Monday, October 03, 2016

Where are you going little ship full of wolves?

Olaus Magnus' 1539 map of Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea, and the North Atlantic, entitled the Carta Marina is a milestone of European cartography. At the time, it was by far the most accurate map of the region that had ever been made. Along with the correct geographic details and placements of human settlements, Magnus covered the map with hundreds of drawings of human history, ethnography, and natural history. Sixteen years later, he published a book expanding on those topics, entitled Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples). For the book, he prepared 481 woodcut illustrations (including some duplicates). Of the illustrations, 124 are adapted directly from the map while many others include elements from the map.

Unfortunately, many interesting illustrations from the map didn't make it into the book. We have no way of knowing what they indicate. Other illustrations, prepared for the book, don't always match the text of the chapters they've been paired with. I'm working on a couple of blog posts about strong women in the Historia. While I do that, let me share some of my favorite illustrations.

Before I offer the first illustration, let me make my excuses. Although he was Swedish, Magnus wrote his book in Latin. At the time, there weren't even that many Swedes who wrote and read Swedish, and he was a Catholic priest. I can bludgeon my way through Latin well enough to get the gist of a text, but I'm not going to spend a whole afternoon to get a clean literary translation for the caption to a picture only a few dozen people are going to look at (unless I really like the picture). Next, the good commentary on his illustrations appears to be primarily A) in Swedish and B) not online. I might be horribly wrong in my interpretations of the illustrations. I hope that makes them more fun to look at.

Here are the wolves:

They are sailing eastward across the Baltic south of the island of Gotland and parallel to an ice-bound Polish coast. I believe the indication of ice-bound waters was an innovation of this map. Their eagerly anticipated goal appears to be in the neighborhood of Memel, Prussia, now in Lithuania.

But, are they wolves? I checked all of the illustrations in the Historia looking for boats in the Baltic Sea, both for this story and another. I found another illustration, set farther north in the Baltic Sea, that is intriguing, puzzling, and tragic all at once.

The title of the chapter is "About horses of Sveica and Gothica, why they are preferred to others, and exported." The illustration shows a barefoot man on the shore. Next to him is a large horse. He holds one arm up, with the forefinger extended above the horse. The other arm is extended downward at a tied-up ship full of animals (they resemble my wolves, but are they horses?) who look away from him. Another boat is still at sea in the upper right corner filled with animals that have ears and horns (goats? How many animals are sailing around the Baltic? This question will come up later). The bottom right quarter is filled with a disturbing vignette of two or three horses at sea, trying to climb onto icefloes.

The chapter explains that the horses Sveica and Gothica [the core provinces of Sweden] are in demand for export, but that there is a royal edict against selling warhorses. Do the horse, the man, and the boat full of animals represent an honest trader dividing superior war-quality horses from shamed exportable horses? This is followed by a lot of text demonstrating how much they love their horses, including a poem. He then mentions the lively horses of the island of Oelandiæ (Elandia on the map, Öland in modern Sweden). He says they are lively and ready for action and then something about dancing dogs that I haven't properly translated. In this case, are we looking at a well trained troop of performing animals? The dog/wolves are looking away because they are waiting for their cue. This is not as crazy as it sounds. There will be other animals on boats.

So, who are the sly animals on the boat?

Note: Online you can find many images taken from the less detailed second edition of the Carta Marina. There are only two copies of the first edition that have survived. This is the map I'm using for all my posts. The book, the Historia, was translated and reprinted many times. For my images and my text, I'm using the first, Latin edition from this site. If you write about this, please link and credit carefully.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The ugly mammoth

Toward the end of the last ice age, there were three(ish) types of mammoths in the world. Last week, in California, paleontologists excavated a skull that doesn't match any of the known three.

The Dig. Source.

