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Cyprus Grave Ties Cats to People, Pens from Trees, More about Railroad Gauge

by K. M. REESE
April 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 17


Cyprus grave ties cats to people

About 9,500 years ago, a human, a cat, and a variety of funeral offerings were buried together on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and the site has lately been discovered by Jean-Denis Vigne of the CNRS-Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in Paris, and his colleagues [Science, 304, 259 (2004)]. The site is believed to be the oldest known evidence of a special relationship between people and cats.

The Egyptians are generally thought to have been the first people to domesticate cats, around 3,900–4,000 years ago. Researchers have long suspected, but lacked solid evidence, that people began taming cats much earlier.

Untamed cats probably began to hang out with people as agricultural societies arose in western Asia during the Early Prepottery Neolithic Period—approximately 10,000–11,000 years ago. Vigne says: “It seems that cats probably came more and more frequently into villages where grain stocks attracted numerous mice. I think that human beings rapidly understood that they could use cats for reducing the number of mice.”

The first discovery of ancient cat bones on Cyprus, during the 1980s, Vigne says, showed that people brought cats from the mainland to the island, but did not show whether the cats were wild or tame. The recent find, he says, reveals that the cats were tame and linked with humans.

Pens from trees

Alumni of the State University of New York, Binghamton, may buy a reminiscent pen made from a tree that grew on campus, according to the April 16 issue of Chronicle of Higher Education. The pens are made by Bruce E. Norcross, who taught organic chemistry there until he retired in 1999.

For nearly 10 years, Norcross has searched for perfect wood on cleared sites on campus. He seeks wood “with interesting grain patterns” and uses only fallen trees and branches.
Norcross has sold more than 100 Binghamton pens for about $40 each. But making money, he says, is not his goal. He likes to “make something that people treasure and use from material that would have been discarded and destroyed.”

More about railroad gauge

Lee Brown writes from Los Alamos, N.M., about the history of the standard track gauge—4 feet, 8.5 inches—of U.S. railroads. In sum, he says, the history “appears to be somewhat more convoluted” than stated here (C&EN, March 29, page 64). His primary source, he says, is an article by Douglas Puffert of the University of Munich that is available on the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum’s website,

To begin with, Brown says, the rut gauge of at least one Roman road was indeed 4 feet, 8.5 inches. On a recent trip to Italy, he reports, he measured the distance between the ruts of an extant section of a Roman road that ran from the Aosta Valley over the Alps into France.

The correspondence of Roman rut gauge with U.S. rail-track gauge, however, appears to be coincidence. Brown goes on: “The 4 feet, 8.5 inches is primarily the responsibility of Britain’s engineer extraordinaire, George Stephenson, coinventor of the miner safety lamp, designer of the first practical railroad steam locomotive, developer of the Liverpool-Manchester railroad, etc., etc. The tramways in his coal mines had a width of 4 feet, 8 inches, as opposed to much narrower widths in other English mines. He added another half inch to the track width for the Liverpool-Manchester rails to give some slope to the wheel flanges of the railroad cars. His prestige was so immense that his practice soon dominated British railroad construction.

“In the U.S., northern American engineers (not British expatriates) adopted the British practice, but southern railways used a 5-feet, 0-inch gauge. This led to much tearing up and relaying of track during the Civil War as territory changed hands back and forth. After the war, of course, the North mandated that the South adopt the 4-feet, 8.5-inch measure.”
And so here we are today, Brown notes. “Almost 60% of the world’s railways use the 4-feet, 8.5-inch or 1,435-mm width.”


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