retired

That the warrior survived the arrow’s strike for even a short time was remarkable. The triple-barbed arrowhead, probably launched by an opponent on horseback, shattered bone below his right eye and lodged firmly in his flesh.

The injury wasn’t the man’s first brush with death. In his youth he had survived a glancing sword blow that fractured the back of his skull. This injury was different. The man was probably begging for death, says Michael Schultz, a paleopathologist at the University of Göttingen. Holding the victim’s skull in one hand and a replica of the deadly arrow in the other, Schultz paints a picture of a crude operation that took place on the steppes of Siberia 2,600 years ago.

“The man was crying, ‘Help me,’” Schultz– says. Thin cuts on the bone show how his companions cut away his cheek, then used a small saw to remove pieces of bone, but to no avail. Pointing to a crack in the skull, he describes the next agonizing step: An ancient surgeon smashed into the bone with a chisel in a final, futile effort to free the arrowhead. “Hours or a day later, the man died,” Schultz says. “It was torture.” The slain warrior’s remains were found in 2003, buried with those of 40 others in a massive kurgan, or grave mound, in southern Siberia at a site that archaeologists call Arzhan 2.

To find out more about the lives and deaths of these ancient people, Schultz has spent years teasing out the secrets of their bones, using techniques like those employed at crime scenes. In April he announced the results of his research on the wounded warrior. His body, Schultz says, bore some of the earliest evidence of battlefield surgery. (Prior to this announcement, in October 2007, Schultz had reported a finding on a prince buried at the center of the Arzhan 2 mound. Using a scanning electron microscope, Schultz found signs of prostate cancer in the prince’s skeleton. This is the earliest documentation of the disease.)

The Arzhan 2 skeletons, which belong to warrior-nomads the ancient Greeks called Scythians, are part of a spectacular series of finds in remote sites in central Asia. One of the discoveries dates back to the 1940s when mummies were found in the Altai Mountains, which run through Siberia and Mongolia. Later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when some of the sites became more accessible for excavation, the pace of Scythian-related discoveries picked up. The warrior skeleton Schultz is talking about, for example, was found on a plain not far from the 1940s discovery. More recently, other well-preserved mummies—not skeletons—have been found at altitudes of 8,000 feet in the valleys of the Altai Mountains. Still other discoveries have been made on the coast of the Black Sea and the edge of China. Together, the evidence illuminates aspects of the Scythians’ unusual culture, from tattooing warriors to creating intricate metalwork.

Never constituting an empire, the Scythians were a network of culturally similar tribes that ranged from Siberia to Egypt almost 3,000 years ago and faded away around A.D. 100. The Greek historian Herodotus describes the Scythians as murderous nomads. As for how the Scythians—who did not have a written language—perceived themselves, only their artifacts and human remains are left to speak for them.
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For Hermann Parzinger, the 49-year-old German archaeologist who excavated the tombs of the wounded warrior and the cancerous prince, the Scythians have been an obsession. Even so, he and his Russian colleague Konstantin Chugonov were surprised to find that the grave mound contained the bodies of 26 men and women, most of them apparently executed to follow the ruler into the afterlife. One woman’s skull had been pierced four times with a war pick; another man’s skull still had splinters in it from the wooden club used to kill him. The skeletons of 14 horses were arranged in the grave. More impressive was the discovery of 5,600 gold objects, including an intricate necklace weighing three pounds and a cloak studded with 2,500 small gold panthers.

After the Arzhan 2 finds, Parzinger—who until this year headed the German Archaeological Institute—was tantalized by the possibility of finding a well-preserved mummy that would give archaeologists and pathologists insights into the Scythian culture that bare skeletons never could. “High in the mountains, you can find remains in a preserved condition that just doesn’t exist in other places,” Parzinger, now head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, says. “Instead of archaeology, it’s a kind of ethnography.”

In the summer of 2006, his search took him to a windswept plain in the Altai Mountain range that is peppered with Scythian grave mounds. Parzinger worried that mummies in the highlands may not be around much longer, as global warming reverses the chill that has preserved them for millennia. A team of Russian geophysicists had surveyed the area in 2005, using ground-penetrating radar to look for telltale underground ice. Their data suggested that four mounds could contain some sort of frozen tomb.

