The Birth of North Korea

For this week and the letter ‘N’, I will be giving a brief history on possibly one of the most infamous (if not the most infamous) modern-day political anomaly that is North Korea. North Korea is a byword for oppression, modern-day dictatorships, mass poverty, corruption, and any other negative connotation relating to politics and culture – to the extent that the term “this is like North Korea” is used to immediately express unfairness, personal depravity, and sometimes just commercial inconvenience. But how did North Korea come about? This blog will look at the years between the Second World War and the Korean War and how the political power and state of the land that still exists today originated and grew.

Continue reading “The Birth of North Korea”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 3: Historical Videogames

Episode 3 of the podcast!

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined again by James for a conversation about the crossover of two of their favourite things, Videogames and History!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

The Diquis Spheres – (2019 Update)

Today we will move across the globe to discover the Diquis Spheres. These are some stone spheres found in the delta of Diquis, between the rivers Terraba and Sierpe, in the peninsula of Osa and the Isla del Caño (Costa Rica). They are unique archaeological finds due to their number of existing specimens (over 300!), as well as their sizes, formations and rounded perfection. Their dimensions vary from the 10 cm to 2.57 m of diameter. They can weigh as much as 16 tones and have been found in 34 different archaeological sites. These are the products of the Diquis culture: a pre-Columbian culture, indigenous from Costa Rica. Diquis means great waters or river in the Boruca language (the native speaking tongue), which seems to tie in with the locations of the finds. However, their meaning and origin is a mystery.

According to Ifigenia Quintanilla (University of Costa Rica), the spheres were most likely produced sometime between the 800 and the 500 B.C. However, local archaeologists investigating the subject have trouble dating and interpreting them as 90% of the spheres have been moved and found away from their original locations. The theories on their meaning and purpose get even more obscure and confusing. Most archaeologists and historians support the idea that these artifices had an astronomical function. Perhaps they were a way of timing agricultural cycles, or even maybe representations of constellations. Another supported hypothesis is that these could be used as markers of social status for the leaders of the indigenous tribes. Nevertheless, more fantastical explanations have been proposed:

-Some think these could have been done by the people of Atlantis, or even by extra-terrestrial beings!

-There is also the myth that the Diquis culture knew of a chemical product that could manipulate the physical state and shape of stone.

-Some more logical beliefs consider that perhaps these were used as territorial markers.

-More interestingly, many have found them to be an analogy of a pre-Columbian myth. This is related to the god of thunder Tara, or Tlachque, who used throw some spherical objects against the Serke, or the gods of wind and hurricane, to keep them away from these lands.

The Diquis Spheres in Modern Day Costa Rica:

The spheres were discovered in 1939 when the American company United Fruits made some moves over Costa Rica in order to clear some woodlands for the sake of banana cultivation. And then the mystery and fascination began.

They were first mentioned, and worthy of scholarly consideration, in 1943 when Doris Stone wrote an article for the magazine American Antiquity about them. Since then, many studies have been carried out to try to understand what these items actually are. And it seems that one of the most plausible explanation is that these spheres were used as some form of astronomical tool (Ivar Zapp, George Erikson, 1998). Other theories, such as the work produces by Patricia Fernandez and Ifigenia Quintanilla support the idea that these were public items; symbols of local power (2003). Perhaps this ties in with the theory that the stones were actually used by this society for funerary purposes, and that although no clear dating or chronology has been established yet, the society that produced them were likely to be a splinter group from the Aguas Buenas settlement (Roberto Herrera, 2017). This makes sense if we consider, as pointed out by some of the most striking pieces of goldsmithing does come from the Diquis area as well.

However, the research moves slowly. It took years for scholars to actually show a decent interest in the subject and try to solve the mystery. It seems that for several decades, the spheres lied out in this banana plantation, forgotten, catching the interest of occasional looters. Nonetheless, these stones are part of the collective memory of Costa Rica. They are a symbol of identity for the indigenous and local inhabitants, and they are commonly referenced in their popular culture and the media. Thanks to the superb work of archaeologists Francisco Corrales and  Adrian Badilla (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica) since 2002 to the area has gained some interest, to the point that, it is worth mentioning that the Diquis spheres have as of 2014 – a year after the original introduction to this piece was written – now been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the site, tourism and conservation of the area evolves slowly as this is a new field for the Costa Rican nation.

We can only hope that the new generations of archaeologist will bring us more answers as to the origin and faction of these items, and of course, how they were made!


A History of our time?

The forgotten founding father?



Legacy, what is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see[1]


I honestly could not resist writing a piece about Hamilton. Hamilton is the 2015 musical phenomenon written by Lin Manuel Miranda and inspired by R. Chernow’s 2004 biography titled Alexander Hamilton that has since reached London’s West End as of December 2017.

I have been extremely lucky to have watched the performance twice! Now I feel it would be appropriate to examine the historical significance of the musical about the man who is on the $10 bill and how it resonates to a present-day audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I will focus more on social and political matters as opposed to the economic and military. If you wish to see the musical in the future, please note I will make mention to some elements in the plot.


