Friday, November 13, 2015

It's not just mammoths

After each new frozen mammoth discovery I hear people ask, "why is it only mammoths?" The simple answer is that it isn't just mammoths. Lots of Pleistocene animals have been found frozen in the far north. Besides mammoths, there have been woolly rhinoceroses, bison, musk oxen, horses, beavers, and oodles of ground squirrels. Mammoths get all the attention because, as has been said of dinosaurs, "they're big, scary, and dead," but also because they're elephants and we have a special fondness for elephants. Just a few weeks ago, another frozen mammal was found that should have had more press. This one not only met the "big, scary, and dead" test, but it was also an animal that we're rather fond of: lions.

There were two of them of an extinct species called cave lions (Panthera spelaea). They once roamed the entire tundra north from the British Isles across northern Eurasia and Beringia to the Yukon. Because there are far fewer predators than prey in any ecosystem, the odds of finding well preserved individuals are more remote. In fact, we've never found a complete cave lion carcass or skeleton. Now we have two complete bodies.

In this case the internet really fell down on the job. These an not just lions; they are lion cubs--kittens. Isn't this the reason the internet was built?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The first trilobite

NOTE: In honor of National Fossil Day here's a post I wrote five years ago about a famous trilobite.

In their early days, scientific journals were much more generous than they are today about publishing letters from experimenters and collectors in all walks of life. The hard wall between scientists and amateurs had not yet been built and all literate people were, in theory, entitled to participate in the discussion. One such person was Rev. Edward Lhwyd (or Lhuyd or Lhwid or Lloyd), the illegitimate son of a member of the minor gentry who rose from genteel poverty to become keeper of collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (an unpaid position, but important in the community of science). The 1698 volume of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific journal in the English language, contains "Part of a Letter from Mr. Edw. Lhwyd to Dr. Martin Lister, Fell. of the Coll. of Phys. and R. S. Concerning Several Regularly Figured Stones Lately Found by Him." The two-page letter is accompanied by a page of etchings of the figured stones or, as we would call them, fossils.

Lhwyd collected his fossils during a trip to Southwestern Wales. Number fifteen, in his etchings, he found near Llandeilo, probably on the grounds of Lord Dynefor's castle. He wrote of it: "The 15th whereof we found great Plenty, must doubtless be referred to the Sceleton of some flat Fish..." A century and a half after he wrote that, Sir Roderick Murchison would place the Llandeilo rocks in the middle strata of his Ordovician Period. A century after Murchison, scientists would date that strata between 461-63 million years old. That is less than ten million years after the first plants took root on dry land and a hundred million years before cockroaches crawled out of the sea looking for a snack.

Lhwyd's "flatfish." Today we call it Ogygiocarella debuchii (Brongniart).

Lhwyd's identification of number fifteen as a flatfish didn't last very long. Today anyone with even a casual knowledge of fossils will recognise it as a trilobite, something more like a shrimp than a halibut. Lhwyd didn't have our advantage of hundreds of years of fossil studies producing thousands of lavishly illustrated and easily accessible books. It would be almost a century before the word "trilobite" would be coined and into Murchison's time before the scientific world would realize that trilobites were not related to halibut or shrimp (or oysters, another contender) but, rather, something entirely their own. Lhwyd was plunging ahead in the dark trying to make sense of an unfamiliar and mysterious corner of nature.

Lhwyd deserves great credit for deciding his little flatfish was worthy of notice and for sending his drawings to the Royal Society, although, sometimes, he gets a little too much credit. His illustration is the first published scientific illustration of a trilobite that we know of, but he did not "discover" trilobites, as some books will tell you. We should always regard any claim that someone discovered a fossil species with suspicion. Trilobites are extremely common fossils and can be found laying on the surface in many parts of the world. Our ancestors were both aware of fossils and, in many cases, aware that they were the petrified remains of once living things. Usually, what an author means when they declare that this person or that person discovered a fossil is that they were the first to describe the fossil in scientific literature. Lhwyd's illustration certainly counts as a description in that sense, but it is not the first description we know of.

No one can say when people first noticed that fossils were different than other rocks except to say that it was very long ago. The first step in making stone tools is to examine stones very carefully, so it is possible that our ancestors were aware of organic patterns in rocks over a million years ago. For trilobites, specifically, the earliest evidence of humans treating a fossil as something specially comes from a cave near Yonne, France. In the 1880s, when archaeologists were combing the caves of central France looking for artifacts, bones, and paintings, they discovered a much handled trilobite fossil that had been drilled as if to be worn as a pendant. The cave where it was found is now known as Grotte du Trilobite and is also home to paintings of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. Because the pendant was handled so much, the exact species of trilobite cannot be determined, however, geologists can say that it was not originally from Yonne. The original owners of the fossil thought enough of it that they carried or traded it from the other side of France. The occupation strata in which the trilobite was found has been dated as fifteen thousand years old.

The oldest known human trilobite artifact from the Grotte du Trilobite.

