Repost: Dark Emu – Bruce Pascoe

“So there’s this book called Dark Emu about how the Australian aborigines actually had pretty intensive cultivation before the British or whoever came….”
“What? Well, that’s a lie.”
“No, no, see, he has first-hand, primary sources and so on. He says they practiced intensive cultivation of things like grass and yams…”
“For the seed grain.”
“He thinks its akin to the primitive levels of cultivation of wheat. You know, historically.”
“Grass seeds are not as nutritious as wheat.”
“Well, like, the grass species they used were in the process of being domesticated, the same way it was in Mesopotamia. Only the process was interrupted. Or something like that, I think he thinks.”
“That would be smart except that that didn’t happen in Mesopotamia, either.”
“Well, yes, but the primary sources do say they did have huge fields of grass–”
“Yeah, and huge, huge fields of yams, as far as the eye could see. What they did is they used fire, like all the native peoples. They didn’t cultivate because they didn’t have domesticated animals to pull plows. I’m sure they were able to have large areas to harvest, in places like the coasts where you can do that kind of thing. This guy is just a bleeding-heart liberal environmentalist who doesn’t know anything about agriculture. Have you thought about changing your major to English?”
“Well, that’s another part of his thesis. He thinks that since they didn’t plow and there were no hoofed animals, this had a beneficial impact on the soil, since there weren’t any sheep to overgraze and the soil stayed covered almost year-round. So there are places now are desert that used to be able to support a, not necessarily a large, population.”
“Nope. Nope. Did not happen. You see, Anthropology and Sociology majors have to to do something to pay off their college loans, so they have to go and come up with things like this. It makes him feel good to think about the pure, innocent, primitive natives being out there, secretly being very smart but not as smart as he is. English majors just get jobs teaching school and reading books.”
“Well, he has primary sources! And sheep are very destructive! They could have contributed.”
“Yes, and he thinks that’s a strong argument because he’s an academic. He’s never heard of rotational grazing. No farmer wants to destroy his own pasture, why would he?”
“Well, I’m against sheep on general principles anyway. And Australia has had real trouble with introduced species. Like cane toads. And rabbits.”
“Uh-huh, and are they complaining about rabbits in the original sources?”
“No! Look, what he’s saying boils down to is that the aborigines had a pretty good established system of management for the land that was very different from the European system, that one didn’t necessarily work as well. And that they had some pretty sophisticated other technologies as well, like fish traps and animal traps.”
“And if you teach high school English to the kids, you can assign them books about living off the land and learning how to make bear traps from tree bark. What was that book you used to like? It was about the two boys out in the woods.”
“See, I thought his book was interesting because it seemed like a very elvish way of cultivating the land. You live in harmony with nature, and you get a giant harvest–”
“–of grass–”
“But you use minimal effort and you manipulate the landscape so the whole system works for you.”
“Wrong. Elves live in cities made of stone and glass and they plunder the earth to mine gold and jewels. I read it in a book.”
“….those are city elves, dad.”
“City elves are better than country elves. Who wants to be a country bumpkin elf when you could be a sophisticated and glamorous–”

[Note….This was a more-or-less verbatim conversation. I keep reposting it because it makes me laugh every time.]

Hurry Up and Wait Readlist

5e197d9c67a719559307a2f5341444341587343Night of Masks, Andre Norton.
This is a very simple story, despite its genre-blending: it’s a survival story set on an alien planet. Of the events that send our two young heroes there, little is fully explained. Even the narrative touches which elevate this above standard Hatchet-type pulps are just that, touches.
That said, it’s one of the most vividly-written Dangerous Alien Planets I’ve personally encountered, a particularly good trick given that the planet is pitch-black to human eyes and must be seen through infra-red goggles. And yet the persistent atmosphere of heat and oppression, dread and anxiety, fear of the dark and loathing of the unknown is communicated quite well, thank you.
Rated: Don’t read this at night.

Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock.
The guy has a couple of very clear points to make: modern science is tribal, clique-ridden and consensus-based. Anyone who goes outside the consensus risks being viciously ostracized. It also is highly politically correct inasmuch as it doesn’t particularly welcome theories that might go against the party lines (Clovis-first, for instance). That’s all totally true.
He also has some interesting theories: that human civilization is older than believed, that climate events such as the Younger Dryas held great influence over humankind/civilization; that dispersal patterns from/throughout Old World are different than the standard model. The overall theory is: that there was a pre-pre-prehistoric, very advanced culture from which all the really ancient civilizations (Egypt, Sumer, Akkad) were descended, but of which only the most tantalizing of circumstantial evidence remains.
Problem is….his arguments tend to a) be way far out, b) undercut his own theory. When the strongest evidence you do have is: “there is an interesting line-up between Plato, the dates for the legend of Atlantis, and the Younger Dryas,” “Gobekli Tepe exists,” and, “That’s a really, really, big stone,” it might be time to accept that your theory has insufficient supporting evidence and go back to your wall with all the bits of paper with strings connecting them.