Parzinger assembled 28 researchers from Mongolia, Germany, and Russia to open the mounds, on the banks of the Olon-Kurin-Gol River in Mongolia. The first two mounds took three weeks to excavate and yielded nothing significant. A third had been cleaned out by grave robbers centuries earlier.

The radar data for the fourth mound—barely a bump on the plain, just a few feet high and 40 feet across—were ambiguous at best. But a thrill went through the team as they dug into it. Buried under four and a half feet of stone and earth was a felt-lined chamber made of larch logs. Inside was a warrior in full regalia, his body partially mummified by the frozen ground. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US

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Researchers recovered the mummy intact, along with his clothes, weapons, tools, and even the meal intended to sustain him in the afterlife. He shared his grave with two horses in full harness, slaughtered and arranged facing northeast. Mongolia’s president lent the team his personal helicopter to shuttle the finds to a lab in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The mummy’s body spent a year in Germany; his clothes and gear are at a lab in Novosibirsk, Russia.

Before Parzinger opened his grave, the warrior had lain for more than 2,000 years on an ice lens, a sheet of ice created by water seeping through the grave and freezing against the permafrost below. The mummy “had been dehydrated, or desiccated, by the ice in the grave,” Schultz says.

Scythian mummies show signs of primitive embalming: Internal organs were removed and replaced with grasses, for instance. The combination of ice and intentional preservation resulted in remarkably resilient specimens. When Schultz shows me the mummy, housed in the same lab as the skeleton of the wounded warrior, the temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees, and sunlight streams onto its leathery flesh.

The mummy’s facial features were destroyed. But in this instance—unlike the case of the wounded warrior skeleton—the destruction was inflicted by nature. When the ice lens formed under the burial chamber, it expanded upward. “The extent of the ice was so high, the body was pressed against the logs on the ceiling and smashed,” Schultz says. The skull shattered, making facial reconstruction impossible. His chest, too, was crushed. Still, a lot can be learned. “You can establish a kind of biography from the body,” Schultz says.

He notes that the mummy’s teeth are surrounded by pitted bone—evidence of painful gum disease, probably the result of a diet rich in meat and dairy but lacking in fruits and vegetables. Between 60 and 65 years old when he died, the man was slim and just about 5 feet 2 inches. At some point he had broken his left arm, perhaps in a fall. His vertebrae show signs of osteo–arthritis from years of pounding in the saddle. Badly worn arm and shoulder joints testify to heavy use. “That kind of osteo–arthritis and joint damage is very characteristic if you handle wild horses,” Schultz says.

The clues reinforce what Parzinger and others have suspected: He belonged to the Scythians, a seminomadic culture that once dominated the steppes of Siberia, central Asia, and eastern Europe. Beginning around 800 B.C., the Scythians thundered across the central Asian steppes, and within a few generations, their art and culture had spread far beyond the steppes of central Asia.

The Scythians’ exploits struck fear into the hearts of the ancient Greeks and Persians. Herodotus wrote about their violent burial customs, including human sacrifice (which the Arzhan 2 find tends to confirm) and drug-fueled rituals. He speculated that they came from mountains far to the east, in the “land of the gold-guarding griffins.”

Archaeologists say the Scythians’ Bronze Age ancestors were livestock breeders living in the highlands where modern-day Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan intersect. Then “something changed,” Par–zinger says. Beginning around 1000 B.C., a wetter climate may have created grassy steppes that could support huge herds of horses, sheep, and goats. People took to horseback to follow the roaming herds. Around 800 B.C., all traces of settlements vanish from the archaeological record.

Archaeologists usually draw their clues from ordinary artifacts and human remains, so while the grave gold from the nomadic Scythians is sumptuous, the real prize is the ancient people themselves. A century of digging at lower altitudes and in the warm Ukrainian plains rarely yielded more than skeletons or jewelry.

