Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Enigma of the Indonesian Hobbits

Every so often a discovery is made that rocks the archaeological world to its core. One of these amazing discoveries was the uncovering of a strange, diminutive hominid skeleton on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Nicknamed the ‘Hobbit’, the remains of the this new dwarf species of human was discovered in 2003 in the vast limestone caves at Liang Bua Cave by a joint Australian-Indonesian team led by Mike Morwood from Australia’s Wollongong University. At the time, Morwood’s team were investigating whether there was any evidence for the migration of H. erectus, an early human species, from Asia to Australia and were very surprised to come across a brand new species of early human. This new species was named H. Floresiensis, and from the start these ancient human remains have been the cause of much speculations, disagreement and debate among the scientific community.

H. floresiensis Skull

To date, partial skeletons of nine individuals have been unearthed including one complete skull.  The most complete skeleton is known as LB1, and by the pelvis is judged to be a female who was around the age of thirty when she died.  Because of the very damp conditions in the Liang Bua caves and the relatively recent age of the remains, the skeleton had not been fossilised and the bones were in a very fragile condition when they were found. The ‘hobbit’ remains are remarkable for several reasons. The single most surprising thing is their small stature; they stood only about 1 metre tall and were fully bipedal. They also had a very small brain size, around 417cc.  This brain size is smaller than the brain size range of chimpanzees, which is between 300 to 500cc, and also those of the Australopithecines, who were a species of very early human. These ‘hobbits’ had human like teeth, but had a receding forehead and no chin. The bone structure of the wrists, shoulders and arms are also proved to be more similar to those of chimpanzees and Australopithecines than modern humans or H. erectus in a 2007 study.

So how old were these remarkable skeletal remains of a new species of dwarf human? The fossil skeletons range from being between 38,000 and 18,000 years old, but other archaeological evidence such as stone tools suggests that H. floresiensis inhabited the island of Flores from as long ago as 95,000 years ago and up to as recently as 13,000 years ago. This makes the ‘Hobbits’ the last-known surviving non-modern humans in the world, as the Neanderthals had last walked the earth about 35,000 years ago. As modern humans arrived on Flores between 55,000 and 35,000 years ago, these two very different species of human would have presumably shared territory and interacted with each other for thousands of years, although there is no archaeological proof of this.

There are theories that the ‘hobbits’ survived until much more recently and could even still be alive today, deep in the unexplored tropical rainforests of Indonesia.  Folklore on Flores speaks of a strange creature called Ebu Gogo who were small, human-like cave-dwellers who did not communicate and walked with a strange gait. Reputedly they were covered in hair and had broad faces and large mouths. The Ebu Gogo were known for stealing human crops and kidnapping children, so the legend goes that sometime in the 18th century the Flores Islanders tricked the Ebu Gogo into accepting gifts of rattan mats.  As they returned to their caves with these mats, the Flores Islanders followed them and set fire to the mats killing nearly all of the Ebu Gogo, except perhaps for one couple who escaped to continue on the Ebu Gogo line.  Also, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, deep in the jungle, sightings are still reported of a 1.5 metre high hominid the locals call Orang Pendek, which is Indonesian for short person.  But why would H. floresiensis suddenly die out 12,000 years ago after surviving successfully for so many thousands of years?  It is thought that a volcanic eruption in the region 12,000 years ago could have been responsible for the demise of the ‘Hobbits’, the same eruption that led to the extinction of the pygmy elephant Stegodon on Flores.

H. floresiensis was an unexpected discovery and it was a big surprise that a non-modern human species existed on the earth until so recently and was so small in stature, but what other controversy did the discovery of the ‘Hobbits’ cause.  Well, the big debate is where they came from and how they evolved. Some experts believe that they were a direct descendant of H. erectus, and that for some reason there had been active selection for smaller brain size and stature. So did the ‘Hobbits’ shrink over thousands of years because of the evolutionary pressures caused by being on an island with limited resources? Don’t forget that Flores had also been home to a species of dwarf elephants that had adapted to their environment and shrunk, and these dwarf elephants had been an important food source for the ‘hobbits’.  However, the study of the H. floresiensis wrist bones showed them to be nothing like H. erectus carpal bones, as the ‘hobbit’ wrist bones lack features that had been present in early species of modern humans from at least 800,000 years ago. If H. Floresiensis were a dwarf variation of these earlier humans, it challenges the traditional view that H. erectus could not cross sea barriers.  The island of Flores has always been separated from its neighbour Java by a deep sea barrier, so if H. erectus was living on Flores, and in 1998 Mike Morwood announced the discovery of stone tools believed to have been made by these early humans dating back 840,000 years, then this theory is totally overturned and they were indeed capable of travelling by sea.