The first of the major mammoth types is Mammuthus columbi, the Columbian mammoth. The Columbian was one of the biggest proboscideans that ever lived (putting it in the top ten largest land mammals). Mammoths are closer related to Asian elephants than they are to African elephants. They split off when all three genera lived in Africa. Asian elephants moved northeast through Arabia into Southern Asia, while mammoths looped through Europe into Central Eurasia and eventually reached Japan and the Siberian Pacific coast about three million years ago.

Who were these mammoths? The first mammoths in Africa were medium sized and probably resembled modern Asian elephants. As the mammoths moved out Africa they became larger and, we assume, better adapted to a cooler climate. The mammoths that arrived on the Pacific were quite large and somewhat hairy, but not woolly. They were adapted to the winters of inner Eurasia, but those winters were not that cold yet. The ice ages were just beginning. As these Eurasian mammoths changed and adapted, we define different stages of their evolution as distinct species even though there are no dramatic breaks along the way. The number and names of these progressive species are debatable.* I'm going to call the one that arrived at the eastern edge of Eurasia, Mammuthus trogontherii, the steppe mammoth.

At the right time, 1.5 or so million years ago, the steppe mammoths were able to walk straight into Alaska. In its coldest phases, the ice age locked up enough water in land-based icecaps to lower the oceans over 400 feet (130m). This dried up the Chukchi Sea and the northern half of the Bering Sea. Beringia, the "land bridge" connecting Alaska and Siberia, wasn't a narrow isthmus; it was wider than Alaska. Most of that lost water sat on Canada in a layer of ice two miles, or more, thick, blocking the way further into the continent. Due to a trick of the weather patterns, western Siberia, Alaska, the Yukon, and Beringia were dry at that time except for some mountain glaciers. When the ice caps melted, the water flooded Beringia, stranding some steppe mammoth herds in North America while opening the whole continent to them. Once enough ice had melted off Canada to make traveling easy, they found tasty prairie grass all the way south to Florida and Mexico. Although the steppe mammoth didn't change much after arriving in America, I'm going to call it the Columbian mammoth from here on.

Beringia. Source.

The ice age was not a singular event. It's a convergence of geologic conditions that make it possible for great continental ice sheets to form. Once those preconditions are in place, other factors, mostly astronomical, push the climate over the edge into a glacial period. We are still living in ice age preconditions and are about six thousand years beyond what should have been the peak warm centuries of this cycle. Things should be very slowly cooling, not rapidly warming, but we kind of screwed that up. We're not sure yet how many glacial advances there have been. Once the idea of an ice age was accepted, European geologists began mapping where the front edge of the ice had been. In places, they found a second, older front edge further out, then a third, then a forth. The idea that there had been four glacial advances, about 100,000 years apart, held for most of a century but, after WWII, we started sailing around the world, drilling holes in things, counting layers, and teasing apart isotope ratios. It turns out there have been eight big 100,000 year cycles. And before that, there were milder 41,000 year cycles. A lot of them.

The steppe mammoths passed through Beringia during one of the small cycles approximately 1.5 million years ago. The long cycles began 740,000 years, ago leaving 15-20 cycles for Columbian and steppe mammoths to periodically connect in Beringia before then.** What happened next? Each cold cycle was colder than the previous one. Columbian mammoths lived on a prairie that extended north-south. When the ice sheets grew in Canada, they could move south to a zone that better suited them. Dealing with the cold phases was harder for the steppe mammoths back in Eurasia. Their prairie extended east-west inland. Moving away from Beringia into Asia, the climate got worse, not better for them. They needed to evolve to survive.

By the time the long, deep ice age cycles began, the steppe mammoths closest to Beringia had accumulated enough useful mutations that we can call them a new species. These mammoths not only had long, thick hair, they had two layers of shedable wool under it. Their bodies had taken on a shorter, more compact form. Their blood hemoglobin found a way to more efficiently bond with oxygen at low temperatures. All of their extremities had modifications to resist cold. We call them Mammuthus primigenius, the woolly mammoth (you probably guessed that). In a short period, woolly mammoths expanded westward and replaced the last steppe mammoths all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Eastward, they were able to colonize Beringia, after which they ran into ice-covered Canada.

