faithful service the Polos repeatedly asked for permission to return to their homeland but were refused, because as Marco put it the Great Khan held him in such esteem and showed him such favor that the other lords were moved to envy, saying in third person,  “This, then, is how it came about that Messer Marco Polo observed more peculiarities of this part of the world … because he traveled more widely in these outlandish regions than any man who has ever been born!”  With Kublai's now advanced age and the envy inspired at court, the Polos were in a tenuous position.  The Khan finally acquiesced and charged them with one last mission. This was to deliver a Mongolian princess to a cousin in Persia.  This return would be by sea, via Southeast Asia and both the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.  This route would establish Marco not just as a pioneer of the Silk Road, but a trail blazer of the 'Spice Route' as well.  As a young man during his outward journey Marco references and speaks of Alexander the Great who loomed large in his mind.  In many ways it is as if he is retracing Alexander's route, at least until he passed through Central Asia.  Now a middle aged man, Marco has been away from his homeland most of his entire adult life.  We can imagine him standing at the helm of his Chinese vessel, looking out into the blue vastness, wondering what was in store for him, in the last chapters of his life. 

What is 'Marco Polo's Legacy'? Why is Marco Polo important?  Marco Polo seems to not have been very self absorbed, as many of us are today.  His  “15 minutes of fame” probably took him by surprise and made him uncomfortable. Today Marco Polo and his story are more relevant than ever, witnessed by the popularity of the new Netflix mega series "Marco Polo" and the most recent announcement by Paramount Pictures production of a big budget feature on the same subject. Notwithstanding the evidence of popular culture, Marco looms large on the International stage.  He is the quintessential Ambassador between East and West. Current events show us his importance, be it the rise of China as an economic superpower, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, nuclear negotiations with Iran, issues of Tibetan independence, or the lack thereof.  On balance his account is one of understanding and tolerance, in an age when that was rare. It is a lesson that we all need to learn from today.  So revolutionary was his account, it was the equivalent to a medieval communication satellite or the internet,  an information superhighway of thought.  Cross cultural exchange sped up on the Silk Road, in part because of Polo's account. It had always been  an avenue that had fostered trade in ideas.  He was truly interested in the new people and cultures he met.  He came to them with curiosity and an open heart and tried to document them, so that others too could learn and understand.  In one passage he goes on to say  “I believe that it was God's will that we should return so that men might know the things that are in the world”  Unlike the explorers that he inspired, those who followed, he never planted a flag for crown and king, nor did he ever try to change or convert those he encountered to his religion.  Marco Polo's account is so rich and diverse that no one can truly claim to be a master of it all.  Like Sir Henry Yule, I have immersed myself in the subject for over twenty years, still Marco surprises, teaching me something new everyday.  Of all of his contributions, it is geography that is perhaps the greatest.  For better or worse, he opened up a whole new world for Europe and the West, ushering in the age of discovery and enlightenment.  A world that without his lead may have stayed dark and closed for many years yet to come.  It is a fact that Christopher Columbus carried with him a well worn copy of Marco Polo's book.   It even had his hand written notes in the margin, highlighting Polo's  exquisitely descriptive passages  on India.  While searching for Marco's India, Columbus bumped into the Americas, accidentally.  The rest as they say is “History”.  Exalted or belittled, Marco Polo endures.  As long as civilization exists his name will be remembered and spoken.  Perhaps just by little kids playing a silly game of tag in a backyard pool.  Perhaps as the focus of a frivolous debate between culinary experts on whether he brought spaghetti back from China, or one of greater merit in hushed libraries by scholars.  Regardless of the conversation it is time that Marco Polo took his rightful place as the world's “Greatest Explorer” because no one man, before or since has changed and influenced global history, as did Marco Polo, my favorite heretic. 

        Like him before me … “I haven't told you half of Marco Polo's story”