Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The magnetic fingerprint

Back in 1963, Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews came up with a groundbreaking idea (pun very much intended); that the Earth's crust is divided into a bunch of chunks called plates that are all moving relative to each other, and that this is what causes virtually all earthquakes and volcanoes.

The main evidence for this dramatic paradigm shift in our understanding of how geology works came from the discovery on the ocean floor of regions of hardened lava that have opposite magnetic signatures.  When molten rock freezes, tiny magnetic particles that were free to move when they were in a liquid become locked into place, acting like billions of little compass needles recording the direction of the Earth's magnetic field at the time.  As you undoubtedly know, the positions of the magnetic poles flip, on average every three hundred thousand years (although the actual intervals vary greatly, for reasons that are still unknown).  So the rocks Vine and Matthews studied, on either side of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which showed symmetrically-arranged parallel stripes of magnetic signatures, showed that new oceanic crust was being formed all the time at the ridge, driving the plates apart and gradually widening the Atlantic Ocean.

Well, it turns out that lava isn't the only thing that can record what the magnetic field is doing.  According to a study last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, so can pottery.

When clay is fired, its chemical structure changes, fusing into ceramic.  Different clays fire to different temperatures; in our kiln we fire our work to 1220 C (2232 F), which works for the clays classified as stonewares and mid-fire porcelains.  If we were to fire a high-fire porcelain to that temperature, it would still be brittle and not water-tight; fire an earthenware clay to that temperature, and it (literally) would melt.  (The difference is in the formulation of the clay, which is a complex subject about which I am still learning.)

But when you fire any clay to the correct temperature for that type, it effectively turns to stone.  The particles fuse together, giving it strength and resistance to breaking.  And this has the effect of locking into place any magnetic particles the clay may contain -- same as with Vine and Matthews's solidified lava on the ocean floor.

White stoneware vase with a cobalt splatter glaze

The reason this topic comes up is the discovery by a research team out of University College London of the fact that some earthenware bricks dating to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (605-562 B.C.E.) show a magnetic particle pattern indicating a strange and sudden surge in the strength of the magnetic field -- something that has been nicknamed the Levantine Iron Age Geomagnetic Anomaly.

"It is really exciting that ancient artifacts from Mesopotamia help to explain and record key events in Earth history such as fluctuations in the magnetic field," said study co-author Mark Altaweel.  "It shows why preserving Mesopotamia’s ancient heritage is important for science and humanity more broadly."

Noting this odd magnetic fingerprint -- the cause of which is as yet unexplained -- has another added benefit; once they've identified it in items of known age (as with the bricks, that had an identifying stamp), it can be used to date ceramic items that have no such marks.

It makes me wonder what kind of record I'm creating in my own pottery.  When we have pieces with too many flaws to be worth keeping, we shatter them against the cement wall along the back of our house (there's now a pile of pottery shards at the base of the wall).  We think of it as our ongoing effort to confuse future archaeologists.  But supposing they do piece together some of our failed attempts at bowls and mugs and various sculptures, maybe they'll find out something more than our dubious skill at making pottery -- but what the Earth itself was doing in 2023.


Friday, December 29, 2023

Lords of the air

Ever since I was a kid, my favorite group of dinosaurs has been the pterosaurs.

These are one of the six groups of animals that independently evolved flight, or at least significant capacity for gliding (the others are insects, birds, bats, flying squirrels, sugar gliders, and colugos).  They had incredible diversity at their height, during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, from the pint-sized Sordes pilosus (with a sixty-centimeter wingspan) to the almost unimaginably huge Quetzalcoatlus northropi (with a ten-meter wingspan, as big as a light plane).

Most of them were probably clumsy on the ground -- it's hard to imagine how Quetzalcoatlus got off the ground -- but in the air, they were nimble, maneuverable, and fast.  The smaller ones were probably insect-eaters; the larger ones likely fed on fish, although a terrestrial diet of small reptiles and mammals is also possible. 

What brings all this up is the discovery of a new species of pterosaur, one of dozens that have been identified from the Jehol Biota, a stupendous fossil deposit in northeastern China near Huludao.  This fossil bed has produced not only pterosaurs but incredibly well-preserved species of prehistoric birds and other vertebrates -- it's like a tapestry of late Cretaceous animal life.