In the late 1940s, Soviet archaeologist Sergei Rudenko traveled to the Pazyryk region of the Altai Mountains and made some stunning finds. Richly appointed wooden chambers contained well-preserved mummies, their skin covered in elaborate, twisting animal tattoos. Their brains, intestines, and other organs had been removed and the corpses sewn up with horsehair. The dead had been dressed, armed, and laid to rest in chambers lined with felt blankets, wool carpets, and slaughtered horses.

In 1992 Russian archaeologists began a new search for ice lenses—and mummies. Natalya Polosmak, an archaeologist in Novosibirsk, discovered the coffin of an elaborately tattooed “ice princess” with clothes of Chinese silk at Ak-Alakha, another site in the Altai Mountains. Other finds in this area included a burial chamber with two coffins. One coffin contained a man, the other a woman armed with a dagger, war pick, bow, and arrow-filled quiver. She wore trousers instead of a skirt. The find lent credence to some scholars’ suggestions of a link between the Scythians and the legendary Amazons.

In the early 1990s, just a few miles from that site, Parzinger’s partner Vyacheslav Molodin uncovered the more modest mummy of a young, blond warrior. The burial style resembled that of Parzinger’s mummy, the one found at the Olon-Kurin-Gol River whose face was crushed by ice.

Parzinger fears global warming may soon put an end to the search for Scythians. Rudenko’s dig diaries contain reports of weather far colder than what modern archaeologists experience in the Altai. “When you read descriptions from the 1940s and compare them with the climate of today, you don’t need to be a scientist to see there’s been a change,” Parzinger says.

Geographer Frank Lehmkuhl from the University of Aachen in Germany has been studying lake levels in the Altai region for a decade. “According to our research, the glaciers are retreating and the lake levels are rising,” Lehmkuhl says. With no increase in the region’s rainfall, the change “can only come from melting permafrost and glaciers.”

As the permafrost thaws, the ice that has preserved the Scythian mummies for so many centuries will thaw too. In the Olon-Kurin-Gol grave, the ice that once crushed the mummy against the roof of the burial chamber had receded nine inches by the time the chamber was opened. Within a few decades, the ice lenses may be completely gone. “Right now we’re facing a rescue archaeology situation,” Parzinger says. “It’s hard to say how much longer these graves will be there.”

Neanderthals don’t have the best reputation. In the public mind, the heavy-browed hominids are thought of as a stupid species that couldn’t compete with brighter Homo sapiens, as the also-rans that therefore went extinct. But a newly discovered trove of Neanderthal tools in Sussex, England may help rehabilitate their image. The tools, which date from the end of the Neanderthal era at around 30,000 B.C., show surprising sophistication, archaeologists say.

“The tools we’ve found at the site are technologically advanced and potentially older than tools in Britain belonging to our own species,” said [University College London]’s Matthew Pope. “It’s exciting to think that there’s a real possibility these were left by some of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy northern Europe,” he added. “The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology — not a people on the edge of extinction” . http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US

The research team announced that the collection of flint tools were found at a site called Beedings on a hilltop that may have had strategic value for the huntsmen, as it would have provided an excellent view of game herds on the surrounding plains. The tools might have been used to hunt the horses, woolly mammoths, and woolly rhinoceros that roamed the British isles at the time.

The tools themselves are more than just crude blunt instruments, Pope says. “Unlike earlier, more typical Neanderthal tools these were made with long, straight blades – blades which were then turned into a variety of bone and hide processing implements, as well as lethal spear points” [said Pope]…. Towards the end of their time in Europe, between 30-40,000 years ago (probably including the time period of British sites such as Kent’s Cavern in Devon, and Beedings), the Neanderthals diversified their tool-making, showing that they were adapting in new ways, possibly in reaction to the presence of incoming modern human populations (the Cro-Magnons) in adjoining regions of continental Europe [Telegraph].

