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A papyrus reveals how the Great Pyramid was built

A newly discovered papyrus contains an eye-witness account of the gathering of materials for the Great Pyramid.

(PAWEESIT)


The Great Pyramid in Egypt is the last of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. The tomb for Pharaoh Khufu — “Cheops” in Greek — sits on the Giza plateau about 3 kilometers southwest of Egypt’s capitol Cairo, and it’s huge: nearly 147 meters high and 230.4 meters on each side (it’s now slightly smaller due to erosion). Built of roughly 2.3 million limestone and rose granite stones from hundreds of kilometers away, it’s long posed a couple of vexing and fascinating mysteries: How did the ancient Egyptians manage to get all of these stones to Giza, and how did they build such a monumental object? All sorts of exotic ideas have been floated, including assistance from aliens visiting earth. Now, as the result of an amazing find in a cave 606 kilometers away, we have an answer in the form of 4,600-year-old, bound papyrus scrolls, the oldest papyri ever found. They’re the journal of one of the managers who helped build the great pyramid. It’s the only eye-witness account of building the Great Pyramid that’s ever been found.

It was written by a man named Merer, who reported to “the noble Ankh-haf,” Khufu’s half-brother. It describes, among other things, a stop of his 200-man crew in the Tura, or Maaasara, limestone quarries on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Suez, and filling up their boat for the 13-17 km trip back up the river to Giza. Since this type of limestone was used for the pyramid’s outer casing, the journal is believed to document work on the tomb during the final year of Khufu’s life, around 2560 BCE.

Khufu

In 1823, British explorer John Gardner Wilkinson first described the caves in Wadi al-Jarf on the eastern coast of the Red Sea: “Near the ruins is a small knoll containing eighteen excavated chambers, beside, perhaps, many others, the entrance of which are no longer visible.” He described them as being “well cut and vary from about 80 to 24 feet, by 5; their height may be from 6 to 8 feet.” Two French pilots also noted presence of the 30 caves in the mid-1950s, but it wasn’t until Pierre Tallet interviewed one of the pilots that he was able to pinpoint the caves’ location during a 2011 dig. Two years later, the papyri were discovered. Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass called it “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.” 

Prior to the work of Tallet and others, the ancient Egyptians weren’t thought to be seafarers, but abandoned ports unearthed along the Gulf of Suez and the Read Sea tell a different story.

In the Egyptian resort town Ayn Soukhna, along the west coast of the Suez, Egyptian heirogplyhs were first found on cliff walls in 1997. “I love rock inscriptions,” Tallet told Smithsonian, “they give you a page of history without excavating.” He read one to the Smithsonian: “In year one of the king, they sent a troop of 3,000 men to fetch copper, turquoise and all the good products of the desert.”

(GOOGLE EARTH)

That would be the Sinai desert across the Red Sea, and Wadi al-Jarf is only 56 km away from two of a group of ports. Tallet has uncovered the remains of an 182-meter, L-shaped jetty there, along with 130 anchors. He believes it, like Ayn Soukhna, were part of a series of ports, supply hubs, bringing needed materials into Egypt. The caves were apparently built for boat storage, as they have been elsewhere around the edges of ancient Egypt. It appears Wadi al-Jarf was only in use a short while, during the building of the pyramid — it likely supplied the project with Sinai copper, the hardest metal of is time, for cutting stones. 

The second part of the Great Pyramid mystery — who built it? — may have been solved in the 1980s by Mark Lehner, who uncovered a residential area capable of housing some 20,000 people just meters from the pyramids. Prior to that find, there was scant evidence of the massive population of workers that would have been required for building the tomb. Studying the “cattle-to-pig” ratio revealed the diversity of the population that lived there,: Beef was the food of the elite; pigs of the working person, and Lerhner discovered “the ratio of cattle to pig for the entire site stands at 6:1, and for certain areas 16:1,” a plausible distribution for the construction team.

Lehner visited Wadi al-Jarf and concurs with Tallet about its meaning: “The power and purity of the site is so Khufu,” he told Smithsonian. “The scale and ambition and sophistication of it — the size of these galleries cut out of rock like the Amtrak train garages, these huge hammers made out of hard black diorite they found, the scale of the harbor, the clear and orderly writing of the hieroglyphs of the papyri, which are like Excel spreadsheets of the ancient world—all of it has the clarity, power and sophistication of the pyramids, all the characteristics of Khufu and the early fourth dynasty.” He believes the pyramid stones were transported by boat from ports like Wadi al-Jarf and Ayn Soukhna via canals to the construction site in Giza, the ancient Egyptians having been master builders of such waterways for the purposes of irrigation.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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