"Pterosaurs comprise an important and enigmatic group of Mesozoic flying reptiles that first evolved active flight among vertebrates, and have filled all aerial environmental niches for almost 160 million years," said Xiaolin Wang, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who co-authored the paper describing the discovery.  "Despite being a totally extinct group, they have achieved a wide diversity of forms in a window of time spanning from the Late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous period.  Notwithstanding being found on every continent, China stands out by furnishing several new specimens that revealed not only different species, but also entire new clades."

This includes the newly-discovered Meilifeilong youhao, belonging to the family Chaoyangopteridae, which is represented at the site by two other species that have been found nowhere else.

Meilifeilong looked like something out of a nightmare, if the artist's reconstruction is accurate (and probably even if it isn't):

[Image courtesy of artist Maurilio Oliveira]

The name means "beautiful flying dragon," which I doubt is what I'd say if I saw one, but what I'd say is borderline unprintable so we'll leave it at that.

It's astonishing to think of how long these creatures ruled the skies -- from the late Triassic until the very end of the Cretaceous, a time span of around 160 million years.  Had change not come in the form of the Chicxulub Meteorite collision, they might well still be here, soaring on thermals above our forests and lakes and oceans, the undisputed lords of the air.  And even if we now know them only from fossils, they still can't help but impress.


Thursday, December 28, 2023

The train to CrazyTown

It always astonishes me how much it takes for people to say to some nonsense-spouting pseudo-pundit, "You are nuttier than squirrel shit, and I am no longer listening to anything you say."

Or, more accurately, I don't know how much it takes, because it almost never happens.  Once people have decided they like someone's views, it seems like it's damn near impossible to get them to change their minds.  Said pundit could go on national television and say, "Scientists have found that the mantle of the Earth is not made of molten magma, it's made of my Grandma Betty's Special Tasty Banana Pudding," and I swear, 95% of the followers would just nod along as if this was a revelation from the Lord Almighty Himself.

It may come as a significant surprise that for once, I'm not talking about Donald Trump.  No, this time the person who has given strong evidence that he's been doing sit-ups underneath parked cars is Tucker Carlson, disgraced ex-Fox News commentator, who despite being too obnoxiously racist even for Fox, is still somehow finding venues for his insane vitriol.  (One of them, unsurprisingly, is The Social Media Platform Formerly Known As Twitter, because Elon Musk appears to be as much of a bigot as Carlson, if arguably a bit saner.)

The latest missive from Tucker Carlson, though, amazingly has nothing to do with how brown-skinned immigrants are coming for all of us white people.  It concerns UFOs (or UAPs, as I guess we're now all supposed to call them), and springboards off the kerfuffle the last few months about government cover-ups of what David Grusch elliptically referred to as "non-human biological entities."  (Fer cryin' in the sink, if you mean the A-word, say the A-word.  And yes, I'm being deliberately ironic by not saying the A-word myself.)

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Carlson, though, has no such sense of delicacy, but he thinks they're not extraterrestrial species -- at least in the conventional sense.  Here's what he said, as part of a two-hour interview which I made it through about fifteen minutes of, before my forehead hurt so much from faceplanting that I decided discretion is the better part of valor and gave up:

It’s my personal belief based on a fair amount of evidence that they’re not aliens.  They’ve always been here, and I do think it’s spiritual,  There are forces that aren’t human that do exist in a spiritual realm of some kind, that we cannot see, and that when you think about it, will sorta make you think we live in an ant farm...  I do know that informed people have said that the U.S. government has an agreement with these entities.

The whole thing smacks of the "prison planet" hypothesis, whose most vocal supporter is Ellis Silver, about whom I wrote here at Skeptophilia a while back.  The idea is that humans evolved elsewhere in the universe, and our ancestors were transported to Earth because we're so violent, and we're stuck here until we learn our lesson.  (Given recent world events, we don't seem to be catching on very quickly.)

In any case, Carlson takes it a step further, hybridizing Silver's ideas with the Book of Enoch and various episodes of The X Files to create a new brand of batshittery all his own.  In short, he seems to have taken on a job as conductor of the Express Train to CrazyTown, and a significant slice of Americans are just thrilled to hop on board.