However, an even more daring theory is that the ‘hobbits’ evolved directly from Australopithecines, who were some of our very earliest human ancestors.  Australopithecus first emerged around seven million years ago in the Rift Valley of East Africa, and australopithecine fossils show great similarities to the remains of the ‘Hobbits’, including small brain size, small stature and primitive wrist bones, teeth and feet. This would mean that H. floresiensis did not shrink due to environmental pressures, but started off small and stayed small.  But the most startling aspect of this theory is that Australopithecus was not previously thought to have ever left Africa.  The first modern human migration from Africa was believed to have occurred around 65,000 years ago, with small bands of our early ancestors migrating out of Africa via the coastal routes through the Middle East and maybe making the short sea crossing to Arabia.  If the ‘hobbits’ were descended from Australopithecus it meant that Australopithecines possessed hitherto undiscovered seafaring abilities and also that they possibly migrated out of Africa into Asia  millions of years before any species of human was thought to have done? Mike Morwood has now uncovered stone tools on nearby Sulawesi that could be almost 2 million years old, so will more H. floresiensis skeletons and archaeological artefacts be discovered that could provide further vital evidence?

There are some experts who argue that the controversial ‘hobbit’ remains are just modern human skeletons that are somehow abnormal and that the individuals suffered from a disease such as microcephaly that leads to small brain sizes.  However, all of the ‘hobbit’ skeletons display the same features and that they are just too different from modern humans to simply be diseased modern humans.  What might be able to settle the argument is if some mitochondrial DNA is recovered from the H. floresiensis specimens and sent for analysis.  However the hot, damp climate of the Liang Bua caves reduces the chances of it being recovered, as extreme heat degrades DNA.  In addition, the bones were not fossilised, which also does not help DNA recovery.

Hopefully, future discoveries will throw further light on where the ‘hobbits’ came from and how they evolved. Also, they may give us more information on when the first humans really did leave Africa to spread to other parts of the world. Of course, the most amazing thing would be if a population of diminutive ‘hobbits’ were discovered to be still living today deep in the tropical jungles of Indonesia, and then suddenly we would not be the only human species alive on our planet today.

H. floresiensis skull image FunkMonk Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Is There A Wild Big Cat Roaming The Cotswolds?

The UK doesn’t have any very large native big cat species, but over the past few weeks there has been a spate of mutilated animal carcasses found across the Cotswolds.   Our largest native cat is the ScottishWildcat, which is now unfortunately a very rare and reclusive species, with only around four hundred still remaining in the more remote areas of the Scottish Highlands.  So what creature is it that has now killed several deer and three wallabies in the rolling English countryside, where the largest local native predator is the fox?

This mysterious creature has been dubbed the ‘Wildcat ofWoodchester’ and there have dozens of reported sightings.  The terrain around this area is very rugged, with wooded ravines and heavy undergrowth, where a large feline predator could easily hide and be very difficult to spot.  Between 2005 and 2011 Gloucestershire police received seventy five different reports of alleged big cat sightings that ranged from glimpses of pumas, panthers and even a lion close to junction 9 on the M5.

The first mutilated deer carcass was found by someone walking their dog on January 4th, and when the corpse was examined there was plenty of evidence that it was a big cat kill, rather than a dog attack.  The nose of the animal has been bitten off, which is a sign of a cat attack as they sometimes suffocate their prey, and also the deer’s innards had been cleanly removed and placed by the body.  Because the deer had been so recently killed and the corpse was unlikely to have been scavenged by any other animals, samples were removed to be tested for DNA and the results are due in the next few days.  Hopefully the DNA testing will prove to have been successful and whatever animal it was that killed the deer will be identified.

Two more mutilated deer carcasses have been found in the last couple of weeks, and in the last couple of days three wallabies have been found dead in their enclosure at a private wildlife collection only twelve miles from where the deer were devoured in Woodchester.  The animals that killed the unfortunate wallabies had to jump a 7ft fence to get into their paddock, showing that it is a very powerful creature, and the dead wallabies were found to have puncture wounds in their necks, their bodies completely devoured and their internal organs placed alongside what remained of them.

