Count Ugolino No Cannibal

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One often hears from artists or religious believers that science drains the magic and mystery out of the world, making it a less pleasant place. But what about all the times, less often philosophized about, when science reveals the world to be less dark than we imagined? Specifically: What if Count Ugolino did not eat his own children and feast on the brains of a bishop?

Some background: Dante's Inferno, without question one of the most influential works of poetry or religion in Western history, depicts numerous souls condemned to Hell, a sort of medieval rogues gallery. Among them is one Count Ugolino, damned for the crime of eating his own sons while they were imprisoned with him for treason. Ugolino's eternal punishment is to feast in Hell upon the brains of Archbishop Ruggieri, the man who condemned him and his family, pausing only to tell his horrible tale to Dante.

Pretty nasty stuff, but according to a Reuters article, an Italian paleontologist thinks he has dug up the Ugolino clan (identified by a scroll in the grave) and found that the Count was not a cannibal (he didn't even have teeth) and that he died of a blow to the head after months in prison. The paleontologist, Prof. Francesco Mallegni, hoped to use DNA evidence to confirm Ugolino's identity.

Now, if ever there were a time for the admirers of poetry, mystery, and the threat of eternal damnation to complain that science has torn apart the fabric of myth, surely this is it. DNA evidence is raining on Dante's Inferno of all things! Ugolino isn't likely to be eating brains in Hell if he never even did so in life (not that Dante's work was ever considered non-fictional). The truth is that far from draining the world of wonder, this is one more marvelous example of how science can make things that were vague and mysterious become more vibrant, more real, and better apprehended.

We'll always have the artistic impulse that inspired Dante, and thanks to paleontology and our understanding of DNA, we'll now have additional information to add to civilization's storehouse of knowledge. Why make one the enemy of the other?