Saturday, February 06, 2016

A zombie mammoth bites the dust

A few years back, I mentioned the mammoth book actually was a byproduct of my love of fringe theories. A lo-o-ong time ago, when I was a teenager, I noticed that each fringe genre recycled a standard set of evidences that were proof positive of each writer's preferred theory. For geological catastrophists, frozen mammoths were right at the top of the list. Working in bookstores in my late twenties and early thirties, I played a game of find-the-mammoth with each new catastrophist book. Very few failed. An important part of the theory was the idea that mammoths had been frozen so fast that its meat was still fresh and delicious tasting. This week, one of those stories about mammoth meat was decisively debunked--not that that will make it go away.

In the 1690s, the literate classes of Western Europe became aware of ivory from a mysterious Siberian creature called mamant or mammoth. The natives said it was never seen alive. They belived it lived underground and died when it breathed surface air by accidentally tunneling out of its subterranean home, usually on river banks. They believed it was a currently living animal because the meat was fresh enough for their dogs to eat. None of these stories said that they ate the meat. And, dogs will eat their own shit, so that's not the best recommendation for the palatability of the meat. This detail, the freshness of the meat, was one of the things that made the mammoth so fascinating, more than any other extinct animal, and kept attention focused on it for the next century.

Once the mammoth was recognized, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a unique, extinct species, native to the North, more focus was placed on just how it came to be frozen. During the previous century, this was not a particularly difficult question. The mammoth was an elephant. During the biblical Deluge, they drowned and their corpses were washed north. When the waters receded, the now Arctic elephants rapidly froze. This theory fell into disfavor as the general literary consensus tipped toward viewing the Deluge as a metaphor or local event in the Middle East. On the geological side, the concept of uniformitarianism, that major changes happen very slowly, in small increments, also denied the idea of a sudden, global flood. This was immediately followed by the discovery of the ice ages. A slow warming and cooling world provided many opportunities for mammoths to become frozen.

Back to the mammoth. By 1850, only fourteen mammoths with some soft tissue attached had been reported since 1692, only four were supposed to have been relatively complete, and only one had been recovered. This made it easy to believe that each frozen mammoth was due to a rare and unique accident. Today, after 350 years, only seventy-five mammoths with soft tissue have been reported and only fourteen have been relatively complete. Due to global communication, the end of the Cold War, a rapid erosion of of local superstitions, and an appreciation of the high monetary value of mammoth carcasses, a third of those complete carcasses were reported and all of them recovered in the last ten years.

But, John, you may be asking (go ahead, ask), when did the mammoth feast enter the mythology? That's a very good question. I commend you on your persip... perisap... smartness. As I mentioned, the earliest reports of mammoth meat only mention dogs eating it. Dogs eating the meat are mentioned again a couple times in the nineteenth century. But, by the dawn of the twentieth century, I can't find a single account of humans eating it, let alone it being the main course of a great feast.

Back to catastophism. Frozen mammoths are now a staple of catastrophist theories. Frozen mammoths are among the usual suspects that catastrophists trot out to prove that Atlantis was real, the Earth’s axis can suddenly change location, a planet-sized comet caused the plagues of Egypt, some cosmological event dumped millions of cubic miles of ice on the earth, or that the Deluge was real. When any new catastrophist theory is proposed, frozen mammoths cannot be far behind. The mammoth most often cited, though often anonymously cited and turned into a plural, is the mammoth discovered on the Beresovka River in 1900.

This mammoth was only the second complete mammoth to be recovered. It was found halfway down a high bluff over the Beresovka River in northeastern Siberia. Its claims to fame are based on the date of its discovery and its high degree of preservation. It was only the second relatively complete mammoth recovered; the first was a century earlier. It was better documented than the first. Mikhail Adams, who recovered the first mammoth in 1806, was a botanist who quickly lost interest in it. The main documentation of it was written by the person who reconstructed the skeleton, Wilhelm Tilesius, who hated Adams. By contrast, the Beresovka mammoth was recovered by Otto Herz and Eugene Pfitzenmayer, who both were interested in the mammoth itself and respected each other. Finally, they wrote during a time when the interested audience for information about such discoveries was magnitudes larger than the audience for the Adams mammoth. They not only wrote several scientific articles on the discovery, the samples they brought back allowed other scientists to write papers on it. Pfitzenmayer even wrote a popular book on mammoths. Quite simply, the world knew more about this mammoth than any discovered before then and any since until Dima in 1977.