So I encourage you to watch the interview (linked above), if you've got the stomach for it.  Myself, I have a hard time watching Tucker Carlson even with the sound turned off, because in my opinion he's only beaten out narrowly by Ted Cruz in the contest for the World's Most Punchable Face.  But given that Carlson has been floated seriously as a contender for the vice presidential choice for whomever the Republican nominee is for president in 2024, and a possible candidate for president in his own right in 2028, it behooves us all to be aware that he appears to be a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  To quote skeptic Jason Colavito, "That a leading contender for high office and one of the most influential figures on the right believes in some variation of Nephilim Theory is depressing.  That a powerful network of advocates has infiltrated both political parties to spread ancient mythology as though it were scientific revelation, and government and media cheer them on, is terrifying."


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The forbidden light

In the early nineteenth century, two scientists -- Joseph von Fraunhofer and Charles Wheatstone -- independently observed something strange; if you heated up samples of various elements, they emitted a light spectrum that contained strong peaks at certain frequencies, showing up as bright lines instead of a continuous rainbow of colors.

It quickly became obvious that this property could be used to identify the presence of different elements in mixed samples.  In fact, helium was discovered when French astronomer Georges Rayet found emission lines in the solar spectrum that didn't correspond to any other known element, making it the only element in the periodic table first detected somewhere other than on Earth.  (The name helium comes from the Greek Ἥλιος, meaning the Sun.)

Figuring out why this phenomenon occurred, though, took almost a hundred years.  The explanation, due in large part to the work of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, has to do with the fact that the electron shells in atoms are quantized -- there are only certain allowed energy levels, so an atom has to absorb a particular frequency of light in order for one of its electrons to jump to the next level (or, conversely, to drop to a lower level, the atom has to emit a photon of a particular frequency).  This simultaneously explained the specificity of emission spectra and the odd phenomenon of absorption spectra, where broad-spectrum light passing through transparent substances shows dark lines where certain frequencies are absorbed, effectively subtracting them from the beam.

So each element has its own distinctive "fingerprint" of spectral lines, which is how researchers here on Earth can determine the chemical composition of distant stars, and even the constituents of the atmospheres of exoplanets.

The emission spectrum of iron [Image is in the Public Domain]

However -- as usual -- even this rather complex model has some unexpected twists.

Very rarely, the electrons in atoms will undergo forbidden transitions, resulting in light being emitted that should not be possible from the element in question.  (A simple analogy is if you were climbing a staircase, and somehow were able to go up by one-and-three-quarters steps.)  These transitions are highly unstable (just as your attempted ascent would be), and the electron almost instantaneously collapses back into one of the allowed energy states, but when it does so the atom emits a frequency of light you wouldn't expect.  So these aren't so much forbidden as they are extremely improbable; in ordinary situations, their contribution to the light spectrum is vanishingly small.

But in very high energy conditions, where the electrons are bouncing all over the place millions of times per second, you begin to see a significant contribution from forbidden transitions.

The reason this comes up is because of a study of a Seyfert galaxy named MCG 01-24-014Seyfert galaxies, named after American astronomer Carl Keenan Seyfert who studied them extensively, look superficially like ordinary spiral galaxies, but have an active galactic nucleus.  This latter name is a massive understatement, mostly because astronomers shy away from calling something "Holy Shit This Thing Is Super Bright, No Really You Have No Idea How Bright It Is."  The center bit of a Seyfert galaxy has a luminosity equal to the luminosity of all the stars of the Milky Way put together, and is thought to be the result of large quantities of material falling rapidly into a supermassive black hole.  Most of the light emitted is outside of the visible spectrum -- thus their ordinary appearance through a telescope -- but when viewed in other frequency ranges, it becomes obvious how weird they are.  

The Circinus Galaxy, one of the best-studied Seyfert galaxies [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

And MCG 01-24-014 is really peculiar -- emitting far more light from forbidden transitions than even an average Seyfert galaxy would.  So whatever is powering its galactic core is running full-throttle.

The forbidden light of Seyfert galaxies provides us with yet another example of "you think you understand, then nature throws you a curve ball."

Sometimes you hear the criticism levied at scientists that all the technical details somehow take away from the wonder of simply looking up and delighting at the beauty of the night sky.  I can't speak for anyone else, but for me, the exact opposite is true.  I can still go outside on a clear winter's night and look up at my favorite naked-eye astronomical object -- the Pleiades -- and fully appreciate how lovely it is, but my enjoyment is increased further by knowing that it's a cluster of recently-formed hot blue supergiant stars inside the wispy strands of a reflection nebula.  

Understanding and appreciation shouldn't be inversely proportional.  The more I know, the more I wonder at the beauty, complexity, and strangeness of this universe in which we live.  The only frustrating part about it all is the limitation of my mind in comprehending it all.