The Beedings site has been known about for more than a century, but the artifacts found there weren’t always treated with the proper respect. Some 2,300 stone tools were first uncovered at the start of the 20th Century when the foundations were being dug for a huge new house to be built at Beedings. But for many years, the tools were considered to be fakes. All but a few hundred of them were thrown down a well and never seen again [BBC News]. The newly excavated tools lend the earlier batch credibility, as researchers can demonstrate that these tools are similar in composition and style to Neaderthal tools found in northern Europe that were made between 35,000 and 42,000 years ago.

Image: UCL/M. Pope

Tags: archeology, Neanderthals, prehistoric culture, woolly mammoths
June 23rd, 2008 by Eliza Strickland in Human Origins | 3 comments | RSS feed | Trackback >
3 Responses to “Give Neanderthals Some Credit: They Made Nice Tools”

1. Religion carved in stone. – Page 4 – Volconvo Debate Forums Says:
June 24th, 2008 at 4:26 pm

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3. Stonehenge College University – World War II Forums Says:
June 24th, 2008 at 9:45 pm

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A clump of hair that lay frozen in the Greenland tundra for 4,000 years has yielded DNA from the earliest Arctic residents, and offers clues to their origins.

Researchers have long wondered who those rugged settlers were, and where they came from. Were they part of a massive migration that swept through all of North America, or were they a separate tribe that eventually gave rise to Greenland’s present-day Eskimos?

Until now, no ancient human remains had been found in that harsh climate to allow researchers to study the genetics of those “Paleo-Eskimos.” But the new discovery sheds some light on the people, and suggests that neither of the earlier theories is correct; in fact, they were a distinct tribe that journeyed all the way from Siberia to Greenland, but didn’t stick around to populate the frozen north.

The trove of information came from an unassuming source. The ancient clump of hair looks like something you’d sweep off a barbershop floor. “It’s kind of brown, got a bit of dirt in it, a bit of twigs, but … it looks [in] remarkably good condition,” says biologist Thomas Gilbert of the University of Copenhagen.

University of Copenhagen researchers had spent months in Greenland trying to find human remains, with no success. They then learned of this hair sample, which was discovered in the 1980s in Disko Bay, in western Greenland, and was being kept in a museum collection [NPR].

Gilbert’s team was able to isolate the sample’s mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mother to child and therefore offers a genetic marker of maternal lineage. When they compared the DNA from the hair to DNA from other populations, they realized that the Paleo-Eskimos were not genetically similar to Native Americans, but they did have much in common with residents of the westernmost Aleutian Islands and Siberia. According to the research team’s report in Science, subscription required, this suggests that the ancient Eskimos migrated from East Asia via the Bering Strait land bridge. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US

But Greenland’s modern Eskimos aren’t genetically similar to those early residents either, indicating that they couldn’t last in that icy environment. Lead author Gilbert and colleagues suggest that past ancient Eskimo populations succumbed to periods of climate cooling. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US
“Obviously it’s an extremely tough environment up there, and it may be that the environments got so harsh that the populations got smaller and smaller and collapsed,” he said.

Futurologists envision a world a million years from now in which the entire solar system has been turned into computronium and nanobots transform our garbage into foie gras. But in my experience, the repeated sin of futurologists is that they often extrapolate from what is new rather than from what is old. Computers and nanotechnology, impressive though they are, are things of relatively recent origin. As such, they are unlikely to be around for very long.

To find something that will pretty certainly endure into the distant future, we are obliged, paradoxically enough, to go back much farther into the past. And if we could cast a look back several million years, we would see, among other things, laughter and numbers. So we can be pretty confident that laughter and numbers will survive long after most of what we’re familiar with is gone.

The insight that old things tend to last and new things tend to disappear flows from the Copernican principle. This principle says, in essence, “You’re not special.” Before Copernicus, we imagined that we occupied a very special place at the center of the universe. Now we know better: We are on an average planet in an average galaxy in an average cluster. But the Copernican principle applies to time as well as to space. If there is nothing special about our perspective, we are unlikely to be observing any given thing at the very beginning or the very end of its existence. And that rather obvious point can lead to some interesting predictions.

