National Geographic History

January/February 2022

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United States
National Geographic Society
6 Issues

in this issue

1 min
from the editor

The beautiful face gracing our cover is one of the world’s most iconic. When a German archaeologist first uncovered the work in 1912, he was at a loss for words: “Description is useless, must be seen,” he wrote. Today, those wishing to see the bust for themselves must visit the Neues Museum in Berlin. For nearly a century Egypt has been fighting for the Nefertiti bust’s return, claiming the artifact was looted; Germany maintains it legally obtained the bust and has held on to it since 1913. Debating ownership of history’s great objects is not new, but it has grown louder as the world begins to reckon with the legacy of colonialism. Most agree ancient treasures should be protected and studied, but cannot agree on who should possess relics like the Parthenon’s…

3 min
2,600-year-old mint was earliest to make money

Chinese archaeologists announced the discovery of the world’s oldest mint, adding a new chapter to the history of money. Located at the site of Guanzhuang, an ancient city in China’s eastern Henan Province, the factory was mass-producing bronze coins between 640 and 550 B.C. Prior to the discovery, the earliest mint was believed to be in Lydia (in modern Turkey), dating to between 575 B.C. and 550 B.C. The team of Chinese scholars used radio carbon dating to confirm the Guanzhuang factory’s age. “The minting techniques employed at Guanzhuang are characterized by batch production and a high degree of standardization,” wrote Hao Zhao, an archaeologist at Zhengzhou University, who led the research team. Reported in the journal Antiquity, their excavation uncovered all the elements of manufacture, including coins, molds, and clay cores.…

1 min
paper revolution

CHINA’S EARLIEST CURRENCY was not coins or paper, but cowrie shells. Advances in metallurgy around 1000 B.C. led to the first bronze coins, which took the form of valuable tools, such as knives or spades. Round coins appeared in the fourth century B.C., made from base metals. The Chinese fiduciary system contrasted with the Mediterranean world, whose coins were made from gold and silver that underwrote their value. In imperial China confidence that bronze coins would be accepted was established through a parallel currency of gold ingots. In the 11th century a copper shortage led the Song dynasty to adopt promissory notes of the kind used by merchants, a development that led to the world’s first paper banknotes. The Yuan and early Ming dynasties in the 13th and 14th centuries…

8 min
ellen craft, the appearance of freedom

Journey to Liberty 1826 Ellen Craft is born in Clinton, Georgia, the daughter of a white slave owner and a Black enslaved woman. 1837 Ellen is separated from her mother when she is sent to Macon, Georgia, as a wedding present for her white half sister. 1846 Ellen marries William Craft, an enslaved cabinetmaker who belongs to another household in Macon. 1848 Unwilling to have children while enslaved, the Crafts plan an escape to the northern free states. 1850 After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act endangers their freedom, the Crafts move to England. In the 1800s many enslaved people in the United States, especially those who lived in the Deep South, made valiant efforts to escape to freedom in the north. Many of the most well-known stories, like that of Harriet Tubman and the people she helped ferry along the…

1 min
fugitive slave act of 1850

MASSACHUSETTS was a free state—slavery had been banned for more than 60 years—but passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 threatened its free Black citizens, like the Crafts. The law appeared to strengthen an existing clause in the U.S. Constitution that said enslaved people who escaped to a free state did not automatically become free; they could be seized and returned to slaveholders. The 1850 act stripped away northern states’ power over any of these cases and gave it to federal commissioners, who were paid $10 for every person they seized. Anyone who helped Black people avoid capture could be fined or imprisoned. THE ACT ITSELF was a misguided effort to bolster slavery during a time when slaveholding states’ power was diminishing. The act had the opposite effect; it generated…

4 min
catfish of the nile: whiskered icon of egypt

Cobras, cats, and vultures are among the most popular animals depicted in Egyptian art, but the humble catfish once reigned supreme in the iconography of the civilization by the Nile. Common to every continent except Antarctica, catfish are the most diverse group of fish on earth. The 2,000 to 3,000 species have some remarkable characteristics, so it is little wonder they attracted the attention of the Egyptians, one of the most animal-conscious ancient cultures. Named for its feline-like whiskers, called barbels, a catfish has finely honed senses that allow it to survive and find food in murky, muddy waters. One family of catfish has a respiratory system that allows it to use atmospheric oxygen. This is most spectacularly employed by the walking catfish (Clarias batrachus), familiar today as an invasive species…