Ancient North Eurasians

Ancient North Eurasians lived in Siberia during the Ice Age. Their DNA is a genetic ‘missing link’ between Europeans, Iranians, Siberians and the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Japan.

Ancient North Eurasians lived 25,000 years ago, during the last Glacial Maximum. At the time, homo sapiens lived-in scattered bands across Africa, Eurasia and Australia who seldom met. Some groups survived and passed on their genes; others did not. As these bands lived in different climates and lived distinct lifestyles for thousands of years, they tended to look different. Because most modern peoples descend from numerous lineages, groups like the Ancient North Eurasians do not correspond to any one people today.

Ancient hunter-gatherers periodically returned to the same sites where they deposited tools, the bones of hunted animals and their dead. Archaeologists link sites to common cultures. Archaeogeneticists connect archaeological sites with genetic lineages.

Three sites are associated with the Ancient North Eurasians:

  • Mal’ta Buret’ culture
  • Yana Rhinocerous Site
  • Anfontova Gora

Remains indicate the ANE were hunter-gatherers with partial Neanderthal ancestry. They hunted hares, bears, bison, mammoths, horses and reindeer and built their houses from antlers and bone. Their tools were made from ivory and flint, their clothes from wool and hide. The Mal’ta Buret culture left over 30 ‘Venus figurines’ made from mammoth ivory (pictured). A 2021 study suggests ANE were the first people to domesticate dogs.

The Mal’ta boy was a four-year-old child buried near Lake Baikal, Siberia. He wore an ivory crown, a bead necklace and a pendant shaped like a bird. Genetic sequencing indicates the boy was a typical Ancient North Eurasian who shares DNA with both modern Europeans and Native Americans.

Until the 2000s, scientists thought Native Americans were of entirely East Asian origin. The Mal’ta boy, however, shares no DNA with modern East Asians, indicating the humans who first crossed the Bering Landbridge were of mixed East Asian and ANE ancestry.

Preserved bodies like the Mal’ta boy had brown hair, dark eyes and medium-light skin. The Anfontova Gora site contains the oldest known person to have blonde hair – a woman living around 16,000 BC. 

Over time, the Ancient North Eurasians dispersed and interbred with different populations. In the west, they became herders who spoke proto-Indo-European languages. Others interbred with hunter-gatherers from East Asia, crossed the Bering Land bridge and populated the Americas.

Estimated ANE ancestry among modern peoples:

  • Indigenous Americans – 14-38 (highest among Andean peoples)
  • Modern Europeans – 10-25%
  • Ainu – 21%
  • South Asians (Indians) – 10 – 20%
  • Iranians – 10-20%

The Kets (above), an isolated group of Siberian hunter-gatherers, have 40% Ancient North Eurasian ancestry.

By noting common elements across mythologies, legends and folk beliefs of their descendants, we can theorise what the ANE might have believed. The traditions of India, Scandinavia, Greece, Siberia and the Americas – from the Sioux to the Aztec – have only one ‘mytheme’ in common: a dog who guards the entrance to the afterlife.

Sources: BBC, DNA Consultants, Nature, National Library of Medicine

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Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) by Yuval Noah Harari, follows on from his 2016 book ‘Sapiens’. While Sapiens examines the history of our species, Homo Deus projects on the future. Harari explores what new technologies the world faces and how they may shape our health, well-being and belief systems. It is the latter which matters most.

Homo Deus begins by discussing the three universal challenges of the past – war, famine and disease. Modern technology has curtailed them all. I admit this seemed ironic in the era of Covid and Russo-Ukrainian War. However, the facts remain the same in 2016 as of 2022. Suicide kills more than war, obesity more than starvation. Modern medicine has curtailed the past’s most vicious diseases. We will see what comes of grain shortages and monkeypox.

Homo Deus has 7 chapters:

  1. The New Human Agenda – eternal happiness, perfect health and immortality.
  2. The Anthropocene – evolution of human society.
  3. The Human Spark – modern science and the nature of consciousness.
  4. The Storytellers – rehashes many of the ideas laid out in Sapiens, in particular our ‘intersubjective’ reality.
  5. The Odd Couple – the difference between science and religion.
  6. The Modern Covenant – how modernity trades meaning for power.
  7. The Humanist Revolution – our modern belief system.
  8. The Time Bomb in the Laboratory – how new scientific discoveries will challenge our humanist worldview.
  9. The Great Decoupling – the power of the AI algorithms.
  10. The Ocean of Consciousness – techno-humanism, what it is and how it might evolve
  11. The Data Religion – how data drives the universe.