From here, the details of this mammoth move into catastophist literature following two paths. The first is because of the high quality of the remains themselves. The flesh and even parts of the organs were recognizably intact. Plant tissues from its last meal were still in its mouth and identifiable nearly a century before DNA sequencing. All of these details have led catastrophists to believe the mammoth was frozen suddenly and completely. An entire industry has grown up around this belief. Someday, I'll go over all the details of that, but, today, let's go over the small aspect of that belief that was debunked this week.

Catastrophism means suddenness. The significance of the Beresovka mammoth to catastophists is the idea that the perfection of its preservation was due to its being frozen in a few hours--faster than any known means of freezing. One line of thought using the Beresovka mammoth was based on the supposedly non-arctic food found in its unflossed mouth. The other is based on the quality of its meat. Twice now I've mentioned that several recorded accounts, before 1901, mention dogs eating the meat, but none mention humans eating it. So, did Herz or Pfitzenmayer make this claim about their mammoth? No, they did not.

The origin appears to have come from Herz' comment that the mammoth's flesh "looks as fresh as well-frozen beef or horse meat." This has been taken to mean it tasted like well-frozen beef or horse meat. It did not. Pfitzenmayer wrote that they could smell it a mile away and that they initially could only work on excavating it for a few minutes before fleeing to get some fresh air. Though it's not mentioned in either of their initial accounts. One of them did taste the meat.* One night, toward the end of their work, they got drunk and began daring the other to eat come of the meat. The dogs had shown that it wasn't fatal to eat (see dogs and shit, above). Finally, fortified with a lot of vodka and pepper, one of them was able to chew up a chunk of mammoth, but not swallow it.

Before I adjudge this story to be the origin of all mammoth feast stories, I want to suggest the possibility of an undocumented oral tradition that also fed into it. I'm an Alaskan. Many old, white Alaskans have a grandfather, know someone who had a grandfather, or whose grandfather knew someone who regularly ate frozen mammoth. The Seattle catastophist Donald Patton wrote that "mammoth steaks have even been featured on restaurant menus in Fairbanks." None of these stories has been documented as true. All of these stories date back to the gold rush days. None of the Russians before then make that claim, none of the Anglo-white guys since then make that claim, and I've never met an Alaskan native that makes that claim. My opinion is that all of these stories are based on sourdoughs (old white Alaskans) BSing cheechakos (newcomers).

And now, after many digressions and distractions, I've finally arrived at the great mammoth feast. In 1920, Martin Gardner published A Journey to the Earth's Interior, Or Have the Poles Really Been Discovered? His book is the most mature development of the hollow earth theory. The central idea of this theory is that the surface of the earth is a bubble with an empty space inside. The earliest western development of this idea was by Edmond Halley of comet fame. Various later versions developed ideas of what was inside. Gardner watched the many attempts during his life to reach the poles and decided it was not possible because there were no poles. When explorers reached a certain high latitude, they entered a hole that led to the interior world. Gravity held people against the under side of the bubble and a tiny sun balanced at the center made life possible there. When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his Pellucidar based on the same idea, Gardner wrote to him asking if he had anything to do with the books. I don't know if Burroughs answered.

Gardner, for once, did not need the biblical flood or any other type of catastrophe to put frozen mammoths in the Arctic. Like most catastrophists, he believed that mammoths were normal tropical elephants whose appearance in the Arctic needed explanation. His solution was that they lived in the eternal tropics of the inner world. Occasionally, however, they would fall into rivers or off the northern coast, drown, have their bodies carried through the polar hole, be deposited on the Siberian coast, buried, and frozen there before they could decompose--obviously.

Gardner dedicated an entire chapter to the mammoth and within that chapter, a subtitled section to the mammoth feast. Gardner specifically says it was Herz who held a banquet with meat from the Berezovka mammoth "and he asked scientists in other parts of the world to contribute other ancient foods--such as corn dug up from the ruins of Egyptian cities." Later versions of the story have added that Tsar Nicholas II was the guest of honor. Other versions of the feast removed Herz from the story and made Guillaume Apollinaire, the Italian/French poet, the guest of honor. Later, when asked about the feast, Gardner would only vaguely say, it was in all the papers, look it up yourselves.

This, Klondike tall tales, and other rumors established the popular legend that, at some time, there had been a feast or dinner of mammoth steaks. Thirty years later, a newer version appeared: at some point, soon after WWII, the Explorer's Club of New York featured mammoth steaks on the menu of its annual dinner. Oddly, this story, with its exactness, has not been repeated as often as Gardner's vague story. But there is some truth to this story, the Explorer's Club is a real organization, it is in New York, and it has a fancy dinner with exotic fare every year. Despite this story having so many verifiable points, I have never come across a catastrophist who looked onto it enough to verify the fact of the mammoth steaks. But, academic rigor has never been a feature of fringe thought; recycling is their primary feature. After sixty-five years, someone has finally looked into this factoid.