In the New World, American fossil hunters found plentiful deposits of trilobites in western Utah in the 1860s, but the local Ute Indians had known about them for untold years. In 1931, Frank Beckwith uncovered evidence of the Ute use of trilobites. Travelling through the badlands, he photographed two petroglyphs that most likely represent trilobites. On the same trip he examined a burial, of unknown age, with a drilled trilobite fossil laying in the chest cavity of the interred. He asked Joe Pichyavit, a Ute friend, what the elders said about such fossils. Pickyavit replied that trilobite necklaces were worn as protection against disease and bullets. The local Ute name for trilobite fossils translated roughly as "little water bug in stone," indicating that they recognised the organic nature of fossils. Pickyavit then made a necklace for Beckwith in the old style. Since then, trilobite amulets have been found all over the Great Basin, as well as in British Columbia and Australia.

Probable trilobite petroglyph. Beckwith's label reads "A shield (?) shaped like a trilobite."

Joe Pickyavit's trilobite protective necklace made of fossils, clay beads, and horsehair tassels.

Written descriptions of trilobites before Lhywd date possibly from the third century BC and definitely from the fourth century AD. Most ancient literatures include a genre called lapidaries, catalogs of precious stones and minerals along with their practical uses in medicine and magic (often the same thing). Most of the lapidaries included discussions of fossils and one, On Petrifactions by Theophrastus, was entirely about fossils. Sadly, the book has not survived and we know only short quotes from it in the works of later authors. The Spanish geologists Eladio Liñán and Rodolfo Gozalo argue that some of the fossils described in Greek and Latin lapidaries as scorpion stone, beetle stone, and ant stone refer to trilobite fossils. Less ambiguous references to trilobite fossils can be found in Chinese sources. Fossils from the Kushan formation of northeastern China were prized as inkstones and decorative pieces. A dictionary commentary written around 300AD by Guo Pu, refers to these fossils as bat stones because the spines on the pygidium (rear section) resemble the bones of a bat wing. The Khai-Pao Pharmacopoeia, written in 970 refers to the fossils as stone silkworms. Just nine years before Lhywd sent his letter to the Royal Society, Wang Shizhen wrote about the Kushan formation fossils a narrative of his travels in North China.

None of this should diminish Lhywd's place in the history of paleontology. Lhywd's observations were made within the framework of the emerging Western concept of science. The fossils were not interesting oddities that he found in the course of doing something else; they were the object of his outing. Lhywd took an artist along with him on his trip to Wales for the express purpose of preparing scientific illustrations. He communicated his observations to other scientifically interested people with the understanding that they would get further distribution. Finally, Lhywd gathered his fossils and took them back with him to the Ashmolean Museum where others would be able to study them.

As for number fifteen, it's not clear whether the fossil trilobite itself has survived. Modern curators at the Ashmolean have tried to identify Lhwyd's fossils in their collections. They have one old trilobite that approximately matches number fifteen, but they are unable to make a positive identification. The Romantic in me hopes its the one.

Number fifteen?

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Mammoth in the news: Michigan edition

You might have seen in the news yesterday that a mammoth was found in Michigan. A new mammoth find is always cool and this one has a few elements that make it pretty exciting. I have some questions about it and there is one aspect of the story and accompanying pictures that I find fairly disturbing.

NOTE: Though the story has been picked up by most major news outlets, the source for most of the coverage is these two stories from MLive, a group of regional newspapers in Michigan (one, two). The Washington Post story was able to add a little by interviewing Dan Fisher, the paleontologist directing the excavation (link).

First, the story. On Monday, James Bristle and a friend were digging a hole in a new piece of land Bristle had just acquired. The hole was to be the base of a lift station for a new natural gas line being built. A few feet down, they brought up something long, narrow, and curved. At first they thought it was an old bent fence post, but once they had cleared some mud off of it, they saw that it was a huge rib. Bristle brought his family to look the rib and other bones he uncovered. On Tuesday, he called the University and was put in contact with their paleontology professor, Dan Fisher. Fisher came out Wednesday night and by the morning he was sure they had woolly mammoth on their hands. His initial theory is that the mammoth was butchered, and possibly killed by humans, and that the parts they discovered had been sunk in a cold pond for storage.

Here's the exciting part. Mammoths are not common in Michigan. Mastodons are. The state fossil of the Michigan is the mastodon. Fisher says this is only the eleventh significant mammoth find in the state while there have been over 300 mastodon finds. “We get calls once or twice a year about new specimens like this,” but they're always mastodons. If he's right that it was butchered by humans, that's even more exciting. Very few mammoths have ever been found that unambiguously show evidence that humans killed or butchered them.

Here are my questions. Based on what I can gather from the news reports, Fisher's theory seems reasonable, but, of course, I want to know more. What makes him think it was butchered? The reports say they found a flint cutting tool at the site. It's possible that the tool was left there at another time, but, if it was found intermingled with the bones, it's far more likely that it was deposited at the same time as the mammoth. The clincher will be if they find butcher marks on the bones--that is, gouges on the bones made by sawing meat off. I'd also like to know more about the pond refrigeration theory. This technique was practiced in the region and can keep meat safe to eat for over a year, though it tastes and smells awful by the first summer. I want to know if there's any way to confirm that this is really what was done with this particular mammoth. Third, Fischer thinks the mammoth was about forty when it died. He most likely figured this out by counting the growth rings in the ivory (mammoths and elephants show annual layers just like trees). One of the tusks was broken about half way up during the recovery, making that technique possible on the site. Adult elephants grow a new set of teeth every ten years or so. Did he deduce it from that? I want to know more about everything.

