Laputan Logic
Wednesday, March 12, 2003

How is it that at about the same time humans were first setting foot in the Americas, all the big mammals suddenly went extinct?

Were ancient humans really such devastatingly efficient hunters or was it just a coincidence? A similar question also hangs over the first human arrival in Australia some 40,000 years earlier. Tim Flannery, Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum has proposed that humans wiped out Australia's megafauna in a "blitzkrieg" of hunting (see also Mungo Man redated). Did the same thing happen in the Americas?

One factor that needs to be considered about the human migration story is that it was often accompanied by climate change. Humans probably started moving out of Africa in the first place because of climate change. Glaciation in the North made migration along the equatorial regions easier (Australia at that time was separated from Asia by only 80 km). But Ice Age glaciation is also likely to have significantly hampered and delayed migration into the Americas.

After humans arrived in Australia, the continent's environment began to change. The landscape which had once been quite lush and verdant became in many places arid and desiccated. Whether or not human hunting brought about their demise, big mammals need lots of food and water and it's certain that life was already starting to become very difficult.

When the Ice Age finally ended, humans started moving into the Americas. At the same time the American environment was rapidly changing.

Evidence acquits Clovis people of ancient killings, archaeologists say

Archaeologists have uncovered another piece of evidence that seems to exonerate some of the earliest humans in North America of charges of exterminating 35 genera of Pleistocene epoch mammals.

The Clovis people, who roamed large portions of North America 10,800 to 11,500 years ago and left behind highly distinctive and deadly fluted spear points, have been implicated in the exterminations by some scientists.

Now researchers from the University of Washington and Southern Methodist University who examined evidence from all suggested Clovis-age killing sites conclude that there is no proof that people played a significant role in causing the extinction of Pleistocene mammals in the New World. Climate change, not humans, was the culprit.

"Of the 76 localities with asserted associations between people and now-extinct Pleistocene mammals, we found only 14 (12 for mammoth, two for mastodon) with secure evidence linking the two in a way suggestive of predation," write Donald Grayson of the UW and David Meltzer of SMU in the current issue of the Journal of World Prehistory. "This result provides little support for the assertion that big-game hunting was a significant element in Clovis-age subsistence strategies. This is not to say that such hunting never occurred: we have clear evidence that proboscideans (mammoths and mastodons) were taken by Clovis groups. It just did not occur very often."

To locate Clovis-age sites that suggested hunting of now-extinct mammals Grayson and Meltzer used FAUNMAP, an electronic database that documents the distribution of mammals in North America during the last 40,000 years. The search excluded areas above the North American ice sheet and sites that were pre- and post-Clovis because it is the Clovis people who have been targeted by proponents of the so-called "overkill" hypothesis.

This search turned up 75 locations in the United States and one in Canada that Grayson and Meltzer evaluated. Forty-seven of the sites did not exhibit minimally acceptable evidence showing an association between artifacts and extinct mammals. Most of these sites were rejected because they were not sufficiently described or documented.

"In many cases there is no published material, and when something is not published we are not able to weigh evidence of a human connection," said Grayson. "In other cases there was just an anecdotal suggestion of artifacts or remains, or there were very sketchy drawings."

Of the remaining 29 sites only 14 survived closer study. To determine this, the researchers looked for settings in which artifacts and animal remains were so closely associated that there was little doubt that their relationship was not accidental. In addition, Grayson and Meltzer searched published evidence for signs of human hunting and butchering and processing. This included cases where projectile points were found among bones or where there was solid evidence of human-caused bone breakage or cut marks.

Mammoth and mastodon bones were the most commonly found remains at the 14 confirmed predation sites, but horse, camel and bison bones also were identified. However, Grayson said there was no evidence that the two horse bones and one camel bone, all from extinct genera, came from animals that had been hunted by humans. There was quite a bit of evidence of human predation of bison, but this genus did not become extinct.

The survey produced no evidence that humans hunted the 33 other genera of extinct animals, which also include sloths, tapirs, bears and sabertooth cats. In fact, only 15 genera can be shown to have survived beyond 12,000 years ago and into Clovis times, said Grayson.

"There is absolutely no evidence that Clovis people were involved with 33 of the extinct genera. Where's the spear point sticking out of a camel or a ground sloth? If you can kill a mammoth you can kill a lumbering ground sloth. Clovis people absolutely did not chase these now-extinct animals relentlessly across the North American landscape," he said.

"The bottom line is that we need to stop wasting our time looking at people as the cause of these extinctions. We suspect the extinctions were driven by climate change. We need to know what aspects of climate change were involved. We have to tackle this species by species, one at a time, and look at the interaction of each species with the climate and vegetation on the ground."

