Cashews

I think cashews have been scientifically proven to be the most addictive substance on earth. I tried to find the studies that must have been published on this hidden epidemic, but instead I found this:

cashews are in the same plant family as poison oak (the sumac family) — that’s why you never see them in shells, handling them would be a bad thing for anyone sensitive to sumacs. You may also have heard of “mango mouth,” a rash that results from contact with mango skin — another member of the sumac family.
I’ve not heard of the sumac connection causing anyone problems from consuming cashews or mangos, but I get poison oak very easily and have been the victim of mango mouth myself, so I stay away from cashews for the most part on general principals.

I was bemused to read this. I have a cashew addiction and my mum had a mango addiction…..until the day she ate a whole box of mangos in one sitting. She developed an allergic reaction to mangos that was so strong she would swell up if she just walked into a room containing a mango.

I checked in Wikipedia and indeed the cashew, mango, poison ivy and pistachios are all members of the same plant family and mango and poison ivy share a common chemical irritant.

Spring skiing at Verbier

Last weekend of March, temperatures definitely spring-like in the valley, around 20 C.  Headed up to Verbier with the boys for some spring skiing. Verbier is one of the higher ski areas, the highest point is Mont Fort at 3300 m, from which it is 1800 vertical descent to Verbier village.

Two boys on the piste at around 2500 m.

                                 Two boys on the piste at around 2500 m.

The mountain in the distance is Le Grand Combin, at 4300 m one of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps. The next photo is a somewhat zoomed view of it.

Le Grand Combin (4314 m)

                                                 Le Grand Combin (4314 m)

Although the weather forecast was for the temperature to be just above zero, with a 15 km/hr wind and wind chill of -4, it was positively hot and we were overdressed. Fortunately, I had a backpack we could stuff outer layers into, and we skied with only two layers .

After a break for lunch we headed higher to the Col des Gentianes, which is just under 3000 m altitude. After encountering a white werewolf on a snowboard, we set off back down. Quite windy until we dropped down a little from the exposed ridge.
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Light cloud, lots of sunshine, and very hot skiing.

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We skied all the way down to Verbier village. The snow was getting slushy towards the bottom, and there was a little bit of waterskiing at the end.

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                                    Contemplating the descent to Verbier village

 

The language of mountains

Mont Blanc seen from the west (Mégeve) in Marcg 2014

                                  Mont Blanc seen from the west (Mégeve) in March 2014

“They passed aeons living alone in the mountains and forests;
only then did they unite with the Way and use mountains and rivers for words,
raise the wind and rain for a tongue, and explain the great void.”
Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), Shobogenzo

Maternal ancestors: Bronze age, iron age, Roman Britain

This is the last of a series of posts on my deep maternal ancestors, identified through analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is passed only from the mother to the child and so provides a trail of maternal ancestors identifiable through the mutations accumulated in the mtDNA. The previous posts can be found at:

Mitochrondral Eve: the deep maternal ancestor of us all

Deep maternal ancestors: out of Africa into ice age Europe

Maternal ancestors: ice age Europe and Britain

In this post I summarize the “recent” maternal ancestors who lived through the beginnings of agriculture in Britain, the British bronze age, the British iron age, the Roman occupation, and post-Roman Britain.

Urwen

Urwen

The most recent identifiable subgroup of my mtDNA haplogroup is Haplogroup U5a1a1* Group B. Urwen, the maternal founder of this subgroup, probably lived around 6000 years ago. I somewhat arbitrarily give her a date of 5300 years ago, the time when British took up farming, which would make Urwen approximately my great*292nd grandmother.

The earliest evidence of agriculture dates from around 10,000 to 8,000 years ago in the Middle East. Agriculture spread west across Europe and reached Britain around 5,300 years ago. The genetic evidence now strongly suggests that indigenous populations adopted agriculture, rather than being replaced by agricultural populations from the east, with the latter contributing only a relatively small proportion to the modern European gene pool.

Urwen lived in the neolithic period (late stone age) at a time when the British were adopting agriculture and sedentary living, leading to the gradual decline of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The new farmers grew cereal grains such as wheat and barley, this was supplemented at times with wild, un-domesticated plant foods such as hazelnuts. The Neolithic also saw the construction of a wide variety of monuments in the landscape, many of which were megalithic in nature. The earliest of these are the chambered tombs of the Early Neolithic. Newgrange in County Meath, western Ireland, is a chambered tomb built around 5200 years ago, about the time that Urwen lived.