Now the disturbing part. After Dr. Fisher determined that the bones were mammoth remains, farmer Bristle gave him the rest of the day to get the bones out of his field before he planned to go back to building his lift station. This makes no sense to me. I understand that there are people who care so little about science that one day's inconvenience is all they're willing tolerate for knowledge. But that still doesn't explain the rush. Why is he building the lift station? Shouldn't the pipeline company be doing that? Shouldn't they be setting the schedule? Because they were found on private property, the bones are legally Bristle's. At press time, he hadn't decided whether he was going to donate the bones to the university after they finished examining them, so he has some interest in them. Even if his interest is only in selling them, he has to know that a careful excavation will bring the bones out in the best possible condition guaranteeing the best possible sales price. An important part of the story is missing here.

Fisher was able to call in a bunch of his students to help him. Jamie Bollinger, a local excavator, donated his time and equipment to get the work done. The The Ann Arbor News interviewed Fisher while the skull was being prepared to be lifted out of the hole by Bollinger's backhoe. Other than clearing the mud away, the only preparation they were able to do under the time restraints they faced was to wrap the tusks with zip ties. One broke anyway.

I'm cringing at the pictures, but maybe it's not as bad as it looks. They got the bones. That's all that's important. Right? Well, no. We know what mammoth skeletons look like. Over the last three hundred years, we've found bones from thousands of mammoths including a good sized herd's worth of complete skeletons, not to mention 75 with meat or skin. The important thing now is to study the context of each discovery. What was the local environment this mammoth lived in? What was the climate? What were they eating? Were humans part of that environment? Fortunately, evacuation paleontology/archaeology is a technique with well-developed procedures. In the pictures you can see that students have bagged scores of samples and carefully labeled each one. It might take years to examine the samples and virtually reconstruct the site. With computers, we can do that a lot better than we used to.

I'm really looking forward to hearing what they can tell us after they've had a chance to carefully examine the bones.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Walker just dropped out. That's not good

Scott Walker dropped out of the Republican primary race today. Last week, Rick Perry dropped out. Most of my liberal friends on Facebook and Twitter cackled gleefully and made fist-pumping “oh, yeah” noises over each of those. They enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching two people they disliked being humiliated and slinking home with their tails between their legs. They shouldn't have enjoyed it. Walker and Perry dropping out is bad for us.

The more people there are in the primary, and the longer they last, the better it is for us. The worst thing that could happen for us is for all of them to drop out (except, presumably for one. No one running as a Republican would be very good for us). There are two simple points involved. One is financial/economical and the other is sociological.

The money issue is the easiest to explain. Lots of candidates eat up a lot of money. Money spent running against other Republicans in the primaries is money not available to spend running against the Democratic candidate in the general election. I want the big donors to spend it all in the primaries. Walker in particular was positioned to waste a lot of money. He was the Koch brothers' anointed. They have publicly promised to spend almost a billion dollars this cycle to create a government to their liking. The longer he looked viable, the more of that money he would have sucked up. Now they are free to decide whether to spend that billion on another presidential candidate or to spread it around buying as many congressional seats as possible (which is what I would have done from the beginning). Allowing the money to become more focused is bad for us.

The sociological issue is almost as simple. The longer the primaries remain competitive without a clear front runner, the more divided the party is going into the general election. After the convention, they'll need to spend valuable time uniting the party rather than running against our candidate. The sooner someone emerges from the pack as the obvious winner, the sooner they can focus their money and supporters on defeating our candidate. Bringing the party together is a major strategic issue. The longer a party remains divided between viable candidates, the more supporters become dedicated to their candidates. The more they become dedicated to their candidate, the more they begin to see other candidates as the enemy. If the enemy wins, their enthusiasm for supporting them approaches zero. An actual convention battle would guarantee hundreds of thousands of supporters, if not millions, either staying home or voting for third parties in November. In 2008, Obama's greatest challenge wasn't defeating McCain, it was regaining the support of the Clinton bitter-enders.

My conservative/Republican friends seem to understand this calculus far better than my liberal/Democratic friends do. We look at every Republican joining the race as mere entertainment. They look at every Democrat joining the race as bad news for Clinton. We need to learn from them. If Carson and Fiorina keep up with Trump, that's great. If Jeb!, Kaisich, and Cruz stay viable, that's even better. If Jindal and those other guys look viable, that means we've all suffered major head injuries and need someone to get us to the ER as fast as possible.

To summarize: lots of Republicans = good, one Republican = bad.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Adventures in pointless paperwork

When the oil money started to pour in from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at the end of the seventies, there was a spirited public debate over the best way to spend it. There were some good decisions and some bad decisions. One of the best was to create a rainy day account which we named the Permanent Fund. Under the law, 25% of the state's oil revenue goes into the account. According to a complex formula, a certain amount is paid out in dividends to all the permanent residents of the state.