Here is the story as reconstructed by Jessica R. Glass, Matt Davis, Timothy J. Walsh, Eric J. Sargis, and Adalgisa Caccone in an article in PLOS One. The famous menu was the from the 1951 annual Explorers Club dinner, held in January that year. The source of the popularization of the story is an article in The Christian Science Monitor that appeared several days later. The first point they make completely kills the legend. The menu didn't say mammoth; it said Megatherium, which is an extinct species of South American giant ground sloth that did not live in the far north. Although this might disappoint catastrophists, in its way, it is much more interesting. Megatherium remains are far rarer than mammoths and, as it is not an Arctic species, well preserved soft tissue would have been insanely rare. If only there was some way to prove that.

There is. Paul Griswold Howes, the curator of the Bruce Museum missed the dinner. Wendell Phillips Dodge, the chairman of the club, was good enough to save a piece of the Megatherium for Howes. Rather than eat the tasty bit, Howes preserved it and added it to the museum's collections. Dodge was rather--well--dodgy about the origin of the meat. Originally, he claimed it came from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. If true, this would have extended the range of the Megatherium by over 10,000 miles. He is also reported to have said he had discovered a formula by which he could convert sea turtle meat into giant sloth meat. I think we can assume that formula included a generous helping of bullshit.

Spoiler: It's not mammoth meat (source)

Glass et al. have the tools to go beyond merely determining that the meat was not mammoth. They were able to determine what it really was. All they needed was the sample that Howes stored at the Bruce Museum. Howes carefully labeled the sample so it wasn't difficult to find. The meat had been cooked and stored in isopropyl alcohol, but this didn't prevent them from extracting DNA for identification. Unlike forensic crime dramas, they weren't able to determine that it was a near-sighted, left-handed, yellow sloth from a bad part of Davenport, Iowa. However, they were able to determine that it wasn't a mammoth or any kind of sloth. It was, in fact, a green sea turtle of a sub-species native to the Pacific Ocean. They weren't able to narrow it down further than that. The green sea turtle is now an endangered species. In those days it was a favored species for making turtle soup, a major factor in its becoming endangered.

Although it's easy to dismiss the mammoth feast as so much fringe silliness, it has had a very real effect on how the public perceives mammoths. The idea that there is almost perfect mammoth tissue available in the Siberian tundra is one of the drivers of the idea that each new discovery might provide the necessary genetic material to clone a mammoth. Hundreds of frozen mammals have been in the northern tundra. None of them have provided decent DNA for cloning.

This isn't the end of the story. In 1979 a prospector near Fairbanks uncovered the frozen remains of a steppe bison. Rather than try to blast the thing clear, he reported it to the University of Alaska and R. Dale Guthrie was able to conduct a proper excavation of it. It is one of the best preserved Pleistocene mammals ever recovered. It was brought to the university and, along with being properly examined, the main parts of the body were prepared for display in the museum. The chief taxidermist, Erick Grandqvist, saved a piece of meat from the Bison's neck. When his work was done, he Guthrie, and visiting paleontologist, Björn Kurtén made a stew out of it. The meat was tough, but edible.



Friday, January 15, 2016

Book update

We sold the book.

I've been holding my breath over this, but it finally came together today. Last spring I started sending lots of query letters to agents. In June, one asked to see my full proposal. A few days later, she asked to talk to me. At the end of the talk, she offered to represent me. I accepted and she sent me a contract. After that, we worked on improving my proposal and working up a better sample chapter. Just before Thanksgiving she said she thought it was ready and that she was sending it out to publishers. The week before Christmas, two publishers wrote back asking for more information. One was a small university press. The other was a major publishing house. Ten days ago, the University press made an offer. It was a much smaller offer than I had hoped for, but it was exciting to think that, no matter what happens, the book will see the light of day.

Fast forward to today. We still haven't heard back from the big publishing house. It's Friday. There was only junk mail in my box. Considering the time difference, it was already after lunch in New York. I figured that meant I wasn't going to hear anything this week. I deleted all the junk mail and as Gmail refreshed, a new letter appeared from my agent. A third press was interested and was making an offer. The new offer was more money, greater marketing mojo, and a hardback release sooner than the university offer. Other than the million-dollars-and-a-cheese-sandwich offer that I never really expected to get, this was everything I had realistically hoped for. I wrote back basically saying "OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG, YES!!!"