The Backstory


Alexander Hamilton’s Early Years

My name is Alexander Hamilton and there’s a million things I haven’t done just you wait, just you wait…[2]

Let’s start with the backstory. Alexander Hamilton was an American statesman who fought numerous battles in the Revolutionary War against Britain and became the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. The story narrates the life of Alexander Hamilton, an unlikely founding father who was born on the British island of Nevis (now St Kitts and Nevis) in January 1757/1755 as there is some debate amongst historians regarding this, although it is widely considered to be 1757. Born outside of wedlock, his father abandoning the family and his mother dying when he was still a child, his prospects on the face of it appeared dire.

Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Fawcett was married to Johann Michael Lavien before she met James Hamilton, the father of Alexander Hamilton. Lavien seized Fawcett’s estate in St Croix (now United States Virgin Islands) in probate court upon her death and sold off a sizeable portion of Fawcett’s items.

Hamilton later became a clerk at Beekman and Crugar, an import and export firm. The firm traded with the colonies of New England and New York. At 14/16, Hamilton was placed in charge of the firm when his employer was away at sea for five months. Hamilton’s cousin, Peter Lytton briefly looked after him and his brother, James Jr Hamilton before he committed suicide. From this point henceforth, the brothers were separated though remained on Nevis.

Hamilton (Alexander) was taken in the custody of Thomas Stevens, a local merchant and the older Hamilton (James Jr) became a Carpenter’s Apprentice. By this point Alexander Hamilton was well read and enjoyed writing in his spare time. In 1772 a devasting Hurricane hit St Croix, in response Hamilton (Alexander) wrote a letter to his father pertaining to the Hurricane in enormous detail and his thoughts on the destruction. The letter gained popularity after it was published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette by Journalist, Hugh Knox. This popularity garnished the attention of community leaders. This was a real turning point for Hamilton, as the news of his letter impressed the leaders so much they collected funds to send Hamilton to study in New York. This proved to be an invaluable opportunity for Hamilton, which no doubt paved the way to his military and to a higher extent, his political pursuits.  Much of these accounts from Hamilton’s early life are touched upon during the musical’s opening number, Alexander Hamilton.[3]


The musical synopsis


The story develops and looks at how he overcame these difficulties in early life looking at how he established himself in New York City; at King’s College (now Columbia University), his personal life, military /political exploits, his relationships with other founding fathers; John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and not forgetting his relationship with political rival, Aaron Burr, which ended in Hamilton’s death on 12th July 1804 as a result of the famous Burr-Hamilton duel on the day before.

This is all set at a time of revolution and increased animosity towards the British in the colonies, chiefly regarding taxation. This animosity occurred since 1765 and arguably more so after the Boston Massacre of 1770 when a group of American colonists were shot by soldiers who were stationed in Boston to control heighted colonial unrest, the capital of the Provence of Massachusetts Bay.

What Hamilton (the musical) does so well is create a visually stunning performance, amalgamating the history of a nation with the contemporary, a retelling of history, predominately in the form of hip-hop and casting actors from ethnic minority backgrounds in major roles within the production. This invariably is told as a history of our time, in other words to reflect the society of the US and the UK today.


The historical legacy

Ethnicity & Immigration in the United States

Let’s start with the casting. A conscious decision was made regarding the casting. The story is told by a diverse group of actors from different backgrounds. This is true in both the US and UK productions. Notably, the roles of the founding fathers; Hamilton, Burr, Laurens/Philip Hamilton, Mulligan/Madison, Lafayette/Jefferson and Washington were played by actors from an ethnic minority. This is also true of the Schuyler sister roles in the musical; Angelica, Elizabeth “Eliza” and Margarita “Peggy”. For reference, the Schuyler family were influential Dutch landowners that held much prominence in New York, Elizabeth Schuyler was a fourth generation American and the wife of Alexander Hamilton. They married in December 1780 and their courtship was acknowledged during the song Helpless.[4]


Immigrants we get the job done[5]


Essentially what the musical does is it tells the story about an immigrant trying to establish a place for themselves through hard work, grit and determination. These are traits not so different in people today. What Hamilton was doing back in the 1700s, hundreds if not thousands of immigrants since then have aspired to work hard for their livelihoods and prosper in their endeavours. Looking at the United States today many people can trace their ancestry back to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This applies to the original Broadway cast. For instance; the Musical’s creator, Miranda who played Hamilton has Hispanic heritage from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Not to dissimilar from the character he was playing in that respect that they both had a personal connection to the Caribbean as Hamilton was born there. However, he was of Scottish and French Huguenot descent, although there is speculation that Hamilton’s mother was of mixed racial descent there is no substantial evidence to support these claims. Philippa Soo who originated the role of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza is of White European and Chinese descent and lastly another example would be Daveed Diggs who originated the role of Lafayette/ Jefferson whose mother was Jewish and his father, African-American.

These examples really do highlight and bring to prominence what America looks like today, by casting actors from an ethnic minority it really does bring life to the storytelling and above all accessibility. Yes, in real life the founding fathers were of White English, Scottish and Irish descent, yet despite that, the casting of Hamilton brings forth the idea of inclusiveness and allows for a more cathartic experience for audiences that resonate with them. This is a great way to promote history to more people that might otherwise feel alienated from this episode of history.