Many locals believe that big cats have been on the loose in the area for many years, and that their prescence might go back to the 1970’s when it became illegal to own exotic big cats and many were thought to have been released into the wild by their owners.  But if it is found that there is a big cat population roaming Gloucestershire, is there any danger to people?  This is very unlikely as big cats generally avoid people where they can and there have not been any reported incidents of an alien big cat attacking a human in the UK.  In the Cotswolds there is a plentiful supply of wildlife, such as deer, for them to hunt, so the danger to people is minimal.  The big danger is that if the DNA tests do come back positive or there is an identified sighting that fear will drive a campaign to hunt them down and kill them.  Although these leopards, pumas or lynxes are an invasive species in the United Kingdom, it is likely that they have been quietly living and breeding here for many years, with no danger to humans or the local habitat.  So if we do have a population of beautiful big cats breeding in this country, would it not be better to protect them and learn about them rather than destroy them?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Where Is The Lost Amber Room?

Throughout history there have been many lost treasures.  Some have been miraculously found like the gold treasure of Troy unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann and some remain lost in the sands of time, perhaps still awaiting discovery.  One such lost treasure that has not yet been found again is the Amber Room, which is believed to be worth at least £150 million in today’s money.  What makes the disappearance of the Amber Room so unusual is that it was a whole dismantled room that was lost and that it vanished fairly recently at the end of the Second World War.  So this was no ancient mystery, where there are only a few tantalising clues or documents and sometimes even the existence of the treasure is disputed.  The existence of the Amber Room is historically well documented and photographed, and we know that it was the Nazis who looted the Amber Room during World War II and removed it from Russia.  But it is what happened to the Amber Room after the fall of the Nazis in 1945 that is so intriguing and so mysterious, for the whereabouts of the Amber Room has been lost despite all of the attempts to find it.

The Amber Room, Catherine Palace

History of the Amber Room

Amber is an organic gemstone made from tree resin that was fossilized millions of years ago.  Amber ranges in colour from warm yellows to rich tawny browns and is widely used in jewelry and decoration.  However, to create an entire large room lined with precious amber panels backed with gold leaf and encrusted with gemstones was a hugely ambitious and creative endeavour. When it was completed the Amber Room comprised of more than 55 square metres of amber that weighed over six tonnes. The beginning of the Amber Room was in 1701 when Andreas Schluter, a German sculptor, created the concept of the Amber Room for the Prussian King Friedrich I. It was constructed in Friedrich’s Charlottenburg Palace by Gottfried Wolfram. The Russian Czar Peter the Great visited the Charlottenburg Palace a few years after the installation of the Amber Room and greatly admired it, so in 1716 Friedrich I’s son, King Friedrich Wilhelm I, gave it to the Czar to cement a Prussian-Russian alliance.  The Amber Room was installed in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Russia in 1755 and subsequently moved to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. The new design of the Amber Room was conceived by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, court architect to Czarina Elizabeth of Russia and Frederick the Great sent further supplies of amber to complete the ambitious design.

What Happened to the Amber Room During World War II?

When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, those who were responsible for the treasures in the Russian palaces and museums made valiant attempt to hide what they could, but when they attempted to remove the Amber Room from the Catherine Palace they found that the amber covering on the walls had become too brittle and fragile to move.  Their solution was to wallpaper over the amber in the hope that the Nazi invaders would not realise that the amber was there, but the Amber Room was such an iconic, well known world treasure that this measure proved futile.  The Nazi soldiers found and disassembled the Amber Room within a very short time of taking over the Catherine Palace, and shipped the precious sheets of amber into crates and shipped them off to Konigsberg in East Prussia. It was housed in Konigsberg Castle and parts of the Amber room were put on display.

What Happened to the Amber Room When the Second World War Ended?

It is the mystery of what happened to the Amber Room in the confused, chaotic last year of World War II that no one has ever really solved.  Was the Amber Room removed from Konigsberg Castle or was it hidden away somewhere in a vault within the ancient castle or in the town? There were reports that crates large enough to contain the sheets of amber were seen at Konigsberg railway station early in 1945, and there have been rumours that the Amber Room was hidden away in a disused mine. There was also a rumour that the Amber Room was put on board the ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff during Operation Hannibal, when the ship was being used to evacuate military personnel and civilians from Gotenhafen to Kiel who had been trapped by the oncoming Red Army.  Unfortunately, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and sunk, with the tragic loss of over 9,000 souls. So if the Amber Room had been evacuated on this ship it is now at the bottom of the sea, and as the site of the wreck has been designated as a war memorial, it will never be open for exploration or salvage. At the very end of the war, the British Royal Air Force extensively bombed Konigsberg. Including the castle, so there is also the possibility that the Amber Room was destroyed during this bombing campaign or in the ensuing ground assaults.