The normal procedure, at this point is to notify anyone else who has expressed an interest to see if they want to start a bidding war. An hour later, my agent wrote back to say, this morning's publisher raised their bid and the other two dropped out. Most people who have met me will say that, with exceptions that don't need to be listed here, I'm usually a fairly reserved person. I was screaming and dancing in the kitchen. "Tell them yes! Tell them yes! Tell them yes!!!!"

And that, dear friends, is where we stand. The publisher will send a formal contract to my agent stating the terms of the bid; she'll examine it and, if everything is above board, send it to me to sign; I'll fall to the floor in a swoon, then get up; and sign it. Naturally, about five minutes after I gave her my permission to accept the bid, my impostor syndrome kicked into overdrive. Unless some drunken prankster in mail-room of the publisher sent the bid, I now have four months to deliver a draft.

It's finally real. Ever since I was a teen-ager, I've wanted to be a writer. My topic has changed over the years: first I want to be a science fiction novelist, then I wanted to make important contributions to my fields of graduate study (modern Balkans and colonial Africa). After dropping out of grad school, I became a technical writer. It was pretty cool to fill out the "Occupation" box on my tax forms with "Writer" even if the writing wasn't that exciting. Blogging was a little more satisfying, but eventually that became harder to do as traffic dried up. Somewhere along the way I stumbled into mammoths. It was nothing more than a blog post that I meant to use to illustrate a different point. Nine years later, it's a book. I think on my next tax form I might write "Author."

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mini-Snopes: Great moments in dishonest charts

A friend shared this chart on Facebook today. At the moment it has 5678 shares. Her source introduced it this way:
(For those that refuse to discuss anything but guns, because guns are the most important issue)
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our passions, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.


Those bars are impressive and if scaled correctly would be more even more impressive. Gun homicides are truly insignificant viewed like this. However, this view is complete bullshit.

The bottom two bars measure homicides, none of the others do. If you add firearm suicides and accidental, fatal shootings, the gun death numbers triple. If you sort out the others to only homicides what do you get? How many motor vehicle homicides are there per year? Poison homicides? Alcohol, drug, tobacco, or medical homicides? When was the last time you heard of someone charging inro a building and killing twenty plus people with a baseball bat or a cigarette? If the sources of the chart are correct, the first eight lines should all be included in the "Non-firearm" category.

Was the original author dishonest or just unclear on the concept? As a general rule, we should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. Here, however, I'm voting for malice. If the author was looking at causes of death in the United States, any source would have listed cancer and heart disease at the top. This dishonesty is especially obvious since the author lists one of his/her/its sources as the Center for Disease Control. If you can't make you case without resorting to lies, then you have no case.

PS - I have never met anyone who refuses to discuss anything but guns as the cause of death.

PPS - One of the commenters at my friend's source smugly says, "It is sad the sheeples believe everything they are told by the media." Sheeple automatically excludes you from any intelligent conversation.

Obama's to-do list

In a few hours it will start being 2016 in the US. As Obama enters his last full year in office, I have to say he's put off too many parts of his agenda until the last minute. He's never going to accomplish all of these in one year. Just look at this list. He needs to:

  • Grab all our guns
  • Outlaw Christmas
  • Start a race war
  • Make everyone use Common Core math
  • Enact Shariah law
  • Send all of the Real Americans (tm) to FEMA reeducation camps
  • Play lots of golf
  • Abolish golf
  • Seize all the Bibles
  • Make kids eat their vegetables
  • Assign one transgender person to each public restroom and gym shower
  • Ban cars
  • Invade Texas
  • Get whitey
  • Declare himself the Messiah
  • Something something EBOLA!
  • Homosexualize all the children
  • Arrest Glenn Beck
  • Form a private army out of the Crips and the Bloods
  • Suspend the Constitution so he can have a third term
  • Import millions of Islamic terrorists
  • Give telephones to all the undeserving people
  • Make us press 2 for English

It's not going to be easy for Obama to institute his thousand year rule of evil on this schedule. Even now, conservative Facebookers are arming themselves with their most powerful Sam Elliot you-must-be-a-special-kind-of-stupid memes. He's going to need our help to accomplish his full evil agenda. I, for one, pledge to spend every penny George Soros sends me being a PC as I can on social media. What will you do?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A holiday warning

This is a rerun of a post I wrote around this time a few years ago. I think it's still relevant.

*********

The men in black (MIB) entered UFO lore in 1956 in a book entitled They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. The author was one Gray Barker who had been a member of one of the first American UFO groups, the rather ambitiously named International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB). Though Barker's book dealt with a number of paranormal topics, the largest part of it dealt with his former boss, IFSB founder Albert Bender.