During a later interglacial, when the path through Canada opened and the Bering Strait returned, woolly mammoths expanded southward. Unlike in Europe, they did not replace their cousins oon North America. Woolly mammoths co-evolved with a mosaic of clumping grasses and flowering herbs to form a distinct environment called the mammoth steppe. This environment was distinct from the prairie the Columbian mammoths' preferred and the Arctic tundra that currently covers much of the woolly mammoths' old territory. Although the two species mixed along the boundary of their preferred grazing lands, neither penetrated very deeply into the other's turf.***

The third mammoth was both a type and a species. Let me explain. The action around the Bering Strait/Land Bridge happened all over the world. When the seas went down, new lands were created or made easily accessible. Humans took advantage low water to colonize Australia and North America. In Europe, mammoths and straight-tusked elephants took advantage of narrow straits to colonize big islands in the Mediterranean. In California, a group of Columbian mammoths swam out to, Santarosae Island, an island  that was created when low water joined the northern Channel Islands into one mass. Where the islands were large enough, these intrepid mammoth (and S-T elephant) explorers established permanent populations. Then something interesting happened. They shrank. It's called the island effect. If there are no major carnivores, birds tend to become big, fat, and flightless. Other small animals also become large. Big herbivores, however, become smaller. Huge size, which was once useful for resisting predators, is a liability in a place with a limited food supply. The mammoth that only needs a third or an eighth the fodder of a mainland mammoth is the one who will survive a drought on an island. At the last glacial maximum, there were at least six species of pygmy elephants living around the world who came from at least three different ancestral lines (Tori Herridge has a book on them coming out next year).

Mainland and Island Mammoths. Source.

The Channel Islands pygmy mammoths, Mammuthus exilis, appeared and shrank sometime before the second to last glacial maximum. They survived the last warm period, even though the island shrank, broke into four parts, and then rejoined into one. The colonization of the island was not quite a one time thing. Santarosae Island was only about four miles from the mainland when the sea level was lowest. Elephants are excellent swimmers; twenty miles is not a problem for a planned swim. Over the entire time pygmy mammoths inhabited the Channel Islands, full sized Columbian mammoths continued to appear on the islands. One tenth of the mammoth bones found on the islands are Columbians.

Santarosae Island. Source.

The skull in question is not the most recent mammoth found on the island. This one is about 13,000 years old. The youngest is about 11,000 years old and within the margin of error of the first appearance of humans on the island. There's no indication of human contact wit this fossil and, if there was, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. We have evidence of direct contact (hunting) in New Mexico, Washington, and Siberia at earlier dates than this. What makes this interesting is the skull itself. It doesn't look like any of the other three mammoth species, and it's also not a mastodon.

Dwarfed mammoths/elephants are not perfect miniatures of their ancestors; they make adjustments to their specific environments because that's how evolution works. The proportions of the leg bones of the Channel Islands mammoths changed to better climb the steep hills on the island[s]. In common with other island dwarf elephants, their tusks shrank much more than their bodies. Large tusks are a big energy drain. The whole point of dwarfing is to conserve energy.

The Santarosae Skull. Source.

The new discovery is interesting because it doesn't neatly fit into any of our existing mammoth categories. It's bigger than a typical Island mammoth, but smaller than a mainland Columbian. Since this is near the end of the reign of the mammoths, it's not a partially dwarfed mammoth. Is it a young Columbian that swam out to the island? Probably, but here's what makes it intriguing. It has two well developed tusks, which are very asymmetrical. The left tusk curves down and forward in a gentle arc like a young Columbian or woolly mammoth. The right tusk curves down, out, back up, and inward like a very mature Columbian or woolly mammoth. One tusk is probably pathological, misshapen due to an injury or disease when it was younger. But, which one. So far, they have only the skull. With it out, they'll begin excavating beneath and around the site hunting for other bones. These will help answer exactly what the skull is. Is it merely a deformed individual or is it evidence of something new--not an asymmetrical mammoth, but perhaps an unknown disease.