To discuss the future, Homo Deus delves into the past and present to explain where we might go next. It highlights profound ethical considerations; discussing philosophy, science and evolution in the spheres of biological engineering and AI.

The book’s second half is particularly chilling. AI algorithms are outpacing human beings. Not only can they play chess, solve equations or drive better than us, but computers can surpass people in realms we deem quintessentially human, such as art and music. When machines do everything better than humans, what value do we have? The question should concern us more than our ability to reverse ageing, travel in space or edit our genes. Most chillingly, it is inevitable.

Harari’s narration comes across as cold and detatched, as if he were an objective algorithm detailing the history of intelligent beings, and not a Homo Sapiens himself. He maintains the accessible style of Sapiens when tackling sophisticated concepts – which is most of the book. The style is accessible, but the tone is scientific. By reading between the lines, however, one sees Harari is only describing our state of affairs; what the reader makes of it is up to them.

Homo Deus is an intriguing book for anyone interested in the future of our species. Harari is an historian, however, not a life scientist, and we have more data on the past than future. For these reasons, Homo Deus does not hold up to Sapiens, nor should it be the authority on the implications of AI and the changing pace of the planet. It still remains a good read.

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Swamps, Marshes, Bogs and Fens

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Swamps, marshes and bogs are not the same thing. Strictly speaking, they are varieties of wetlands. This family of ecosystems is a stretch of land saturated with water, neither fully land nor sea. Wetlands may be found on the edges of oceans, lakes or rivers, or be regions unto themselves. They are crucial pillars of the world’s biodiversity.

Wetlands are buffers for storms and strong winds and absorb excess water from rainfall and flooding. They serve a crucial ecological function by naturally filtering chemicals, metals and pollutants in their soil. As insects breed in them, they are also rife with disease. At the bottom layer, wetlands may house coal, while bogs and fens house peat, a valuable biofuel.

World folklore depicts wetlands – swamps and bogs, in particular, as dangerous haunted places, home to real dangers like alligators and tigers, and imaginary ones like witches and bunyips.

There are four types of wetland: swamps, marshes, bogs and fens. These differ considerably by the plants that grow in them.

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A bayou in Louisiana, USA

Swamps are forested wetlands. Wooded plants dominate these regions, growing beneath the water and rising high above it. Saltwater swamps are found on tropical coastlines, freshwater swamps inland. Swamps tend to be humid and rich in wildlife. Famous swamps include the Bayou of Louisiana and the Mangrove Forests of Southeast Asia.

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The Everglades, Florida, USA

Marshes are wetlands dominated by herbaceous plants such as grasses, rushes and reeds. Saltmarshes ‘catch’ pollutants from human settlements downriver and stop them from entering the sea. Freshwater swamps form on the slow stretches of rivers or the edges of lakes. Migratory birds nest in saltmarshes before heading to sea. Famous marshes include the Everglades of Florida, the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq and the Okavango Delta.

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Bog in Mukri, Estonia

Bogs are the remains of ancient glaciers which melted at the end of the Ice Age. Unlike swamps and marshes, they are found only inland in colder, northern climates. Rather than trees or grasses, bogs are home to peat, a thick, spongy soil created from ancient, decaying plant matter, which eventually turns into coal. The excess of peat stifles plant growth, meaning bogs are often acidic and low in oxygen. Bogs dominate regions of Ireland, Russia, Scandinavia and North America and take over ten thousand years to form.

Fens form from glaciers but, unlike bogs, are fed by rivers and are alkaline, not acidic. They host both peat deposits and grassy plants. From a distance, fens resemble low-lying meadows. If enough peat develops or it loses access to freshwater, a fen can turn into a bog.

Pollardston Fen, Ireland

‘Mire’ is another word for a peat wetland, like a fen or bog. Human activity threatens wetlands. Rising sea levels caused by climate change can flood coastal wetlands and destroy these valuable habitats. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have drained wetlands for agriculture and urban development and dammed the rivers which feed them. The loss of wetlands threatens the species who live there and risks losing the protection they offer. Since 1900, half the world’s wetlands have disappeared.