In 1953 the IFSB was about two years old with a few hundred dues paying members (called "investigators") who all received the Bureau's newsletter Space Review. The group was doing well enough when, in October 1953, Bender suddenly stopped publication of Space Review, and dissolved the IFSB. The last issue of the news letter gave only this explanation.
STATEMENT OF IMPORTANCE: The mystery of the flying saucers is no longer a mystery. The source is already known, but any information about this is being withheld by order from a higher source. We would like to print the full story in Space Review, but because of the nature of the information we are very sorry that we have been advised in the negative.
According to Barker, the reason Bender had so abruptly ended the group was that three mysterious men in black had visited Bender and warned him off. But before they did, the MIBs were good enough to explain at least part of the true secret of the flying saucers. UFOs, they said, actually come from Antarctica. They have bases in both polar regions and regularly fly between them. Bender told a different story in his own book in 1963.

Enough UFO stories end with the craft departing due north or south that Barker's version of Bender's visitors has been adopted by conspiracy theorists who believe in a decidedly terrestrial origin for saucers. My personal favorite version is that saucers and MIBs are Atlanteans from within the hollow earth, but the theory that they are Nazi refugees from super-scientific bases beneath the ice cap has its devotees, too.

The MIBs are the key to the mystery. The most mundane explanation that has been offered is that they work for the American government and that they are trying to hide the truth about the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs. But that could itself be disinformation. No government has the ability to do what the MIBs do. Think for a moment about the men in black. They have appeared all over the world. They have a special interest in unidentified flying objects and in protecting the polar regions. They seem to actually know what is in the minds of the people they visit. Who has the ability to manage an intelligence network like that? Ask yourself: Who has the ability to travel everywhere, at any time, and even seemingly to appear in two places at once? Who has a special interest in protecting the polar regions? Who knows when you are sleeping? Who knows when you are awake? Who knows if you've been good or bad?

I think you know the answer.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and be good for goodness sake.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why does Mel Tormé hate veterans?

'Tis the season of inescapable Christmas songs and one of the most inescapable is Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song." For the moment I'll leave aside the sheer arrogance of him claiming to have written "THE Christmas Song" and not "A Christmas Song." My beef is the callous way Mel snubs America's heroes in uniform. He tried to hide his disdain by putting it at the end of the song, but that just makes it more memorable. Professional tip Mel: If you want to hide something, hide in the middle, not at the end where it's the freshest thing in people's memories.

And so I'm offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two.
Although it's been said many times
Many ways, Merry Christmas to you.

Why do you only wish Merry Christmas to people of those ages? Why not everyone? Do you know who's over ninety-two, Mel? The Greatest Generation, that's who? They fought WWII so you could have the freedom to write songs about whatever you want. And this is how you repay them. For shame, Mel, for shame.

And babies. Why do you hate babies who aren't even one year old? Christmas is for the children, Mel. It's toys and bright lights and baby Jesus. Some of those babies are going to grow up to be veterans. Is that why you hate them?

America demands answers, Mel. And don't try pulling that stale "I'm dead so you can't do anything to me" routine. America is a country of problem solvers. If we want answers, we'll get answers. We'll see whose chestnuts end up roasting on an open fire.

Friday, November 13, 2015

It's not just mammoths

After each new frozen mammoth discovery I hear people ask, "why is it only mammoths?" The simple answer is that it isn't just mammoths. Lots of Pleistocene animals have been found frozen in the far north. Besides mammoths, there have been woolly rhinoceroses, bison, musk oxen, horses, beavers, and oodles of ground squirrels. Mammoths get all the attention because, as has been said of dinosaurs, "they're big, scary, and dead," but also because they're elephants and we have a special fondness for elephants. Just a few weeks ago, another frozen mammal was found that should have had more press. This one not only met the "big, scary, and dead" test, but it was also an animal that we're rather fond of: lions.


There were two of them of an extinct species called cave lions (Panthera spelaea). They once roamed the entire tundra north from the British Isles across northern Eurasia and Beringia to the Yukon. Because there are far fewer predators than prey in any ecosystem, the odds of finding well preserved individuals are more remote. In fact, we've never found a complete cave lion carcass or skeleton. Now we have two complete bodies.

In this case the internet really fell down on the job. These an not just lions; they are lion cubs--kittens. Isn't this the reason the internet was built?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The first trilobite

NOTE: In honor of National Fossil Day here's a post I wrote five years ago about a famous trilobite.

