Laputan Logic
Friday, December 06, 2002
  Our earth as art This site has some very pretty images of the earth taken by the Landsat-7 satellite. The pictures have been selected from an image database for their -- what we artists like to call -- "aesthetic appeal". There are some notable ommissions like, say, all of Asia east of the Ganges and Europe is largely represented by Greenland but, nevertheless, you'll find here some very specky images indeed. The Ganges River forms an extensive delta where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. The delta is largely covered with a swamp forest known as the Sunderbans, which is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger.
In an area north of the city of Al-Basrah, Iraq, which borders Iran, a former wetland has been drained and walled off. Now littered with minefields and gun emplacements, it is a staging area for military exercises.
Namib-Naukluft National Park is an ecological preserve in Namibia's vast Namib Desert. Coastal winds create the tallest sand dunes in the world here, with some dunes reaching 980 feet (300 meters) in height.
Thanks Dave 
Wednesday, December 04, 2002
  Does skull prove that the first Americans came from Europe?

Scientists in Britain have identified the oldest skeleton ever found on the American continent in a discovery that raises fresh questions about the accepted theory of how the first people arrived in the New World. The skeleton's perfectly preserved skull belonged to a 26-year-old woman who died during the last ice age on the edge of a giant prehistoric lake which once formed around an area now occupied by the sprawling suburbs of Mexico City. Scientists from Liverpool's John Moores University and Oxford's Research Laboratory of Archaeology have dated the skull to about 13,000 years old, making it 2,000 years older than the previous record for the continent's oldest human remains. However, the most intriguing aspect of the skull is that it is long and narrow and typically Caucasian in appearance, like the heads of white, western Europeans today. Modern-day native Americans, however, have short, wide skulls that are typical of their Mongoloid ancestors who are known to have crossed into America from Asia on an ice-age land bridge that had formed across the Bering Strait. The extreme age of PeƱon woman suggests two scenarios. Either there was a much earlier migration of Caucasian-like people with long, narrow skulls across the Bering Strait and that these people were later replaced by a subsequent migration of Mongoloid people. Alternatively, and more controversially, a group of Stone Age people from Europe made the perilous sea journey across the Atlantic Ocean many thousands of years before Columbus or the Vikings.
The first scenario is not a silly at it seems, the racial makeup of Asia has been in a state of continuous change over the past 13,000 years. It's interesting that previous discoveries of skeletons without obvious East Asian features have been variously identified as European, Polynesian and even Australian. All of these origins are plausible. We know that there have been at least two migrations to America from Asia i.e. American Indian and Eskimo. Genetic and linguistic differences indicate that the American Indians are themselves descended from at least two migrations (Amerind and Na-Dene). It seems quite likely that there were several migrations, some via a Pacific coastal route rather than overland across the Bering land-bridge (I think however that we can leave aside the Thor Heyerdahl-style great voyage scenario just for the moment).
The findings have a resonance with the skull and skeleton of Kennewick man, who was unearthed in 1996 in the Columbia River at the town of Kennewick in Washington state. The skull, estimated to be 8,400 years old, is also long and narrow and typically Caucasian. James Chatters, one of the first anthropologists to study Kennewick man before it had been properly dated, even thought that the man may have been a European trapper who had met a sudden death sometime in the early 19th century. Kennewick man became the most controversial figure in American anthropology when native tribes living in the region claimed that, as an ancestor, his remains should be returned to them under a 1990 law that gave special protection to the graves and remains of indigenous Americans. The debate intensified after some anthropologists suggested that Kennewick man was Caucasian in origin and could not therefore be a direct ancestor of the native Americans living in the Kennewick area today.
There is no reason at all to think that the Native Americans don't have a mixture of ancestor types, what exactly was "race" 13,000 years ago, any way? While Native Americans do have a demonstrable genetic affinity with East Asians, the differences are still very substantial and many of these affinities are with Eurasians in general including Europeans.
Genetic Distance
  Africa Oceania America Europe
America22.6 14.6    
Europe 16.6 13.5 9.5  
Asia 20.6 10.0 8.9 9.7
Table of genetic distances of peoples from different continents Genes, peoples and Languages - Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza
Update: Here is another take on the same evidence, this time by the BBC. Thankfully, no allusions to proto-Vikings on Kon-Tiki rafts this time. It's significant that the finds were made in Mexico rather than the United States. I'm not aware of the legal situation in Mexico but in the US human remains predating the arrival of Columbus are considered to be Native American and not allowed to be used in research. Generally they are handed over to the local tribe for reburial. This lends extra importance to determining the "race" of the human remains if they can be demonstrated to be non-"mongoloid" then they would be free to be studied. As I said, there is no reason to assume that these bones do not constitute the ancestral remains of Native Americans. Nevertheless this was what was determined in the Kennewick Man decision. Future progress in this field is likely to continue to come from outside of the United States (but probably, alas, at the expense of indiginous rights in those countries). 
Tuesday, December 03, 2002
Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.

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