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The Garden of Eden - in China?
Could the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert once have been the location of the Garden of Earthly Delights?
Imagine it’s a long, long time ago. As the legend on the map says: “Before the upheaval of Central Asia. Before the subsidence of the Pacific Continent. Before the change in the position of the Polar regions. Before the Deluge.”
Ah, the Deluge. That gives us a pretty specific time frame. To Biblical literalists, sacred history comes with a very real chronology; the universe was created one weekend about six thousand years ago, the Great Flood is less than four and a half thousand years old . In contrast, those who prefer their world view seasoned with a generous helping of science, will be more inclined towards the hypothesis that it all started with a Big Bang, some 13 billion years ago.
Even without going into the whole Creationism versus Evolutionism debate , the massive imbalance in the size of their back stories seems to work in favour of the thesis with the bigger reserves of time. Antiquity suggests validity. It’s much more difficult to argue with the vast aeons at the disposal of the Big Bangers than with the puny millennia of the Adam and Eve crowd. Put another way, the former have more logical explanations for phenomena like past extinctions and climate changes than the latter.
But sacred history does have one big advantage over natural history - it has better stories. In the darwinist reading, the path from past to present was forged by impersonal forces: either big accidents (meteors, climate change) or slow evolutionary changes (frontal lobes, opposable thumbs). The ‘supernatural’ version in the Bible actually is the more ‘humanist’ one: it gives centre stage to Mr and Mrs Sapiens, and explains history as a consequence of the choices they face .
For Darwinists, our dog-eat-dog world merely is the successor to a previous, dinosaur-eat-dinosaur incarnation. In science, there is no Garden of Eden. The idea of Eden - that once there was a perfect state of affairs, when truth and happiness were not opposed , and virtue as pure as the world was young - is a powerful and attractive one , explaining the continued popularity of the sacred version of history, in spite of some obvious logical problems .
So imagine it’s a biblically long time ago. It’s the age of innocence, and life is good in the Garden of Eden. But where is this Garden? The hunt for the exact location of humanity’s original home is a fascinating quest, and a centuries-long cartographic conundrum . If they chose to include it on a map, cartographers usually picked a location in the Middle East, that cockpit of hallowed history.
These two maps, however, are quite extraordinarily different. Eden is placed far away from its more usual location in or near Mesopotamia  - The Garden is moved East of Eden, to borrow Steinbeck’s title .
They are the work of Tse Tsan-tai (1872-1938), a Chinese revolutionary, newspaperman and Christian propagandist. Born in Sydney and baptised James Yee, Tse moved to Hong Kong whence he started agitating for the Qing dynasty on the mainland to be replaced by a democratic republic. The plot failed to come to fruition, and Tse had more success co-founding the South China Morning Post in 1903.
In 1914, Tse wrote The Creation, the Garden of Eden and the Origin of the Chinese, in which he attempted to prove, based on the geographical description in the Bible, that the Garden of Eden was located in China.
Tse’s outlandish theory was an attempt at proving that at least some Biblical events had taken place in China - and that therefore Christianity was not alien to the Middle Kingdom . The book was meant to dispel the notion that Christianity in China was a tool of foreign powers, at a time when the countries sending the missionaries were the same ones bullying a weak China into granting them coastal concessions .
The first map gives a global overview of the Bible-based world history as seen by Tse, and as opposed to others: two black dots represent the usual presumed location of Eden, in what appears to be either Iraq or southeastern Turkey. A red circle represents Tse’s hypothesis. It places Eden in the far west of China, in what was then known as Chinese Turkestan (and now as Xinjiang).
The location picked by Tse corresponds to the description in the Bible, referring to the course of four rivers near the Garden of Eden . Apparently unconnected to the Edenic claim are red lines on the map, that indicate ancient shorelines, and point to a giant sunken continent stretching from Papua New Guinea almost all the way to South America. It remains unexplained what this continent is, and which Bible verse it is based on; but it is reminiscent, shape- and location-wise, to the lost continent of Mu .
The map also shows an X in Tse's handwriting, marking a spot in Greenland that is supposed to have been the Antediluvian North Pole, Latitude 75˚, Longitude 40˚. Again, the Biblical foundation and any connection to Eden remain unexplained on the map.
Finally, the colour scheme on the map shows the world as peopled by Noah’s descendants. Biblical tradition holds that the world’s population descends from no more than three men  - the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japhet, the forefathers of the Semites (in the Middle East, and on this map, much of Asia and all of America), the Hamites (Africa, Arabia, India) and Japhetites (Europe). The Semitic expansion into Asia provides blood links between China and the Bible.
The second map gives an indication of the geopositional shoehorning Tse applied to the geographical indications in Genesis, identifying India with Havilah . The result is the location of Eden in what appears to be a most unlikely place: an area between the Tarim River and the Kuen Lun Mountains better known today as the Taklamakan Desert. The area, now the world’s second-largest sand desert after the Empty Quarter in Arabia, is one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
But ruined cities buried beneath the sand seem to indicate that the Taklamakan may not always have been as unforgiving as it has been for the last few millennia. In fact, its very name may hold a clue to its climatological past. Often, and erroneously, translated as something like ‘Once you enter, you’ll never make it out’, or ‘Sea of Death’ a more recent etymology suggests the name might actually mean ‘Land of Poplars’ .