Consider the longevity of the human race. If there is nothing special about the moment at which we observe our species, then it is 95 percent certain that we are seeing Homo sapiens in the middle 95 percent of its existence—not the first fortieth (21⁄2 percent) or the last fortieth (21⁄2 percent). Humans have already been around for about 200,000 years. That means we can, with 95 percent confidence, expect the species to endure for at least another 5,100 years (1/39 x 200,000) but for no more than 7.8 million years (39 x 200,000).

It was Richard Gott III, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, who pioneered this sort of reasoning. In a paper published in Nature on May 27, 1993, “Implications of the Copernican Principle for Our Future Prospects,” Gott noted that the Copernican-based calculation gives H. sapiens an expected total longevity comparable to that of other hominid species (H. erectus lasted 1.6 million years) and of mammal species in general (whose average span is 2 million years). It also gives us a decent shot at being around a million years from now.

What else might be around in the Year Million? Consider something of recent origin, like the Internet. The Internet has existed for about 25 years now (as I learned by going on the Internet and looking at Wikipedia). By Copernican reasoning, this means we can be 95 percent certain that it will continue to be around for another seven-plus months but that it will disappear within 975 years. So in the Year Million, there will almost certainly be nothing recognizable as the Internet. (This is, perhaps, not a terribly surprising conclusion.) Ditto for baseball. Ditto for what we call industrial technology, which, having come into existence a little more than two centuries ago, is likely to be superseded by something strange and new in the next 10,000 years.

Laughter and numbers, on the other hand, are good bets to survive a million years because they are two of the oldest things that are part of our lives today. How do we know this? Because we share both laughter and a sense of number with other species, and therefore with common ancestors that existed millions of years ago.

Take laughter. Chimpanzees laugh. Charles Darwin, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, noted that “if a young chimpanzee be tickled—the armpits are particularly sensitive to tickling, as in the case of our children—a more decided chuckling or laughing sound is uttered; though the laughter is sometimes noiseless.” Actually, what primatologists call chimp laughter is more like a breathy pant. It is evoked not only by tickling but also by rough-and-tumble play, games of chasing, and mock attacks—just as with children prior to the emergence of verbal joking at age 5 or 6.

The human and chimpanzee lineages split off from each other between 5 million and 7 million years ago. On the reasonable assumption that chimp and human laughter are homologous rather than independently evolved traits, laughter must be at least 5 million to 7 million years old. (It is probably much older; orangutans also laugh, and their lineage diverged from ours about 14 million years ago.) So, by the Copernican principle, laughter is quite likely to be around in the Year Million.

Now take numbers. Chimps can do elementary arithmetic, and they have even been trained to use symbols like numerals to reason about quantity. But the sense of number is not confined to primates. Animals as diverse as salamanders, pigeons, raccoons, dolphins, and parrots have the ability to perceive and represent numbers. A few years ago, researchers at MIT discovered that macaque monkeys had specialized “number neurons” in the brain region that corresponds to the human number module. Evidently the number sense has an even longer evolutionary history than laughter. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US
So again, by the Copernican principle, we can be quite certain that numbers will be around in the Year Million.

But what will our descendants’ mathematics look like? And what will make them laugh? The first question might seem the easier to answer. Mathematics, after all, is supposed to be the most universal aspect of human civilization, the part we assume would extend even to intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. In Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel Contact, aliens in the vicinity of the star Vega beam a series of prime numbers toward Earth. The book’s heroine, who works for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), realizes with a frisson that the prime-number pulses her radio telescope is picking up must be generated by some form of intelligent life. But if the aliens beamed their jokes at us instead, we probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish them from the background noise. Indeed, sometimes we can barely distinguish the jokes in a Shakespeare play from the background noise. Just as nothing is more timeless than number, nothing is more parochial and ephemeral than humor, the core of laughter—or so we imagine. We are confident that a civilization a million years more advanced than our own would find our concept of number intelligible (and we, theirs), but our jokes would have them scratching their heads in puzzlement.
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That is how we see matters at the moment. In the Year Million, though, I think the perspective will be precisely the reverse. Humor will be esteemed as the most universal aspect of culture. And number will have lost its transcendental reputation and be looked upon as a local artifact, like a computer operating system or an accounting scheme. If I am right, then SETI scientists should not be listening for primes but for something quite different.