In their early days, scientific journals were much more generous than they are today about publishing letters from experimenters and collectors in all walks of life. The hard wall between scientists and amateurs had not yet been built and all literate people were, in theory, entitled to participate in the discussion. One such person was Rev. Edward Lhwyd (or Lhuyd or Lhwid or Lloyd), the illegitimate son of a member of the minor gentry who rose from genteel poverty to become keeper of collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (an unpaid position, but important in the community of science). The 1698 volume of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific journal in the English language, contains "Part of a Letter from Mr. Edw. Lhwyd to Dr. Martin Lister, Fell. of the Coll. of Phys. and R. S. Concerning Several Regularly Figured Stones Lately Found by Him." The two-page letter is accompanied by a page of etchings of the figured stones or, as we would call them, fossils.

Lhwyd collected his fossils during a trip to Southwestern Wales. Number fifteen, in his etchings, he found near Llandeilo, probably on the grounds of Lord Dynefor's castle. He wrote of it: "The 15th whereof we found great Plenty, must doubtless be referred to the Sceleton of some flat Fish..." A century and a half after he wrote that, Sir Roderick Murchison would place the Llandeilo rocks in the middle strata of his Ordovician Period. A century after Murchison, scientists would date that strata between 461-63 million years old. That is less than ten million years after the first plants took root on dry land and a hundred million years before cockroaches crawled out of the sea looking for a snack.


Lhwyd's "flatfish." Today we call it Ogygiocarella debuchii (Brongniart).

Lhwyd's identification of number fifteen as a flatfish didn't last very long. Today anyone with even a casual knowledge of fossils will recognise it as a trilobite, something more like a shrimp than a halibut. Lhwyd didn't have our advantage of hundreds of years of fossil studies producing thousands of lavishly illustrated and easily accessible books. It would be almost a century before the word "trilobite" would be coined and into Murchison's time before the scientific world would realize that trilobites were not related to halibut or shrimp (or oysters, another contender) but, rather, something entirely their own. Lhwyd was plunging ahead in the dark trying to make sense of an unfamiliar and mysterious corner of nature.

Lhwyd deserves great credit for deciding his little flatfish was worthy of notice and for sending his drawings to the Royal Society, although, sometimes, he gets a little too much credit. His illustration is the first published scientific illustration of a trilobite that we know of, but he did not "discover" trilobites, as some books will tell you. We should always regard any claim that someone discovered a fossil species with suspicion. Trilobites are extremely common fossils and can be found laying on the surface in many parts of the world. Our ancestors were both aware of fossils and, in many cases, aware that they were the petrified remains of once living things. Usually, what an author means when they declare that this person or that person discovered a fossil is that they were the first to describe the fossil in scientific literature. Lhwyd's illustration certainly counts as a description in that sense, but it is not the first description we know of.

No one can say when people first noticed that fossils were different than other rocks except to say that it was very long ago. The first step in making stone tools is to examine stones very carefully, so it is possible that our ancestors were aware of organic patterns in rocks over a million years ago. For trilobites, specifically, the earliest evidence of humans treating a fossil as something specially comes from a cave near Yonne, France. In the 1880s, when archaeologists were combing the caves of central France looking for artifacts, bones, and paintings, they discovered a much handled trilobite fossil that had been drilled as if to be worn as a pendant. The cave where it was found is now known as Grotte du Trilobite and is also home to paintings of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. Because the pendant was handled so much, the exact species of trilobite cannot be determined, however, geologists can say that it was not originally from Yonne. The original owners of the fossil thought enough of it that they carried or traded it from the other side of France. The occupation strata in which the trilobite was found has been dated as fifteen thousand years old.


The oldest known human trilobite artifact from the Grotte du Trilobite.

In the New World, American fossil hunters found plentiful deposits of trilobites in western Utah in the 1860s, but the local Ute Indians had known about them for untold years. In 1931, Frank Beckwith uncovered evidence of the Ute use of trilobites. Travelling through the badlands, he photographed two petroglyphs that most likely represent trilobites. On the same trip he examined a burial, of unknown age, with a drilled trilobite fossil laying in the chest cavity of the interred. He asked Joe Pichyavit, a Ute friend, what the elders said about such fossils. Pickyavit replied that trilobite necklaces were worn as protection against disease and bullets. The local Ute name for trilobite fossils translated roughly as "little water bug in stone," indicating that they recognised the organic nature of fossils. Pickyavit then made a necklace for Beckwith in the old style. Since then, trilobite amulets have been found all over the Great Basin, as well as in British Columbia and Australia.


Probable trilobite petroglyph. Beckwith's label reads "A shield (?) shaped like a trilobite."