Since I've been back for almost two years, I'm entitled to a dividend this year. The deadline for filing the paperwork was back in February. The checks start going out in three weeks. Naturally, the Permanent Fund has waited till now to let me know they want more documentation. They have records of me from when I lived here in the seventies and eighties. They want me to prove that I'm that guy. I've already given them my birth date, Social Security number, and Alaska driver's license number. Now they want a birth certificate.

I go to the California Department of Vital Statistics where I find out it will take me over six months to get one. A helpful note tells me that it might be faster for me to go to the county registrar's office. I go to the County of Los Angeles' registrar's office where I find out it costs $28, it could take up to three weeks, and they don't take payments over the internet. They do, however, work with a third party vendor who will take my payment and make my request for me. I go to VitalCheck where I fill out the forms and find out it will cost me $6 more. Oh, and I need to prove who I am first.

Monday was a bank holiday. This morning I trotted down to my bank, found the clerk with the notary stamp, and had him attest that I am who I say I am. Of course, I had to prove that to him first. How did I do that? I showed him the driver's license issued to me by the state of Alaska. Back home, I scanned the signed and stamped form and sent it to VitalCheck. They'll look it over and send it to the County of Los Angeles. They'll look it over and send me my birth certificate. Since the clock is running out, I asked for the overnight mail which will cost me $26.50 more.

To sum up: The State of Alaska wants me to prove I am who I say I am. To do that, I'm spending $60.50 to have a piece of ID, issued to me by the State of Alaska, shipped down and up the West Coast. There is a fair chance that I'll miss the deadline. And it's completely pointless. Not only am I wasting time and money to tell one part of the state about a piece of ID issued by another part of the state that I already told them about, none of this proves that I'm that baby that was born in California. And, whether I am or am not that baby is irrelevant to the requirements of the Permanent Fund law. They need to know whether I met Alaska residency requirements for all of 2014. They're still just taking my word for that.

Now, I'm going to have a salami sandwich. It's the only way I could think of to end this on an up note.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Mammoths in the news

Note: I really need to put up more mammoth news without thinking I need to write a dissertation about each one. I have about twenty unfinished posts that fell prey to that impulse.

Here's a new mammoth find from San Diego.

In July, a work crew preparing the ground for a huge, one might even say mammoth, housing development started coming across big bones. California law requires construction projects that move large amounts of earth to have a paleontologist on site (he probably doubles as an archaeologist). Usually, with projects like this, someone is standing over the excavation tapping their foot moaning over the time being lost. In this case, the were able to move the work to another part of the project, which covers sixty acres. John Suster, the project superintendent, told the scientists "Take your time, this is kind of cool." Even Ure Kretowicz, the CEO of the development company, seems excited about it.  

So far they've found mammoths, horses, turtles and an undetermined species of bison. The mammoths are Columbian mammoths; woollys didn't live that far south. Woollys and Columbians are siblings. Both are descended from the steppe mammoths that lived in Eurasia six million years ago. Before the ice ages, steppe mammoths colonized North America, just one of many imperialist intrusions from that direction.

Steppe mammoths were adapted temperate grasslands. As the northlands grew colder, they had plenty of room to move south in North America. They evolved to better fit the specific the local ecologies from the northern plains of the US to the Valley of Mexico around Mexico City. Since the first discovery of their remains in 1726, they've been given several names: Jefferson's mammoth, the imperial mammoth, and the Columbian mammoths. Some taxonomists have tried to use two or all three to describe stages in their evolution. The current preferred taxonomy is to merge all three into one species. (Dammit! I'm getting all dissertationy.)

Meanwhile, back in Eurasia, rather than moving south and adapting to warmer climates where they would have had to compete with already established proboscideans (elephants), old world steppe mammoths adapted to the gradually cooler conditions of the north, eventually becoming woolly mammoths. In fact, they were a key species in the creation of a unique arctic ecology, the mammoth steppe, Since they went extinct, that territory has all been colonized with Arctic tundra.

Steppe mammoths were the second largest known probiscidean, after the odd looking giant dienotherium. They were tall and long legged with, we assume, some hair. Columbian mammoths were somewhat smaller (coming in at third largest) and, we think, hairer. Woolly mammoths differed quite a bit from it's parents and siblings. Not only were they shorter and stockier, they had multiple specific adaptations to the cold north. Besides hair, they had two layers of wool. Their trunk had a different shape that allowed them to scoop snow, for water, and protected the naked top of the trunk. Most intersting, they had a different blood hemoglobin that bonded oxygen at lower temperatures. They also had something called an anus flap.

Aside from just showing off my knowledge, my point is that the Columbian mammoth is a distinct species easily distinguished from the woolly mammoth. Mastodons, despite some superficial resemblances, aren't even close. Quite a few mastodon relatives might have lived in that area, but, except for the somewhat familiar American mastodon, all of them were extinct by the time mammoths arrived.

Possibly the coolest thing about this discovery is that so many different species have been found. Individually, each of these animals is fairly well known. Taken together, we have a slice of an entire ecology. The owners of the property are being very patient about letting the scientists take their time examining the site. The deserve credit for that. Send those guys a cake.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Some notes on translating

So far I've translated about 2000 pages out of ten languages that I don't speak. Here are my top three problems:

1. Though most of what I translate is technically in the modern form of these languages, the spelling isn't. If I actually spoke the languages, I could pronounce the words out loud and them figure out.

