What Was The First English Word? (Language / Archeology)

What was the first English word? Because language disappears into the air as soon as it is spoken, it can be hard to tell when any particular language began. But if there are artifacts with writing left behind, we can get some idea of its beginnings. The earliest English word we have a record of was discovered during an archeological dig near Norwich, England in the early 1930s. It was written in an ancient runic script carved on the bone of a deer: “raihan.” But what does it mean?

Another reason it’s hard to say when a language began is that languages generally don’t just materialize out of nowhere but evolve from other, already-existing languages. When does Latin officially become French or Spanish or Italian? In the case of English, the question is when does an ancestor Germanic language become English? (Or for that matter, German, Dutch, or Norwegian?)

The most sensible thing to ask when looking for the first English word, then, is when did a Germanic language first come to the place where English would eventually develop and flourish?

The “raihan” bone was found in a cremation urn in a cemetery site in the village of Caistor St. Edmund. Archeologists now call it the Caistor astragalus (astragalus is an anatomical term for ankle bone), and it’s been dated to the early 5th century. Importantly, this was just before a major linguistic turning point in the history of English: the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. Before the Anglo-Saxon invasions of 449 A.D., the people there spoke some sort of Celtic language mixed with Latin from the occupying Romans. The Anglo-Saxons brought their Germanic languages, which just a few hundred years later would become dominant across the area and take the form of Old English.

The bone appears to pre-date the Anglo-Saxons, but is in some sort of Germanic language. Who made this inscription? Members of a Germanic tribe that worked for the Romans? Warriors for hire? It’s still a mystery. But “raihan” is our first physical document of the beginning of English.

The meaning of the word “raihan” is also a bit of a mystery. The “n” at the end looks like a type of possessive ending that some Germanic languages had then. It could mean “Raiha’s,” as in “this belongs to Raiha.” Or it could be related to the root “rei,” which could either mean to cut or to color. It could also refer to the carver of the inscription, the one who polished and prepared the bone.

However, it’s most likely that the meaning is the animal the ankle bone comes from. In Old English, the word for roe-deer is “raha” or “raa.” “Raihan” is different, but not so different that it couldn’t have changed into “raha” over time.

What is it for? Another clue to the meaning of the word is the purpose of the bone. The urn in which it was found also contains a number of other smaller bones from sheep or goats. Taken together, they form a set of pieces or counters for playing a game. The use of small bones in games is an ancient and widespread practice. In fact, the game Jacks was once known as “Knucklebones.”

The roe-deer bone is larger, polished, and etched with a word. Perhaps it was the prize piece in a game, similar to the king in chess. Perhaps the person who fashioned the game pieces just wanted to label the bone with the name of its source. Though we can’t know exactly who wrote the word and why, we do, thanks to the luck of preservation and discovery, know the word.

The Real Life Inspiration For “Beauty And The Beast” Is Too Dark For The Disney (Science / History)

It may be a “tale as old as time,” but “Beauty and the Beast” isn’t “true as it can be.” Like many fairy tales, the Disney classic you’re familiar with is really a new, child-friendly version of a historically dark tale. But this story has even darker roots. For thousands of years, folktales from around the world have included descriptions of a bride with an animal groom. When French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve finally published the first written version of the story in 1740, it was based on a sad but true tale.

Joris Hoefnagel / Wikimedia commons

The real “Beast” from this tale was a man with a very rare condition. Petrus Gonsalvus was born in 1537 in the Canary Islands, and he was the first person in recorded history to suffer from hypertrichosis — also known as werewolf syndrome. The condition has appeared in both men and women, and researchers didn’t discover its causes until 2011 (basically, an extra set of genes in the X chromosome may switch on an existing hair-growth gene). There have been fewer than 100 documented cases in the world.

Gonsalvus was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he was just 10 years old, he was locked in a cage and shipped off to France as a gift for the coronation of King Henry II. Although he was locked in a dungeon for observation and initially treated like an actual beast, doctors eventually took a page out of Pinocchio’s book and concluded that he was a real boy. Here, the story takes a lighter turn, as King Henry decided to give Gonsalvus an education. The king didn’t really think it would work, as he thought Gonsalvus was too monstrous to be capable of learning. But that didn’t stop the boy from becoming fluent in a few languages, including Latin, and becoming well-versed in high-class etiquette.

Gonsalvus was so successful that he became a treasured member of the royal court. Of course, he was treated like a novelty, but he was a nobleman nonetheless, meaning he got to live a pretty nice life. That is, until Catherine de’ Medici came along. King Henry II’s wife took over the throne after he passed away, and she wasn’t exactly known for being a nice person. Accounts vary as to why exactly she wanted to find a wife for Gonsalvus — some say she found the idea of marrying him off to a beautiful woman “hilarious,” others say she wanted to see children who also suffered from hypertrichosis. But by all accounts, it became her personal mission to find him a mate.

Wikimedia commons

Catherine de’ Medici eventually settled on a maiden who also happened to be named Catherine, and the maiden and Gonsalvus married. Whatever the Queen’s initial intentions, Gonsalvus outperformed all expectations in his marriage: he and his wife stayed married for 40 years and had seven children together. Much like the classic fairy tale, it seems, she learned to love him sooner or later.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all fun and games. According to reports, either four or five of Gonsalvus’ children were afflicted with hypertrichosis, and the family was paraded around the royal courts of Europe as a form of entertainment. Though they appeared in portraits wearing classy attire, in reality, they were exploited for their entertainment value and studied by scientists and academics across the continent. Worse, the hairy children were sent off as gifts to nobles — another example of their perceived status as pets and not as people.