Entrance to Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland

Entrance to Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland

Wayland’s Smithy is a Neolithic long barrow and chamber tomb site located near the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, which I visited in 1979. This barrow was built in two phases, a timber chambered oval barrow built around 5700 years ago and the second stone chambered long barrow around 5400 years ago, the time of Urwen.

Wayland's Smithy, White Horse Downs, Oxfordshire.

Wayland’s Smithy, White Horse Downs, Oxfordshire.

The Neolithic age was followed by the Bronze Age in Britain, lasting from around 2500 BCE to 800 BCE.  At first, items were made from copper but from around 2150 BCE smiths had discovered how to make bronze (which is much harder than copper) by mixing copper with a small amount of tin. With this discovery, the Bronze Age began in Britain. Over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tool and weapon making.

Britain had large reserves of tin in the areas of Cornwall and Devon in what is now Southwest England, and thus tin mining began. By around 1600 BCE, the Southwest of Britain was experiencing a trade boom as British tin was exported across Europe. The rich Wessex culture developed in Southern Britain at this time. The weather, previously warm and dry, became much wetter as the Bronze Age continued, forcing the population away from easily-defended sites in the hills and into the fertile valleys. Large livestock farms developed in the lowlands which appear to have contributed to economic growth and inspired increasing forest clearances. Higher ranking dead were buried under barrows and many of these can still be seen in Wiltshire.

During the British Bronze Age, large megalithic monuments similar to those from the Late Neolithic continued to be constructed or modified, including such sites as Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill I visited  Stonehenge and Avebury in 1979 along with a number of other megalithic monuments in Britain, Scotland and Ireland.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

Avebury stone circle, 1979.

Avebury stone circle, 1979.

Around 750 BCE, iron working techniques reached Britain from Southern Europe. Iron was stronger and more plentiful than bronze, and its introduction marks the beginning of the Iron Age. Iron working revolutionised many aspects of life, most importantly agriculture. Iron tipped ploughs could churn up land far more quickly and deeply than older wooden or bronze ones, and iron axes could clear forest land far more efficiently for agriculture.

Iron Age Britons lived in organised tribal groups, ruled by a chieftain. As people became more numerous, wars broke out between opposing tribes. This was the reason for the building of many hill forts; there are over 2,000 Iron Age hill forts known in Britain. Population estimates vary but the number of people in Iron Age Great Britain could have been three or four million by the first century BCE, with most concentrated densely in the agricultural lands of the South. The average life expectancy at birth would have been around 25, but at the age of five it would have been around 30.

The end of the Iron Age extends into the early Roman Empire, but in parts of Britain that were not Romanized, such as Scotland, the period is extended a little longer, say to the 5th century. The first extensive Roman campaigns in Britain were by the armies of Julius Caesar in 55 and in 54 BCE, when my great*80th grandmother was alive.  But the first significant campaign of conquest did not begin until 43 CE, in the reign of the Emperor Claudius. Roman Britain was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from 43 CE until ca. 410 CE. There are Roman remains to be found all across Britain, below the line of Hadrian’s Wall. In the forest of Dean, on the Welsh border, I walked several miles along a still clearly visible paved Roman road. Further southwest in Wales, I visited the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon.

Roman Amphitheatre, Caerleon, 1979.

Roman Amphitheatre, Caerleon, 1979.

Following the conquest of the native Britons, a distinctive Romano-British culture emerged under provincial government, which, despite steadily extending territorial control northwards, was never able to exert definite control over Caledonia (Scotland). Most Romans departed from Britain around the year 410, which began the post-Roman period (5th–6th century CE), but the legacy of the Roman Empire was felt for centuries in Britain. The departure of the Romans took place in my great*61th grandmother’s time.

The population of Britain may have decreased after the Roman period by between 1.5 and 3 million. This reduction may have been caused by environmental changes or by plague and smallpox (around 600 CE, the smallpox spread from India into Europe). The Plague of Justinian entered the Mediterranean world in the 6th century and first arrived in the British Isles in 544 or 545, when it reached Ireland. It is estimated that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 100 million people across the world. It caused Europe’s population to drop by around 50% between 550 and 700.