2. Some writers are overly flowery or just plain bad stylists. This often defeats the available grammar of my translation programs leaving me to bludgeon my way through in short phrases or even word-by-word.

3. Actual typos in the source material. I figure out the grammar part and start entering every possible variation I can into various dictionaries and none of them is a word. Finally, I realize they weren't minding their P's and Q's and everything is fine.

Bonus observation: About three years ago I noticed something odd about the way the long and short S was used in some documents. There two sets rules for their use. The difference centers on when to use the short S. In some pieces they would be using one set of rules and suddenly shift to a different set. At first I thought they didn't have enough pieces of long S type to do some sheets and shifted over to the rules that allowed more short S's for those sheets. Just last week I finally figured out what was really going on. I was reading a monthly journal that probably needed to be assembled and printed fairly quickly. The printer was a fairly large house and must have had more than one typesetter working in the shop with some of them using one set of rules and some using the other.

I'm writing this to avoid working on a Latin document that is rife with sin #2. Get back to work, John.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A tale of two skulls

In early December 1695, a group of workmen were excavating some fine white sand from a quarry between the villages of Burgtonna and Gräfentonna, in Thuringia. The sand was valuable in a number of crafts, including filling hourglasses, so the workers were careful in their excavations. You probably know what happened next. They uncovered “some awful big bones” and sent word to the castle to find out what to do with them. Luckily for us, the lord of the land, Duke Fredrick II of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, was an enlightened despot who was both a patron of the arts and sciences and an avid collector. More than simply ordering the workmen to save the bones for his collections, he had them leave the bones in place and slowly uncover them. This modern style excavation would be an under-appreciated milestone in the development of paleontology.

What the diggers discovered that day were a pair of feet and lower legs pointing northward. The feet had five toes and short ankle bones. The spectators thought they looked more like human feet than any animal they knew. At that point, the weather turned nasty and the excavation was halted until after the new year. In January, the work resumed. Over a period of about two weeks, they uncovered the upper legs, pelvis, a complete vertebral column with ribs, the upper limbs with five digit hands or feet, and... a “hideous head” unlike anything anyone had ever seen. To one side of the top of the skull were two enormous, curved pieces of what appeared to be ivory. With the entire skeleton nicely uncovered, the Duke made a special trip from Gotha on January 23 to view it, bringing along a large retinue that included a number of doctors from the university and his personal librarian.

The doctors, led by Johann Christoph Schnetter, and the librarian, Wilhelm Ernst Tentzel, all had a good laugh over the silly peasants who had thought the bones were those of a giant. Although that would have been preferred explanation of many educated men earlier in the century, very few still believed that there had ever been giants other than the few individuals named in the Bible. While the doctors and Tentzel agreed on what the bones were not, they passionately disagreed about what they were. Schnetter and the doctors believed they were the natural formations that merely looked like bones while Tentzel believed that they were the remains of a real elephant. Duke Fredrick chose not to take sides. He ordered the doctors and Tentzel to each submit a brief summarizing their arguments.

Today, most people would look at the bones and say "any idiot can see that those are fossils of some kind of elephant." Most would probably pick a mammoth for that type of elephant. But, in the Seventeenth Century, idiots and educated alike had only the vaguest idea what an elephant looked like and even less idea what its skeleton looked like. The educated were aware that the lack of data for comparative anatomy was a problem, but there was nothing they could do about it. There weren't enough elephants to go around.

Between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance, we have records of exactly two elephants appearing in European Christendom. One belonged to Charlemagne and the other to Henry III of England. This began to change during the Sixteenth Century. After the Portuguese reached India by going around Africa, they began bringing back elephants that various Indian kings sent as gifts to their king. Manuel I sent one of those elephants named Hanno to Pope Leo X. The elephant died soon after. When Leo died he was buried with his elephant. The Portuguese kings sent least four others to their fellow monarchs during that century. In the Seventeenth Century, elephants were still rare, but the owners began sending them on tours, both to show off their wealth and to educate the population. Two elephants in particular influenced the debate between the doctors and Tentzel.

The first was named Hansken. After the Dutch East India Company beat the Portuguese out of the India trade, one of their agents acquired a young female elephant in Ceylon in 1637. Once in Europe, her owners taught her some tricks and and sent her on a tour of the continent where she performed before audiences in an approximation of modern circus acts. After eighteen years on the road, she injured her foot in Italy, developed an infection, and died in Florence on November 9, 1655. A special mass was written for her. Grand Duke Ferdinando II was obsessed with the new sciences and had most of the good parts of Hansken removed before burying her. He had the skeleton mounted as accurately as possible and had her skin stuffed with straw for his collection.

Hansken, by Rembrandt. The British Museum.