Like all discovery stories, this one trails off while we wait for more details. Maybe, in a few months, after more of the skeleton has been excavated and the skull cleaned and examined, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History will issue a press release telling us about their progress, and the science press will deem it interesting enough to tell us about it. If not, we'll wait a couple years until one of the investigators publishes a scientific paper on it.

Meanwhile, we have only the mammoth. It would be great if this mammoth told us something amazing and universal about mammoths, evolution, extinction, human impact on the environment, or how climate change happens. It probably will not. It probably will only tell us about this mammoth. And that's great. Every living thing is an individual with its own life story and its own death story. Sue the T-rex is covered with scars that ripped into her very bones showing battles and injuries that she survived. Most of the famous frozen mammoths died horrible deaths by drowning or burial alive. My favorite, however, died a natural death on a spring day. He simply wore out and fell to the ground. He had a belly full of willow twigs, which is not typical mammoth fodder. But willow is a natural source of aspirin. The old mammoth had several arthritic vertebrae and was self-medicating. I suspect what's going to be most interesting about this mammoth is going to be its personal life history. What happened to its tusks? Why did it swim out from the mainland? Is there some datable event on the mainland, like a fire, that we can tie to its voyage? As a young mammoth on an island, younger and bigger than most of the others, what killed it? Do humans fit into this story somehow?

We know more about mammoths than any prehistorically extinct animal. By far. We have recovered scores of complete mammoth skeletons illustrating a large stretch of their evolution. We have recovered soft tissues of over forty individuals. We have DNA from over 100. We have stomach and gut contents of over a dozen. We have human illustrations of them in life. The next step is life histories of individual mammoths. This is how one ugly mammoth can be immortalized. It probably did not have an easy life and it died young. Let's not lose it in the back room of a museum and forget it. Let's take a good look at it and remember it. Even if it was an evil mammoth fleeing mammoth justice, its story deserves to be told. I want to hear it.

* Taxonimists are divided into two camps, spliters and lumpers. The former create new species based on any perceived difference in fossils (or living populations). The latter follow them around grumpily sweeping their profuse numbers of species back into a manageable number of piles. By 1940, the authoritative work on elephant taxonomy, Henry Fairfield Osborn's Proboscidea, identified 362 species in 44 genera including sixteen species of mammoths in North America alone. Today, about 175 species of probiscideans are recognized and that includes all the new species discovered since Osborn's time.

** As far as I can tell, no one has calculated a timeline of when the Strait was open and when it was closed. Geology in Alaska is years, even decades, behind the rest of the country. It's a big, empty place; difficult to get to; and plagued by hostile climate extremes, irritable bears, and armed libertarians. For many questions, gathering data is tricky and dangerous. But for others, the oil companies have collected great data, but it remains un-analysed and un-published. My question of when the Bering Strait was open or closed is a perfect example. While hunting for an answer, I came across scientific paper after paper with maps of drilling projects in the Chukchi and Bering Seas. But no one has tried using all that data to create a timeline.

*** Get it, turf?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book update

My publisher just showed me a mockup if the book cover. There are some changes that we want to try out. When everyone is agreed on a version, I'll get to show you all. There've been some delays at the publisher (they moved their editorial offices) and my release has been bumped back to June. This gives up plenty of time to work on a pitch to out friends as to why woolly mammoths are the perfect summer read. More to come...

Monday, July 04, 2016

Paul Ryan wants us to have a great Fourth... or something

Today, Paul Ryan's office issued an Independence Day statement. This should be a standard job that any political intern can do on autopilot. Just copy and paste some patriotic platitudes in a reasonable order and you're done. Go enjoy the weekend. Or so I thought. Apparently making sense out of the platitude file takes some talent.