Sources: National Geographic, The Wildlife Trust, WWF

Mirror Test

Meet The Most Narcissistic Monkey On The Planet - Vocativ

The mirror test measures animal self-awareness. To pass, a creature must recognise itself in a mirror. Only 13 species, including humans, have so far.

In the test, scientists place a coloured mark on an animal’s forehead and put it in front of a mirror. Some animals ignore the mirror, others consider it a different creature. A small few will adjust themselves while looking in the mirror and try to remove the mark. Such a response indicates they know the creature in the mirror is them, and act accordingly. 

Gordon Gallup Jr. invented the test in 1970. He put chimpanzees in a room with a mirror. At first, they threatened their reflection but, after a time, started grooming and pulling faces. When Gallup put a red mark on one ear then removed the mirror, the chimpanzees continued to scratch and touch that ear. The test proves animal self-recognition and suggests self-awareness.

 Animals that have passed:

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  • humans
  • chimpanzees
  • bonobos
  • orangutans
  • gorillas
  • bottlenose dolphins
  • orcas
  • Asian elephants
  • Eurasian Magpies
  • pigeons
  • cleaner wrasses (a tropical reef cleaner fish)

Most gorillas fail the test. Eye contact is threatening for gorillas, so they may deliberately avoid looking at the mirror for long enough to recognise themselves.

Only one elephant, an Asian elephant in 2006 at Bronx Zoo, identified the X on its forehead after looking in a mirror. Elephant cognition evolved on a similar path to primates. 

Magpies pass every time. The corvid family, which includes ravens and crows, have the same brain-body ratio as primates. While Eurasian magpies are among the most intelligent animals on the planet, their intelligence evolved from a different source than humans and primates. 

In 1980, behavioural psychologist BF Skinner found pigeons could pass the test after extensive, scaffolded training. Untrained pigeons do not.

Human babies do not pass the test until between 12 and 24 months old. Studies show a discrepancy across different environments.

What do these creatures have in common? Animals that pass the test have a high body-brain ratio, advanced perception and cooperative social structures. 

The mirror test is not the only indicator of self-awareness. Dogs, for example, rely on scent, so instantly discount any image from being them because of the lack of associated smell. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily self-aware, but if they were, a mirror-test wouldn’t tell you.

Without self-recognition, however, there cannot be self-awareness. Distinguishing the animals who pass from their peers is a significant step in unravelling the mystery of consciousness.

Sources: Animal Cognition, Brittanica, Science Daily.

Great Conjunctions

Jupiter and Saturn swing by the moon this week ahead of a ...

A Great Conjunction is when Jupiter and Saturn reach the closest point in their orbit, and appear mere degrees apart, as one bright star from Earth. 21 December 2020 will be the first Great Conjunction in 400 years and the closest since 1226. The next will be in 2080.

Jupiter and Saturn are the two largest planets in our solar system. Both are gas giants over nine times the diameter of Earth and the furthest planets from Earth we can see with the naked eye. 

Seeing Uranus, Neptune or Pluto requires a telescope. Jupiter takes 12 earth-years to orbit the sun, Saturn takes 30. During the Great Conjunction, they appear 1° apart with a naked eye and 5° with a telescope.

The Great Conjunction of 2020 will take place on the Winter/Summer Solstice and be best visible in the Northern Hemisphere. The planets will appear in the southwest, with Saturn being above/left of Jupiter in the Northern Hemisphere and below/right in the Southern. With binoculars, you can see Jupiter’s four Galilean moons – Callisto, Europa, Ganymede and Io. With a telescope, you can catch all 75 of its moons and the ‘Great Red Spot’. The conjunction will be visible one hour after sunset.

We know of older conjunctions from astronomical records left by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and early modern Europeans. Many, however, were either too shrouded or close to the sun to be visible from Earth.

 Largest visible recorded Great Conjunctions:

  • 1st March 1793 BC – 0.02°, the closest recorded conjunction.
  • 6 March 372 – 0.03°
  • 6 March 372, 0.1°
  • 13 September 709 – 0.1°
  • 4 March 1226 – 0.03°
  • 25 August 1523 – 0.1°
  • 16 July 1623 – 0.08°
  • 21 December 2020 – 0.01°

Polish astronomers observed the Great Conjunction of 1523 from the Krakow Academy and used it to prove Copernicus’s heliocentric model. 