There is no name recorded for the second elephant. In June of 1681, a showman named Wilkins brought an elephant to Dublin, Ireland and set up a booth near the Custom House to show it. Early on the morning of Friday the seventeenth, the booth caught fire and the poor creature was killed before Wilkins could bring it to safety. Wilkins realized there was still money to be made from his elephant if he could salvage the skeleton and continue his tour displaying it. He arranged for a troop of musketeers to be sent over to guard the corpse from souvenir seekers while he set out to hire as many butchers as he could to clean the bones before the smell became a public nuisance.

Late in the day, a doctor named Alan Mullen heard about the elephant and rushed over to negotiate with Wilkins. Mullen wanted to have an orderly dissection with artists ready to make renderings of each part. Wilkins was willing to let Mullen direct the work of the butchers, but insisted they finish it in one day and dispose of the smelly parts before Sunday when they would not be allowed to work. Mullen ordered the butchers to start working immediately. They worked through the night and through Saturday, completing the work before the Sunday deadline.

Mullen wrote up descriptions and measurements of the elephant’s parts and sent an account to Will Petty of the Royal Philosophical Society in London. His examination was far superior to anything that been published in Europe (in India, veterinary treatises on elephants had been available for centuries). Petty had Mullen’s letter published as a pamphlet. In the forty-two pages Mullen describes all of the major organs and some of the muscle groups, but gives surprising little space to the bones. This lack is made for by a trifold diagram of the reconstructed skeleton, which Wilkins had managed to assemble and take back on the road, and a separate drawing of the skull.

Mr. Wilkins' elephant. Falvey Memorial Library.

The Gotha doctors' belief that the bones were natural mineral occurrences and not organic remains was a peculiarly European idea. In most of the rest of the world, people had very little problem believing that unfamiliar old bones, even petrified and damaged ones, were organic remains. Renaissance Europeans had a tradition, derived from Neoplatonic philosophy, of a certain "power" in nature that allowed spontaneous generation. Things might grow based on no visible cause. Flies grow from poop, small pebbles appear in peoples' kidneys, Scottish geese grow out of driftwood, and, as even we moderns know, a crop of rocks grows in our gardens every winter. Another tradition, derived from a number of philosophic sources, held that certain other "powers" could give shape to growing things. This is why a piece of agate might have a landscape in it, another might have an image of the Virgin Mother in it, and other stones might be shaped like bones.

The doctors organized their arguments, Schnetter wrote them up, and they had them published and distributed to great thinkers around Europe by St. Valentine's day. The entire pamphlet is seven pages long and a sizable chunk of it is dedicated to describing the discovery. They spend very little space laying out the argument itself. They assume that most of their audience is already familiar with the basic elements of it. The largest part of the pamphlet is dedicated to citing contemporary thinkers who might agree with them. Between these two parts, they make a preemptive strike against Tentzel by explaining why the supposed bones could not be an elephant. One point is that, while the bones are not scattered, they are somewhat disarticulated. Each bone is separated from the next by at least the thickness of a hand. A second point is that the tusks appear to be hollow, not solid ivory. What appears to be the most damning point is that the skull looks nothing like an elephant. Why are the tusks up by the eyes and not by the mouth where everyone knows they should be?

Tentzel wrote a short response, which he submitted directly to the Duke (it still exists in the Gotha archives, but I haven't seen it). He took more time writing a full statement of his case and, by taking more time, was able to prepare a full rebuttal to the doctor's argument. He had a special advantage in preparing his case. As curator of the Duke' collections, he had access to fossils and other curiosities that he could compare with the bones. He had the bones themselves; the Duke had had him collect as many of the remains as he could. By taking more time he was able to interview the diggers and other witnesses to excavation. And he had Mullen's pamphlet with its detailed drawings of the skeleton and skull.

Tentzel's public presentation appeared in the April issue of a journal that he wrote every month called Monatliche Unterredungen einiger guten Freunde von Allerhand Büchern (Monthly Conversations between Good Friends about All Kinds of Books). It runs 108 pages with an illustration of the skull. After a detailed description of the discovery, the fictional friends of the title take sides. Caecilius and Passagirer take Tentzel's position and Aurelius and Didius defend the doctors”. Naturally, most of the space is given to the former.

Mullen's pamphlet is liberally quoted to show that the Tonna bones have the same proportions as the Dublin ones. Tentzel admits that there is a problem here; his elephant is twice as big as the Dublin one. He has an answer to that problem. Among the observers he interviewed was a Dutch sailor who had spent many years in India. The sailor informed him that elephants keep growing. By the size of the tusks, he estimated that the Tonna elephant must have been at least 200 years old. Caecilius and Passagirer describe many other recent discoveries of large bones and ivory described by reputable witnesses. When Aurelius and Didius get their turn, to Tentzel's credit, they give an accurate summary of the doctor's position rather than a parody of it. They still lose the debate.

Along with his summary of Mullen's pamphlet, Tentzel mentions Hansken and says he is writing to some illustrious colleagues in Italy to get accurate measurements of it. In July, he published a long letter in Latin to Antonio Magliabechi, the personal librarian to Cardinal Leopoldo de Medici, the brother of Grand Duke Ferdinando. Magliabechi was one of the major figures of the Republic of Letters during that generation and widely renowned for his disgusting personal hygiene. In his letter, Tentzel repeated most what he had written in Monatliche Unterredungen, leaving out the literary floutishes and defense of the doctors' position. Magliabechi and his Italian peers enthusiastically endorsed Tentzel's conclusions and sent the detailed information he requested. Italian scholars, as opposed to those north of the Alps, had no trouble accepting the presence of elephants on their lands. First, there were the war elephants of Pyrrus and Hannibal. Later, there were the many elephants brought by the Romans to be slaughtered in the circuses for entertainment. Magliabechi and several others wrote their own pamphlets and letters to journals.