634471– The Dirdir, and The Pnume, Jack Vance.
These are the third and fourth volumes, respectively, of Vances’ Planet of Adventure cycle. Naturally, I first got hold of them in backwards order and didn’t read the first or second until I got the anthology bundle. Same thing happened with the Demon Princes, for me, with the same result: the last book is my favorite for sentimental reasons, but I think the next-to-last is technically superior.
So, the Planet of Adventure kicks off with space scout Adam Reith shot down and stranded on the alien world Tschai. He is desperate to return to Earth, both because while Tschai is a world of magnificence, grandeur, and adventure, it is also a world of barbaric horrors, and to bring word back of the threat posed by the alien races who dwell there and have already once raided Earth (hence, the Earth-type humans who also live there.)
Books 1 and 2 cover Reith’s attempts to find his own ship (it’s been wrecked and gutted), or steal a working ship. Both fail, so The Dirdir picks up where Servants of the Wankh left off. The next option is to buy a ship…if one has the sequins for it. Sequins, the currency of Tschai, happen to be naturally-occuring products which can be mined only in one region: the Carabas. Which happen to be the Dirdir hunting preserve. There is something like a seventy-five percent death rate for miners, not to mention that most profit margins are very slim. Reith, nevertheless, comes up with a novel plan that results in massive profit, and also the Dirdir howling for his hide.
The only thing I can really say about this book is that it does everything rightEverything in it is done perfectly, from the setting to the prose to the characters, to the dialogue, to the action, the climactic battle, and the confronting-the-villain with delicious irony at the denoument.

The Pnume takes a slightly different turn, with Reith being separated from his usual companions and plunged into a novel setting: the underground haunts of the Pnume–the only race indigenous to Tschai, who observe the actions of others upon their world as though watching a play. The Pnume have decided that Adam Reith, man of Earth, is a curiousity worth collecting and placing in their museum, Foreverness.
Adam Reith, who has almost gotten his starship ready to fly, has entirely different opinions. Together with his new sidekick, a pnumekin (human servant of the pnume) girl Zap 210, they must journey beneath the surface and across it to return to the Sivishe Spaceports. Hilarity ensues.
What I like about this one? Well, although it has a little less action than the previous book, for some reason, I really like the image of the Pnume–the Silent Critics, the zuzhma kastchai, ancient and all-knowing motherfolk from the dark stuff of Tschai,–walking silently in the dusty darkness.
That said, the book does suffer from only having two characters–Reith and the mousy Zap 210–for most of it’s length; it becomes noticeably better once they emerge into the surface of Tschai and begin to interact with some of Vance’s finest trustworthily philosophical rogues. (Rigging the eel-races is one of my favorite gambling scenes in all fiction.) My other problem is that the eventual Zap 210/Adam Reith romance just doesn’t seem necessary. But, ah well, such is life in pulp scifi.
Rated: Onmale decreed life for Adam Reith.

Plug: Iron, How Did They Make It

Unmitigated Pedant Bret Devereaux has another of his historical explaination/analyses up, and it’s what it says it’s about, a deeeeeep dive into how people made iron. This follows his last series, which looked at how people made bread.

From a well-fed and industrialized point of view, iron’s a lot more sexy, honestly.

For people who might be wanting more than just a spoon-fed overview, there is also a bibliography.

clan of the cave bear!

They found a frozen, preserved, intact cave bear! Until now, only the bones have been found.

Unique discovery of perfectly preserved extinct cave bear showing  its teeth after up to 39,000 years

The remains were found by reindeer herders on [Yakutia] and the remains will be analysed by scientists at the North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk, which is at the forefront of research into extinct woolly mammoths and rhinos.

The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) is a prehistoric species or subspecies that lived in Eurasia in the Middle and Late Pleistocene period and became extinct about 15,000 years ago.

According to the rough preliminary suggestions the bear could live in Karginsky interglacial (this was the period between 22,000 and 39,500 years).

A cub was also found.


They found a frozen wolf head this time

In lieu of a clever title, here’s the facts: Someone found a frozen and very well preserved Pleistocene-era wolf head in the Siberian permafrost.

“This is a unique discovery of the first ever remains of a fully grown Pleistocene wolf with its tissue preserved,” palaeontologist Albert Protopopov [said].

The article keeps describing the head as “giant” but doesn’t give any reasons for this. You have to go slightly deeper into the linked Siberian Times article to find that this ancient wolf’s head is approximately half the size of a current wolf’s body.

