Why Does the Nile Flow North and More Questions From Our Readers

Your questions answered by our experts

Illustration by Eric Palma

If a man could be cloned from the European iceman Ötzi, would he be identical to a man born around 3300 B.C., or would other factors—such as better nutrition, medicine and education—make him more like a modern man?
Pamela Howell
Williston, Florida

Even if this clone shared the exact same genome as Ötzi, it is highly unlikely that he would be identical. Contextual inputs—not just modern nutrition, medicine and education, but everything in today’s environment (even the uterine environment)—would help define him as a human being, just as they help define each of us.
Katherine Ott,
curator, history of medicine and science, National Museum of American History

The Aztecs played a game in which a stone ring was attached to a stone wall. Was it anything like basketball?
Marilyn Califf
Memphis, Tennessee

Nowhere were ancient ball games more sophisticated than in Mesoamerica (modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras). Little is known about the rules of the game you’re referring to, but it seems that passing the ball through one of two rings on the wall was one way to win. Some scholars believe that this gave James Naismith the idea for scoring in the game he invented, basketball.
L. Antonio Curet
curator of Mexican, Central American and Caribbean Collections, National Museum of the American Indian

Why does the Nile flow north from Lake Victoria into the Mediterranean?
Michael L. Moravitz,
Fairfax, Virginia

Rivers always flow downhill. It’s a common misconception that something about the earth forces most rivers to flow south. Plenty of rivers flow north, including the Nile, which gathers from high-elevation lakes in the African Rift Valley.
Andrew Johnston
geographer, Center for Earth and Planetary Study, National Air and Space Museum

Can elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn be humanely harvested as a commodity, to save the species while pre-empting the poachers?
Louis E. Barragan Sr.
El Paso, Texas

Unfortunately, harvesting tusks and horns is not a viable option. It would require anesthesia, which is risky and expensive, and accidentally cutting into the living root of the elephant’s tusk would be life-threatening. Furthermore, both rhino horns and elephant tusks will regrow, so they would continue to attract poachers.
Marie Galloway
elephant manager, Center for Animal Care Sciences, National Zoological Park

How was oil created?
Elizabeth Pollitt
Sarasota, Florida

Most of the world’s petroleum originated from tiny marine plankton that lived millions of years ago, when earth was much warmer than today. The warmth led to less dissolved oxygen in the deep ocean, which led to less decay of organic matter while it sank to the seafloor. As this matter accumulated, heat and pressure increased in the more deeply buried layers, converting it into petroleum.
Brian Huber
paleobiologist, National Museum of Natural History

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