WASHINGTON—Today, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) released the following statement in commemoration of Independence Day:
"On this year’s Fourth, we can celebrate the historic document that was signed—and the self-evident truths it declared. We can celebrate the historic battles that were fought so that those truths would embrace all of our people. We can remember the extraordinary men and women, so dedicated to those truths, who died on this day—and the millions of others whose names we’ll never know. Or we can remember—and give thanks—that we live in a country where all these things are possible. We still believe in those self-evident truths. We still struggle to live up to them. And really, what that struggle represents is the pursuit of happiness. So today, with great gratitude, we celebrate our independence."

It starts well and ends okay, but is incoherent in the middle. Let's unpack it.

It begins with a press release framing and puts the rest in quotes and italics so that we'll know these are his own special words. This is routine.

On this year’s Fourth, we can celebrate the historic document that was signed—and the self-evident truths it declared.

So far, so good. I would have started by calling it Independence Day rather than the Fourth, but that's just me.

We can celebrate the historic battles that were fought so that those truths would embrace all of our people.

Remember the fallen. Still good. You can never go wrong by reminding people that this is solemn, yet joyous occasion. Now it gets a little confusing.

We can remember the extraordinary men and women, so dedicated to those truths, who died on this day...

Who died on this day? Which extraordinary men and women? Was there a significant battle fought on July 4, 1776? How many women died in that battle? You're not saying "men and women" to be politically correct, are you? Or are you talking about all the American men and women (at least the extraordinary ones) who died on all 240 Fourths since then?

...and the millions of others whose names we’ll never know.

Millions died on the Fourth?! Are we counting all the Fourths since humans first strode the earth? Are we counting foreigners who died on the Fourth?

Or we can remember—and give thanks—that we live in a country where all these things are possible.

Is it an either/or prospect? Can't we do both? And which things are we talking about? So far, all you've mentioned are signing historic documents and dying on the Fourth of July.

We still believe in those self-evident truths.

The truths which you haven't seen fit to describe. I guess they really are self-evident.

We still struggle to live up to them.

How does one live up to a self-evident truth?

And really, what that struggle represents is the pursuit of happiness.

Thank goodness for that. For a moment there I thought we were struggling to die on the Fourth.

So today, with great gratitude, we celebrate our independence.

He then climbed into a fighter jet and took off to do battle with aliens over southern Nevada.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why did Russia abandoned Alaska?

For reasons I no longer remember, I signed up for Quora some time back. If you've never been there, Quora is a social media site where people ask questions and the site tries to match them up with who can answer the questions. As a break from working on the book, this spring, I started looking at the questions they sent to me. I do not understand their sorting algorithm. Okay, I went to UofWA, I understand why I get questions on that. I live in Anchorage, Alaska, so I understand getting question on both parts of that. I volunteered mammoths so I expect questions on that and understand why I get occasional questions on paleontology.

Then there are the silly questions. Some silly questions have nothing to do with anything have claimed any knowledge of. Typical among these would be something like: "If Godzilla and Optimus Prime was to fight, who would win? Posted, December 2014. 47 answers. 98k views." Even if I had a strong opinion, why would I pur myself at the bottom of that queue? (By the way, the answer is King Kong, who would let them beat themselves into rubble, then squash their remains.) The most "relevant" question I get is endless variations of "What would happen if Russia invaded Alaska? (Answer: It would be one of the stupidest military moves in the history of stupid military moves.) Another too frequent question is some variation of "Why is Alaska part of the US instead of still Russia/Canada/Japan/Ecuador/Senegal?" Today, I had one of the latter. It was just posted and the only answer was very brief, so, on a whim, I decided to give the questioner a serious answer. Mind you, I did this mostly from memory (based on reading Hector Chevigny's Russian America back in the 80s). I expect my Alaskan friends to correct numerous details.

