Friday, October 20, 2017

What Happened at Easter Island

Randy Schafer / shutterstock

The truth about Easter Island: a sustainable society has been falsely blamed for its own demise

The Conversation    
Few places on earth are as well known for their so-called mysteries as Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui. For a tiny island of 64 square miles, with its nearest neighbours some 1,300 miles away, it has seen more than its fair share of controversy. 

For a long while it wasn’t clear whether the island’s native population originated in Polynesia or South America. And how can we explain its apparent paradox: the design, construction and transport of giant “moai” stone statues, a remarkable cultural achievement yet one carried out on a virtually barren island, which seemingly lacked both the resources and people to carry out such a feat?

Anthropologists have long wondered whether these seemingly simple inhabitants really had the capacity for such cultural complexity. Or was a more advanced population, perhaps from the Americas, actually responsible – one that subsequently wiped out all the natural resources the island once had?
Squint as hard as you like: there are no other islands in this part of the world. Google Maps
Recently, Rapa Nui has become the ultimate parable for humankind’s selfishness; a moral tale of the dangers of environmental destruction. In the “ecocide” hypothesis popularised by the geographer Jared Diamond, Rapa Nui is used as a demonstration of how society is doomed to collapse if we do not sit up and take note. But more than 60 years of archaeological research actually paints a very different picture – and now new genetic data sheds further light on the island’s fate. It is time to demystify Rapa Nui.

The ‘ecocide’ narrative doesn’t stand up

The ecocide hypothesis centres on two major claims. First, that the island’s population was reduced from several tens of thousands in its heyday, to a diminutive 1,500-3,000 when Europeans first arrived in the early 18th century.

Second, that the palm trees that once covered the island were callously cut down by the Rapa Nui population to move statues. With no trees to anchor the soil, fertile land eroded away resulting in poor crop yields, while a lack of wood meant islanders couldn’t build canoes to access fish or move statues. This led to internecine warfare and, ultimately, cannibalism.
Europeans inspect the statues, around a century after first contact. Carlo Bottigella (1827)
The question of population size is one we still cannot convincingly answer. Most archaeologists agree on estimates somewhere between 4,000 and 9,000 people, although a recent study looked at likely agricultural yields and suggested the island could have supported up to 15,000

But there is no real evidence of a population decline prior to the first European contact in 1722. Ethnographic reports from the early 20th century provide oral histories of warfare between competing island groups. The anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl – most famous for crossing the Pacific in a traditional Inca boat – took these reports as evidence for a huge civil war that culminated in a battle of 1680, where the majority of one of the island’s tribes was killed. Obsidian flakes or “mata’a” littering the island have been interpreted as weapon fragments testifying to this violence

However, recent research lead by Carl Lipo has shown that these were more likely domestic tools or implements used for ritual tasks. Surprisingly few of the human remains from the island show actual evidence of injury, just 2.5%, and most of those showed evidence of healing, meaning that attacks were not fatal. Crucially, there is no evidence, beyond historical word-of-mouth, of cannibalism. It’s debatable whether 20th century tales can really be considered reliable sources for 17th-century conflicts.

What really happened to the trees

More recently, a picture has emerged of a prehistoric population that was both successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact. It is generally agreed that Rapa Nui, once covered in large palm trees, was rapidly deforested soon after its initial colonisation around 1200 AD. 

Although micro-botanical evidence, such as pollen analysis, suggests the palm forest disappeared quickly, the human population may only have been partially to blame.
Not a fan of rats. Olga Danylenko / shutterstock
The earliest Polynesian colonisers brought with them another culprit, namely the Polynesian rat. It seems likely that rats ate both palm nuts and sapling trees, preventing the forests from growing back. But despite this deforestation, my own research on the diet of the prehistoric Rapanui found they consumed more seafood and were more sophisticated and adaptable farmers than previously thought.

Blame slavers – not lumberjacks

So what – if anything – happened to the native population for its numbers to dwindle and for statue carving to end? And what caused the reports of warfare and conflict in the early 20th century?
The real answer is more sinister. Throughout the 19th century, South American slave raids took away as much as half of the native population. By 1877, the Rapanui numbered just 111. Introduced disease, destruction of property and enforced migration by European traders further decimated the natives and lead to increased conflict among those remaining. Perhaps this, instead, was the warfare the ethnohistorical accounts refer to and what ultimately stopped the statue carving.