Tuesday, December 26, 2023

A piece of the puzzle

Given how thoroughly explored the world seems to be, it's easy to assume that we've found pretty much everything there is to be found.  Yeah, we continue to stumble across small, obscure, well-hidden stuff -- frog species living in the deep parts of the rain forest, fossils buried under meters of sedimentary rock, a cache of flint tools out in the middle of the steppe.  That sort of thing.

The fact that sometimes we find something big and flashy sitting, as it were, right under our noses should give everyone hope that we are far from understanding everything there is to understand, and that we're not yet down to the level of simply cleaning up the minuscule details.

The latest example of this continues along the archaeological path we've been following for the past week or so, and looks at the discovery of a huge intact mosaic, made over two millennia ago, in Rome.  Not just in Rome, but on Palatine Hill, surely one of the best-studied, most thoroughly excavated historical sites in the world.

The mosaic, which has been described as "a jewel" by archaeologists, is estimated to be about 2,300 years old.  It was constructed of a variety of materials, including chips of marble and travertine, shells, pearls, coral, and pieces of a rare and expensive blue-green glass paste thought to have been imported from Alexandria, Egypt.  (The latter, Egyptian blue faience, is a semi-vitrified, or sintered, opaque quartz material colored with calcium copper silicate -- the exact recipe for which was a closely-guarded secret known only to a handful of master artisans.)

So whoever commissioned the mosaic -- at this point, unknown -- had money to burn.  The design appears to commemorate land and naval victories that were probably funded (if not actively led) by the project's patron.  There are also intricate decorative motifs, and fanciful representations of mythical creatures, including sea monsters swallowing enemy ships.  The wall holding the mosaic is thought to have been part of a large, ornate banquet hall.

A detail of the Palatine Hill mosaic [Image courtesy of photographer Emanuele Antonio Minerva]

“This banquet hall, which measures 25 square meters (270 square feet), is just one space within a domus (the Latin word for house) spread on several floors," said lead researcher Alfonsina Russo, head of Rome's Colosseum Archaeological Park.  "In ancient times, when powerful noble families inhabited the Palatine Hill, it was customary to use rich decorative elements as a symbol to show-off opulence and high social rank...  We have also found lead pipes embedded within the decorated walls, built to carry water inside basins or to make fountains spout to create water games."

Further excavation into the site might not only turn up more artifacts, but could reveal who had the structure built -- likely a Roman senator.  "The person was so rich they could afford to import such precious elements from across the empire to decorate this mansion," Russo said.  "We have found nothing so far to shed light on their identity, but we believe more research might enable us to pinpoint the noble family."

It will be fascinating to see what else the researchers find out about this site, occupied by a fabulously wealthy Roman at the height of the Roman Republic.  (When this was built -- if estimates of its age are correct -- the Empire was still in the future; the first Roman Emperor, Octavian/Augustus, was born in 63 B.C.E., at which point this mosaic would already have been over two hundred years old.)

So this should provide some incentive for people to keep looking.  We are far from finding everything there is to find, even here on the Earth's surface, much less out in space.  And whatever new bits we come across -- like this mosaic, hidden beneath one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world -- will add one more piece to the puzzle of the complex and beautiful universe in which we live.


Monday, December 25, 2023


A couple of days ago, a long-time reader of (and frequent contributor of topics for) Skeptophilia sent me an email saying "Time to get your Archaeo-Geek excited!", with a link to a study about archaeological finds in Australia.  I was really confused at first because I read "Geek" as "Greek" and was puzzled about how there could be an ancient Greek settlement in Australia. 

I need new glasses.

Anyhow, once I got that sorted, I found that the actual research was pretty amazing.  A team of archaeologists led by Kasih Norman of Griffith University has discovered artifacts dating back to the Late Pleistocene Epoch -- on the order of twenty thousand years ago -- indicating a large human population living in a thriving ecosystem, with rolling hills and a large freshwater lake, all of which are now at the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The authors write:

The submerged Northwest Shelf of Sahul (the combined landmass of Australia and New Guinea at times of lower sea level) was a vast area of land in the Late Pleistocene that connected the Australian regions of the Kimberley and western Arnhem Land during times of lower sea level than today.  The shelf extends >500 km northwest from the modern-day shoreline with a now-submerged landmass of ∼400,000 km2, an area more than 1.6 times larger than the United Kingdom.  The region might have been an area of initial entry for the peopling of Sahul.  Irrespective of the precise locations people used to disperse into Sahul, the Northwest Shelf is adjacent to the oldest known archaeological sites in Australia , and might have been one of the first inhabited landscapes on the continent.  Archaeological evidence for Late Pleistocene use of the continental shelves of Sahul by the First Australians is demonstrated on multiple large islands that are remnant portions of the continental margin, including Barrow Island, Kangaroo Island, Hunter Island, and Minjiwarra (Stradbroke Island).