Why did Russia abandoned (sic) Alaska?

Russian America was an expensive liability. It had never particularly been profitable. Since Eastern Siberia had no roads to speak of, it was far too difficult to settle. The Russian America Company had exhausted the sources of the most profitable fur animals. The few Russians there bought most of their food and supplies from California, meaning much of the small amount of wealth the colony produced was not going to Russia. The incompetent rule by the Russian America Company was becoming an embarrassment to the imperial government, as difficult as that was to accomplish. And it was impossible to defend. Russia had no navy to speak of in the Pacific and the transport situation in Siberia meant it would have taken months, even a full year, to move troops there.

That last point was the final straw. In 1854, during the Crimean War, french and British forces laid siege to Petropavlovsk, the main town on the Kamchatka Peninsula and the main port serving Russian America. Although the siege was unsuccessful, it greatly alarmed the imperial government. If the western allies had attacked the capital of the colony, Novo Arkhangelsk (Sitka), there would nave been nothing to stop them. Britain would almost certainly have annexed it to Canada (which didn’t yet exist, but you get the idea) which would have been a huge humiliation to the imperial government, especially considering how big it looks on the map.

After the California Gold Rush, some of the newly rich entrepreneurs in San Francisco had expressed interest in buying the colony to monopolize it’s fishing potential. Their offer was not without precedent. The area around Ft. Ross, California was controlled by the Russian America Company for about thirty years although the imperial government had never made a formal claim to it. When that area was trapped out and efforts to produce food for Russian America turned out to be less productive than they hoped, the company sold its claims to John Sutter, who promptly discovered gold there. The imperial government had no interest in letting the company sell the colony, but once the idea was implanted in their minds, it looked like a possible way to unload the colony with the minimum amount of embarrassment.

The younger brother of tsar Alexander II was a major proponent of the sale, and negotiations were well along when Lincoln was elected the Civil War broke out. In the US, one of the major proponents of the purchase was California senator William Gwin, who briefly advocated for California secession before being arrested. Back in the colony, a new governor had started making the long needed reforms. However, when gossip reached them about the eagerness of the government to dump the colony, all his efforts were put on hold. One by one, families began to pack up and return to Russia. After the war, The American Secretary of State, William Seward, one of the founders of the Republican Party and a proponent of the purchase since day one, negotiated the final sale and convinced the Republican Senate to rarity the treaty.

There is an interesting side note to the story. Russia and the US had always had a good relationship. Catherine the Great was one of the first foreign heads of state to recognize American independence. These good feelings continued for the next century, aided by the fact that we had almost nothing to with each other and knew almost nothing about each other, except that our relations with the British were often tense. In 1863, a bloody rebellion broke out in Russian Poland. As France had always been a supporter of the Poles, the imperial government feared a reopening of the Crimean War hostilities. This time their great fear was that Britain and France would move against their fleet which was bottled up in the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, the French and British had been helping Confederate blockade runners and even threatened to recognize the Southern government. A deal was struck, whereby the Russian left the Baltic while these still could and sailed to New York. This saved the Russian fleet and was seen as a major show of support for the Union by a major European power. Mixed in with the purchase price for the Alaska was a Union payment for the the Russian fleet’s expenses. Hiding this payment was one more reason for Russia to go ahead with the sale.

And they all lived happily ever after except for the Russians in Alaska who were fairly quickly driven out by the military governor sent to administer the new acquisition, a very bitter man named Jefferson Davis who—probably correctly—believed that his name had frozen his military career and deprived him of the opportunity to find glory and promotions during the war.

I've already had on upvote.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Now what am I supposed to do?