The last Great Conjunction was in 1623, in the early days of the telescope. Jupiter and Saturn appeared 0.08° apart. 2020’s conjunction will be even closer, and the near since 1226 when the hordes of Genghis Khan were ravaging Asia and Saint Francis was in the last year of his life.

Johannes Keppler, the famed German astronomer, suggested in 1614 that the (minor) conjunction of 7 BC was the Star of Bethlehem attested in the Bible. Modern scholarship suggests it is most likely the ‘Star’ was an eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon around 14 April 6 BC, which would have appeared in the west of Judah and thus led the Three Wise Men from the east. 

Sources: Astrtonomy, News Scientist, Wikipedia

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Bears (scientific name Ursidae) are the largest land animals that eat meat. Mammals of the carniforma order, they live in Eurasia and the Americas. Despite their size and killing power, most bears are omnivores who forage more than they hunt. There are nine species of bear.

Bears evolved over 10 million years ago. Larger, older species like the North American short-faced bear and the European cave bear died out in the Ice Age. Their closest relatives are raccoons and dogs. 

Bear, Chauvet cave painting, ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE ...

Bears have shaggy coats, powerful jaws and sharp claws. Unable to run for long periods, they seldom chase their prey. Instead, bears rely on foraging or killing helpless animals like seal pups or salmon. They have no natural predators and do not fear humans. What they lack in eyesight and hearing, bears make up for in scent. They do not distinguish between night and day and sleep at odd hours. In wintertime, most bears hibernate, occasionally venturing from their dens when snowfall lapses. The polar bear is the only species who stay outside all year long.

Bears mate once every two years. Males court females in the mating season but leave when the cubs are born. Bears stay with their mothers until one year old.

The American black bear is the most widespread species. They are adaptable scavengers and tree climbers who remain widespread today. Regional varieties include the cinnamon bear and the so-called Spirit, or Kermode bear (pictured) of British Columbia, of whom one in every ten have white fur.

Man fights off grizzly bear after remembering his grandma ...

Grizzly bears are the American variety of the brown bear. Unlike their smaller cousins, they are too big to climb most trees and owe their size to a salmon-rich diet. Grizzlies can kill bulls with a single blow of their paws. The Kodiak bear, a subspecies found in Alaska, can reach up to 600 kilograms. It is the largest bear. 

Spectacled Bears Seen Near Machu Picchu

The spectacled bear is the only bear in South America. Reclusive by nature, they inhabit the Andes Mountains and owe their name to brown rings by their eyes. 

Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) scratching ...

The Eurasian brown bear once inhabited Europe, Asia and Morocco but now lives only in isolated forests and mountains. Humans hunted brown bears and taught them to dance at circuses. Though they are highly tamable and eager to please, bears hide their expressions, meaning angry outbursts take their captors by surprise. Wojtek, a Syrian Brown Bear, served in the Polish Army in WW2 and reached the rank of corporal.

Asiatic black bears or ‘moon bears’, so-called because of the mark on their chest, inhabit the Himalayas and the mountains of East Asia. They are far smaller than the American black bear and make expert tree climbers.

Sun Bears Can Mimic Facial Expressions The Same Way Humans ...

Sun Bears are the smallest species of bear. They live in the rainforests of Southeast Asia and subsist mainly from honey and insects.

Sloth bears live in India. Though small and slow, they have sharp claws and can be highly aggressive, particularly towards humans. In the English-speaking world, the most famous Sloth Bear is Baloo from the Jungle Book. 

Giant Panda Animal Facts And Pictures | All Wildlife ...

Giant pandas are a small and highly specialized population native to a remote part of China. Unlike other bears, they are entirely herbivorous and eat only bamboo. Biologists considered them bears until the 1950s when they determined they part of the raccoon family. Recent scholarship has reclassified them as bears.

What Colour Is A Polar Bear's Fur? - YouTube

Polar bears are the only entirely carnivorous bears. Living on the Arctic Circle, they are the most accomplished swimmers in the bear family and hunt mainly seals and walrus pups. They are the largest carnivorous mammals. Due to lack of historical exposure, polar bears do not fear humans and are the only bears who will actively hunt them. Other bears attack humans only out of fear or desperation. 