Hunting For the Amber Room

The mysterious disappearance of the Amber Room has inevitably produced many groups of people who have hunted for the treasure, and some have even claimed to have found it, although none of the amber has ever been recovered.  One of the most recent claims in 2008 that the Amber Room has been discovered comes from Deutschneudorf in the Ore Mountain area of South East Germany.   A team of treasure hunters located an underground man-made cavern which they believed contained the Amber Room, and electromagnetic pulse measurements showed that the cavern also possibly contained over two tonnes of gold.  There had been eye-witness reports that the Nazis had brought trains and trucks full of treasures, artwork and valuable goods into the area in the spring of 1945, although they had never been found again when the hostilities ended. However, the digging was halted, and no conclusive proof of the presence of the Amber Room in Deutschneudorf has ever been presented.

In January 2010 a Russian treasure hunter called Sergei Trifonov reported that he has found a World War II bunker that had been used by the German High Command in Konigsberg during 1945 that he believes may contain the fabled Amber Room.  The bunker is situated around 1,000 metres from Konigsberg Castle, which was demolished in 1967, where it is believed that the Amber Room was housed during the course of World War II, and excavations have already uncovered a brick lined room.

Only time and further excavations will prove whether or not the Amber Room was hidden in either Deutschneudorf or Konigsberg.  If it is ever found again, the amber panels and precious metal decoration of the Amber Room will need careful restoration, or maybe will even be so badly damaged that it could never again be recreated in the Russian palace. However, if you do want to see what the Amber Room would have looked like, you can go and visit a recreation of the Amber Room that was completed in 2003 at the Catherine Palace Museum just outside St Petersburg. It is to be hoped that the Amber Room will be found one day, and not like so many of the world’s treasures lost forever, so once more we can marvel at this incredibly crafted Baroque masterpiece.

Amber Room Image Stan Shebs Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Invasive Red Fire Ants in the USA

Introduced Red Fire Ants – Relentless Invaders

Did you know that the southern parts of the United States are being invaded by a relentless enemy? This diminutive foe started arriving from South America during the 1930s and has left a trail of destruction wherever they have colonised ever since, and now they also seem to be moving on towards world domination. This successful invader is the red fire ant, and fear of this small insect is leaving some parks, gardens and camping grounds in affected areas of the US unused and empty. The red fire ant arrived in the United States by hitching a lift in ships ballast, and so is an accidental invasive species, unlike some introduced species, such as the cane toad in Australia, that were deliberately released in a country for a purpose such as pest control. The introduced red fire ant has also already caused millions of dollars of damage to crops, property and vital infrastructure, and are proving very difficult to eradicate.

Queen Red Fire Ant

What Are Red Fire Ants?

Red fire ants, or Solenopsis invicta, are native to Brazil in South America. The southern US does have its own two native species of fire ant, the southern fire ant and the fire ant, but it is the introduced fire ants that are causing most of the damage and environmental problems. There is another invasive species of fire ant, the black fire ant, which is only as yet only found in Alabama and northern Mississippi, but some experts believe that they could be just the same species as the red fire ant as they are so similar. Introduced fire ants live in colonies, and they build large above-ground nests which can have extensive networks of interconnected underground galleries. The red fire ants build these nest mounds in sunny spots in gardens, parks and fields, and they are rarely to be found in shady areas or dense forest. One of the reasons that introduced red fire ants can grow in numbers so rapidly is that the ants build their nests so that they can control the temperature and humidity inside them.  This means that the ants can keep the temperature in the nest high enough to keep on reproducing, even during the colder weather of the winter season. This rapid expansion of the red fire ant population has seen them spread like wildfire through suitable habitat across the south eastern United States and into western Texas.

What Damage Do Introduced Red Fire Ants Cause?

