National Geographic History July/August 2021

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United States
National Geographic Society
6 Issues

in this issue

1 min
from the editor

In the last year, the world has begun to revisit the legacy of European colonialism. This August marks the 500th anniversary of one of its most significant events: the fall of Tenochtitlan to the Spanish in 1521. I thought I was pretty familiar with that milestone—National Geographic History published a story about Hernán Cortés a few years back—but as the anniversary approached and we considered story ideas, it hit me that I really only knew one side of the story, that of the Spanish. I didn’t even know the proper name for the people of Mexico who took on Cortés (the term “Aztec” was coined by a European in the 1800s who derived it from the name of an ancestral homeland, Aztlán). Rather than Aztec, they are the Mexica, a Nahuatl-speaking people…

3 min
stone age seashell makes music from the past

Nearly a century ago, archaeologists working in France’s Pyrenean foothills discovered a seashell in Marsoulas Cave. They identified the conch shell as a shared ceremonial drinking vessel and put it into storage at the Natural History Museum of Toulouse. Nine decades later, scholars revisited the cave artifacts and realized there had been a mistake. Rather than a cup, they had a prehistoric musical instrument around 12,000 to 18,000 years old. In 2019 Carole Fritz, an archaeologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, conducted a review of objects found in the cave, famous for its prehistoric wall art created by a nomadic group of Upper Paleolithic hunters in the Magdalenian epoch. Fritz’s colleagues noted that the pointy end of the shell, or apex, was missing; they theorized that perhaps it…

1 min
stone age symphonics

CONVERTING SEASHELLS into wind instruments has a long history around the world, but the Marsoulas conch is the only prehistoric shell horn found to date. It is impossible to know if the residents of the Marsoulas Cave had copied an existing instrument or if they made their own innovations when they removed the apex (left-hand illustration), carefully winnowed out a shaft, and inserted a tube—perhaps a reed or hollow bird bone—in the opening (right-hand illustration). Evidence of a brownish residue, likely a resin or wax, was detected on the apex edge and inside the shell, which could have helped hold the mouthpiece in place. The sound of the Marsoulas horn is deep, like that of a large animal; some speculate it sounded like a bison. Due to the artifact’s age,…

1 min
disease detective

1866 Born in December 1843, Robert Koch graduates from the University of Göttingen, earning a degree in medicine. 1876 Koch’s innovative work identifies the bacterium responsible for anthrax, a serious infectious disease. 1882 In Berlin, Koch presents his discovery of the tubercle bacillus and his scientific testing methods. 1905 For his decades of contributions to medicine and the study of epidemiology, Koch wins the Nobel Prize.…

7 min
robert koch, the bacteria hunter

Whether called phthisis (Greek for “wasting away”), the white plague, or consumption, tuberculosis has been plaguing humanity all over the world for thousands of years. Texts describe the disease in India 3,300 years ago and in China a millennium later. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates called it “the most considerable of the diseases which then prevailed.” In 1680 the English writer John Bunyan ranked tuberculosis among other diseases as “the captain of all these men of death.” In 19th-century Europe and the United States, tuberculosis epidemics were raging, killing an estimated one out of seven people. Those infected seemed to waste away, as if consumed. “Consumption” so traumatized society that its ravages were featured in some of the great works of art from the time, including Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s…

1 min
professional rivals

KOCH and the French biologist Louis Pasteur clashed over the merits of each other’s work. Both broke significant new ground in the field of epidemiology and enjoyed an early cordial relationship. Competition between the two scientists and their nations led to tension. Nearly a decade after the Franco-Prussian War (which France lost), a translation error at an 1881 medical congress worsened matters. In his presentation, Pasteur referred to Koch’s published studies as a recueil allemand—a compilation of German works. Pasteur’s phrase was mistranslated for Koch as orgeuil allemand—German arrogance. The damage was done, but the rivalry helped spur medical advances.…