Prime numbers—the numbers that can’t be split up into smaller factors and are thus the atoms of arithmetic—have an almost holy status today. What makes them seem transhuman to us now is their sheer orneriness. There are infinitely many of them, and they seem to crop up almost at random among the rest of the numbers. “There is no apparent reason why one number is prime and another not,” the mathematician Don Zagier declared in his inaugural lecture at Bonn University in 1975. “To the contrary, upon looking at these numbers, one has the feeling of being in the presence of one of the inexplicable secrets of creation.”

But the prime numbers are not really as transcendental as all that. They do obey a law. We just don’t grasp the law—yet. In 1859 the German mathematician Bernhard Riemann put forward what is now almost universally regarded as the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics: the Riemann hypothesis. This hypothesis holds the key to the primes’ true pattern, and once its truth or falsity is resolved, prime numbers will be rendered transparent to our understanding. How long must we wait? Mathematicians great and not so great have been trying to crack this nut ever since Riemann put it out there. “It will be another million years at least,” the late number theorist Paul Erdös pronounced, “before we understand the primes.”

The Copernican principle yields a rather different estimate. The Riemann conjecture has been open since it was first posed 149 years ago. That means we can be 95 percent certain that it will survive as an open problem for at least another four years or so (1/39 x 149) but that it will be dispatched within the next six millennia ?(39 x 149), well short of the Year Million. When it is solved, the prime numbers will finally be stripped of their cosmic otherness. We will realize that, like the rest of mathematics, they are man-made, a terrestrial artifact. They will seem about as trivial as a game of tic-tac-toe.

And how about laughter? Perhaps the best way to gauge future humor is to look at other primates: What do chimps find funny? The Central Washington University researcher Roger Fouts reported that Washoe, a chimpanzee who was taught sign language, once urinated on him while riding on his shoulders. The chimp snorted and made the sign for “funny.” Washoe was also observed playfully wielding a toothbrush as if it were a hairbrush. Moja, another of Fouts’s signing chimps, called a purse a “shoe” and wore it on her foot. A signing gorilla trained by another researcher appeared to derive amusement from offering rocks to people as “food.” Such supposed instances of simian humor (similar to the jokes of preschool children) involve the deliberate misnaming or misuse of things. They thus fit nicely under one of the three classic theories of humor, the incongruity theory, which holds that mirth results when two things normally kept in separate compartments of the mind are abruptly and surprisingly yanked together. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US

But why should the perception of incongruity cause a spasm of noisy chest-heaving? Laughter has long been viewed as a so-called luxury reflex, one that serves no obvious evolutionary purpose. In recent years, though, practitioners of the art of evolutionary psychology have been more imaginative in coming up with Darwinian rationales. One of the more seductive comes from the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego, who has advanced what might be called the false-alarm theory of laughter. A seemingly threatening situation presents itself; you go into fight-or-flight mode; the threat proves spurious; you alert your (genetically close-knit) social group to the absence of actual danger by emitting a stereotyped vocalization —one that is amplified as it passes contagiously from member to member.

Once the mechanism of laughter was set in place by evolution, the theory goes, it could be hijacked for other purposes: the expression of contempt for out-groups (as the superiority theory of humor claims) or the ventilation of forbidden sexual impulses (the relief theory of humor). But at the core of the original false-alarm mechanism of laughter is incongruity: the incongruity of a grave threat revealing itself to be trivial—–or, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant (an advocate of the incongruity theory) put it, “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” Incongruity is arguably the primeval kernel of laughter. And therefore, by the Copernican principle, it is likely to be the kernel of laughter in the Year Million.

That is why I think humor and mathematics will ultimately switch places, so to speak. The transcendence that numbers seem to possess arises from mere kinks in our local understanding, kinks that will eventually get straightened out. But the essence of humor is the dialectic between something and nothing, the most universal categories of all.