While historians now generally think the term “dark age” is a misnomer for Europe in the post-Roman period, it probably can be applied to post-Roman Britain as little is known about that period and the few contemporary sources are contradictory, biased, and partly recounting legendary stories. These include On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (written by a monk called Gildas around 540 CE) which contains a narrative of British history from the Roman conquest to Gildas’ time; it includes references to Ambrosius Aurelianus and the Britons’ victory against the Saxons at the Battle of Mons Badonicus. This battle may have occurred around 493-500 CE. The next significant history was written by the Venerable Bede around 731 CE, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This also mentions the Battle of Badon, as occurring 44 years after the arrival of the Saxons “ when they made no small slaughter of those invaders”. The earliest surviving text mentioning “Arthur” at the battle is the Historia Brittonum, written around 828 CE by Nennius.  It contains the first reference to “Arthur” in a list of 12 battles that he is supposed to have fought as war leader of the Britons. Over the following centuries, the legends of King Arthur grew enormously, and when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote The History of the Kings of Britain in 1136 CE, Arthur’s reign was its climax. I took the photo below in 1979 at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. I first visited Tintagel a long time ago as a five year old, and I still have the book that my parents bought there for me recounting stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall.

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall.

If Arthur came to power around the time of the Battle of Badon in (say) 491 CE, that would have been in my great*58th grandmother’s time. Of course, I know nothing about most of the 58 maternal ancestors, though it is likely they all lived in Southern England. The first of these that I have documented evidence for is my great-great-grandmother, Amelia Buckmaster, who was born in 1809 in Hounslow, Middlesex, England and who died in 1892 in Wallingford, Berkshire, England.

Grand Montets: high mountain skiing

Les Grands Montets rises above the village of Argentiere near Chamonix in the French Alps. With exceptional vertical drops and tough terrain, about half the runs are black. I dropped the boys at school and in about an hour was in Argentiere. After another hour (mainly waiting in queues) and two telecabine rides I was on top of Grand Montets at 3300 m, with a spectacular view of Mont Blanc and clear blue skies. Chamonix is visible in the valley below.

Mont Blanc seen from Aiguille des Grands Montets

Mont Blanc seen from Aiguille des Grands Montets

The photo below gives a closer view of Mont Blanc – at 4810 m the main summit is 1.5 km (or nearly a mile) higher than where I am standing. The tower on the Aiguille du Midi is just visible in front of the main summit. Behind it is the Gouter Ridge and the Dome du Gouter – the route by which I climbed Mont Blanc in 2010.

Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi (centre)

Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi (centre)

Skiing from the top of the Grands Montets (3300m) is a skiers dream. With a 2000 m vertical drop to Argentière, and good powder, who needs heli-skiing. The route off Aiguille des Grand Montets is a very steep off-piste black route on a glacier. Behind the sign is the Glacier des Rognons and below it the Glacier d’Argentiere.

Glacier des Rognons and Glacier d'Argentiere.

Glacier des Rognons and Glacier d’Argentiere.

Dropping down a bit further gives a good view of the Argentiere Glacier with the Aiguille d’Argentiere behind. Seracs and crevasses on the glacier can be clearly seen. I was sticking to a main route, but people venturing out onto the glacier should be wearing a harness and carrying ice climbing gear. Last time I skied this route, I saw someone ski into one of the crevasses. Fortunately he had some friends with gear to get him out.

Glacier d'Argentiere

Glacier d’Argentiere

The full route from the top down to the Argentiere village, which I skied, involves a little over 2000 metres vertical drop (or close to 7000 feet). It is supposed to be the longest vertical drop in the world for a ski route accessible by lift (rather than helicopter). I checked and the Vallee Blanche route from Aiguille du Midi is a slightly shorter drop if you stop at Montenvers as I did, but longer if  the snow is good enough to continue down to Chamonix.

I went back up to the top after lunch and the clouds were coming in – below Mont Blanc. Towards the bottom of the photo below, some skiers can be seen, heading off the other side from where I was going.

Afternoon view from Les Grands Montets towards Mont Blanc

Afternoon view from Les Grands Montets towards Mont Blanc

I could not resist taking a photo of snowboarders heading down into the clouds.

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I headed down the Glacier des Rognons for the second time. My legs were absolutely protesting by this stage, too much difficult and steep off-piste skiing for one day. But I  skied down to the car. Could barely walk afterwards, with over 6000 m vertical (or 20,000 feet)  skiing in one day.

Glacier des Rognons

Glacier des Rognons

Cathar castles: Montréal de Sos and the Grail Cave

Further up the Vicdessos valley from the ice age paintings of Niaux ( http://mountainsrivers.com/2014/02/23/the-ice-age-paintings-of-the-grotte-de-niaux/)  is one of the less well known Cathar castles, known as Montréal de Sos. It sits on a rocky outcrop, the Vic de Sos, from which the valley gets its name. Occupied since the Bronze age, this was the site of an Iron Age oppidum, a Carolingian fortress, and during the Cathar period one of the most powerful castles of the Foix region, Montréal-de-Sos. Under the castle remains is a cave with two exits – or an entrance and a different exit. Such caves were used for initiation rituals in Cathar times.