The distribution of artifacts, which include stone axes, flint tools, and arrowheads, indicate at east two major pulses of settlement, which is cool because it lines up with what we know about the linguistics of the region.  The majority of the indigenous languages of northern and central Australia -- 306 of the 400 recorded native languages -- belong to the Pama-Nyungan family, which is (as a group) a linguistic isolate, related to no other known language group.  The rest are scattered clusters of unrelated languages, indicative of arrivals at different times or from different places, apparently when the Gulf of Carpentaria was mostly dry land and you could walk from New Guinea to Australia without getting your feet wet.

Eventually, of course, as we were coming out of the last ice age, the sea level rose and gradually that block of lowlands filled in from both sides, isolating Australia from the islands to the north and halting the walkabout that allowed for easy settlement.  But at its height, the archaeologists believe the now-submerged region could have been home to between fifty and five hundred thousand people.

"[Sea level rise] likely caused a retreat of human populations, registering as peaks in occupational intensity at archaeological sites," the authors write.  "Those who funneled into an archipelago on the shelf would go on to become the first maritime explorers from Wallacea [what is now the islands of eastern Indonesia], creating a familiar environment for their maritime economies to adapt to the vast terrestrial continent of Sahul."

Further research into the archaeology, topography, and paleoecology of the region is sure to turn up more information about a landscape that has altered dramatically in the last fifteen-thousand-odd years.  It also spurs researchers to look at other regions flooded by sea level rise -- like Doggerland, now beneath the turbulent waters of the North Sea -- perhaps to recover more clues about where and how our distant ancestors lived.

"Now submerged continental margins clearly played an important role in early human expansions across the world," the researchers write.  "The rise in undersea archaeology in Australia will contribute to a growing worldwide picture of early human migration and the impact of climate change on Late Pleistocene human populations."


Saturday, December 23, 2023

Time lapse

Well, the first thing I need to do in today's post is to figure out if I can correct the timestamp, which is clearly wrong.  Hmmm... let's see... no, it won't let me do it.  Okay, then, I'll just have to state for the record that today you should date all of your checks, documents, and correspondence with "December 23, 1724."

What?  How can that be true, you ask?  1724... so, J. S. Bach would still be alive, King George I would just have been crowned king of England, and the USA wouldn't exist for another fifty-odd years?  To which I chuckle gently, and explain: of course that's not what I mean.  You can't just jump backwards in time, that would be ridiculous.  What I'm saying is that the calendar is wrong, not because we've leapt back to the eighteenth century, but because...

... the years between 614 and 911 C.E. did not exist.

Yes, according to the Phantom Time Hypothesis, devised by Hans-Ulrich Niemitz and Heribert Illig, time actually went from the year 613 directly to the year 912.  Any events that occurred during those years, or people who are alleged to have lived then are:
  1. legends being misunderstood as reality;
  2. misinterpretations of documents that refer to events or people from other time periods; or
  3. deliberate fabrications by a bunch of calendar conspirators.
Some of the people who therefore didn't exist are King Harald I Fairhair of Norway, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, all the leaders of the Umayyad Caliphate of the Middle East and North Africa, the writers Alcuin, Caedmon, Li Bai, and Bede... and one of the most famous medieval rulers, Charlemagne.

Why, you might ask, do Niemitz and Illig believe this?  Apparently it's based on hiatuses in historical records (the Early Middle Ages in Europe was a chaotic time, and most of the few records that were written during that time have been lost), coupled with perceived gaps in building in Constantinople.  Niemitz and Illig also believe that the development of religious doctrine in Europe goes into a stall between the seventh and tenth centuries, as does the progress of art, language, and science.  All of these gaps, they say, can be explained if those three centuries didn't exist -- they were inventions of a conspiracy of church fathers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that originated with Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II, and has continued lo unto this very day.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Well, let me see here.  Where do I start?