As Northwestern Europeans began to accept the presence of elephants on their lands, the discoveries of Italian scholars were frequently cited to make the idea easier to accept. However, in the long run this delayed the acceptance of the idea of other, extinct, elephant-like species. Tentzel had his own cautious approach to the responses of his Italian correspondents. He was glad to have their endorsement for his conclusion that the remains were elephantine in nature. However, he distanced himself from the idea that the remains came from historical times. In his Monatliche Unterredungen, piece, he had Caecilius and Passagirer carefully go over various historical arguments and reject them. This could not be Charlemagne's elephant because it died in Northern Germany. This could not have been an elephant of Attila's because he moved to fast to have used elephants. It could not have belonged to some unknown merchant or returning crusader because no one would have abandoned something as valuable as the tusks. The very location of the tusks argued against human agency. Tentzel pointed out that the clear layering of strata above the remains showed that the ground had never been disrupted by human action.

Tentzel's arguments appear quite modern up to this point. His conclusion will appear less so to most contemporary readers. Tentzel was quite firm in arguing that the position of the remains was proof of the Noachian Deluge. This was a special interest of his ans a topic he regularly returned to in Monatliche Unterredungen. It's possible that his main interest in the boned was that he saw them as proof of the Deluge. To him, the northward orientation of the skeleton showed that it had drifted up from the south. The neat layering of the strata above it was the sort of deposition he expected from the receding flood waters.

Tentzel's argument that the bones were the actual organic remains of an elephant had an additional strength. As scientific communication moved from letters, however widely distributed, to printed journals, with much wider distribution, illustrations became much more important and accurate. Perhaps the most important parts of Mullen's pamphlet were the illustrations. Only a small number of living scholars had seen a live elephant and only a very tiny number had seen a skeleton. Tentzel took very conscious advantage of the importance of Mullen's skull illustration.

The skull of Mr. Wilkins' elephant. Falvey Memorial Library.

It took me a few looks to understand this illustration. Why do the tusks look so short compared to the profile? What's with that little hook at the end? I went back to my sources on elephant dentition (it's a surprisingly complex topic. Some day I'll write about it. I'm not sure how much the book needs). My first thought was that it was the tusk core, but that's soft tissue, not bone and, in any case, it doesn't have that hook at the end. Then it occurred to me, we're looking at the tusks from the tips. Most illustrations would tilt the skull to emphasize their length. Mullen already showed their length in the full skeleton profile. The tusks curve forward from the skull. A front-on view of the skull dramatically reduces the apparent length of the tusks.

Tentzel's illustration shows the same apparent shortness. By his own measurements, the tusks should be longer that the skull. To emphasize the similarity with Mullen's illustration, he portrayed his skull with the same orientation. It lacked the drama that tipping the skull forward and showing of the tusks would have had, but it strengthened his larger argument that the Tonna remains were those of an elephant.

The majority of scholars agreed with Tentzel about the remains being elephants though a significant minority sided with a doctors. A small minority still held out for giants. The great majority also agreed about the Deluge being the cause of their deposition, though a small number had begun to doubt the historical reality of a global flood. It would be another century before they became a narrow majority.

The Tonna elephant would be cited by proto-paleontologists for decades but their significance would evolve over time. At first they were nothing more than an argument for the organic nature of fossils. Later, as the debate over mammoths developed, they would become an argument for the idea that elephants had once lived far north of the tropics. Next, they would be cited as a mammoth, rather than an elephant.

The remains are probably gone now. If any parts are still in the Gotha collections, they are no longer identified as such. That doesn't mean we can't identify the species. In recent years, paleontologists have returned to the Tonna quarries and worked the layer of white sand. They have dated it to the late Eemian, the warmest period before the last ice age. The most common proboscidean in that strata is the straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). This species was first identified in 1847. It had a fairly wide range across Europe. Some of them wandered into Sicily when the seas were low during the glacial maxima. There, constrained by the limited resources of an island, they underwent a process of dwarfing, eventually becoming Elephas mnaidriensis, the cyclops skeletons I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Tentzel only published Monatliche Unterredungen for one more year after his treatment of the Tonna remains. The following January, he wrote a shorter piece quoting the responses he had received from Italy. At the turn of the century, he moved on to a new job with King of Saxony and briefly published a new journal. During that time a second skeleton was found at Tonna and he and Schnetter went at it one more time, but neither added anything new to their arguments. The job with the King of Saxony didn't work out and Tentzel died in poverty. Despite his relevance during the next century, he has largely been relegated to footnote status since. This appears to changing. He's had some attention lately for his role as a science communicator. I'm doing my best to see that he gets some attention for his science as well.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Please help Tessa and Marlowe

This is a plea to save my ex from a financial death spiral. The short, short, short version is that she needs about $3500 by the end of next week or she loses both her car and her apartment.

