We take for granted the fact that, whenever we want, we can see an unbelievably detailed image of ourselves in the mirror🪞 But consider that for the majority of human history, you were never able to actually, really see yourself. A thread on the humble, magical mirror. (1/9)
The first mirrors were likely pools of still water or vessels that held reflective liquid, but in the Neolithic, we start seeing evidence for physical mirrors, like this incredible obsidian mirror from Çatalhöyük in Turkey, dated to approximately 7500-6400 BC. (2/9)
In the Bronze & Iron Ages, we see the rise of mirrors made from materials like bronze, in addition to stone. These required regular polishing but still didn't afford a super clear reflection. This could explain the biblical reference to seeing "as in a mirror, darkly" (3/9)
Over in Mesoamerica, mirrors were independently invented (neat!) and pop up in the archaeological record around 1500 BC. They served both decorative & supernatural purposes. The Maya are known to have made mosaic mirrors, like the one below, from pyrite. (4/9)
Early glass mirrors show up in the 1st century AD & are refined in the Middle Ages, when Venetians discover & monopolize a technique to coat glass mirrors with tin. This makes their republic fabulously wealthy, until the French commit industrial espionage & leak the secret. (5/9)
Mirrors have long held a unique grip on our imagination. What exactly are we seeing when we look into one? For many, mirrors were supernatural, powerful objects. D̶u̶m̶b̶l̶e̶d̶o̶r̶e̶ Johannes Hartleib, in 1456, recounted rumors of a mirror that reflected your desires to you (6/9)
Many believed mirrors could take your soul, just like they take your image. This led to practices like covering mirrors in the houses of the recently deceased & keeping infants away from their reflections. It's also commonly thought that breaking a mirror is bad luck. (7/9)
In many cultures, mirrors offered glimpses at a parallel world or visions of the future. Catoptromancy, divination by mirrors, shows up independently all over the world, and even in well-known fairy tales ("Mirror, mirror, on the wall..") (8/9)
Overall, a rather fascinating history & some fun facts to think about next time you spy yourself in a mirror! (9/9).

The Mirror: A History, by Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet.
Moyer (2012) Deep Reflection: An Archaeological Analysis of Mirrors in Iron Age Eurasia.

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More from @DorsaAmir

18 Dec
Ever wonder how monkeys ended up in the Americas? Did they cross over land bridges like we did?

The answer is no. They did something even wilder: they floated across the Atlantic (!) millions of years ago. Yes, really.

Let’s talk about oceanic dispersal! (1/5) Image
So, how did the monkeys pull this off? Well, what happened is called a "rafting event": a piece of earth breaks off, with its flora & fauna intact, & essentially turns into a small floating island. In the Oligocene, the continents were closer, so the journey was shorter. (2/5)
As unlikely as it seems, according to genetic evidence, this type of event happened several times! Monkeys seem to have also rafted to the Caribbean (~11-15MYA), & the lemurs of Madagascar floated across the Mozambique Channel (~50-60MYA), among other rafting events. (3/5)
Read 5 tweets
13 Sep
Humans have long needed a way to keep track of numbers as they count. In many cultures, finger counting is common. If you live in the United States or China, you probably count to five like this, but there are many different ways to achieve the same goal. (1/8) Image
Variations of five-finger counting exist all around the globe, and between languages, as well. The Pekai-Alue in Papua New Guinea are notable in that the folded, rather than the extended, fingers are the ones counted. (2/8) Image
What happens when you need to count past five? Well, then it gets more interesting. In the US and much of Eurasia, the counting continues onto the other hand, up to 10. If you need to go past that, you often just repeat the cycle from the beginning. (3/8) Image
Read 8 tweets
11 Jan
I’ve recently been reading through “The Butchering Art”, a terrific account of 19th century surgery & the introduction of germ theory & anesthesia to Victorian medicine. I highly recommend reading it yourself, but here are some interesting tidbits that caught my attention (1/10)
(2) First, as you can imagine, early surgery was absolutely awful & almost always a last resort. One thing I didn’t realize was that back then, the best surgeons were the *fastest* surgeons — for instance, Robert Liston could remove a leg in less than thirty seconds (!).
(3) Early surgery was limited to “peripheral” conditions, like lacerations & fractures. This is because entering the body in surgery was almost always fatal due to infection. This led to the distinction of physicians practicing “internal medicine”, a term that still persists.
Read 10 tweets
9 Oct 20
Culture can evolve rapidly, much faster than genes. Due to this, cultural changes can create new environments that in turn shape our genes. This is called “culture-gene coevolution” & there are some really cool examples of it in humans, especially when it comes to our diets. 1/
The classic example is “lactase persistence”. Most mammals can break down the sugar in milk — lactose — using an enzyme called lactase. But, in most species, this enzyme goes away around the time they stop nursing. Why is it that a third of adult humans can still digest milk? 2/
The answer is culture. In some "hot spots", people started herding animals. This opened up a new resource: animal milk. In at least 2 events, mutations that let people keep producing lactase were selected for. The variant in the Middle East is likely due to camel milk 🐫 3/
Read 6 tweets
15 May 20
In the ongoing battle against herbivores, some plants have evolved unusually clever defenses 🌿 Here are a few I find particularly interesting. (1/6)
Some plants pretend to be infested by aphids to keep actual aphids away. On the left is a branch of Paspalum paspaloides, with a number of dark anthers on it that look like aphids. Compare that to an actual aphid infestation on the right. A pretty compelling copy, no? (2/6)
In addition to growing spines and thorns to keep predators away, some plants enhance the effect with “automimicry” — copying the patterns of their spines on their leaves to look more ferocious. Below are a couple Agave plants showing off this trait. (3/6)
Read 7 tweets
27 Nov 19
Chess is one of the oldest games in the world — stretching back more than a millennia — and a fascinating example of cultural evolution ♟️ Here are a few snippets from its rich history. (1/7)
(2) Chess likely comes to us from India. The original name — chaturaṅga (चतुरङ्ग) — meant “four (military) divisions”: infantry, cavalry, chariotry, & elephantry 🐘 Indeed, the bishop was originally a war elephant & is still called so in many places. In Mongolia, it is a camel.
(3) From India, chess moved into Iran. Ancient Persians (c. 700-800 AD) introduced the idea of warning the other player when their King was under threat. The term “checkmate” comes from the Farsi term “Shāh Māt” (شاه مات) meaning “The King is helpless”.
Read 7 tweets

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