Due to their power and unique appearance, bears feature heavily in human folklore. The indigenous peoples of northern Eurasia, from the Ainu of Japan to the Sami of Scandinavia viewed them as sacred, as did many Native American and First Nation peoples. The ancient Greeks believed the constellations Ursa Major and Minor were nymphs transformed into bears. As it exists in both Eurasia and North America, the associations of bears with the ‘cosmic hunt’ is likely over 13,000 years old.

Sources: New Illustrated Animal Kingdom Volume 4, World Wildlife Fund

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Giraffe Ghosts

All About Giraffes

Giraffe ghosts are a phenomenon alleged by the Humr people of Sudan. They emerge after one consumes umm nyolokh, a drink made from giraffe liver and bone marrow. 

The Humr are a tribe within the Arabic-speaking Messiriya, themselves a part of North Africa’s Baggara (cattle herder) people. Humr inhabit the narrow belt of savannah between Lake Chad and the White Nile. Although many now live in cities, Humr traditionally herded cattle and supplemented their diet by hunting elephants and giraffes. 

Scottish anthropologist Ian Cunnison (1923 – 2013) documented Humr customs in the early 1950s on behalf of Sudan’s government. He described umm nyolokh, a ‘delicious drink’ made from grounded liver and marrow of giraffes. Its consumers, according to Cunnison, experienced dreamlike visions of phantom giraffes walking the horizon. He did not try it himself. Cunnison believed the ‘ghosts’ were hallucinations, though as giraffes do not contain psychedelic properties, he attributed them to placebo.

From ‘Hunting the Giraffes’, Sudan Notes and Records (1958):

“I have already mentioned the drink umm nyolokh of giraffe liver and marrow, which many regard as the supreme moment of the expedition. It is said that a person, once he has drunk umm nyolokh, will return to giraffes again and again. Humr, being Mahdists, are strict abstainers and a Humrawi is never drunk (sakran) on liquor or beer. But he uses the word to describe the effects of umm nyolokh upon him. (It is also used for a man’s condition on drinking large quantities of sour milk, which results in a breakdown of inhibitions.) I can only assume there is no intoxicating substance in the drink and that the effect it produces is simply a matter of convention though it may be brought about subconsciously. Its warmth, its delicious taste, and consistency produce an effect of physical contentment on Humr, and probably do to whoever drank it.

It is followed frequently by dreams of giraffe, and I have heard a man wake shortly after drinking it shouting “giraffe on your left”. This was regarded as a typical effect. In the waking state, also, men swear they see giraffe through the forest or over the plain where there are none at all. In the absence of any physiological explanation, these phenomena may perhaps be regarded as an indication to which the Humrawi’s being is permeated with thoughts of giraffe.”

Richard Rudgley’s ‘Encyclopedia of Psychedelic Substances’ (1998) pulled Cunnison’s observations from obscurity. Rudgley speculated the visions came from Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in the umm nyolokh. Both Sudan’s giraffe species – the Kordofan and Nubian – eat an acacia tree containing DMT.

The theory holds that the psychoactive chemicals were stored in the giraffes’ liver and marrow, which in turn was consumed as umm nyolokh. The only known psychedelic animals are species of fish and frog, though mammals can store chemical compounds in their bloodstream after consuming hallucinogens. Siberian shamans used to eat magic mushrooms and produce hallucinogenic urine. 

DMT elicits amorphous visions which differ according to the person seeing them. Of all hallucinogenic compounds, it is the most powerful and least understood. Shamans and the esoterically inclined believe its visions are not the product of one’s mind but glimpses of phenomena ‘out there’, independent of the viewer and imperceptible in regular, waking consciousness. Such thought aligns with the claim of giraffe ghosts though is near impossible to prove by scientific methods. In either case, it is likely cultural presuppositions which inform the specific vision of giraffes rather than the fact that animal filters the DMT.

Cunnison was the only person to write about umm nyolokh first hand; no one else reported it since. While the Humr are far from an obscure hunter-gatherer band, their way of life has changed since the 1950s, as savannah turns to desert. Today both Nubian and Kordofan giraffes teeter on the verge of extinction. Whether their ghosts still walk, or if they ever did, we simply do not know. 