The Vic de Sos, 2011. Montréal de Sos on top, the Grail Cave below, 2011.

The Vic de Sos, 2011. On top is Montréal de Sos, entrances to the Grail Cave below.

Sunrise over the ruins of the castle Montréal-de-Sos, 2011.

Sunrise over the ruins of the castle Montréal-de-Sos, 2011.

The highest of the snow-covered Pyrenees peaks, Pic d’Estats (3143 m) is not far away, hidden in the clouds the morning I was there. The visible peak in front of the clouds is Pic du Montcalm (3077 m). The Montréal-de-Sos fortress was dismantled by Richelieu, and during the past decade, the ruins have been extensively excavated by archaeologists. When I was there in 2011, there were extensive excavations underway in its ruins ofand two men carrying picks arrived at the top just as I was leaving.

Snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees (3200 m) from Montréal de Sos.

Snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees (3200 m) from Montréal de Sos.

In the cliff under Montréal de Sos is a double entrance “initiation” cave, both entrances shown in the photo below.

The entrance to the Grail Cave

The entrance and exit of the Grail Cave

Looking out from the entrance of the Grail Cave. The Grail painting is on the wall to the right.

Looking out from the entrance of the Grail Cave. The Grail painting is on the wall to the right.

Just inside the entrance is a wall painting of Cathar origin dating to the 12th century was found in the cave in 1932. The painting shows various symbols of the Grail described in Chrétien de Troyes’s “Perceval, le Conte du Graal”, the oldest Grail romance (1190). The painting shows a lance, a broken sword, a solar disk, many red crosses and a square panel. The latter contains an inner square. The outer part of the panel, which might represent a table or altar, contains twenty crosses in various forms on a black background; the inner part contains five tear-shaped drops of blood and five white crosses. If the inner part corresponds to the tailléor, then the painting contains all four symbols of the Grail procession.

The Grail painting

Recreation of the Grail painting (left) – close up of the sword (right)

According to legend, four Cathars were lowered down the cliffs of Montsegur with the Cathar treasure, before its surrender. There are various theories about this treasure, including that it may have been the Sangréal or Holy Grail. According to legend, they supposedly hid the Sangréal in this cave under Montreal de Sos.

Detail of the sword in the painting, taken by me in 2011.

Detail of the sword in the painting, taken by me in 2011.

I had a small torch with me, and I explored further into the cave, which goes quite a way into the mountain.

Deep within the Grail Cave - the passage is less than 1 metre high here.

Deep within the Grail Cave – the passage is less than 1 metre high here.

After some considerable distance the passage becomes very low and tight, and I decided to turn back (not wanting to get jammed in a horizontal squeeze deep in the mountain when no-one knew I was there) without having found  the Sangréal.  Maybe I am not yet pure enough in spirit. Another time perhaps, another place perhaps.

It would be a horizontal squeeze beyond this point. No sign of the Grail so far.

It would be a horizontal squeeze beyond this point. No sign of the Grail so far.

The Grail cave faces a strange monolith in the distance known as the Dolmen of Sem, meaning the ‘Dolmen of Samson’. However, this stone only vaguely resembles a dolmen, and it is positioned so that it points directly at a nearby mountain range whose summit is called the Forest of the Grail, and whose valley is known as the Pass of the Grail. I went up to look more closely at the Dolmen de Sem, and as I climbed up to the knob on which it perched, the morning sun shone straight through underneath it.

Early morning sun shines under the Dolmen de Sem

Early morning sun shines under the Dolmen de Sem

Dolmen de Sem

Dolmen de Sem

Further down the Vicdessos Valley, not far from the prehistoric cave at Niaux, the castle of Miglos overlooks the valley and the Vicdessos village
The square fortress includes a rectangular keep some 20 meters high. Various buildings join the keep to another tower, forming an inner courtyard. First mentioned in the mid-12th century, the castle was the seat of the barony of Miglos, subject to the counts of Foix. Miglos lost its military importance in the 14th century and became a residence, changing hands several times. The last owners were turned out during the French Revolution, leaving the place a ruin.

Chateau de Miglos, Vicdessos.

Chateau de Miglos, Vicdessos.

Climbing up to the Chateau de Miglos, 2011

Climbing up to the Chateau de Miglos, 2011