Looking beyond what race these characters were back then, now in the present day the United States is a melting pot of cultures from across the globe. In a traditional sense it is the primary and secondary source material found in archives, manuscripts and books to name but a few that provide us with the know-how. It is the power of theatre that allows us to look beyond the traditional historiography for a moment and build a bridge taking elements of the past and mixing it with the present to generate interest and come away thinking; it does not matter who you are or where you come from, we all have an opportunity to make a difference.

Consequently, looking at it in this sense, the story of Alexander Hamilton’s journey from orphan, to immigrant, to statesman serves as a timeless inspiration that immigrants past, present and future strive to better themselves and as a result shape society in enterprise, business, education, government, science, healthcare and as the musical reflects, the arts.

Much like analysing the first line in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” as being true to a society where it was acceptable in some states; particularly the south to keep Black African slaves. Looking at this declaration by todays standards, there would be a consensus refuting that declaration. It is how a particular place in time within society can interpret events.


But how is this argument historically significant for the UK?

Very much so. The UK very much like the US has been a magnet for settlement throughout history, going further back in time before the formation of the UK some of the earliest setters came from the Roman Empire, Germanic speaking tribes; the Angles, Saxons and Jutes known collectively as the Anglo Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans and French Huguenots.

In more recent history since the 19th century immigration from outside of Europe started to take shape chiefly from British colonies. In the 20th century immigration started to become more pronounced after the decline of the British Empire and many people settled from former colonies and countries making up the Commonwealth from the East, Africa and the West Indes. The imagery used once more in the UK casting reflects the society of the UK today and at the same mirrors Hamilton’s own backstory. Strikingly, Jamael Westman who currently plays the title role of Alexander Hamilton has Irish roots from his maternal side of the family and Afro-Caribbean roots from Jamaica on the paternal side.

Other examples include; Rachel John who currently plays Angelica Schuyler, her mother immigrated to the UK from Trinidad, Michael Jibson who currently plays King George III hails from Yorkshire, Leslie Garcia Bowman who currently plays Charles Lee/Ensemble comes from New Zealand and Rachelle Ann Go who currently plays Eliza Hamilton was born in the Philippines to name but a few. In all essence the full cast does reflect modern British society, just as the Broadway cast does in the US. The subject content is largely on American history and that this episode in history is not as well known in the UK, the idea nonetheless remains the same. By bringing forth historical content to the stage it serves as a virtual source to appeal to those that would not necessarily read about the content. What’s more the diversity of the cast has more of an impact resonating with members of society that are not always included in retellings of history, much like the argument that was put forth previously under Ethnicity & Immigration in the United States.

Knowing Brixton is a short distance from Victoria, the London home for Hamilton, just shy of 37 years the Brixton Riot occurred in April 1981. This was at a time when recession hit, those of Afro-Caribbean descent living in the area were particularly affected by lower job prospects and public services. Hamilton justly serves as a history of our time told by society as it is today, all backgrounds coming together to tell the story of a struggling immigrant intent to shape the future and leave a legacy, two things that are not to dissimilar to the actual narrative.


The “forgotten” Hamilton

A wife’s tale

I put myself back in the narrative… I’ll live another fifty years, it’s not enough[6]


There is much mention about the roles of women in Hamilton. However, for the purposes of this piece I will examine the role of Eliza Hamilton nee Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife of 21 years before his death. A fundamental conclusion to the musical details a wonderous segment, regarding Eliza Hamilton’s role in preserving the legacy of her husband, Alexander Hamilton. After Hamilton’s death Eliza along with the help of her son John Church Hamilton organised and arranged his political writings in view of publication. This was to ensure his legacy in American politics was not forgotten by the people. What the musical does so well is it attributes Chernow’s school of thought, that Eliza Hamilton’s role was significant in preserving Hamilton’s memory and conveys this with such vigour. This is considering she was left widowed, having to settle Hamilton’s debts and knowing that he had an affair with Maria Reynolds (this was publicly declared by Hamilton himself in the self-published, “The Reynolds Pamphlet” in 1797). The musical suggests Eliza Hamilton, upon hearing the news of Hamilton’s affair burns her correspondence with her husband in the song titled Burn.[7] Although it is not certain Eliza Hamilton burnt her letters, the musical nevertheless supports Chernow’s school of thought that she did destroy her letters but there was no evidence to suggest how.

Her passion and devotion to keeping Hamilton’s memory alive really hits home when her contribution to Hamilton’s legacy is explored in Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story[8], knowing that Eliza Hamilton lived in a male dominated society in commerce, politics and education, she was able to rise above her station and truly make a difference by getting Hamilton’s “story” out there for all to see and hear.

Eliza Hamilton did not stop there, not only did she ensure Hamilton’s writings were preserved, she also ensured to help orphans in New York city. Hamilton himself was an orphan, this in part must have played a large role in Eliza Hamilton’s efforts to help orphaned children. Together Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children and one known foster daughter, having been caring for eight children and bringing in a foster daughter into the Hamilton household, it was apparent Eliza Hamilton cared deeply about children.