And what will jokes look like in the Year Million? We will laugh when incongruity is resolved in a clever way, when a strange-seeming something is exposed as a trivial nothing—when a proof of the Riemann hypothesis dissolves the Platonic otherness of the primes into obvious tautology, and what is today regarded as the hardest problem ever conceived by the human mind becomes a somewhat broad joke, fit for schoolchildren. We might laugh even harder at the thought that the end of the universe—its disappearance in a Big Crunch or expansion into dilute nothingness—itself has the logical form of a joke.

Stack was born in Los Angeles, California but spent his early childhood growing up in Europe. He became fluent in French and Italian at an early age, but he did not learn English until returning to Los Angeles. Raised by his mother, Mary Elizabeth (née Wood), Stack’s parents divorced when Stack was one and his father, James Langford Stack, a wealthy advertising agency owner, died when Stack was nine. Stack always spoke of his mother with the greatest respect and love. When he wrote his autobiography Straight Shooting, he included a picture of him and his mother. He captioned it “Me and my best girl.” Stack’s grandfather was an opera singer from Illinois named Charles Wood, who went by the name Modini.

By the time he reached 20 Stack achieved minor fame as a sportsman. Robert Stack was an avid polo player. He and his brother won the International Outboard Motor Championships in Venice, and at the age of 16 he became a member of the All American Skeet Team. He set two world records in skeet shooting and became National Champion. In 1971 he was inducted into the National Skeet Shooting Hall of Fame. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US

Stack took drama courses at the University of Southern California. His deep voice and good looks attracted producers in Hollywood. When Stack visited the set of Universal Studios at age 20, producer Joe Pasternak offered him an opportunity to enter the business. Recalled Stack, “He said ‘How’d you like to be in pictures? We’ll make a test with Helen Parrish, a little love scene.’ Helen Parrish was a beautiful girl. ‘Gee, that sounds keen,’ I told him. I got the part.” Stack’s first film, which teamed him with Deanna Durbin, was First Love in 1939. He was the first actor to give Durbin an on-screen kiss. As hard as it is to believe today, this film was considered controversial at the time.

Stack won acclaim for his next role, 1940’s The Mortal Storm. He played a young man who joins the Nazi party. This film was one of the first to speak out against Hitler. As a youth, Stack admitted that he had a crush on Carole Lombard and in 1942 he appeared with her in To Be or Not To Be. He admitted he was terrified going into this role. He credits Lombard with giving him many tips on acting and with being his mentor. Lombard was killed in a plane crash shortly before the film was released.

During World War II, Stack served as gunnery instructor in the United States Navy. He continued his movie career and appeared in such films as Fighter Squadron (1948), A Date with Judy (1948) and Bwana Devil (1952). In 1954, Stack was given his most important movie role. He appeared opposite John Wayne in The High and the Mighty. Stack played the pilot of an airliner who comes apart under stress after the airliner encounters engine trouble.

In 1957, Stack was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Written on the Wind. He starred in more than 40 films. Known for his steadfast, humorless demeanor, he made fun of his own persona in comedies such as 1941 (1979), Airplane! (1980), Caddyshack II (1988), and BASEketball (1998). He also provided the voice for the character Ultra Magnus in Transformers: The Movie (1986).

Stack depicted the crimefighting Eliot Ness in the television drama The Untouchables from 1959 to 1963. The show portrayed the ongoing battle between gangsters and federal agents in a Prohibition-era Chicago. The show brought Stack a best actor Emmy Award in 1960. The Untouchables was a “realistic” cop show, in the tradition of Dragnet. Stack also starred in three other series, rotating the lead with Tony Franciosa and Gene Barry in the lavish The Name of the Game (1968-1971), Most Wanted, (1976) and Strike Force (1981). Interestingly, in The Name of the Game, he played a former federal agent turned true-crime journalist, evoking memories of his role as Ness. In both Most Wanted and Strike Force he played a tough, incorruptible police captain commanding an elite squad of special investigators, also evoking the Ness role. Eventually, he would reprise the role in a 1992 TV movie, The Return of Eliot Ness.
Stack as host of Unsolved Mysteries
Stack as host of Unsolved Mysteries