Could it be that today’s sand desert once really was a garden paradise?
Many thanks to Heather Hausman at Atlas Obscura for informing me of a lecture by Brook Wilensky-Lanford, the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (see footnote 7).
Strange Maps #583
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 James Ussher, a 17th-century (Anglican) Archbishop of Armagh, famously calculated from hints in the Book of Genesis that Creation started at dusk on Saturday 22 October 4004 BC; he placed the Flood at 2348 BC, resulting in a total of 1656 years for the entirety of the Antediluvian era.
 It really isn’t a debate. But that’s a non-debate better held elsewhere.
 Albeit always in relation to God, and usually in the sense that they cheese Him off.
 The current paradigm holds that knowledge is power, but ignorance is bliss.
 In religion as in politics, the lure of the ‘good old days’ is as age-worn and as common as the lament that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
 Where on that limited time scale do you place the dinosaurs?
 See ‘Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden’ for at both those clues and the eventual locations, with an overview of some of the most crucial attempts at mapping the original location of Eden.
 Greek for the Land between the Rivers, i.e. the Tigris and Euphrates. This well-watered land of ancient cultures is now divided between Iraq, and parts of Syria and Turkey.
 Who borrowed it from the Bible: And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. (Genesis, 4:16)
 Nestorian Christianity was present in China from the mid-7th century onwards, but was extinct by the year 1000.
 Control of a string of coastal towns was wrested from the Chinese Empire by Austro-Hungary (Tianjin, 1902-’17), Belgium (ibid., 1902-’31), Great Britain (Tianjin and half a dozen other concessions, all extinguished before 1945; and Hong Kong, ruled as a colony from 1841 to 1997), France (five concessions, all ended in 1946), Germany (Tianjin and two others, ended in 1917), Italy (Tianjin, until 1947), Japan (seven concessions, and Taiwan, administered as a colony), Portugal (Macau - the oldest, and last European colony in China: 1557-1999), Russia (four different territories) and the United States (in Shanghai).
 Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land is good; the bdellium and the onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:10-14).
 The presumed source information for which is Mayan rather than Biblical. See #47.
 Curiously, recent advances in genetic biology means that science too now can pinpoint a common ancestor for all mankind - ‘Mitochondrial Eve’.
 More commonly identified with locations on the Arabian Peninsula, such as the Hijaz Mountains in western Saudi Arabia, or parts of Yemen.
 According to research by Qian Boquan , historian of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences in Urumqi.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A simple trick allowed marine biologists to prove a long-held suspicion.
- It's long been suspected that sharks navigate the oceans using Earth's magnetic field.
- Sharks are, however, difficult to experiment with.
- Using magnetism, marine biologists figured out a clever way to fool sharks into thinking they're somewhere that they're not.
For some time, scientists have suspected that sharks belong among the growing number of animals known to navigate using Earth's magnetic field. Testing anything with a shark, though, requires some care.
The key was selecting the right candidate. Keller and his colleagues chose the bonnethead shark, Sphyrna tiburo, a small critter that summers at Turkey Point Shoal off the coast of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory with which Keller is affiliated.
Bonnetheads elsewhere have been known to complete 620-mile roundtrip migrations. As the lab's Dean Grubbs puts it, "That's not bad for a shark that is only two to three feet long. The question is how do they find their way back to that same estuary year after year." There's a report of a great white shark migrating between two locations, one in South Africa and another in Australia, year after year.
The research is published in Current Biology.
Keller and his team rounded up 20 local juvenile bonnetheads and transported them into a holding tank at the marine lab. For the tests, the researchers simulated three real-world magnetic fields. As the various magnetic fields were activated, the sharks' movements were captured by GoPro cameras and their average swimming orientations calculated by software.
The first simulation, serving as a control, mimicked the magnetic field of the nearby shoal from which the sharks had been captured. When this field was activated, the sharks essentially acted like they were "home," just swimming around as they do.
A second field was the magnetic equivalent of a location 600 kilometers south of the lab within the Gulf of Mexico. When this field was activated, the sharks, apparently mistaking themselves for being far south in the Gulf, began swimming northward toward the shoal.
The opposite occurred with a field standing in for a location in continental North America 600 km north of their home shoal — the sharks began swimming southward.
"For 50 years," says Keller, "scientists have hypothesized that sharks use the magnetic field as a navigational aid. This theory has been so popular because sharks, skates, and rays have been shown to be very sensitive to magnetic fields. They have also been trained to react to unique geomagnetic signatures, so we know they are capable of detecting and reacting to variation in the magnetic field."
His team's experiments confirm what's long been suspected, Keller says: "Sharks use map-like information from the geomagnetic field as a navigational aid. This ability is useful for navigation and possibly maintaining population structure."
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.