Eliza Hamilton helped to establish the first private orphanage in New York city in 1806 along with her friend Joanne Bethune. Eliza Hamilton was the Vice-President of the organisation and continued her support well into her nineties. It was called the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, this organisation still exists to this very day by helping to care for children ensuring access to education, health care and support. Today it is named Graham Windham. This is where the whole idea of legacy intertwines, by preserving Hamilton’s legacy and crafting a legacy of her own.

Hamilton’s death must have been a horrible prospect for Eliza Hamilton to have dealt with but reviewing her contribution after his death, some goodness has come out of it by helping the next generation of orphans in a city where as a child orphan himself, Alexander Hamilton thrived. Though Hamilton could not live to see his legacy, Eliza Hamilton lived for another 50 years after her husband’s death in that time ensured others could see it.


My personal thoughts on Eliza Hamilton’s significance

Writing as a 21st century woman it is incredible to think that Eliza Hamilton achieved a great deal in her own right at a time, considering women’s suffrage was not on the agenda at the time of the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York’s creation and when she was organising Hamilton’s writings for preservation. As with the section on Ethnicity & Immigration, we see many women in professions doing what Eliza Hamilton did; women historians, women social workers and women carers to name but a few. That is another great legacy to add to mix, we see her character in many of the women of today, very much a living history of our time.

To end on, the musical really does highlight Eliza Hamilton’s prominence regarding Hamilton’s legacy. The staging was beautifully crafted, whereby during the first Act Hamilton was centre stage in the story. Eliza Hamilton, on the other hand was not standing on the main stage, she was staged with the characters; Maria Reynolds and Angelica Schuyler, seemingly fighting to declare their love for Hamilton during the musical’s opening number but for it to be bellowed by them at the same time, “I loved him”.[9] However, at the end of the second Act, Hamilton casts himself aside from the spotlight but close to his wife to reveal much of his legacy is owed to Eliza Hamilton, where she is the one standing in front of the legacy she preserved. Alexander Hamilton is often credited as America’s “forgotten” founding father, the end piece almost appears as if there was a forgotten behind the forgotten in the form of Eliza Hamilton.




[1] L. Manuel Miranda, “The World Was Wide Enough” as performed by L. Manuel Miranda & L. Odom Jr. in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[2] L. Manuel Miranda, “Alexander Hamilton” as performed by The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[3] Ibid; “Alexander Hamilton”

[4] L. Manuel Miranda, “Helpless” as performed The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[5] L. Manuel Miranda, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” as quoted by D Diggs and L. Manuel Miranda in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[6] L. Manuel Miranda, “Burn” as performed by P Soo in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[7] Ibid; “Burn”

[8] L. Manuel Miranda, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” as performed by The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[9] Ibid; “Alexander Hamilton”


The History of the Little Cinder Girl

She’s been with most of us our whole lives, from watching a Disney adaptation, to the many variations Hollywood frequently churn out. And she’s been in the lives of people for a longer time still, from the French tale of little Cendrillon and the glass slipper and her pumpkin-turned-carriage, to the Brothers Grimm tale of lentils in the fire and ugly step-sisters chopping toes off to fit into a golden shoe. It’s, quite simply, a story which has lasted hundreds of years and hasn’t dulled in the minds of popular imagination. The story of the poor servant Cinderella, who finds her prince and reward in life after years of abuse, is a story that has lasted into the twenty-first century.

A common thing to hear concerning the Disney version of Cinderella is that it’s a much tamer, Disney-fied version of the ‘original’ Cinderella tale, which is actually a misconception. If comparing to the Brothers Grimm tale of Cinderella, where the shoe Cinderella leaves behind is full of blood and her step-sisters chop off their toes and heels, then yes. It is much more tame. However, the Grimm Brothers didn’t write the ‘original’ Cinderella, and although Charles Perrault didn’t either, his does pre-date the Grimm’s collection.

The version Disney based theirs on was one of the most popular versions of Cinderella, written in French by Perrault in 1697, called Cendrillon. In his version, the pumpkin, fairy-godmother and the glass slippers made their appearance. The Grimm brother’s Aschenputtel,  however, she wears gold slippers and her night at the ball is given to her, not by a fairy-godmother but a wishing tree growing on her mother’s grave and her step-sisters are not forgiven, but have their eyes pecked out by birds. But where do these stories come from?

The earliest known telling of Cinderella follows the story of Rhodopis – a hetaera in Ancient Greece. Her actual story is mentioned by Herodotus, who mentions she was a slave of Iadmon of Samos. In the story, told 500 years later, Rhodopis is bathing when an eagle snatches her sandal and flies it over the king, dropping it in his lap. Amazed by the strangeness of the occurrence and beauty of the sandal, he demands that the woman who owns it be found. When Rhodopis is found, she becomes his wife.

There’s something inspiring across the ages about a poor servant girl, abused and mistreated by family, achieving prosperity, through her kindness and good nature. It’s why it has lasted the years, been retold again and again in a number of variations – and why Disney itself has made two separate versions. Newer variations, like the 1998 Ever After, portray one step-sister as more concerned for Cinderella and nicer towards her. The 2015 Cinderella even gave some screen time, identity and motive to the Prince, although not the same motive as the Grimm’s prince, who decided to trap Aschenputtel on the steps to the palace which causes her to leave a shoe so he can find her.