He began hosting Unsolved Mysteries in 1988, where his serious, ominous voice and stoic facial expressions lent an authentic gravitas to the program’s dark subject matter. Reportedly, he had an enormous interest in the unexplained—psychic phenomena, ghosts and the like—because he himself had had an unusual experience of this nature. However, he also said that he valued the storytellers above the stories themselves and did not necessarily believe every case of this nature that he presented. He thought very highly of the interactive nature of the show, saying that it created a “symbiotic” relationship between viewer and program, and that the hotline was a great crime-solving tool. Unsolved Mysteries aired from 1988 to 2002, first on NBC from 1987 as specials (Stack did not host all the specials), then as a series from 1988-97, then on CBS (1997-99) and finally on Lifetime in 2001-02. Stack served as the show’s host during its entire series run.

Stack had undergone radiation therapy for prostate cancer in October 2002. He died of heart failure at his home in Los Angeles On May 14, 2003.

Actress Rosemarie Bowe was married to Stack from 1956 until his death in 2003.

Stack was the great-uncle of actor Taran Killam. He is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US

Rosemarie Bowe was crowned Miss Tomica and Miss Montana in 1950. In May 1951 Bowe competed in a contest to choose the queen of the sixth annual Home Show and Building Exposition. Along with Mary Ellen Nichols, she was a runner-up to the contest winner, Linda Peterson.

When she arrived in California, Bowe secured work as a model. Her measurements were 36-25-36. She is 5’5″ tall and has blue-green eyes. Her modeling agency was contacted by a high fashion photographer, Christa, who suggested she pose for national and fashion magazine portraits.

Modeling for magazines such as Eye, Tempo, and Blightly, she eventually made the transition from model to actress in television. Her magazine credits include a Life Magazine cover.

Bowe’s look was at times likened to both Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. She always modeled high fashion rather than lingerie or bathing suits. She was never asked by photographers to pose for cheesecake pictures as was many a pin-up girl. She once said, “Of all the auditions and interviews I have had with casting men, directors and producers, not one ever made a pass at me. I guess they were afraid of me.”

She resided in Hollywood starting in 1950. Initially she was signed by film agent Charles Feldman. When his production plans stalled, she obtained a contract with Columbia Pictures. She was trained in dramatic acting by Benno Schneider. Her early experience as an entertainer included performing as a singer and dancer in amateur musicals.

As a screen debutante Bowe appeared in Lovely To Look At (1952) with Kathryn Grayson and Red Skelton. The 16 beauties showcased include Jane Lynn, Alma Carroll, Shirley Kimball, Betty Sully, and Honey King. Bowe’s part is uncredited, as is her depiction of a swimmer in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). In 1954 she was in the casts of The Golden Mistress and The Adventures of Hajji Baba. The former was Bowe’s first movie after requesting her release from Columbia. As “Ann Dexter” she was featured opposite John Agar in an R.K. Productions release, set in Haiti. During filming she almost drowned, was stung by a sea urchin with three hundred needles, and sustained bumps, bruises, and insect bites.

Bowe was under option to 20th Century Fox when she filmed The Peacemaker (1956). Based on a novel, the western also featured James Mitchell. It was released by Hal R. Makelim Productions. Announced in April 1954, the Makelim plan for producing pictures “guaranteed a flow of film products through a fixed fee system.”

In 1956 she married Robert Stack. The couple became the parents of a daughter, Elizabeth Langford Stack, on January 20, 1957. They shared mutual passions for the outdoors, especially sailing and riding. Stack enjoyed skeet shooting as his favorite pastime. Rosemarie temporarily gave up her career when her children were young.

In 1970 Bowe had an automobile accident in Sacramento, California in which she sustained serious internal injuries. She crashed into a concrete culvert because of a mechanical failure in the rented car she was driving. At the time Stack was filming The Name of the Game (TV series). He chartered a flight to come and be with her. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US
http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US

Rosemarie Bowe is retired from show business. Her son, Charles Robert Stack, is also retired.

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