Sources: Giraffe Conservation, The Guardian, Ian Cunnison – Sudan Notes and Records (1958), Richard Rudgley – Encyclopedia of Psychadelic Substabces (1998)

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U.S. Denies Endangered Species Protection For Wolverines ...

Order Carnivora (coined 1821) is a biological classification including many species of mammals. Despite its name, which means ‘flesh devourers’ in Latin, not all ‘carnivorans’ are ‘carnivores’. Many are omnivorous, while some eat only plants. In terms of biological classification, it is an ‘order’, below class (mammals), and above family, species and subspecies. Their last common ancestor was a pangolin like creature who lived over 60 million years ago in the supercontinent of Laurasia.  

Carnivorans often have thick fur, sharp teeth and higher than average intelligence. Their adaptability allowed them to thrive when other creatures went extinct. Carnivorans are native to every continent except Australasia and the Antarctic and often fill the role of the apex predator. Some live strictly on land, others at sea, some – like otters – live on both.

Carnivora has two suborders – Feliforma and Carniforma, to which cats and dogs belong respectively. They branched off 42 million years ago.

Elephant Seal Facts (Genus Mirounga)
A bull Elephant seal, the largest carnivoran species.

Caniforma encompasses those mammals with irretractable claws, long snouts and sharp teeth, and seals. Most eat meat. Some, like bears, are omnivores, some like pandas, are herbivores. Caniforms, whose name means ‘dog-like predators’ first evolved from a small marten-like creature who climbed trees and hunted in the forests of North America. 40 million years ago, some caniforms took to the sea and evolved fins in the place of paws, becoming the first seals. Caniforma’s families include:

  • Canidae (wolves, dogs, coyotes, jackals, foxes etc)
  • Ursidae (bears, including the giant panda)
  • Mephitidae (skunks and stink badgers)
  • Ailuridae (red pandas)
  • Procynodae (raccoons, coatis and kinkajous)
  • Mustelidae (weasels, badgers, otters, martens etc)
  • Phocidae (earless seals)
  • Otariidae (eared seals, including sea lions)
  • Obobenidae (walruses)
Fossa | Fun Animals Wiki, Videos, Pictures, Stories
A fossa, a Euplirid found only in Madagascar.

Feliforma means ‘cat-like predators’. Its species are lither and have shorter snouts and fewer teeth than caniforms, better eyesight than smell and retractable claws. Feliforma evolved in the Old World and today most species live in the tropics of Africa and Southeast Asia. Many of its branches are now extinct. Those that remain include:

  • Felidae (cats big and small)
  • Nandiniidae (African palm civets)
  • Prionodontidae (Asiatic linsangs)
  • Viverridae (civets, genets and oyans)
  • Hyenidae (Hyenas and aardwolves)
  • Herspitidae (mongooses and meerkats)
  • Eupliridae (Fossa and Malagasy mongooses)

Humans, by the way, belong to a different order entirely. As members of the primate family, we are more closely related to rodents and marsupials than any creature in the order Carnivora. 

Sources: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, New Illustrated Animal Kingdom Volume 4

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Language and Colour

Poetry Review: Mathias Svalina's The Wine-Dark Sea - Queen ...The language we use affects the colours we see. The way people categorise different hues is not universal across time or place. It is even possible to have a harder time seeing colours one’s language does not allow.

Homer, the Greek bard, wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey around 1200 – 850 BC. The colours he uses are beyond strange. Sheep are violet, honey is green and the sea is ‘wine-dark’. While Homer was likely blind, he compiled older oral accounts, and none of the Classical Greeks questioned his descriptions. The first to do so was future British Prime Minister William Gladstone (below). In 1858 he counted the times Homer uses colours in the Iliad and Odyssey:William Ewart Gladstone Biography - Childhood, Life ...

  • Black – 170
  • White – 100
  • Red – 13
  • Green – >13
  • Yellow – >13
  • Blue: 0

He concluded the Ancient Greeks were colourblind and could not see the colour blue.

Lazarus Geiger, a German-Jewish scholar,  expanded on Gladstone’s work by comparing Homer with other ancient texts. The Sanskrit Vedas, Icelandic Sagas and the Hebrew Bible do not mention blue either. The only culture who did have a word for blue were the Egyptians, the first to name the colour and the first to make blue dye.