For Food history week I am going to write about a very famous liquor I came across on my travels this summer called Limoncello. Although Limoncello is a drink it is relevant for the food theme as it is a product made from lemons. The drink originates from the Campania region of Southern Italy, primarily associated with Sorrento, the island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast.

In terms of when the drink was invented, this is currently unknown as there have been many theories circulating about who actually made the drink first. Many of the theories stem from the Middle Ages and contain elements of myth and legend, making the exact origins of the drink near impossible. However there does appear to be a general consensus with these theories in question. Some say fisherman used to drink Limoncello as a way of warding of the cold at a time when there was a Saracen invasion from the Middle East. Another popular theory states monks made Limoncello as a treat for themselves between their daily prayers. Again these theories perhaps should not be taken literally as there have been no documented evidence to support this and these stories have been heavily reliant on word of mouth. The only documented evidence of Limoncello making we have is from the early twentieth century and that it was not consumed on such a large-scale amongst Italians until the late 1980s.

This June in 2015 I was lucky enough to visit a Limoncello factory on the Sorrentine Peninsula and the process of making Limoncello was explained. Firstly the lemons are grown on large plantations across the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi coast and sometimes on the island of Capri. They are then harvested by hand between February and October when they are above 3 metres in height. The lemons are then put into warm water and the zest of the lemon is removed as the lemon zest is the main ingredient for the flavour. Then two litres of pure alcohol is added to the zest of the lemons and is stored in a cool dark place at room temperature until the mixture turns yellow. The alcohol content is expected to be approximately 28 to 32%. After a month of putting the mixture into storage syrup and sugar is added with boiling water. After allowing the sugar to dissolve and allowing the syrup to cool, when this is done it is added to the zest of lemons and alcohol. Once again when this process is done they leave the mixture in a cool dark place for forty days. When the forty days have finished the mixture is then bottled ready to be dispatched and sold. After purchasing the Limoncello it is customary to store it in a freezer.

Sometimes the Limoncello is added with Pistachios, Walnuts, Berries and Fennel in order to make different flavours and I as the typical student I am could not help but down a few shots of Limoncello!

The primary industry focuses on agriculture and the growing of lemons aids the local economy. The lemons in this area of Italy have also been used to make other products like cosmetics, soaps, olive oil and biscuits and has done for many years maybe due to the popularity of Limoncello in recent years.

Palaeontology History

The nineteenth century is usually an era I avoid like the plague, but a general interest in archaeology led me to writing this post. Away from industrialisation, work houses, Queen Victoria and Napoleon, small but significant discoveries were gaining momentum. Palaeontology, the study of fossils and essentially dinosaurs, picked up alongside vast medical studies in bones and centuries old debris. Many consider the Age of Enlightenment the source of an increase in archaeological digs and searches, yet the study of fossils and bones as a means of understanding the past is nothing new. Ancient Greeks such as Xenophanes in the sixth century BC, and Herodotus in the fifth century BC studied fossils from marine life in areas that used to be below water. Medieval naturalists across Europe and Asia looked at fossils in order to solve how they are formed, something the Persian Ibn Sina became famous for in his book The Book of Healing. During early modern era of Europe, fossil work became part of natural philosophy and was undertook by many as a primary interest. Pre-History was little understood, however links between the past and fossils was becoming clearer when moving into the eighteenth century. The study of science had grown tremendously since the seventeenth century with academies springing up across England and France.

Although Palaeontology as a word was not coined until 1822 by an editor of a French scientific journal, Georges Cuvier began to look at fossils as a form of cataloguing animals that seemed to have reached extinction. This naturally led to the earliest form of Geology to become a branch of science. Palaeontology as an occupation remained fledgling until the nineteenth century when the Academy of Science was noting several more professional geologists and fossil specialists becoming registered. From 1808 the concept of ‘dinosaurs’ was coming into light despite the first dinosaur bone being found in 1676 by Robert Plot, whose bone find is still unidentified. It is noted by archaeologists that marine fossils and bones are found in a denser supply then on land, this could be due to major shifts in the earth. The earth that the dinosaurs walked on was vastly different to the one we walk today. Many historians suppose that the increase in atheism and thoughts on evolution, instead of Creationist Theory, in the nineteenth century expanded the sudden boom in archaeological digs, specifically across Asia and the Americas. It took several decades of searching before the first full skeleton was found in New Jersey, North America of the Hadrosaurus by William Parker Foulke in 1858. This remains the only full skeleton found of this species, although archaeologists and palaeontologists agree that it is closely related to the Iguanodon found in England in 1822 by Gideon Mantell. Pre-History is not an era that is popular among normal academic historians since much of it was subjective until the recent changes in bio-archaeology which makes bones and fossils easier to date. Much of the historiography is led by archaeologists and palaeontologists, historians tend to focus of the chronology of the eras. It was during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that words such as ‘Jurassic’ and ‘Mesozoic’ were beginning to be used to identify periods of time, and to acknowledge when certain dinosaurs tended to exist.

