Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

What is in a name?

Faeces, excrement, dung or shit is what it is. It makes our world and there is no point in naming or shaming it but accept it as fundamentally important to life. Scientists have created a museum of poop at the Isle of Wight Zoo in the UK. It allows zoo-goers to get up close and personal with 20 individually encapsulated stools. The poos come from various animals: there are samples from the zoo’s lions, as well as from meerkats, skunks – there’s even human baby poo.

The museum’s curator Nigel George says even a layperson can tell a lot about an animal by examining a sample of its faeces.

Crow poo, for instance, generally contains quite a lot of bones or beetle wing cases in it. “The carnivore poos tend to be a lot smellier than the herbivore ones,” he adds. Cow poo is 80% water and comes out in large, sloppy dollops, whereas kangaroo poo is generally more like little, firm pellets.

One herring gull bird sample had remnants of plastic in it, showing how there is now a human impact on animal poo.

With an average poo containing about 75% water, the team have learnt by trial and error how to encapsulate the turds to “make them less smelly and safe for the public to look at”.

Whale poop makes the world’s nutrients go round.

While most marine animals eat close to the water’s surface and poo in the deeper waters, whales do the opposite. It’s this, Joe Roman says, that makes all the difference.

“When whales come up to the surface, right before their last dive, they do a big dump,” says Roman, a biologist at the University of Vermont, US.

This faecal plume, as it’s known, is rich in nutrients, depositing vast quantities of nitrogen, iron and phosphorus at the water’s surface.

“So they can fertilise the ocean,” says Roman. “[They] bring the nutrients back to the surface.”

The effect is known as the whale pump – and it’s something that Roman has spent the past 10 years studying.

Once the nutrients are at the water’s surface, fish such as salmon can consume them. These fish are then in turn eaten by seabirds who transport the nutrients from the sea to their breeding colonies onshore, where they are subsequently eaten by land animals such as bears. In this sense, Roman says “whales play a part in bringing [the world’s nutrients] from the bottom of the ecosystem to land”.

Until about 60 million years ago, there were no whales. It was around that time that one group of land mammals began dipping their toes into rivers, eventually becoming fully aquatic and colonising the ocean as whales and dolphins. The whales started feeding on fish and crustaceans and so evolved the ability to break down chitin – a component of the hard shell or exoskeleton that surrounds some shellfish.

“Most mammals can’t break this down. It’s meant that the microbial community of whales is completely different from what we realised,” he says.

The makeup of whale faeces depends a lot on the individual whale responsible, and its diet, says Roman. If the whale feeds on krill, its poo tends to be in the form of red or pink logs about the size of a fist. But if they’re feeding on fish, it’s diffuse and a dark green, about the size of a research vessel, he says.

“It’s an immediate injection of nutrients. Both have the same impact but in different ways.”

Let us look at dung beetles. “… (They) are living on the last bit of nutrients that the original eater couldn’t get out of the food,” says Marcus Byrne of Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa. “It’s really the knife edge.”

Despite having a brain the size of a grain of rice, dung beetles have some pretty impressive talents, says Byrne, They mould the poo they harvest into spherical balls and then roll it away from the competition.

He says the way they procreate and fight over mates is remarkably developed given their small size. Males advertise their fitness through massive horns on their heads, he says. “They’re tiny animals but they fight for females like they’re antelope, deer or caribou.”

The small males of the species have also evolved to have larger testes than the bigger beetles.

Apart from being sexual stallions and impressive poo-ball rollers, what really sets them apart is their navigation skills. “They look at the sky and use signals to orientate and navigate themselves,” says Byrne. While we humans are map navigators, the beetles can perceive things we can’t see such as polarised light, colour gradient and intensity gradient.

Byrne showed that one species even uses the Milky Way as a celestial compass to orientate itself, allowing the beetles to shift their poo balls by night.

“It’s romantic and impressive. There’s this stupid little animal that’s basically looking at the edge of our galaxy,” he says.

Poo has now come into the field of archaeology as well.