It had been thought that South Americans made contact with Rapa Nui centuries before the Europeans, as their DNA can be detected in modern native inhabitants. I have been involved in a new study, however, led by paleogeneticist Lars Fehren-Schmitz, which questions this timeline. We analysed Rapanui human remains dating to before and after European contact. Our work, published in the journal Current Biology, found no significant gene flow between South America and Easter Island before 1722. Instead, the considerable recent disruption to the island’s population may have impacted on modern DNA. 

Perhaps, then, the takeaway from Rapa Nui should not be a story of ecocide and a Malthusian population collapse. Instead, it should be a lesson in how sparse evidence, a fixation with “mysteries”, and a collective amnesia for historic atrocities caused a sustainable and surprisingly well-adapted population to be falsely blamed for their own demise.

And those statues? We know how they moved them; the local population knew all along. They walked – all we needed to do was ask.

PhD researcher in Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol Catrine Jarman receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and has previously received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Thor Heyerdahl Research Institute for her research on Rapa Nui. 

Noh Bugs

Japanese insects

Japanese insects, design based on nohmen ( Japanese masks )
3d printed with form2 printer, painted with vallejo game colors.

Conches Got Eyes!

Today we learned that conches, the sea-dwelling mollusks who live inside those big, beautiful conch seashells in warm tropical waters, peer out at the world with cartoonish eyes on tiny eyestalks. They see you. They see everything. And what’s more, they can regenerate their peepers should they happen to lose one or both of them.

“One 1976 paper dug into the specific behind these animals’ alien eyestalks. Sitting at the tips of long stalks, they contain retinas with both sensory cells and colored pigment cells. But the story gets weirder because obviously, it gets weirder. After amputating the conchs’ eyes, a fully-formed replacement took its place 14 days later. Humans, we really are losing this evolutionary game.”
But wait, that’s hardly the only surprising set of eyes under the sea. Scallops have eyes too, LOTS of them:

Conch photos by Redditor buterbetterbater and via @shingworks.
[via /r/pics and Gizmodo]

Taking Back Life

Lakota in America

Genevieve Iron Lightning is a young Lakota dancer on the Cheyenne River Reservation, one of the poorest communities in the US. Unemployment, addiction, alcoholism, and suicide are all challenges for Lakota on the reservation.

For nearly a hundred years, it was illegal to practice Lakota customs. Now, the Cheyenne River Youth Project is working with young people like Genevieve to create a stronger economic and cultural future—and they’re using their Lakota heritage to get there.

"Lakota in America" is the third film in Square's For Every Kind of Dream series.

See the other films at

Learn how you can support CRYP at

Watch it HERE

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Why Not a Mischief of Crows

Who decides on the right collective noun for something?

One Crow  photo © Geonni Banner

Oxford Dictionaries

The short answer is no one. While some languages, such as Spanish, French, and German, are ruled by committee there is no academy or governing body that decides on how English should evolve.
Indeed English has never been under the administrative rule of a language academy. A keeper of English, according to the eighteenth-century English grammarian and theologian Joseph Priestley, ‘would be unsuitable to the genius of a free nation’.

Today’s lexicographers are describers of English rather than lawmakers. The definitions they write are based on evidence from thousands of collected texts—newspapers, scholarly journals, teen magazines, text messages—and from transcriptions of the spoken word. This evidence is known in the trade as a ‘corpus’, and most modern dictionary publishers use one. Oxford University Press, the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary and a range of current English dictionaries, holds a corpus of over two billion words of real twenty-first century English.

English, then, evolves with its own momentum. Collective nouns are no exception to the rule: many have been with us for centuries, while new versions of the old are emerging all the time, as well as completely new ones when a need arises.

The first collective nouns were typically ones for groups of animals and birds. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, and an unkindness of ravens can each be traced back as far as the fifteenth century.

The etymologist Michael Quinion has noted that the first collection (not the official term) of collective nouns in English is The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry. In the sixteenth century, the book was apparently reprinted many times over, which kept the lists of birds and beasts in the public consciousness, and indeed many of the nouns are still in circulation today. Not all however: as Quinion notes, some strike a colourful chord but have never quite caught on, including a fall of woodcocks and a shrewdness of apes.