Have I mentioned lately that I was writing a book? Yep, little, old me. Saturday, I finished it. It's written, proofed, noted, biblographied, illustrated, and captioned. Then I tied it up with a virtual bow and shipped it off to my agent. It weighs in at a petite 88,592 words. This morning I heard back from her. She thinks it's satisfactory, or, as she put it, "You are amazing! Not many first time authors (or seasoned ones!) can deliver so complete—and to my quick perusal—excellent, an enchilada on such a tight timeline." I am rather proud of my enchiladas.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trilobite note

Almost six years ago, I wrote a piece about an early trilobite discovery and evidence of prehistoric and pre-literate knowledge of the nature of trilobites. It was pretty good and was included in The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs, 2010. Flash forward to this weekend. Catching up on my mail, I found a letter from a museum conservator in Utah asking about the source of one of the illustrations in the post and asking about a higher resolution version of it.

I wasn't very good about linking to the sources of illustrations back then. I have since learned better. Worse, the files and drafts of old blog posts are all on the hard drive of a computer that died about three years ago. I figured it wouldn't be that hard to redo the search I made that found the illustration in the first place. I was wrong. I tried Googling the location where the trilobite in question was found. I flipped to the image page and found several copies of the illustration. All of them linked back to me. This is flattering, but not helpful.

The illustration.

After noodling around for a while, I figured out how to find it. I found a scientific paper that mentioned the discovery (as a bonus, it had a photograph of the fossil). From that I found the name of the discoverer and the French journal that published his original report. I did a quick search to see if I could find it online. I couldn't, so I went Gallica, the site that has scanned copies of books and journals in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. There I had no problem finding the illustration, not in the original journal, but in one a few years later. My Google fu is still amazing. While looking for the illustration, I found out a good deal more about that fossil and decided to share it.

Adrien-Jacques-François Ficatier was an army doctor stationed in Paris during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He was also an amateur archaeologist. During the 1880s, he spent several summers poking around caves in the Yonne region southeast of Paris looking for artifacts. In 1886 he explored one of a series of caves just upstream from Arcy-sur-Cure. This cave is almost 60 meters long with a thick layer of earth, rich in artifacts, covering the bottom. The lowest layers have been dated to 35,000 years ago--well before the last glacial maximum. Ficatier excavated the two upper layers in the cave which date 14-15,000 years ago. There he found bones of horse and reindeer along with hundreds of pieces of worked flint, four needles, three spears, and several pieces that had been drilled to be worn as pendants. These were a wolf's tooth, four scallops, other marine shells, a beetle carved from pine, and a trilobite.

The trilobite is small--43 mm long and 23 mm at its widest point--and well worn as if it has been handled a lot. There are tiny holes on either side that would have been used to hang it. In 1897, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, the Society of Historic and Natural Sciences of the Yonne organized a series of excursions to the caves of Arcy-sur-Cure and St. Moré to compliment the usual dinners and lectures. Henri Douvillé, an  influential professor of paleontology at the École des Mines, told the Society that the trilobite belonged to the species Dalmanites hawlei found in Bohemia (the Czech Republic). More recent paleontologists have questioned that identification, but all agree that it was not a local fossil.

The trilobite.

The stratum where the trilobite was found has been dated to about 14,000 years ago. This is after the glacial maximum had passed, but during a sudden cold snap called the Older Dryas. The human culture of the time, called Magdalenian, was originally identified as one of great reindeer hunters. They had an improved set of hunting tools and were using dogs. Of course, they didn't just hunt reindeer. It was at about this time that mammoths died out in Europe.

There was more to their culture than just hunting. They manufactured items for personal adornment. The little trilobite meant something to them. It had enough value that it was a worthy object for long distance trade. What it meant is hard to say. One of the other items Dr. Ficatier excavated that summer might offer some context. The only manufactured amulet is a wood-borer beetle carved from lignite. Like the trilobite, it has holes drilled on the sides, rather than the top, for hanging. In many parts of the world where trilobites were traditionally called some variation of "stone insects". Was the trilobite significant because it resembled a beetle? Were these people the clan of the cave beetle? No one knows.

The best image.

