Ancient Brew

Ta Henket banner
The label for Dogfish Head's Egyptian brew, Ta Henket

Patrick McGovern, author of Uncorking the Past, accompanied the owners of Dogfish Head Brewery on their quest to create an ancient Egyptian beer on the Discovery Channel show “Brew Masters” last week.

McGovern, an archaeologist whose research specializes in the origins of alcoholic beverages, traveled to Egypt with the brewers to examine the earliest known depiction of beer brewing in a 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb, help them gather ingredients in Cairo’s famous spice market, and collect a native Egyptian strain of yeast.

The result? Ta Henket, a limited release beer that incorporates the ancient ingredients and techniques described in Egyptian hieroglyphics, brewed with loaves of hearth baked bread and flavored with dom-palm fruit, chamomile, and zatar.

Watch clips of the episode online.


New Chapters in the Story of Life

The Komodo dragon is a carnivore, while its newly discovered cousin eats fruit. Photo by Kevin Flay

Nature is full of surprises. Last week, researchers working in the Philippines confirmed that a giant tree-dwelling monitor lizard is a newly discovered species, Varanus bitatawa—a cousin of the Komodo dragon. Quietly going about its business in the treetops, it has until now evaded the gaze of science.

If you’ve been reading Life or watching the show on the Discovery Channel, you know that the Komodo dragon is a meat-eater, feeding on carrion and subduing living prey with venomous bites. But the elusive 6.5-foot Varanus bitatawa, which lives in the isolated forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range, eats mostly fruit. In an interview with the Associated Press, Eric Pianka, co-author of Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity, called the lizard “a spectacular discovery”.

Meanwhile, scientists working in South Africa announced that a new hominid species, Australopithecus sediba, had been unearthed in a cave along with the bones of sabertoothed cats, mongooses, hyenas, and other animals. In Science Magazine, the authors reported that Au. sediba walked the earth almost 2 million years ago, and shares certain characteristics with the genus Homo. While scientists debate whether Au. sediba is a human ancestor or a separate branch that died out, its discovery adds a new piece to the puzzle of human evolution, as the discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus (“Ardi”) did last year.

The bones of Ardi, a female who lived 4.4 million years ago, were discovered in Ethiopia’s Middle Awash region by a 47-member team that included UC Press authors Giday WoldeGabriel and Yohannes Haile-Selassie, co-editors of Ardipithecus kadabba, Berhane Asfaw, co-editor of Homo Erectus, and Tim White, editor of the UC Press Middle Awash series. Her skeleton is the most complete fossil evidence of a hominid earlier than the Australopithecus “Lucy”, and helps fill in a gaping hole in human lineage.

Scientists have long thought of human evolution as a chain, and sought a “missing link” between apes and humans. But Ardi’s discovery changes the story, indicating that humans and apes may have evolved on entirely separate trajectories, from a shared ancestor that was neither human nor ape. The Middle Awash team published its findings in the October 2 issue of Science Magazine. In the video below, also from Science Magazine, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, Giday WoldeGabriel, Tim White, and Owen Lovejoy discuss Ardi and her implications for paleoanthropology.

The Middle Awash region of Ethiopia, and the South African site where Au. sediba was found, will likely yield more secrets to hominid evolution, and the newly classified monitor lizard may be only the first of many unique species to emerge from the Sierra Madre forests. One living, one long extinct, these species are two of the latest chapters in the ever-unfolding story of life on earth.


Life: Hunters and Prey, Ingenious Insects

A parent bug inspects a drupe. Photo: BBC

To stay alive, animals must eat and avoid being eaten. This means they must develop hunting and escape strategies, many of which they learn from their parents: “Youngsters who learn from their parents benefit from the knowledge gained by them over their lifetimes, and so in turn inherit a huge advantage over their rivals”, write Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton in Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behavior, the companion book to the Discovery/BBC series Life. In this Discovery Channel clip from the show, a mother killer whale teaches her baby how to sneak up on elephant seals. The knowledge of how to get into the seal pool has been passed down for generations.

Parenting is a survival strategy for some insects, too, as Holmes and Gunton describe. The parent bug eats only one kind of food: the fruits (called drupes) from a certain kind of tree. To spare her young the risky task of foraging for themselves, the parent bug spends all day searching for drupes and drags them home to her nest. If she brings home rotten or unripe drupes, her offspring may abandon her and find a new nest, thus increasing their chances of survival.

This Sunday on Life, see how the world’s greatest hunters capture their prey, and how prey animals employ equally ingenious methods of escape. Then take a peek into the marvelous world of insects, and see how these creatures have managed to stick around on earth for 400 million years. Life airs Sundays at 8PM on Discovery.


The Story of LIFE in Action

With the series premiere coming up on Sunday on Discovery, Life has gotten lots of attention this week. Today, Linda Holmes of NPR’s Monkey See blog called the series “stunning and beautiful” and even funny, and appreciated that Life goes beyond the standard nature show format to show how animals and plants solve problems. “It’s a series of stories, not just a string of demo reels about What It’s Like Out There”, she said. On her show yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres featured the series, then unveiled the UC Press companion book Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behavior, and handed out copies to the audience.

Like Planet Earth, each chapter in Life parallels an episode in the Discovery/BBC series. Follow along as giant octopi billow across the sea-floor, lizards walk on water, and bats take over the night, and learn how these traits and talents help them survive.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the Discovery Channel trailer for Life. The two-hour series premiere will air on Discovery this Sunday, March 21, at 8PM.


LIFE Premieres March 21

A chimpanzee using a hammer and anvil to crack open oil palm nuts. Photo by Justine Evans

Planet Earth, the BBC/Discovery Channel series and companion book, traveled deep into caves and oceans, and high into the rainforest canopy and mountaintops, to reveal the majesty of our environment. On March 21, the Discovery Channel will premiere Life, an 11-part series narrated by Oprah Winfrey, that explores the diversity of life forms that share Planet Earth with us.

The companion book Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behavior parallels the series—each chapter corresponds to an episode of the show. Detailing the challenges that push creatures to evolutionary edge, it reveals the incredible adaptations that allow animals and plants to survive, and species to evolve and endure.

Learn the secret to longevity from a 4,740-year-old bristlecone pine, watch as clouds of monarch butterflies turn forests orange on their annual migration, see the regal horned lizard defend itself by squirting blood from its eyes, and a bottlenose dolphin’s ingenious fish-catching method. See the astonishing strategies that creatures large and small, from deep-sea proboscis worms and stalk-eyed flies to great white sharks and chimpanzees, have devised to escape the jaws of hungry predators, find food, and pass on their genes.

In this preview, Life co-authors and series producers Martha Holmes, Michael Gunton, and others take us behind the scenes of the show. For more videos, visit the Discovery Channel’s Life site.


Planet Earth returns to TV on October 12th

10815160Planet Earth, the television series, returns to the Discovery Channel on Sunday, October 12th from 1 PM to 11 PM and again, from 11 PM to 3 AM into Monday morning. Narrated by actress Sigourney Weaver, this spectacular and engaging series takes a look at the distinctive characteristics of the earth in this fascinating documentary that is broken up into 11 different parts. To view the TV listings for this show, including a summary for each episode, please click here. For all you natural history and Planet Earth buffs out there, be sure to pick up our companion book to the series, Planet Earth: As You’ve Never Seen It Before by series producer, Alastair Fothergill.