Back to the present day, and newly tried collective nouns include the tongue-in-cheek stack of librarians and a groove of DJs. No ruling body will decide upon their survival: that, like all new coinages, will be the decision of English’s vast number of users.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.
The standard collective nouns for crows are:

  • a horde of crows
  • a hover of crows
  • a murder of crows
  • a muster of crows
  • a parcel of crows        (
Although the word I hear most commonly is a "murder" of crows, I am very dissatisfied with this usage, and I hereby exhort each and every one who reads this to begin using the term "mischief" for a group of crows.  The term admits the traits of crows which cause annoyance to people, but it also has a sense of fun - and few animals have the well-developed sense of fun that is native to the crow.  

Please use this term and help to popularize it.  PRETTY PLEASE!

 photo uncredited 😠 found on Pinterest, cartoonized by me.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wildfire Affects Wildlife Too

Fire-stricken birds are fleeing the smoky North Bay. Here's where they're roosting.

SF Gate  by Michelle Robertson, SFGATE October 18, 2017


Birds, their feathers dusted with ash and their lungs choked by smoke, are turning up in Bay Area parks and backyards in droves as wildfires continue to sizzle across Northern California, experts say. 
"I've seen a lot more hillside birds coming down from the fires and moving into East Bay cities," said Andrew Ford, a Martinez-based wildfire biologist. "Birds I wouldn't normally see in such high numbers."

Don't expect any rare bird sightings, Ford said, but you can look forward to higher volumes of species that have fled the North Bay like vireos, lesser goldfinch, morning doves and scrub jays. It will likely take a few weeks before data from regional banding sites can confirm Ford's anecdotal findings, but biologists from the Audubon Society and San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory also claim to have noticed the trend. 

Santa Rosa Fires Drone Douglas Thron

October 10, 2017 Hilton, Coffey, vineyards, fountaingrove

Douglas Thron  Published on Oct 11, 2017 2 min. 55 sec.
Unbelievable fire devastation never seen anything like it before. To help please go to:

The birds that survived the initial outburst of flames have other dangers to contend with now, Ford notes, namely the thick smoke that has floated south from the Wine Country and blanketed surrounding regions.

Avians are circular breathers, explained Amber Engle, wildlife rehabilitation manager at Lindsay Wildlife Experience, and smoke can suffocate their delicate lungs. 

"Birds are more sensitive to it [than humans] because they have a more extensive respiratory system," Engle said. "They have to move so much oxygen throughout their bodies to fly." 

Thus, it's ostensible that a suffocated bird may drop to earth, Ford said, having suffocated mid-flight from the ash-flecked air. 

Residents of a Santa Rosa neighborhood return to find their homes in ruin after the devastating Tubbs fire ripped through their streets.

Navigating fuzzy skies poses problems for birds' navigation systems, too, because the gray smoke can block out the sun and cloud their vision. This can prove a challenge for predators, like raptors, that case the ground for prey and birds in the midst of migrations. 

"It's an important migration time for the birds so my question is what are the migratory birds doing that normally migrate to the North Bay?" said Yiwei Wang, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. "Will there be any differences or changes in their journeys?"

Many questions remain up in the air, but humans shouldn't excessively worry for the Bay Area's airborne animals, at least in the short term. 

All of the biologists SFGATE spoke to stressed that wildfires are often a positive force for forest-dwelling creatures, diversifying the landscape and enabling new outgrowth. At least that's been the narrative for the last few decades.

With global warming, says Andrea Jones, Audubon Society's director of bird conservation, the story might be changing. 

"We're going to have to rethink the way we look at fires," she said. 

"It may not always be positive. We're getting these absolutely gigantic fires, and it's not yet certain how they will impact the landscape and wildlife." 

Oh, THAT Crow

Canuck and I

STORYHIVE  Published on Jul 19, 2017  18 min. 38 sec.
Meet Canuck – a wild crow who formed an unlikely bond with his human friend, Shawn. The mischievous crow has captured the hearts of Vancouverites and garnered global attention through his antics.