Hannibal is generally considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. He was the leader of the North African Carthaginian army during a war with Rome, which lasted from 218 to 201BC. Where Hannibal crossed the Alps with his army and 15,000 horses (and several war elephants) – has remained an enigma. Some have suggested this crossing from modern-day France into Italy was at a pass called the Col de Traversette, 3000m above sea level. “There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that this was the route but no one has ever come up with something that’s scientific evidence in that it can be tested,” says Chris Allen, an environmental microbiologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, UK.

The mystery has been debated for the past two millennia by historians, statesmen, academics and even by Napoleon. It might soon be solved thanks to a whole heap of ancient horse droppings.

“If you’ve got 15,000 to 20,000 horses in the one place for two days, you know you’re going to have some sort of residue,” says Allen.

Partnering with archaeologists, Allen and his team found a hole the size of a football pitch not far from the Col de Traversette. Using genetic analysis and environmental chemistry, the team managed to unearth a mass deposition of animal faeces.

They took soil samples at 5cm intervals to a depth of 70cm, which took them through soil horizons that would have formed 2,200 years ago during Hannibal’s life.

“This churned up layer shows something very physical and distinct happened about 2,180 years ago,” he says. “It suddenly becomes very physically disturbed.” The disturbed layer was rich in ancient horse dung, which the team could carbon date to about 200BC – very close to 218BC, which is when Hannibal is thought to have crossed the Alps. The soil sample was also really high in Clostridia bacteria, a microbe commonly found in the stools of horses.

“Twelve percent of soil samples had this Clostridia and its bang on the dates that it’s expected. There is a six-fold increase at the correct date,” says Allen, equating the findings to a ‘genetic time capsule’. These observations, along with a number of others, create a “fairly convincing story that 2,200 years ago a very large number of mammals went through this place and they left something behind”.

All things must come to an end. Pass the toilet roll, please.

(Ack: BBC/earth-Katie Silver of July 12, 2016)


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Progress as a result of human endeavour is in direct context of nature. Man versus nature. Man controlling and shaping his environment to his manifold conveniences consequently creates many chains of events that require other species sharing the same environment to respond adequately. Natural selection warrants these to adapt for the changing environment or go bust. Has not man also created a similar situation for his species? Such risks many of which are caused by humans. Bio-terrosim for instance. From pandemics to Nuclear wars, human civilization thus had to face many challenges which are existential risks, that are less understood than the most obvious advantages we have derived from the march of progress.

There are some worrying features in human intelligence that may fuel the risks of his very existence. From anthropological findings it would seem humans embarked on the march of progress too early. His branching off from his ape cousins was an event and it would indicate it was undertaken before his brain was full developed. Its consequence can easily be set down from analogy of human child. Our ape ancestor was like modern human, as a baby, with its brain developing all the while till it reaches some 20 years. (A pliable head of the baby facilitates its exit at birth from womb which is biologically safe for the mother.) This necessitates from the child all the support system without let up counted in days, years and decades till the end of his adolescence. He needs rearing from his parents in order to achieve emotional intelligence he needs. Only difference was that our ape ancestor had no such back up from his peers. His brain was in the process of developing but without nurture of some role model*.
Biologists speak of ‘norms of reaction,’ which are patterned responses to environmental circumstances. For example, some male insects are more likely to guard their mates when there are fewer females in the population, hence fewer other mating opportunities. Natural selection didn’t just shape a fixed behavior, it shaped the norm of reaction — the nature of the response,”
In humans a bad idea when he can think rationally on it brings many advantages. Increasing his supply of food at the cost of one who is weaker is one way of doing it. Annexing a territory from a weak tyrant is worth the while of a chieftain if he has a superior force. He reckons that his success would silence others and make his position more secure. It must have come handy when others would take the same path to aggrandize themselves. It is a norm of reaction that suited well for the bandit kings of yore.
When circumstances could be shaped to justify it war must have seemed a fitness-enhancing behavior. Warring parties included all those who agreed with the idea and circumstances. Like success it sets off many others.
‘Just as compassion for your offspring increases your genes’ chance of survival, violent tendencies may have been similarly useful for some species’ observed biologist David Carrier, also of the University of Utah,” Humans certainly rank among the most violent of species.” In true nature-nurture fashion, though some kind of genetic preprogramming for violence, may exist in humans as a result of our evolution. Norms of behaviour as a result evolved in that along period of trial and error method.
As a result how he created a society in terms of families, clans, tribes were all flawed. It became in most cases patriarchal leaving women in the background. Creating wars as a manly sport, would leave women incapable what with her long period of gestation and nursing. Eventually it would stamp the role of women as secondary. This we witness even this day where some societies can kill women simply for ‘honour.’ Lack of sufficient role model man simply created a swath of experience in which his brain simply was inadequate to anticipate long range consequences.
(*There is no accurate picture what made our human ancestor diverge from other apes other than fossil evidences that our human ancestors could walk as well as climb trees. The oldest evidence for walking on two legs comes from one of the earliest humans known, Sahelanthropus 6 million years ago. By 4 million years ago early human species lived mostly near open areas and dense woods. Their bodies had become adapted to walk upright most of the time, but still climb trees.

