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Ligabue Magazine

Year XV
Number 28
1th Semester - 1996

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Editorial

The first person to wonder about who invented the alphabet was, I think, Pherecydes, the 5th-century-BC Athenian, praised by Saint Jerome for his Genealogies. Subsequently, enquiries into the fascinating problem of the origin of writing came up with a great variety of solutions, mainly connected to the Scriptures, until modern science put an end to the debate and hastily decided the Phoenicians should take the credit. Well at least that's what we were taught at school. On page 58 of this issue of the Ligabue Magazine, however, Viviano Domenici informs us that signs with a phonetic function were first created exactly 4,900 years ago in southern Mesopotamia by the Sumerians, when the Phoenicians were still unheard of. The proof is provided by fourteen terracotta tables with pictographic signs found in Transylvania. But I will go no further with what the Sumerians were doing in Romania, because I have something more entertaining to tell. Solving the puzzle of writing was no easy matter and the Sumerian attribution is probably still not definitive. Not simply because research is continual developing but also because glottologists are even more cantankerous than politicians. Witness the incident related by Domenici: when one expert claimed that Sumerian was a variant of Babylonian he got a bashing over the head with an umbrella for his pains from a discordant glottologist.
In describing the transition from pictograms to cuneiform writing Domenici mentions that extraordinary character Pietro Della Valle. He is a good example of just how strange linguists can be, especially after years of labour devoted to searching for the root of some Indo-European word. Pietro Della Valle wasn't so much cantankerous as eccentric. Born into a patrician family in Rome in 1586, this astronomer and eclectic man of letters left on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1614 after a bout of unrequited love. As he bid farewell to his friends and relatives he gave the impression he was just going round the corner. He eventually only returned twelve years later. His first port of cali was Egypt, where he developed a passion for archaeology. Then from Palestine he went east to Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad and Persepolis. By the time he got back to Rome he was accompanied by two wives. One dead and one living. His first wife, an Assyrian called Sitti Maoni had died at a very tender age, and the ever passionate Pietro had her embalmed and enclosed in a sarcophagus which he carried with him for four years before finally consigning it to the church of Aracoeli in Rome. It's a mystery how he managed to travel in those days with luggage that would be cumbersome even by modern standards. His second wife was a stunning Georgian beauty called Maria Timatia. On account of her, Pietro ended up in a bloody brawl and was condemned to exile in a castle belonging to the Colonna family, before finally being pardoned and made a greatly respected member of the Accademia degli Umoristi.
Our readers are already acquainted with Rolando Menardi, a globe-trotting journalist and photographer from Belluno. This time he has been to Chile to meet the Mapuche on the Pacific side of the Andes. And leaving aside history and geography, he spent time with Elicura, a shaman who introduced him to Mapuche mythology, the vision of a people handed down through the centuries based on the idea of human feeling as the spirit of nature. Menardi describes this vision on page 142. Another little-known ethnic group is the subject of an article by Gabriele Rossi-Osmida on page 38 - the Karen. Of Tibetan-Burmese stock, this people lives in northern Thailand and southern Burma. Its greatest claim to fame is the celebrated minority called the 'Giraffe Women'. The reason for their name requires no 'stretching' (sic) of the imagination. Having sought them out with a Ligabue Study and Research Centre expedition, the author describes how they had rather difficult relations with the forest and when attacked by tigers goaded by evil spirits the women protected themselves by wearing copper collars. This was the beginning of a custom that came to symbolise wealth and high social rank. When around five, the 'lucky' girls born during the full moon begin to have their neck stretched. Later a copper coil is placed round their necks, then others are added at two-yearly intervals. When the girls are at the height of their beauty they may have more than twenty coils. Although I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I must confess - Rossi-Osmida permitting - that as long necks go, I prefer those of Modigliani's women.
A physical education teacher and keen speleologist, Antonio De Vivo has organised a number of successful expeditions in the Philippines and Indonesia. His latest expedition was to the Uzbekistan mountains, where he explored the highest karst system in the world. Dropping down the cliffs of Ulugh Beg by rope, together with speleological groups from the Urals, De Vivo's group explored dozens of caves, including the highest and the deepest caves in Asia (the latter is 1,415 metres deep), and also found dinosaur footprints, which are described on page 100.
One of the first things that springs to mind when you say Venice is the gondola - arguably the most romantic of vessels. But the gondola is just one of many Venetian boats. Giovanni Caniato works at the Venice State Archives and he's a bit of a walking archive of Venetian life, having already published thirty or so works dedicated to the history, cartography and popular traditions of Venice and the Veneto. On page 168 he makes a passionate plea to save the heritage of boats that once plied the Venetian canals and lagoon, and were an integral part of city life.
One of the great clichés about the Chinese is that they eat birds' nests, even though they are made of dry grass held together by 'organic waste'. Well it's all true. Except that the favourite nest, called 'Asian caviar' is made of a semi-fluid substance secreted by the mandibular glands of swallows. Originally transparent this fluid then solidifies and by the time it gets to the Hong Kong market it 's worth 3,000 dollars a kilo. By turning to page 122 you will learn why. Collecting them is a decidedly perilous business, especially considering that one nest only weights around twenty grams. The action takes place on sheer cliffs on a mysterious island somewhere to the west of the Philippines.
On page 80 I delve into the distant past to explore how human beings first felt the need not only to dress but to dress up. The earliest disguises consisting of ornaments and coloured decorations date back to the early Palaeolithic, while the first masks came into being in the Asian steppe at some unknown time and then spread to the West in the first millennium BC. According to Descartes, 'God created man in His own image, but He also gave him a mask'.

Real all editroial... Ettore Della Giovanna
In This Number...
5000 Years of Writing

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Mapuche, Men of the Earth

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Prehistoric Footprints in the Land of Ulugh Beg

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Salangani Gold

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The Dragon's Daughters

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The Philosophical Mask

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Venetian Boats. A Heritage To Be Preserved

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