Academically palaeontology has a long history, yet socially the concept is still very young. In a century that was still largely religious the debate between science and religion was heated. Even today there are scientists and religions attempting to reconcile the two fields, as such Robert Asher’s book on Evolution and Belief (Cambridge, 2012) show him trying to accept both his occupation in palaeontology and his faith in his religion. He has made it his life work in studying Darwinism while at the same time trying to create his own theory on how the world began and developed. Charles Darwin is famous for his contribution to Evolutionary theory, his 1859 book On the Origin of Species became the foundation of evolutionary biology, the basis of which was his 1830 expedition on HMS Beagle. By 1879, evolution in science became widely acknowledged as fact. The belief that apes evolved into humans, birds in the same species developed different beaks according to where they are from became a literal antagonist to people whose belief was in God and their respective religions. This was particularly prevalent in the nineteenth century, despite being a prominent scientist, Darwin’s theory was respected but distanced from the Church of England. His theory of natural selection also contradicted God’s will. Religion and Science still hotly debate, this is echoed even in popular culture shows such as The Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon, a theoretical physicist, holds disdain from his mother who is deeply religious and believes in the Creation theory. Also in popular culture, Ross Geller put the occupation on the map when David Schwimmer played the palaeontologist for the ten-year run of Friends, where he encountered differences in beliefs with Phoebe.

While England debated, America was digging. Throughout the nineteenth century, several hundred types of dinosaurs, fossils and aquatic discoveries were being made. Biological advances increased in species being named, extinct animals studied and vast catalogues were being created. Many can been seen in Natural History museums all over the world, most particularly those in New York and London. Discoveries in fossils are everywhere, yet the more concentrated finds of dinosaurs are in Africa, Asia and America, with the most well know the Tyrannosaurus Rex being found in 1902 in Montana, America. All continents have yielded a dinosaur bone, the exception was Antarctica which did not unearth a bone until 1987 when an entire skeleton was found. Palaeontology has grown over the decades until the Palaeontology Association was founded in 1957 to become to world leading experts in the field. Although having a societal reputation of being ‘dull’ the palaeontology field is one of the most vibrant in discoveries since finds are still being found. Particularly when technological advances increased the likelihood of several more major discoveries to come. For more information please look at the websites below:

The Bantu Expansion

Since we are still with migrations and the movement of people, I decided to get stuck in Africa for another blog update. Today I will speak about the Bantu expansion. Now I did not know about this until I actually had a look around, so due to my lack of knowledge of the subject, this may be one of my more technical updates. Nevertheless, I hope you find it informative and as interesting as I did.

In general terms the Bantu expansion is considered the first formative event in Africa. This migration took place due to the movement of Bantu language speakers which some experts believe to have lasted for thousands of years, so it was a long process and developed at various stages. The evidence that we have for this migration are mainly linguistic. This associates the branch of Niger-Congo Bantu dialect expanding along the areas of modern-day Cameroon and Nigeria around 3000 years ago. Once this synergy commenced, the Bantu proceeded with their expansion towards the eastern and southern territories within the African continent. The expansion reached central Angola c.500 BC. Then the direction of the flow of people seems to have changed towards the Great Lakes, with strong settlements by 500 AD. Furthermore, by c.300 AD Bantu speakers occupied most of Africa south from the Sahara. It is worth mentioning that this migratory tendency has been identified to be not self-conscious, or rather not entirely intentional, but rather circumstantial. This is suggested due to the somewhat erratic yet natural wave of expansion; always moving into areas which were not properly occupied.

Some scholars support the idea that there was a re-boot of the Bantu expansion some centuries later: between the 1200s and 1600s. This is the period when the Bantu speaking people of the Great Lakes area consolidated power and asserted their influence in neighboring lands due to an increase of population, producing more specialised labour and strengthening their military power. Thus, the seat of their rule formed at Zimbawe. Moreover, some experts contemplate the elongation of the Bantu expansion further into the modern period, supporting that the rise of the Zulu empire in the 18th and 19th centuries was related to the original migration process – but perhaps this is too much of a stretch, and I am personally not convinced of this fact.

The reasons for the movement area still uncertain, and they vary depending on who you may ask. It was traditionally understood that the Bantu migrated in order to conquer new lands and expand their area of influence. Nevertheless, linguists believe that the migration may actually be related to a societal change regarding agricultural developments, considering that there is evidence in the language development suggesting that the people in South Africa changed from being hunter-gatherers to farming communities with the arrival of the Bantu to this area. Archaeologists have supported the genesis of this expansion due to agricultural developments as well as the perfection of iron work and subsequent increase of trading activities. However, this does not add up with the linguistic evidence found in correlation to the migratory movements towards the south. According to Hambert, the early Bantu migrations could not be connected with the use and improvement iron technology as there are no words in the language that reflect these were used within society. Therefore Hambert believes the lack of words proves the lack of resource work, or at least to a meaningful degree. Instead, current research looks towards the rise and use of cereal crops as a possible determining factor for the expansion process.