Tessa lost her job soon after the crash in 2008 and hasn't had a permanent job since then. For a while, we tried to build a home business around soaps, lotions, and scents that she made, but that never did more than break even. She's an experienced technical writer and has been able to get short contract gigs from time to time, but nowhere close to enough to live on. When we split up, we divided what equity were able to get from the house, but that didn't last very long. By last year, she was pretty much completely broke. The one bright spot was that she was enrolled in a computer programming course under a state program that came with a modest living stipend. She was doing very well in the courses and it looked things were finally bottoming out for her. Then WellsFargo seized her stipend.

Like many people in her position, she had been juggling her bills, sometimes having to choose which bills would be paid that month and which would be skipped. She closed the bank account from her business so that the card wouldn't be a temptation. And she talked to their support people and thought she had a verbal agreement to pay what she could, when she could. They didn't remember it that way. After a few late and missed payments, they called the whole amount due. A few months ago, when her quarterly living stipend was deposited, they simply drained her personal account. This is completely legal in the state of Washington. Her rent check bounced and she didn't have any money for groceries. This is why people hate banks.

When I found out about it, I set up a GoFundMe account for her. Thanks to some very kind people, we were able to cover about half of what she lost, the rent was paid, and she was able to finish out the quarter. She graduated with flying colors and glowing recommendations. But, that means the stipends have stopped. She's had some short contract jobs and unrelated office temp jobs, but not enough to keep her from falling further behind. Her roommate doesn't make enough to cover both of their bills. Last week, her car was repossessed and her current temp job is in another town.

The world is full of these stories. There's nothing that makes hers stand out from the crowd. She's not a veteran. No one is forcing her to bake a cake. She's not a cute kid with a horrible disease. Its not tied to popular culture like a Tesla museum or new card game. I can't offer clever tee shirts or fun prizes for donations. She's just another person who made some mistakes and had far too many bad breaks. If it helps to make her story more personal, here's picture of her cat.

I restarted the GoFundMe account. There are more details of her fight with the bank there if you're interested. We've made a couple hundred dollars this week. If she already wasn't so far behind, that much each week would be enough to get her by. But now her bills are being called due again. I would completely cover her bills if I could, but I'm already homeless. At this point in her life, she should be looking forward to retirement, instead, she's staring into the void.

If you can, please donate. If you can't, please share her story. Thanks.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Flaming plagiarism from the skies!

I haven't done a good plagiarism story in a long time.

For the last couple of months, conspiracy and prophecy nuts have been fixated on mid-September as the time when something big is going to happen. They don't agree on the details, but a giant comet or asteroid hitting the earth has emerged as the favorite. Hunt online and you'll find dozens of blog posts and YouTube videos screaming that NASA has confirmed that a 2.5 mile-wide something is going to splash down into the Caribbean. And, as with the Mayan calendar and/or Niburu nonsense, NASA has finally had to issue a stop-being-silly press release.

I read the story about the press release in the British tabloid The Daily Mail. Toward the end of the short article, they linked to Huffington Post UK for details on one element of the conspiracy theory. I clicked through and found a slightly longer version of the same article. The first few sentences were so similar that I went back to the Mail to to see if they were both by the same writer. They're not. The HuffPo version is by Sara C. Nelson, the Mail version by Ellie Zolfagharifard. According to the timestamps, the HuffPo version went up thirteen hours earlier than the Mail version.

Take a look:

HuffPo: A gargantuan asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, with enough power to wipe out life as we know it.

The Mail: A massive asteroid is on a collision course with Earth, and it is large enough to spell the end of humanity.

HuffPo: That’s the belief of an online community of biblical theorists who predict our collective demise will occur between 22 – 28 September 2015.

The Mail: This is the radical claim of an online community of biblical theorists who say that life as we know it will be wiped out between 22 to 28 September this year.

HuffPo: Though sources are dubious, chatter about the impending end of life as we know it has prompted Nasa to speak up.

The Mail: Despite their lack of credentials, the popularity of the prediction has now forced Nasa to speak up, dismissing the theory as unfounded.

HuffPo: Other similarly questionable sources cite a meeting between French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and US Secretary of State John Kerry in May 2014 as being further evidence the Rapture is approaching.

The Mail: Some cite a meeting between French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and US Secretary of State John Kerry in May 2014 is further evidence the Rapture is approaching, according to the Huffington Post.

HuffPo: At odds with talk of the Rapture, however, is the theory that the asteroid isn’t going to get us – but the CERN Large Hadron Collider will.

The Mail: Others have even predicted the events will be started by Cern's Large Hadron Collider.

HuffPo: One blogger points out: “The CERN logo is 666, the sign of the beast in a circle.”

The Mail: One blogger, said: 'The Cern logo is 666, the sign of the beast in a circle. The Cern collider looks like the all seeing eye or stargate we see so much of.'

I don't know the peculiarities of British news publishing or whether HuffPo and the Mail have some kind of arrangement that makes this possible, but, from my seat, it looks like a big steaming mess of plagiarism seasoned with a generous dose of chutzpah.