Interesting, if three centuries fell out of historians' pockets somewhere along the way, that astronomical records (especially records of comets and solar eclipses kept by the Chinese) agree precisely with back-calculations done by present-day astronomers.  The Tang Dynasty -- which coincides almost perfectly with Niemitz and Illig's lost centuries, and which they consider a "Golden Age Myth" -- not only produced art and artifacts, but kept intricate records of observations of events in the sky.  It's a little hard to explain the solar eclipses that occurred during that time, and which line up perfectly with when astronomers know they occurred, if (1) those three centuries never happened, and (2) the Tang Dynasty astronomers were themselves later fabrications.

We also have the problem that this is the period during which Islam spread across the Middle East -- so we're supposed to believe that we jump right from 614 (Muhammad is still alive, but has yet to make his pilgrimage to Mecca) to 911 (the Muslims are in control of territory from southern Spain to Arabia and beyond)?  And I guess they should revoke my master's degree, because the subject of my thesis (the Viking conquest of parts of England and Scotland) occurred during those years... and so is an elaborate fiction, as is the linguistic and archaeological evidence.

Or, maybe I'm one of the conspirators.  I've been accused of that before.

Anyway, this whole hypothesis seems to be a lot of nonsense, and is yet another good example of Ockham's Razor, not to mention the ECREE Principle.  So, you can relax, and cancel any plans to go back and yell at your high school history teachers -- Charlemagne was almost certainly a real person.  As were Alfred the Great and the rest.  Me, I'm glad.  I'm going to have a hard enough time in a couple of weeks remembering to write the correct year on my checks; I don't know what I'd do if I had to remember that it was a whole different century.


Friday, December 22, 2023

Ghost cities

It will come as no great surprise to regular readers of Skeptophilia that I have a bit of an obsession with considering what the world was like in the past.  Both the historical past and the prehistoric, extremely distant past -- thus my fascination with both archaeology and paleontology.

It's easy to fall into the error of looking around and not realizing how extensively things have changed.  And not just on geological time scales; after all, by now it's pretty much common knowledge (young-Earth creationists excepted) that if you go back far enough, even the continents have shifted their positions dramatically.  But as I found out from an article sent to me by my friend, the wonderful author Gil Miller, there's a place in Kansas where what is now an expanse of widely-separated small towns interspersed with miles of corn and wheat fields was once a thriving metropolis of the Wichita people.

And not that long ago, either.

The Wichita -- in their own language, the Kitikiti'sh -- are a tribe of the central United States related to the Caddo (who live farther south) and the Pawnee (who live farther north).  The languages they speak belong to a language family called Caddoan that is an isolate group, related to no other known languages (or, more accurately, any relationship it might have is undetermined).  All the languages in the family are critically endangered.  The Wichita language itself is effectively extinct; the last native speaker, Doris Jean Lamar-McLemore, died in 2016.

This makes the recent discovery even more staggering (and sad) -- an earthwork fifty meters across that is called a "council circle" (although its actual function is uncertain), part of a network of six such earthworks along an eight-kilometer stretch of the Little Arkansas and Smoky Hill Rivers in central Kansas.  The archaeologists studying the site, part of a team from Dartmouth College, believe that at its height, only four hundred years ago, it may have been part of a thriving group of settlements housing over twenty thousand people, meaning it rivals Cahokia as the largest settlement of First Peoples in what is now the United States.

The site has been called Etzanoa -- the name for it given by a man captured there by the Spanish in the seventeenth century -- but what that name meant, and its etymology in the languages spoken at the time, are both unknown.  

Site of the Etzanoa earthwork [Image courtesy of Jesse Casana]

Because, of course, the apparent prosperity of the inhabitants was not to last.  They were living on land valuable to White settlers for cattle ranching and growing commercial crops, and the Wichita were forced off their land, relocated more than once, and finally ended up on a reservation in Oklahoma, most of them in or near the town of Anadarko.  Like many other Indigenous people, they also fell prey in huge numbers to infectious disease.  As of the last census, there were just under three thousand people who belong to the Wichita tribe.

The current research made use of drones and remote telemetry to locate the site, which was under ranch land and (amazingly) had sustained little damage.  Excavation there is ongoing, and has turned up not only Native items but ones from the Spanish and other European settlers, including -- of course -- bullets.