Nevertheless, there is an incredible and fundamental issue regarding research on this subject and a coherent historiographical record for this subject which affects most pre-modern African history. This is the struggle to find relevant archaeological finds, or at least to gather a record substantial enough from were to extrapolate ideas and theorise what is supported by the practice. Moreover, there are plenty of chronological issues in what relates coherence due to the lack of written records produced by the Bantu, fact that only changed in recent centuries with the modernisation of the African communities due to European influence and intervention. That is the reason why the linguistic evidence are crucial in this study, as they are the only source that seems to have paced itself in a way that is at least identifiable to linguists and anthropologists.

So, if you are looking for an exciting, open field to get into, perhaps you should consider African studies and the Bantu cultures.

The Great Human Migration

I have being given the task of opening our month of Migrations. So I thought it was only fitting to start with the perhaps most important in a global scale, and genesis of all migrations. This, of course, relates to the moment where our ancestors decided to part from Africa and adventure themselves into the wider world wound 80.000 years ago-some say 70.000/60.0000. This subject has been highly documented, so my post aims to be a general summary of these events. The great thing and that fascinates me about this topic and period in general, is that, even though we have a fair amount of details and records on this, more and more things keep cropping up re-writing what was already known. Anyway, let’s get on to it.

The great migration meant in many ways the world conquest of the Homo Sapiens. I say this because, effectively, by the time this period ends and the Homo Sapiens has settled outside of Africa, the rest of hominid species are in decline, or even extinct. There is still a lot of controversy around the interaction between the Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthal-extinction?integration?reproduction?- but effectively they lost power and were eclipsed by the arrival of the new human kind. This also applies for hominids settled in the Far East, such as reminiscence of Homo Erectus, and similar small bipeds such as those investigated in the island of Flores (Indonesia). One of the main ways scientists have been able to trace this migration process and the routes followed by the people is thanks to DNA- particularly the research on mitochondrial DNA, which traces the matrilinear line to its origins.

However the reasons why the Homo Sapiens left the African continent are still unknown, although many experts suggest it to be related to a climate change or a change in the circumstances and characteristics of their environment. The usual suspect for this fact is conventionally interpreted as the last wave of cold weather produced by the Ice Age. Once the weather became more stable and warmer, Homo Sapiens grew in number again and were in need of new homes- This is like I said, the generally establish theory. It is understood that the movement of people was directed towards the East first, and then to the West. The migration towards the American continent would have taken place around 20.000 to 15.000 years ago, and it would have launched from the Asian continent. Finally, it is assumed that the islands of the Pacific would have been the last points of colonization. The Genographic Project has a very useful diagram about this:

Needless to say that the movement and arrival of the Homo Sapiens to every corner of the world meant drastic changes took place. Now there were new tools and materials being used, and finer craftsmanship allowing for better devices for survival such as better hunting equipment. New ecosystems, which potentially would have remained untouched up until that moment where not being exploited.

Nevertheless, the details of how this migration happen are still a minefield amongst scientists and archaeologists. Different theories try to understand how this incredible movement of people happened. The most supported theory is that the migration trajectory was following the coastal lines, making use of their new tools. However, there are contenders that say this well may have happened through mainland, following river courses and other natural paths. In other cases, such as the migration towards Australia, the routes taken were many and from different points of the Asian continent. It is also suggested that here the Homo Sapiens did interact and more likely than not interbreed with already settled species- not only Neanderthal, but Homo Erectus and Denisovans. Other theories debate if the one group known as Homo Sapiens originated in Africa and then spread, or if they left Africa as a proto-Homo Sapiens and the geographical variations originated. Similar issues occur when surveying the first modern humans in the American continent, and although not enough evidence have been found to prove otherwise, find in the On Your Knees Cave suggest that the occupation of America may have started as early as 40.000 years ago, and before the so-called Clovis hunters crossed through the Bering straight.

The study of migrations is always difficult. It is never straight forward and hardly ever impossible to point the finger out to the first individual in the movement and the direction it took, or the reasons why. I think this first great migration of all set the principle for many more to come throughout history. Moreover, I think it helps us understand that migratory processes take a while, being this thousands of years or decades. And we may never find the answers to all of the questions. However, I hope this highlights that me movement of humans is inherited in our nation, not only a 20th or 21st century occurrence, and that in many ways it is unstoppable. If geographic and physical boundaries didn’t stop ill equip early humans to trespass continents, imagined national borders will not stop the movement of people, regardless of the nature of this migration.

Alfonso Boix & El Cantar de Mio Cid: An Interview

Today I bring you an interview/self-reflection that I acquire from Alfonso Boix, a Spanish scholar, writing from Valencia, about his true love and passion: the epic Iberian romance El Cantar de Mio Cid. I met Alfonso some years ago and had long deep discussions about medieval literature, but he always manages to bring it all back home. It’s all about El Cid: El Cid here, El Cid there, he just can’t help himself. And that passion is what has driven him to become and international, knowledgeable mind about this topic. With a PhD and several awards for his excellent work, here I present you a fantastic piece of research.

So, what is your research about?