After the summer was over and he returned to his job, Ficatier wrote up his field notes and they were published in a regional journal the Almanach historique de l'Yonne de 1887. It is here that the illustration first appeared. Over the next ten years, it was published in at least three journals that I know of. I've taken my image from the Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie et de biologie de Lyon. The fossil itself, along with the beetle were placed in a museum in Joigny. Later that collection was moved to the Musée de l'Avallonnais. The museum's displays are mostly of local artists. There is an archaeology room, but I have been unable to determine if the trilobite, or the beetle, is part of the permanent display.

One final note. While looking for some biographical information on Ficatier I found out that a Playboy playmate from the 80's named Carol Ficatier is from Auxerre near Arcy-sur-Cure. I don't know how common the name Ficatier is in that part of France but, if it's not common, there's a possibility that they're related. Fame takes many forms.

The uncredited image.
Me. "The First Trilobite," Mammoth Tales. 10/14/2015 (reprint).

The photograph.
Schmider, Béatrice, et al. "L'abri du Lagopède (fouilles Leroi-Gourhan) et le Magdalénien des grottes de la Cure (Yonne)," Gallia préhistoire. Vol. 37,  No. 1 (1995)  pp. 55-114.

The credited image.
"Communication de M. PHILIPPE SALMON, L'Age de la pierre," Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie et de biologie de Lyon, Vol. 6 (1891) pp. 13-18.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ryan's SUPER SECRET plan to steal the election

Lately, I've seen a couple articles explaining how Republicans could keep Trump out of the White House without using convention shenanigans. It would have the added bonus of also keeping the Democratic nominee out. The secret lies in a little known provision of the Constitution to throw the election to the House. There are two versions. Both are pretty ridiculous speculation. They involve the Electoral College...

Most people know that the president is not chosen by a popular vote, they're chosen by the Electoral College (fun fact: the phrase "Electoral College" is not in the Constitution). That same most people probably don't think about what that means very often, if ever. When we vote for in November, we are not voting for our preferred presidential candidate. We are voting for a slate of people who promise to vote for that candidate five weeks later in Washington. If no one gets a majority in that election the House of Representatives holds its own election. Each state gets one vote. To get that, the state delegations hold a mini-election. The winner of that vote is the state's vote in the House vote. Got that?

Here's version one, from Huffington Post. Faced with Trump being their candidate, panicking establishment Republicans slap together a third party team that takes enough electoral votes from both sides that neither one has a majority. The election is thrown to the Republican dominated House who elect their chosen third party team. There are several glaring flaws in this clever scheme. In many states, it's already too late to get onto the ballot. More importantly, getting votes is not enough; they need to take entire states to collect electors. In 1992, Ross Perot (remember him?) gained 19 million, votes but didn't win a single state. Even more difficult is the fact that these states have to draw from both sides of the aisle to throw the vote to the House. It's hard to imagine Democratic leaning states to flock to the banner of a hand-picked, Republican establishment team.

Version two is from the Washington Post. This one is not only unlikely, it has the added feature of causing a major constitutional crisis. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution says: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors... [italics mine]." In the early days of the Republic, many states did not allow the voters to choose the electors. The manner they directed was for the legislature to hold a vote for the electoral slates. This was based on the general fear of mob rule held by the upper classes. This is why many states originally only extended the vote to property owners and why Senators were not elected by a popular vote until 1913.

The version two clever scheme is that a bunch of states will change their laws returning the election of electors to the legislatures. The majority of states have Republican legislatures making it possible to steal the election from both Trump and the Democratic candidate. The result would be be multiple constitutional crises at both the federal and state level, endless lawsuits, hundreds of recall elections, and probably violent protests. Changing electoral law in the middle of an election is the worst election idea in the history of bad election ideas.

Basically, if Trump comes to the convention with a majority of the delegates, or even a good plurality, the Republicans have to go with him. Yes, his candidacy is almost guaranteed to be a disaster, but all the alternatives are worse.