Red fire ants are very destructive and are costing the US millions of dollars in damage repair. They cause real problems for farmers, as their nest mounds can make ploughing fields and sowing crops very difficult. The red fire ants also feed directly on crops such as strawberries, potatoes, okra, corn and soybeans and their presence can also protect some other insect pest species. However, on a more positive note, they feed on some other pests such as cockroaches, ticks, boll weevils and sugarcane borers.  The lone star tick is regarded as a major livestock pest by farmers, and the red fire ant has been credited with significantly reducing its range. Red fire ants are also bad news for citrus fruit trees, as they chew on the bark and damage it and also feed on the fruit and the growing tips. Red fire ants also cause major problems and damage in homes and commercial properties. The introduced fire ants can get into homes and build nests in wall cavities, under flooring and carpets and around the plumbing. One of the strangest things about the red fire ants is that they seem to be attracted to electrical fields, and so they swarm into electrical appliances, chewing wires and causing damage. The especial love of red fire ants is microwave ovens, and they even seem to be able to survive the high temperatures when the appliances are switched on. They also get into outdoor electrical equipment, sometimes with the potential to cause dangerous accidents, as they can infest traffic signal control boxes or electric metres on properties. Scarily, they have even been found in the lights on airport runways. Even major infrastructure can be destroyed by these ants, as sections of road have collapsed due to the red fire ants removing soil from under the asphalt to build their nests.

Red Fire Ant Distribution Map USA

So Why Are People So Scared of Red Fire Ants?

An individual red fire ant sting is not that painful, and is probably not even as painful as the sting of a wasp or a bee.  They sting like a wasp, by injecting a stinger into your skin, and the red fire ant’s sting initially causes a burning feeling.  This burning sensation gives way to small, itching pustules on the skin. Sometimes these pustules can become infected if they are broken, which can cause scars that take a few months to fade. In some severe cases, there are people who have had to undergo skin grafts or even have had limbs amputated. As with most insect stings, there are also people who are allergic to red fire ant stings, and require immediate hospitalisation for treatment. What causes the great fear of the red fire ants is that most people are not usually only stung the one time. Red fire ants are very aggressive defenders of their nests and territories and will rush to attack any perceived threat. This could be you, one of your children or a family pet, and the ants will swarm over you, stinging you multiple times. It is not just the huge number of ants that is the problem, but the fact that each individual red fire ant has the capability of stinging you several times over. In an area heavily infested with red fire ants it is very difficult to avoid stepping on a nest and disturbing it, as they can quite difficult to spot. Camping in an infested area can also be a nightmare as it is very difficult to avoid being stung, and even leaning on your own garden fence can cause the red fire ants to swarm over you in defence of their territory. Unfortunately, there have even been some people killed by the effects of multiple fire ant stings and the scary reputation of these invaders has also been enhanced by some gory urban myths and scare stories.

Red Fire Ants Go For World Domination

Once colonies of red fire ants are established in an area they are very difficult and expensive to eradicate, and methods range from pouring boiling water into nests, mechanically digging them out and using chemical pesticides. Like a lot of introduced species, the red fire ants are short on natural predators, and in killing the fire ants there is always the risk of also destroying native species. However, red fire ants have now managed to establish themselves in several other countries around the globe, and seem to be bidding for world domination. There are now populations of invasive red fire ants in Taiwan, China, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean, and recently genetic experts have discovered that these invasions probably emanated from the US. The ants probably reached these other countries as stowaways in the cargo holds of ships, where they can survive for long periods of time. One of their survival techniques is that if their nest is flooded, they grab the juvenile red fire ants and grip on to each other to form a floating raft of live ants.  If the fire ants become too hungry, they will snack on the youngsters they are carrying to survive.  It has also been suggested by scientists that during the years that the red fire ants have been invading the southern states of the US, that the species has become hardier and have adapted to become even more invasive and aggressive.

The red fire ant has cost the United Stated millions of pounds in damage and destruction of crops, and a wealth of pain and fear for people, livestock and family pets.  There are also many recreational areas that are no longer being enjoyed because of the presence of red fire ants. But can anything be done to halt the march of this little red invader?  Or will the rest of the world soon have to learn to live with huge ant nest mounds on their lawns, stinging ants in their microwaves and extensive damage to their valuable crops and property.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Do We Know Who the Real St Valentine Was?

The US Greeting Card Association estimates that around one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year around the world timed to arrive on the 14th February, a huge number that is only eclipsed by the number of Christmas cards sent annually.  The modern phenomenon that is St Valentine’s Day is a triumph of marketing and consumerism; a day where lovers take their partners out for meals in restaurants where the prices have been inflated for the day and plied with red roses, champagne, saucy lingerie, chocolates or expensive jewellery.  But what are the true origins of this St Valentine’s Day celebration?