It's astonishing how fast things have changed -- and in this case, there's a deep sense of tragedy.  A whole thriving society, with their own language and traditions and culture, erased because of greed, entitlement, racism, and the abuse of power.  All we have is the remnants to study, a ghostly trace of a network of cities that once dominated the Great Plains.  It's a poor trade for all the lives and knowledge lost, but at least it's something.


Thursday, December 21, 2023


I was talking with a friend this past weekend, and the subject of children's television came up.

"It all sucks," he lamented.  "There's nothing around any more that's the quality of what we had when we were growing up."

I certainly see what he was talking about.  In my opinion, the adventures of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are up there in the top ten funniest comedy writing ever (not to mention brilliant animation, incredible voice-overs, and impeccable comic timing).

Classic episodes like "Duck Amuck" and "The Rabbit of Seville" and "Bully for Bugs" still make me howl with laughter even though I've seen them dozens of times.

Another winner was Bullwinkle, which combined completely offbeat, goofy humor with sharp political satire.

The problem is, this kind of nostalgia only works if you've got a really selective memory.  There were some truly horrid children's shows when I was growing up.  One that sticks in my memory, because it not only was terrible but was, to put it bluntly, really fucking weird, was H. R. Pufnstuf.

If you've never seen this show, it's the adventures of an odious little twerp named Jimmy who has a magic talking flute, and somehow ends up in a land where the mayor is a green dinosaur with a Tennessee accent, and most of the characters are wearing full-body costumes supposed to be people, animals, or... pieces of furniture.  Oh, yeah, and the villain -- I shit you not -- is named "Witchiepoo," and is played by an actress named Billie Hayes who evidently was told by the director to pretend someone had made the Wicked Witch of the West drink six cups of espresso.  It also had a really creepy fake laugh-track, so you knew when something funny had happened, because heaven knows there was no other way to tell.  To get a sense of the overall effect, imagine what would have happened if J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a script for Barney and Friends while tripping on acid.

Don't believe me? Take a look at this little excerpt:

The whole thing was dreamed up by Sid and Marty Krofft (the latter, sadly, died just a couple of weeks ago), who also came up with The Banana Splits, which was similar not only in its frenetic, seizure-inducing pacing, but in its psychedelic content:

So I'm not quite buying the "things were so much better back then" argument.  We naturally tend to look at our own past in a sentimental fashion, so a lot of our memories are colored by that.  (Although I do wonder how much of my own sense that the world is a weird and chaotic place was generated by watching shows like H. R. Pufnstuf when I was eight years old.)

On a more serious note, isn't this the same thing that drives the whole MAGA phenomenon?  "Make America Great Again," by returning to... when, exactly?  When was America so great that we'd jump in a time machine and head back there?  The prosperous Fifties -- when minorities could be legally denied their rights as citizens, and queer people couldn't be out without risking their lives?  The Roaring Twenties -- with its viciously-enforced class stratification and reckless economic policy that led directly to the Great Depression?

Even earlier?  No matter where you look, it was all a mixed bag -- as it is now.  There has never been a time that was unalloyed good, and there have been plenty of times in the past when it has been significantly worse than it is now.  Consider, for example, what it was like for your typical feudal peasant.  When we think of medieval times, we tend to picture lords and ladies in fancy dress dancing the galliard, but fail to consider that this represented maybe two percent of the population -- and the other ninety-eight percent spent their lives in backbreaking labor and lived in squalor.

So if I was offered a one-way trip in a time machine, I'd stay put, thank you very much.  If I were forced to choose, my criteria would be practical ones -- some time after the invention of indoor plumbing and general anesthesia.  Call me a stick in the mud, but I'm just fine right here.

And now, I need to take advantage of another wonderful modern invention, which is recorded music. Because if I don't do something to get that stupid fucking "Oranges Poranges" song out of my head, I'm going to lose my marbles.


Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Echoes of the ancestors

I recently finished geneticist Bryan Sykes's book, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: A Genetic History of Britain and Ireland, which describes the first exhaustive study of the DNA of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  From there, I jumped right into The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic, by Robert L. O'Connell, which looks at one of the bloodiest battles on record -- the nearly complete massacre of the Roman army by the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.E.  That book, like Sykes's, considers the large-scale movements of populations.  The Carthaginians, for example, were mostly displaced Phoenicians who had intermarried with Indigenous North African people, and then occupied what is now Spain, adding in a Celtic strain (the "Celtiberians").