Joe Pickyavit's trilobite protective necklace made of fossils, clay beads, and horsehair tassels.

Written descriptions of trilobites before Lhywd date possibly from the third century BC and definitely from the fourth century AD. Most ancient literatures include a genre called lapidaries, catalogs of precious stones and minerals along with their practical uses in medicine and magic (often the same thing). Most of the lapidaries included discussions of fossils and one, On Petrifactions by Theophrastus, was entirely about fossils. Sadly, the book has not survived and we know only short quotes from it in the works of later authors. The Spanish geologists Eladio Liñán and Rodolfo Gozalo argue that some of the fossils described in Greek and Latin lapidaries as scorpion stone, beetle stone, and ant stone refer to trilobite fossils. Less ambiguous references to trilobite fossils can be found in Chinese sources. Fossils from the Kushan formation of northeastern China were prized as inkstones and decorative pieces. A dictionary commentary written around 300AD by Guo Pu, refers to these fossils as bat stones because the spines on the pygidium (rear section) resemble the bones of a bat wing. The Khai-Pao Pharmacopoeia, written in 970 refers to the fossils as stone silkworms. Just nine years before Lhywd sent his letter to the Royal Society, Wang Shizhen wrote about the Kushan formation fossils a narrative of his travels in North China.

None of this should diminish Lhywd's place in the history of paleontology. Lhywd's observations were made within the framework of the emerging Western concept of science. The fossils were not interesting oddities that he found in the course of doing something else; they were the object of his outing. Lhywd took an artist along with him on his trip to Wales for the express purpose of preparing scientific illustrations. He communicated his observations to other scientifically interested people with the understanding that they would get further distribution. Finally, Lhywd gathered his fossils and took them back with him to the Ashmolean Museum where others would be able to study them.

As for number fifteen, it's not clear whether the fossil trilobite itself has survived. Modern curators at the Ashmolean have tried to identify Lhwyd's fossils in their collections. They have one old trilobite that approximately matches number fifteen, but they are unable to make a positive identification. The Romantic in me hopes its the one.


Number fifteen?

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Mammoth in the news: Michigan edition

You might have seen in the news yesterday that a mammoth was found in Michigan. A new mammoth find is always cool and this one has a few elements that make it pretty exciting. I have some questions about it and there is one aspect of the story and accompanying pictures that I find fairly disturbing.

NOTE: Though the story has been picked up by most major news outlets, the source for most of the coverage is these two stories from MLive, a group of regional newspapers in Michigan (one, two). The Washington Post story was able to add a little by interviewing Dan Fisher, the paleontologist directing the excavation (link).


First, the story. On Monday, James Bristle and a friend were digging a hole in a new piece of land Bristle had just acquired. The hole was to be the base of a lift station for a new natural gas line being built. A few feet down, they brought up something long, narrow, and curved. At first they thought it was an old bent fence post, but once they had cleared some mud off of it, they saw that it was a huge rib. Bristle brought his family to look the rib and other bones he uncovered. On Tuesday, he called the University and was put in contact with their paleontology professor, Dan Fisher. Fisher came out Wednesday night and by the morning he was sure they had woolly mammoth on their hands. His initial theory is that the mammoth was butchered, and possibly killed by humans, and that the parts they discovered had been sunk in a cold pond for storage.





Here's the exciting part. Mammoths are not common in Michigan. Mastodons are. The state fossil of the Michigan is the mastodon. Fisher says this is only the eleventh significant mammoth find in the state while there have been over 300 mastodon finds. “We get calls once or twice a year about new specimens like this,” but they're always mastodons. If he's right that it was butchered by humans, that's even more exciting. Very few mammoths have ever been found that unambiguously show evidence that humans killed or butchered them.


Here are my questions. Based on what I can gather from the news reports, Fisher's theory seems reasonable, but, of course, I want to know more. What makes him think it was butchered? The reports say they found a flint cutting tool at the site. It's possible that the tool was left there at another time, but, if it was found intermingled with the bones, it's far more likely that it was deposited at the same time as the mammoth. The clincher will be if they find butcher marks on the bones--that is, gouges on the bones made by sawing meat off. I'd also like to know more about the pond refrigeration theory. This technique was practiced in the region and can keep meat safe to eat for over a year, though it tastes and smells awful by the first summer. I want to know if there's any way to confirm that this is really what was done with this particular mammoth. Third, Fischer thinks the mammoth was about forty when it died. He most likely figured this out by counting the growth rings in the ivory (mammoths and elephants show annual layers just like trees). One of the tusks was broken about half way up during the recovery, making that technique possible on the site. Adult elephants grow a new set of teeth every ten years or so. Did he deduce it from that? I want to know more about everything.