“Apparently, there were multiple ways early human species had of moving around.” observed human origins expert Richard Potts of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, about a mystery species discovered in Ethiopia’s Afar region in 2009, the fossil forefoot bones, eight in all, from same era and same region of Africa as the famous ‘Lucy’ (1974).

Walking was a human characteristic before the development of oversized brains. The newly discovered foot-fossil gives us a clue why early human species might have moved around. By learning to walk upright they conceded forests hitherto their home to cousins better adapted for living in trees.)

If his brain was inadequate what could have been the overwhelming reason for him to strike out on his own? His tool making skills gave us stone age, iron age, bronze age and so on. His curiosity and cleverness of hand would develop into science and technology. His foresight in overcoming an inconvenience was not matched by foreseeing the consequences of his innovations. No more apt example we need seek than reasons for ushering in the Nuclear Age. America could stop the WWII speedily. The Allies however did not anticipate proliferation of the nuclear arsenal but soon they were in for a rude shock. Now in some sixty years we have come at a stage the nuclear secrets can be peddled at the click of a mouse. It is what AQ Khan achieved with the backing of his government.

Optimism of man is in terms of abstract than concrete. His abstract thinking has created the world as idea but in terms of its realization no two persons shall view an idea exactly as one and as a result these can only end in conflict. Workers’ paradise as envisaged by Lenin in the view of Stalin was transformed into Cult of Personality!
Bad experience of the past is such that technology and its progress can only be sustained by the systems an idea created along the line. The Crusades in the middle Ages were fought under the call of a Pope. Pope Urban II in 1095 invoked the Christian army of Europe to reclaim lands lost to Muslim invaders previously. It was on the matter of Ideology of clashing belief-systems of the West and East he could invoke them to fight under the sign of cross. Ideas keep evolving while experience remains in the bloodstream of the species. The war to end all wars as President Wilson qualified the WWI did exactly the opposite. If idea of war had achieved its goal the first war that primordial man waged would have been sufficient.Instead collateral consequences of war, misery,loss of prestige,material advantages are all such in collective experience that necessitates conflict ad infintum. Idea of war, belief-systems can only be settled with experience of humans proving its justness for all. It is inherent in the idea and man’s inability to see any other way than as idea. There are millions of ants to every man and by sheer numbers insects outnumber human population. Despite of being one among so many species we see the world in terms of ideas than for what really it is.

Over the past century we have discovered or created new existential risks: supervolcanoes were discovered in the early 1970s, and we should expect others to appear just as a nuclear holocaust is possible. The average mammalian species survives for about a million years. Hence, the background natural extinction rate is roughly one in a million per year. This is much lower than the nuclear-war risk, which after 70 years is still the biggest threat to our continued existence. (ack:the five biggest threats to Human existence/the Conversation-Anders Sandberg,29 May, 2014)

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