BBB: Le bleu égyptien, premier pigment artificiel connu

When languages evolve, they always create words for black and white first, red second, then brown, purple, orange, yellow and green, then blue. It is also the last colour babies see. Aside from the sea and the sky, blue is nature’s rarest colour. Even toddlers do not register the sky as blue before they are told. It is simply white or grey.

Yet the ancients had the same eyes as us. They had evolved the three cones we use to perceive colour – red, green and blue. So why no word for blue?

The Zuni people of New Mexico use the same word for yellow and orange. A 1953 study by Lennenberg and Roberts found they were significantly slower in differentiating the colours than English speakers.How do Namibian Himbas see colour?

A similar study in 2004 by Jules Davidoff found the Himba people of Namibia, could instantly differentiate the seemingly identical shades of green in Picture 1 (left) but took longer to recognise the blue square in Picture 2 (right). Like Homeric Greek, the Himba language has no word for blue. Tone, not hue, is what separates their colours.

How do Namibian Himbas see colour?

Languages draw different boundaries around what constitutes a ‘basic colour’. For example, in English, the above colour is a shade of blue. In Japanese, it is shiro, a separate colour altogether. In other languages, blue is merely a shade of green. English has 11 ‘basic colours’ Himba has five, Japanese has 19.

Structurally the eyes of the Himba, Zuni or ancient Greeks are no different from English speakers. Most human eyes see blue, but without labelling and recognising it as a separate colour, the brain takes longer to register a colour’s essence. This is why artists and designers, who are more familiar with the names of different hues, are more perceptive to them. Language affects not only how we think, but how we see the world.

Sources: Gondwana CollectionInfolist, Journal of VisionLanguage LogRadioLab

Amazon Burning

amazon burning

The lungs of the world are burning. For three weeks, fires have swept the Amazon Rainforest at a sickening pace, blackening the skies above São Paulo like something from the apocalypse. Drought, climate change, arson and Brazil’s new government are all to blame.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Covering an area the size of Australia across nine countries, it is home to 10% of the world’s animal species (many of them endangered) and produces a fifth of our oxygen. 60% is in Brazil. The Amazon’s 400 billion trees absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide and produce most of the Western Hemisphere’s rain. Through transpiration the rainforest releases moisture into the atmosphere, sustaining its own ecosystem and weather patterns. As the rainforest shrinks, less rain falls and temperatures increase. Were it to disappear completely, the Amazon Rainforest would take two million years to regrow.

Despite the good it does the world, money is made from the Amazon’s destruction. Cattle ranches and soybean plantations are more profitable than forest, and there are minerals in the soil. For decades, illegal logging, mining and fires have chipped away at the rainforest’s edge, feeding Brazil’s beef industry, increasing drought and emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Lush forests turn to dry savannah and farmland.

bolsonaroBrazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on a tough-on-crime, anti-corruption platform. An army man, he pines for the dictatorship he once served, when logging was encouraged and the indigenous population fell by half. Bolsonaro and his allies see the Amazon as a resource to be exploited. He claims Brazil owes the world nothing and foreign critics wish only to keep it poor. Since taking power in January, Bolsonaro has slashed environmental regulations and turned a blind eye to illegal logging. Over 70,000 fires now rage, 84% more than 2018.

Aside from its wildlife, the rainforest is home to at least 200 indigenous groups, many uncontacted. In contrast to Brazil’s industrial society, they live with the rainforest, and stand on the front lines against land grabbers and fires. In 2018 Bolsonaro promised to cull federal protection of indigenous land.

South America in Flames: The Amazon Rainforest Is BURNING ...Fires of this scale are unnatural. They were ignited to clear vegetation for farmland on the rainforest’s edge. Normally, the rainforest is too moist for them to spread, but drought and global warming have changed the game. Bolsonaro claimed NGOs started the fires to discredit him, a baseless lie, and only organised a national response when they reached crisis level. Tens of thousands took to South America’s streets demanding action.

French president Emmanuel Macron prioritised an international response in this weekend’s G7 meeting. Bolsonaro insists it remain an internal issue.

20% of Brazil’s rainforest was deforested in the past 50 years. Another 20% would trigger an irreversible feedback loop that would be the Amazon’s end.

Maps of disappearing forests - Business InsiderSources: Associated Press, The Atlantic, The Economist, The Intercept, World Wildlife Fund