Now the disturbing part. After Dr. Fisher determined that the bones were mammoth remains, farmer Bristle gave him the rest of the day to get the bones out of his field before he planned to go back to building his lift station. This makes no sense to me. I understand that there are people who care so little about science that one day's inconvenience is all they're willing tolerate for knowledge. But that still doesn't explain the rush. Why is he building the lift station? Shouldn't the pipeline company be doing that? Shouldn't they be setting the schedule? Because they were found on private property, the bones are legally Bristle's. At press time, he hadn't decided whether he was going to donate the bones to the university after they finished examining them, so he has some interest in them. Even if his interest is only in selling them, he has to know that a careful excavation will bring the bones out in the best possible condition guaranteeing the best possible sales price. An important part of the story is missing here.


Fisher was able to call in a bunch of his students to help him. Jamie Bollinger, a local excavator, donated his time and equipment to get the work done. The The Ann Arbor News interviewed Fisher while the skull was being prepared to be lifted out of the hole by Bollinger's backhoe. Other than clearing the mud away, the only preparation they were able to do under the time restraints they faced was to wrap the tusks with zip ties. One broke anyway.





I'm cringing at the pictures, but maybe it's not as bad as it looks. They got the bones. That's all that's important. Right? Well, no. We know what mammoth skeletons look like. Over the last three hundred years, we've found bones from thousands of mammoths including a good sized herd's worth of complete skeletons, not to mention 75 with meat or skin. The important thing now is to study the context of each discovery. What was the local environment this mammoth lived in? What was the climate? What were they eating? Were humans part of that environment? Fortunately, evacuation paleontology/archaeology is a technique with well-developed procedures. In the pictures you can see that students have bagged scores of samples and carefully labeled each one. It might take years to examine the samples and virtually reconstruct the site. With computers, we can do that a lot better than we used to.


I'm really looking forward to hearing what they can tell us after they've had a chance to carefully examine the bones.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Walker just dropped out. That's not good

Scott Walker dropped out of the Republican primary race today. Last week, Rick Perry dropped out. Most of my liberal friends on Facebook and Twitter cackled gleefully and made fist-pumping “oh, yeah” noises over each of those. They enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching two people they disliked being humiliated and slinking home with their tails between their legs. They shouldn't have enjoyed it. Walker and Perry dropping out is bad for us.

The more people there are in the primary, and the longer they last, the better it is for us. The worst thing that could happen for us is for all of them to drop out (except, presumably for one. No one running as a Republican would be very good for us). There are two simple points involved. One is financial/economical and the other is sociological.

The money issue is the easiest to explain. Lots of candidates eat up a lot of money. Money spent running against other Republicans in the primaries is money not available to spend running against the Democratic candidate in the general election. I want the big donors to spend it all in the primaries. Walker in particular was positioned to waste a lot of money. He was the Koch brothers' anointed. They have publicly promised to spend almost a billion dollars this cycle to create a government to their liking. The longer he looked viable, the more of that money he would have sucked up. Now they are free to decide whether to spend that billion on another presidential candidate or to spread it around buying as many congressional seats as possible (which is what I would have done from the beginning). Allowing the money to become more focused is bad for us.

The sociological issue is almost as simple. The longer the primaries remain competitive without a clear front runner, the more divided the party is going into the general election. After the convention, they'll need to spend valuable time uniting the party rather than running against our candidate. The sooner someone emerges from the pack as the obvious winner, the sooner they can focus their money and supporters on defeating our candidate. Bringing the party together is a major strategic issue. The longer a party remains divided between viable candidates, the more supporters become dedicated to their candidates. The more they become dedicated to their candidate, the more they begin to see other candidates as the enemy. If the enemy wins, their enthusiasm for supporting them approaches zero. An actual convention battle would guarantee hundreds of thousands of supporters, if not millions, either staying home or voting for third parties in November. In 2008, Obama's greatest challenge wasn't defeating McCain, it was regaining the support of the Clinton bitter-enders.

My conservative/Republican friends seem to understand this calculus far better than my liberal/Democratic friends do. We look at every Republican joining the race as mere entertainment. They look at every Democrat joining the race as bad news for Clinton. We need to learn from them. If Carson and Fiorina keep up with Trump, that's great. If Jeb!, Kaisich, and Cruz stay viable, that's even better. If Jindal and those other guys look viable, that means we've all suffered major head injuries and need someone to get us to the ER as fast as possible.


To summarize: lots of Republicans = good, one Republican = bad.