What does Cleopatra mean to you? For me it’s Shakespeare’s play and the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But then nobody knows a great deal about the last queen of Ptolemaic Egypt – and what we do know comes to us courtesy of various ancient Greek and Roman sources, most of whom didn’t seem to think much of women. Of course, Cleopatra’s reputed beauty and political skill – which enabled her to captivate both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony – as well as her tempestuous reign and dramatic death, gave Shakespeare plenty on which to hang his drama. And somehow her own romantic legend played beautifully into the scandalous on-set affair between Burton and Taylor, which was reportedly so intense that their acting craft became all but redundant when it came to the love scenes.

But Cleopatra’s tomb has never been found. Which is what makes it so exciting to read that archaeologists have found a tunnel under a temple near the ancient city of Alexandria which they believe might lead to her mausoleum. If so it could be a treasure trove of information, not just about the queen herself – including her ethnic background and the manner of her death, which wasn’t a snakebite – but about the world she inhabited.

As the world’s population officially passed 8 billion this week, we’ve been reading a great deal about its exponential growth, especially during the past century during which the number of people jostling for space on our planet has more than tripled. One of our stories, which really blew my mind, attempted to explain exponential growth with the “rice and chessboard problem”, whereby a grain of rice is placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third and so on, doubling up as you go. By the time you reach the end, you have enough grains to cover all of India in a metre-high carpet of rice.

This sort of growth would have been unlikely had the Neanderthals prevailed. These prehistoric proto-humans tended to keep themselves to themselves, which meant they tended to interbreed, whereas Homo sapiens developed more advanced social skills, leading to a wider gene pool and a more resilient physiognomy. But have modern humans become too successful?

This week we also held our breath when it seemed as if the Ukraine war might be spilling over into Poland, we decided that the psychoactive Ayahuasca “tea” is probably not for us and we asked ourselves whether America really will call on Donald Trump in 2024 to make it great again.

Our colleagues around the world, meanwhile, warned us that civet musk, a highly prized ingredient in many perfumes, is under threat. We learned of a plan hatched by the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which is under threat from rising sea levels, to upload itself to the metaverse. And our Australian friends gave is the rundown on the 300 species of mosquito which plague the country at this time of year.

I often ask you to set aside some time over the weekend to listen to our podcast, The Conversation Weekly. This week we treated you to three episodes, part of a special multimedia series which looks for answers about how to understand dementia and the decades of research that is helping us to do so. You can also read the articles from the series here.

Jonathan Este

Associate Editor, International Affairs Editor

The south wall of the temple of Hathor at Dendera. Cleopatra and her son Caesarian are depicted on the left side. from www.shutterstock.com

Why the discovery of Cleopatra’s tomb would rewrite history

Jane Draycott, University of Glasgow

From the trinkets of the tomb to the mummy of the queen herself, the discovery of Cleopatra’s mausoleum could rewrite our understanding of the ancient world.

One in 8 billion. oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

8 billion people: how evolution made it happen

Matthew Wills, University of Bath

Only insects populations can compare to rising human numbers.

Neanderthal reproduction in Trento Museum of Natural History. Luca Lorenzelli/Shutterstock

8 billion people: how different the world would look if Neanderthals had prevailed

Penny Spikins, University of York

Neanderthals were wiped out by chance changes in the environment. The rise of Homo sapiens wasn’t inevitable.

Polish president Andrzej Duda speaks to the media after discussing the missile incident with US president Joe Biden. EPA-EFE/Pawel Supernak

Ukraine war: Poland missile incident shows how dangerous the conflict could be for Nato

Kenton White, University of Reading

The world held its breath when a Russian-made missile landed in Poland. What would it take for Nato to intervene militarily?

Ayahuasca brew. Nicolett Jakab / Alamy Stock Photo

Ayahuasca: just how safe is this psychoactive brew?

Colin Davidson, University of Central Lancashire

Many studies have looked at the potential benefits of ayahuasca, but few have analysed its side-effects.

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