“The situation was strange,” Italian historian and Gonsalvus biographer Roberto Zapperi told the Smithsonian Channel. “They were neither captured nor free and they got paid — paid very well.” He and his family were able to enjoy a life of relative comfort and status, but at what cost? In the end, the “Beast” was denied last rites, as he was considered more animal than man. Not exactly Disney movie material … though then again, neither was The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Permian Extinction Event: The Fifth Die-off (Paleontology)

The Permian Period was the final period of the Paleozoic Era. Lasting from 299 million to 251 million years ago, it followed the Carboniferous Period and preceded the Triassic Period. By the early Permian, the two great continents of the Paleozoic, Gondwana and Euramerica, had collided to form the supercontinent Pangaea. Pangaea was shaped like a thickened letter “C.” The top curve of the “C” consisted of landmasses that would later become modern Europe and Asia. North and South America formed the curved back of the “C” with Africa inside the curve. India, Australia and Antarctica made up the low curve. Inside the “C” was the Tethys Ocean, and most of the rest of Earth was the Panthalassic Ocean. Pangaea presented severe extremes of climate and environment due to its vast size. The south was cold and arid, with much of the region frozen under ice caps. Northern areas suffered from intense heat and great seasonal fluctuations between wet and dry conditions.


But what about marine life? Little is known about the huge Panthalassic Ocean, as there is little exposed fossil evidence available. Fossils of the shallower coastal waters around the Pangaea continental shelf indicate that reefs were large and diverse ecosystems with numerous sponge and coral species. Ammonites, similar to the modern nautilus, were common, as were brachiopods. The lobe-finned and spiny fishes that gave rise to the amphibians of the Carboniferous were being replaced by true bony fish. Sharks and rays continued in abundance.


On land, the giant swamp forests of the Carboniferous began to dry out. The mossy plants that depended on spores for reproduction were being replaced by the first seed-bearing plants, the gymnosperms. Gymnosperms are vascular plants, able to transport water internally. Gymnosperms have exposed seeds that develop on the scales of cones and are fertilized when pollen sifts down and lands directly on the seed. Today’s conifers are gymnosperms, as are the short palm like cycads and the gingko.

Arthropods continued to diversify during the Permian Period to fill the niches opened up by the more variable climate. True bugs, with mouthparts modified for piercing and sucking plant materials, evolved during the Permian. Other new groups included the cicadas and beetles.

Two important groups of animals dominated the Permian landscape: Synapsids and Sauropsids. Synapsids had skulls with a single temporal opening and are thought to be the lineage that eventually led to mammals. Sauropsids had two skull openings and were the ancestors of the reptiles, including dinosaurs and birds.

In the early Permian, it appeared that the Synapsids were to be the dominant group of land animals. The group was highly diversified. The earliest, most primitive Synapsids were the Pelycosaurs, which included an apex predator, a genus known as Dimetrodon. This animal had a lizard-like body and a large bony “sail” fin on its back that was probably used for thermoregulation. Despite its lizard-like appearance, recent discoveries have concluded that Dimetrodon skulls, jaws and teeth are closer to mammal skulls than to reptiles. Another genus of Synapsids, Lystrosaurus, was a small herbivore — about 3 feet long (almost 1 meter) — that looked something like a cross between a lizard and a hippopotamus. It had a flat face with two tusks and the typical reptilian stance with legs angled away from the body.


In the late Permian, Pelycosaurs were succeeded by a new lineage known as Therapsids. These animals were much closer to mammals. Their legs were under their bodies, giving them the more upright stance typical of quadruped mammals. They had more powerful jaws and more tooth differentiation. Fossil skulls show evidence of whiskers, which indicates that some species had fur and were endothermic. The Cynodont (“dog-toothed”) group included species that hunted in organized packs. Cynodonts are considered to be the ancestors of all modern mammals.

At the end of the Permian, the largest Synapsids became extinct, leaving many ecological niches open. The second group of land animals, the Sauropsid group, weathered the Permian Extinction more successfully and rapidly diversified to fill them. The Sauropsid lineage gave rise to the dinosaurs that would dominate the Mesozoic Era.

The Permian Period ended with the greatest mass extinction event in Earth’s history. In a blink of Geologic Time — in as little as 100,000 years — the majority of living species on the planet were wiped out of existence. Scientists estimate that more than 95 percent of marine species became extinct and more than 70 percent of land animals. Fossil beds in the Italian Alps show that plants were hit just as hard as animal species. Fossils from the late Permian show that huge conifer forests blanketed the region. These strata are followed by early Triassic fossils that show few signs of plants being present but instead are filled with fossil remnants of fungi that probably proliferated on a glut of decaying trees.

Scientists are unclear about what caused the mass extinction. Some point to evidence of catastrophic volcanic activity in Siberia and China (areas in the northern part of the “C” shaped Pangaea). This series of massive eruptions would have initially caused a rapid cooling of global temperatures leading to increased glaciations. This “nuclear winter” would have led to the demise of photosynthetic organisms, the basis of most food chains. Lowered sea levels and volcanic fallout would account for the evidence of much higher levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans, which may have led to the collapse of marine ecosystems. Other scientists point to indications of a massive asteroid impacting the southernmost tip of the “C” in what is now Australia. Whatever the cause, the Great Dying closed the Paleozoic Era.