One thing that made my ears perk up in O'Connell's book is that Hannibal, in his march toward Rome, crossed through Transalpine Gaul, picking up large numbers of Gaulish mercenaries along the way, who of course had their own grudge with Rome to settle.  And his path took him right near -- perhaps through -- the valley up in the Alps containing the capital of the Celto-Ligurian tribe called the Tricorii, a town then known as Vapincum.

The name Vapincum eventually was shortened, and morphed into its current name, Gap, a modern town of forty thousand people.

It also happens to be about ten kilometers from the little village where my great-great-grandfather was born.

My last name was, like the name of Gap, altered and shortened over time.  It was originally Ariey, and then picked up a hyphenated modifier indicating the branch of the family we belonged to, and we became Ariey-Bonnet.  When my great-great-grandfather, Jacques Esprit Ariey-Bonnet, came over to the United States, the immigration folks didn't know how to handle a hyphenated name, and told him he'd have to use Ariey as his middle name and Bonnet as his surname, so all four of his children were baptized with the last name Bonnet, despite the fact that it wasn't his actual surname.

Just one of a million stories of how immigrants were forced to alter who they were upon arrival.

In any case, about three years ago, I had my DNA analyzed, and one of the things I found out was about my Y-DNA signature.  This is passed down from father to son, so I have the same Y DNA (barring any mutations) as my paternal ancestors as far back as you can trace.  And it turns out my haplogroup -- the genetic clan my Y-DNA belongs to -- is R1b1b2a1a2d3, which for brevity's sake is sometimes called R1b-L2.  And what I learned is that this DNA signature is "characteristically Italo-Gaulish," according to Eupedia, which is a great source of information for the histories of different DNA groups.

Distribution of the larger R1b Y DNA haplogroup [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Maulucioni, Haplogrupo R1b (ADN-Y), CC BY-SA 4.0]

What's most interesting is that as far back as I've traced my paternal lineage, they hardly moved at all.  My earliest known paternal ancestor, Georges Ariey, was born in about 1560 in Ranguis, France, only about a kilometer from the village of St. Jean-St. Nicolas where my great-great-grandfather Jacques Esprit Ariey-Bonnet was born three hundred years later.  And the DNA I carry indicates they'd been there a lot longer than that.

I have to wonder if my paternal ancestors were some of the Gauls who were there to see Hannibal's army headed for their fateful meeting with the Romans -- or even if they may have joined them.  The Tricorii were apparently noted for going into battle wearing nothing but body paint, so maybe this accounts for my own tendency to run around with as little clothing as is legally permissible when the weather's warm.  What's bred in the bone comes out in the flesh, as John Heywood famously said.

So then I had to look at my mtDNA haplogroup.  The mt (mitochondrial) DNA descends only from the maternal line, so we all have mtDNA from our mother's mother's mother (etc.).  Each person's mtDNA differs from another's only by mutations that have accrued since their last common matrilineal ancestor, and this can provide an idea of how long ago that was (in other words, when the two lineages diverged from each other).  Simply put, more differences = a longer time span since the two shared a common ancestor, making both mtDNA and Y DNA something geneticists call a molecular clock.  The mtDNA from my earliest known maternal ancestor, Marie-Renée Brault, who was born in 1616 in the Loire Valley of western France, belongs to haplogroup H13a1a.  Once again according to Eupedia, this lineage goes back a very long way -- it's been traced to populations living in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, and from there spread through the mountains of Greece, across the Alps, and all the way to western France where my maternal great-great (etc.) grandmother lived.

So that genetic signature was carried in the bodies of mothers and daughters along those travels, then crossed the Atlantic to Nova Scotia, then went back across to France when the British expelled the Acadians in the Grand Dérangement, and crossed a third time to southern Louisiana in the late eighteenth century, finally landing in the little town of Raceland where my mother was born.  My dad's Y DNA took a different path -- staying put in the Celto-Ligurian populations of the high Alps for millennia, and only in the nineteenth century jumping across the Atlantic to Louisiana, eventually to meet up with my mother's DNA and produce me.

It's astonishing to me how much we now can figure out about the movement of people whose names and faces are forever lost to history, echoes of our ancestors left behind in our very genes.  However much I'd like to know more about them -- a forlorn hope at best -- at least I've gotten to find out about the shared heritage of our genetic clans, and can content myself with daydreams about what those long-ago people saw, heard, and felt.