We may view St Valentine as a saucy little cupid shooting love’s arrows, but in a less romantic reality St Valentine was probably not even one person. Valentine or Valentinus was the name of several saints in late antiquity, maybe as many as fifty, who were martyred during the Roman period.  The name Valentine derives from the Latin word ‘valens’ which means worthy and it was a fairly popular name back in those times.  One of those saints just happened to have a feast day that fell on February 14th and it was from this saint’s feast day that our modern celebrations for St Valentine’s Day have evolved. Very little is known about this obscure saint except for the fact that he was buried north of Rome on the Via Flaminia.  The feast day of St Valentine was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, and even then it seems as though very little was known about this saint as Valentine was included in the list of those ‘...whose names are greatly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only known to God.’

Silver Reliquary of St Valentine

St Valentine does appear in several lists of martyrs or ‘martyrologies’, and he is described variously as a martyr in the Roman province of Africa, a bishop of Interamna or as a priest in Rome.  We have to wait until 1493 and the Nuremberg Chronicle to get the first graphical representation of St Valentine and his woodcut picture is accompanied by a text that states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus.

Emperor Claudius was busily persecuting the Christians in Rome at that time, and Valentine was arrested for marrying couples using the Christian rites and helping the Christians to evade the persecution.  He is said to have converted his jailer to Christianity by miraculously restoring the sight of his daughter.   Valentine befriended the jailer’s daughter and left her a goodbye note reputedly signed ‘From Your Valentine’.  According to the legend the Roman Emperor then took a strong liking to Valentine, but he then tried to convert him to Christianity and was condemned to death for his zeal.  It is believed that he was clubbed and stoned, but that his executioners did not manage to kill him, so they eventually had to behead him outside of the Flaminian Gate in Rome.  Various dates have been put forward for Valentine’s martyrdom, including 269, 270 or 273 AD and in the Middle Ages two churches were built in Rome dedicated to this St Valentine.

Relics, believed to be those of St Valentine, were exhumed from the catacombs of St Hippolytus in 1836 and sent to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin.  The casket containing the relics are carried in procession to the church’s high altar every February 14th for a special mass dedicated to young lovers.  As relics of saints tended to be  very numerous and widespread in the Middle Ages, there are also reputed relics of St Valentine in Stephansdom in Vienna, Roquemaure in France, the Gorbals in Glasgow and the Birmingham Oratory.

It was believed by two eighteenth century antiquarians, Alban Butler and Francis Douce that St Valentine may have been an invention of the early Roman Catholic Church as a means of suppressing the Roman pagan pastoral festival of Lupercalia which was celebrated on February 15th each year, but this theory is not universally upheld.   It is believed that during this Roman festival boys drew the names of girls to honour the goddess Februata Juno who was a goddess of fertility and physical love.  This was repeated in the Middle Ages when youngsters would draw a name out of a bowl to determine who their Valentine would be and then sew this name onto their sleeve for one week.  This is where the term ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ comes from, meaning that you are showing your feelings so clearly that other people easily can gauge exactly what you are feeling.

 St Valentine’s Day first became associated with romance and love in the 14th century in England, and many of the stories around this festival were created by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer in his ‘Parliament of Foules’.   In the ‘Parliament of Foules’ the story goes that the birds choose their mates on February 14th, and this is what is believed to have started the tradition of people sending letters to their loved ones on this date.  Another romantic tradition is the one of pinning bay leaves to your pillow on St Valentine’s Eve with the aim of dreaming of your future husband or wife.  There is also a tradition that if you see a robin flying above you on Valentine’s Day you will marry a sailor, if it was a sparrow that you saw you would be blissfully married to a pauper and if it was a goldfinch you would marry a very rich person.

The earliest known Valentine greeting was a rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, addressed to his ‘valentined’ wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  In 1797 ‘The Young Man’s Valentine Writer’ was produced in the UK, which contained romantic verses that young men could use for Valentine’s greetings if they were too shy or were unable to think up their own.  The nineteenth century ushered in the mass sending of greeting cards for Valentine’s Day and the practice of sending cards anonymously to someone that you fancied.

As there was so little information known about St Valentine, his feast day was removed from the Roman Catholic General Calendar for universal liturgical veneration in 1969.  However, St Valentine is not only the patron saint of lovers; his saintly patronage extends to apiarists, greeting card manufacturers, travellers, young people and he also offers protection from plague, epilepsy and fainting.

So while you are munching your chocolates, admiring your diamond or sipping your champagne, spare a thought for poor St Valentine who had to be stoned, clubbed and beheaded so that you can whisper sweet nothings to your loved one and send soppy greetings cards on the 14th February every year!