Tuesday, March 11, 2003
  Recording Sound Waves

An Edison Recording Demonstration

Crowds of reporters showed up at the Menlo Park laboratories to hear demonstrations of this remarkable gadget, and Edison happily obliged them. At one such demonstration, Edison recorded the cornet playing of a Mr. Jules Levy. According to the newspaper account...

Mr. Edison showed the effect of turning the cylinder at different degrees of speed, and then the phonograph proceeded utterly to rout Mr. Levy by playing his tunes in pitches and octaves of astonishing variety. It was interesting to observe the total indifference of the phonograph to the pitch of the note it began upon with regard to the pitch of the note with which it was to end. Gravely singing the tune correctly for half a dozen notes, it would suddenly soar into regions too painfully high for the cornet even by any chance to follow it. Then it delivered the variations on "Yankee Doodle" with a celerity no human fingering of the cornet could rival. . . . The phonograph was equal to any attempts to take unfair advantage of it, and it repeated its songs, and whistles, and speeches, with the cornet music heard so clearly over all, that its victory was unanimously conceded, and amid hilarious crowing from the triumphant cylinder the cornet was ignominiously shut up in its box.

"To make the general idea of the recording of sound more clear, let me remark one or two points. We have all been struck by the precision with which even the faintest sea-waves impress upon the surface of a beach the fine, sinuous line which is formed by the rippling edge of their advance. Almost as familiar is the fact that grains of sand sprinkled on a smooth surface of glass or wood, on or near a piano, sift themselves into various lines and curves according to the vibrations of the melody played on the piano-keys. These things indicate how easily the particles of solid matter may receive an imparted motion, or take an impression, from delicate liquid waves, air waves, or waves of sound. Yet, well known though these phenomena are, they apparently never suggested until within a few years that the sound-waves set going by a human voice might be so directed as to trace an impression upon some solid substance, with a nicety equal to that of the tide in recording its flow upon a sand beach."

-- Thomas Edison, North American Review 1888

See also: The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph

  11:18 pm
  The Swastika and the Nazis

A few years ago, voters in Nepal went to the polls. They expressed their choice by stamping a swastika next to the name of the candidate of their preference. Farmers in Tibet frequently place a swastika on their home doors, so that no evil can enter the place. A similar custom is followed by Irish farmers, where the swastika placed in their doors is called a Brigit's cross. Cuna Indians in Panama design their blouses with colorful swastikas. Navajo medicine men use colored sand to draw swastikas on the floor while performing their curative rites. As a form of benediction Indian boys paint a swastika on their shaved heads. The swastika is, without a doubt, an ever present symbol. A modern author called it the "Symbol of the Century."

I have seen swastikas in museums all around the world, from Zürich to New York and from Moscow to London and Mexico City. My photo on the left, standing on a frieze of sinistroverse meandroid swastikas, was taken at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During a trip to Japan in 1975, my friend Shigehisa Yoshino invited me to visit the Senso-ji Buddhist temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district. Its huge lanterns, made famous to Westerners through the prints of Hiroshige, show several swastikas. But you don't need to go as far as Japan to see swastikas. Many pieces in the collections at the Metropolitan Museum in New York show them. A close look at the Capitol building in Washington D.C. will reveal several friezes formed out of swastikas. It is difficult, in fact, to find an old book on art, mythology, or archaeology, without seen swastikas profusely represented.

Scholarly research on the swastika in modern times, however, seems to be limited to two peak periods: the first around the beginning of the twentieth century; the second during the period of the emergency of Nazism in Germany. Though Hitler himself gives his version of why the swastika was adopted as a symbol of the Nazi movement, there are several other explanations as well. The Swastika and the Nazis is an attempt to show the different theories without taking sides on which of them may the correct one. As it happens with many historical events most likely there is not a single explanation, and the correct answer is a combination of some of these theories.

The analysis of symbols is currently one of the noteworthy interests in anthropology. Yet, one of the most important symbols of mankind is largely ignored. One explanation for that may be that the Nazi connotations brought up by he swastika are so strong that most researchers and scholars feel this infamous symbol either does not deserve to be studied at all or that any effort in that direction will only serve to arouse suspicions of Nazi sympathy on the part of its author. As an example of this I can point to the fact that, even though the swastika is an important symbol in Japan, the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (1983 edition) shows no entry under the subject of the swastika.

It seems as, after the Nazis appropriated the swastika and put it to their evil use, they contaminated this symbol forever. They have had the swastika hostage for more than 50 years. The swastika, most people believe, symbolizes Nazism and evil.

But the swastika had a long life before Hitler and the Nazis. It has been for centuries a symbol of peace, laughter, joy and good luck. It is one of the oldest symbols of mankind. Its Nazi links are only a minor speck in its very long existence. It is a symbol that deserves a better treatment from history.

Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.

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