….yeah, but is it, though?

So ScienceAlert gives the head size of The Ice Wolf as 16 inches/40 cm; Siberian Times gives average wolf body size as 66-86 cm (given that this translates to 25-35~inches, something’s hinky here. They must not be counting tail length). And anyway, that’s not actually all that helpful, now, is it?

Wiki tells me that for modern wolves,

Wolves measure 105–160 cm (41–63 in) in length and 80–85 cm (31–33 in) at shoulder height.

The skull is 230–280 mm (9–11 in).

So this guy is distinctly bigger….but not half again as large as a modern-day wolf.


The size and weight of the modern wolf increases proportionally with latitude in accord with Bergmann’s rule.

I’m going to guess that this applies to prehistoric wolves, too–and this one lived and died in the permafrost zones. So.

Don’t trust fake news.

…tales from the Library of Babel?

Perrault and Grimm’s fairy tales could actually predate written language.

Or so a study claims.

Researchers used phylogenetic analysis and the Aarne-Thompson index to trace connections between story types, and then trace those backwards based on common parent (ancestor?) languages.

As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots—Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages more than 5,000 years ago and a tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.

The findings might confirm the long-disregarded theory of fairy tale writer Wilhelm Grimm, who thought that all Indo-European cultures shared common tales.

It’s always neat to find out the scientific backing behind everyday, ordinary–or even extraordinary–practices, stories…or superstitions.

But not everyone is certain that the study proves fairy tales are that old. As Chris Samoray writes for Science News, other folklorists are finding fault with the study’s insistence that The Smith and the Devil dates back to the Bronze Age—a time before a word for “metalsmith” is thought to have existed.

A few grains of salt are called for.

But still: quite possibly more true than not. The Australian Aboriginals did successfully retain accurate information about their country and culture through purely oral traditions. There’s no reason to conclude that other cultures couldn’t do the same.


OOOh! Hey! (Maybe)

(Another) Guy claims to have cracked the Voynich Manuscript code.

The Voynich Manuscript is one of the few unresolved mysteries that is a) mysterious, b) actually interesting to me. The general consensus–after several centuries’ worth of scholars have been unable to make sense of it–is that it’s probably a hoax. Who by or on: unknown. So let’s read this article….

In his peer-reviewed paper, The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, published in the journal Romance Studies, Cheshire describes how he successfully deciphered the manuscript’s codex and, at the same time, revealed the only known example of proto-Romance language.

The manuscript was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, who happens to have been great aunt to Catherine of Aragon.

“It is also no exaggeration to say this work represents one of the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics. The manuscript is written in proto-Romance—ancestral to today’s Romance languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician. The language used was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the Medieval period, but it was seldom written in official or important documents because Latin was the language of royalty, church and government. As a result, proto-Romance was lost from the record, until now.”


Citation needed.


Giant prehistoric cats discovered

–in museum drawer.

Insert own “because cats, you see, like drawers, hneh hneh hneh” joke here.

Simbakubwa kutokaafrika (“Big Lion From Out of Africa”) was a hyaenodont–one of the apex predators which prowled the African proto-savannahs during the Oligocene (after the dinosaurs, before the primates started getting uppity). It was larger than a polar bear.

“The most striking feature of Simbakubwa is the size of the specimen,” their study reads. “Based on its massive dentition, the animal was significantly larger than any modern African terrestrial carnivore.” Dentition refers to the development of teeth, a key element of studying ancient fossils.

Using known methods of extrapolating body mass from teeth, scientists estimate that the big cat weighed approximately 1,308 kilograms, or an astonishing 2,888 pounds.

Nice kitty!

On a related note, I spent a chunk of this morning cleaning an unholy black goo from the ear canals of a normal-sized cat with an infection. The cat was maybe ten pounds. Multiply that by a factor of 200….the mind boggles.

Hmmm….the adventures of a prehistoric veterinarian….now there’s an idea with potential….

If I want to buy a dinosaur

–and I have funds, then I should be able to buy a freaking dinosaur and enjoy looking at it in the peace and comfort of my own private home. If I want to!

Buzz off, SVP.

Someone is trying to sell a juvenile T-Rex skeleton on Ebay. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is wringing its hands. As of right now, the Ebay listing is comfy at nearly 3,000,000.00$.

“Hey, wanna go in half on a–oh.”
“On a what? A treadmill?”
“I mean, I was going to make a joke about it but then I actually saw the price and I’m not gonna.”
“What is it?”
“A baby T-Rex fossil.”
“Oh. How much is it? A million dollars?”
“It’s getting close to three million.”
“Oh….well. You know, if I had the money, I definitely would not spend it on that.”
“Yeah…fair enough.”