I usually doubt if I deserve to be called a ‘medievalist’, as sometimes I believe ‘cidaist’ would be the proper adjective to describe myself as a researcher. I have been researching on the Cid’s life and legend for almost twenty years and, though I have also written articles and books on other literary fields –the Romantic period, or women in the Middle Ages–, these works have been nothing but daring intrusions which I enjoyed though I always knew they were just short ‘love affairs’. I have mainly dealt with the Cantar de Mio Cid, its structure and its inner symbolic code, and then spread my activity to other aspects such as the Cid’s real life or other texts –Historia Roderici¸ Crónica Particular del Cid…–. My most ambitious project is focused on a research to find a second manuscript of the Mio Cid –only one has been identified up to now, which is guarded at the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid–.

Why this obsession with El Cid?


I began researching the Mio Cid when I was 21, after reading a text from an Arthurian book which reminded me of some lines of the Cantar I had read when I was 8 or 9 years old. I want to believe it was not just something ‘at random’ and that my destiny was written since I was a child. This research led to others and, after finding Alolala –a castle which had remained lost for almost a thousand years–, I decided to develop more ambitious researches, combined with some ‘minor’ ones which would help me to reach the main targets.

This is the reason why, when I began my PhD studies, I decided to work on the Cantar de Mio Cid again: I had already been working on it for almost a decade and I knew the essential bibliography quite well. On the other hand, I did not want to get my PhD thanks to a different literary work of art: I began my career with the Cantar so, for me, my thesis was not just a research but also an homage to the epic Castilian poem.

After the compulsory courses to obtain my DEA –‘Diploma de Estudios Avanzados’, the Spanish equivalent to the MA in those years–, I developed my thesis dealing with the structure and literary gender of the Mio Cid, which I finished almost four years ago. It allowed me to reach some of those ‘main targets’ I had decided to undertake, as it proved that some ‘traditional’ concepts related to the Mio Cid which had been considered ‘unique’ were not so. Thus, the structural scheme of the poem, which resembles a ‘W’ (fall of the hero – rise – new fall – new rise) is indeed the famous Doppelwegstruktur identified in many chivalric works such as Chrétien’s Perceval; the poem itself had been compared to those of the French ‘rebellious vassals’ but, as Menéndez Pidal observed, the Cid is not a rebel against his lord, so the famous researcher believed the Cid was a unique character which showed features belonging to the Spanish ideal of a male hero. However, this ‘non-rebellious hero’ also exists in a minor group of French poems, a fact which allowed me to classify the Mio Cid as a chanson d’aventures, breaking some topics traditionally accepted by researchers and opening new perspectives on the epic poem.

Why do you think literature studies is so popular amongst medievalists, and other historians?


We should bear in mind something as simple –and sad– as the fact that no one who lived in the Middle Ages has survived to explain us how life was in that period. I have always believed that texts –not just Medieval ones, but from every age– are the messages people wrote and put in bottles (i.e. books) that crossed oceans of time till we found them to know they existed, what they did, their legends and everyday life. Archaeology is another crucial science to know how the past times were, but the importance of written texts is obvious: they’re not just the remains of civilizations, but the people who lived in past times explaining those remains. And it is our duty as philologists to read and understand those texts, helping historians who, on the other hand, also allow us to understand the texts better thanks to their researches and findings. So, this circle of mutual influence allows us to understand a period which, on the other hand, seems fascinating thanks to Romanticism, a movement which offered an idealized view of the Middle Ages, and which evidently makes us feel especially attracted by the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

Now, tell us, what is your favourite part of El Cid?


It would be very easy for me to say I enjoy reading the whole Cantar de Mio Cid: it is true indeed! But I have a favourite episode, of course: the moment in which the Cid meets this young girl in Burgos who tells him the king has forbidden the citizens to help him. She is the first spark of hope in the poem, the first light in the Cid’s way to exile, and the contrast between the warrior and the child is extremely powerful. Battles, love and comradeship scenes are usual in the poem, but this episode is absolutely unique. I love it.

What advise would you give students getting into this sort of specialisation?

If I had to give some advice to new medievalists, I would tell them the only one that can make you ‘survive’ when you become a researcher: love what you do. It does not matter if it is the Cantar de Mio Cid, the Nibelungenlied or Beowulf; you can choose the 5th, the 10th or the 14th century… the only important thing is to choose it because you love it. Becoming a medievalist –or a researcher in any scientific field– is something similar to a marriage: you are going to spend long hours with your love, so you better feel real passion! And, if you ever decide to get divorced, your books are not going to ask you for some compensation while you leave them for another intellectual love. So, indeed… it’s better than a marriage!

After you decide to ‘get married’, you should attend conferences and meet people with common interests, especially those researchers who are well-known by their influential careers and that will give you advice for your specific interests. Don’t be shy to ask them, the wisest are always humble and open to give any suggestion if you are ready to listen to them.

And, finally, and most important of all: stay hungry! Never lose your passion to learn, discover new things, feel thrilled to know you are the first in centuries to read / know / understand whatever you discover. And let this passion become a drug that makes you crave for more. And, if you ever lose that passion… look for a new one. But never stop learning and feeling surprised by the path you follow: it’s got lots of treasures for those who accept them.

We hope you enjoyed Alfonso’s story and we would like to thank him for taking the time to share his passion with us!