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‘Bone biographies’ reveal what life was like for everyday medieval people

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

If you could walk the streets of medieval England, it might feel as unfamiliar as an alien environment.

The culture, landscape and even languages of Middle English, Anglo-French and Latin would present a shock as you stepped into a world you might have expected to understand.

In other words, it probably wouldn’t align with what you might have seen in the comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Historical accounts share the details of royal and affluent life, but those of everyday people are often missing, making it hard to imagine what our own lives would have been like had we been born centuries earlier.

The scarcity of these clues makes getting a true sense of the past difficult, especially for a turbulent thousand-year period.

But a new project is bringing those stories to light.

We are family

This illustration shows Wat, a survivor of the Black Death who lived in medieval Cambridge. - Mark Gridley/After the Plague
This illustration shows Wat, a survivor of the Black Death who lived in medieval Cambridge. - Mark Gridley/After the Plague

DNA analysis has provided an intimate glimpse into the lives of 16 people who lived in medieval Cambridge, including some who survived the Black Death.

Scientists conducted a detailed genetic study on hundreds of skeletons recovered from cemeteries across the English city. The research team was able to create “bone biographies” of townsfolk, scholars, long-distance travelers and artisans.

The osteobiographies include how the people ate, their activities, whether they sustained bodily trauma and sometimes, how they died. To make them more relatable, the researchers gave their subjects pseudonyms and illustrated portraits, such as Anne, who hobbled on a shortened leg after multiple injuries.

Wat survived the plague and died from cancer in his 60s. And he was one of many who stayed at a charitable hospital, which provided an early type of benefits system to the poor and infirm.

Force of nature

Aftershocks are expected within the hours and days following a major earthquake. But a team of geoscientists thinks aftershocks from some of the strongest quakes recorded in the United States are still rumbling nearly 200 years later.

A trio of quakes occurred near the border between Missouri and Kentucky in 1811 and 1812, with magnitudes between 7.3 and 7.5. They are likely responsible for 30% of earthquakes that have taken place near the area from 1980 to 2016, according to new research.

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1886 also appears to be responsible for 16% of the region’s modern activity.

It’s unclear why large earthquakes occurred in these relatively stable regions, but assessing the seismic activity can help scientists determine the future disaster risks of these areas.

Across the universe

The Spitzer Space Telescope captured a view of a dark cloud called "the Brick" at the center of the Milky Way. - NASA/Caltech/Solange V. Ramirez (NExScI; Caltech)
The Spitzer Space Telescope captured a view of a dark cloud called "the Brick" at the center of the Milky Way. - NASA/Caltech/Solange V. Ramirez (NExScI; Caltech)

Astronomers used the James Webb Space Telescope to peer inside an opaque, dusty box-shaped cloud at the center of our galaxy — and came away with more questions than answers.

The cloud, called “the Brick” due to its shape and lack of visibility, was thought to be a hub of star formation. But Webb’s sharp infrared gaze didn’t spy any young stars hidden by the dust.

Instead, the observatory spotted a wealth of frozen carbon monoxide.

The research team isn’t sure why there’s solid ice inside the Brick instead of stars, but studying this galactic region could change how astronomers understand star formation.

Unearthed

Fossils first thought to be the leaves of an extinct plant are actually the shells of baby turtles that lived among dinosaurs.

When researchers recently took a closer look at the fossils, initially found between the 1950s and 1970s, their analysis revealed the leaflike structure was made of bone.

After solving the mystery, the scientists nicknamed the turtle species “Turtwig” after a Pokémon that is half-plant, half-turtle, as a nod to the puzzling nature of the fossil.

Meanwhile, paleontologists uncovered for the first time a tyrannosaur fossil with its stomach contents still intact, revealing the dinosaur’s final meal before it died 75 million years ago.

Fantastic creatures

Breeding chinstrap penguins accumulate around 11 hours of sleep by taking "micronaps" lasting an average of four seconds, scientists found. - Federico Anfitti/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Breeding chinstrap penguins accumulate around 11 hours of sleep by taking "micronaps" lasting an average of four seconds, scientists found. - Federico Anfitti/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Antarctica’s chinstrap penguins, so named for the distinctive black band looping beneath their chins, are experts when it comes to “micronaps.”

Breeding chinstrap penguins take more than 10,000 naps a day, each lasting an average of four seconds, according to new research.

Penguins living in the colony observed during the study used micronaps to get about 11 hours of sleep each day while incubating and protecting their nests from a predatory bird called the brown skua.

While fragmented sleeping patterns are detrimental and inadvisable for humans, they seem to be an adaptation of survival for the penguins, the international team of study authors said.

Discoveries

These new findings will capture your attention:

— Ancient Egyptians revered baboons, but a new study of baboon mummies has shown that the imported primates didn’t fare well in their new environments.

— The propulsion module that powered India’s Chandrayaan-3 journey to a historic moon landing is back in Earth’s orbit and conducting a bonus mission that could aid in the search for life on other worlds.

— The US Food and Drug Administration approved two gene-based treatments for sickle cell disease, including the first therapy that uses CRISPR gene editing.

— NASA astronaut Frank Rubio misplaced one of the first tomatoes grown in space during a stint aboard the International Space Station. Months later, his colleagues have found it, closing the case (and proving Rubio didn’t eat it).

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