Thursday, June 30, 2016

Kaboom! Tunguska, 1908

I originally posted this on the the centennial of the blast.


One hundred eight years ago today, something exploded over Siberia.

The weather in central Siberia on June 30, 1908, a Tuesday, was warm and mostly clear. Ten days after the summer solstice, the days are not appreciably shorter than they are on that longest day. In Siberia, that means the days are very long. North of the Arctic Circle the sun does not go down at all. Instead, it approaches the south and rolls along the horizon for a few minutes at midnight before beginning to rise again. Five degrees south of the circle, it dips just barely below the southern horizon a little before eleven and rises back above it just after one in the AM. At midnight it is still light enough to read a newspaper outdoors on a clear night. People and animals adjust to the long days by rising early and staying up late. There will be time to sleep during the long nights of winter.

At a little after seven in the morning, settlers near the north end of Lake Baikal saw something bright appear in the sky, crossing to the northwest leaving a trail behind it. As it touched the horizon, it was transformed into a column of black smoke in which flames could be seen. Soon after, they felt a thump in the ground and heard a series of bangs that they compared to artillery in the distance. Other villagers to the west of them gave similar descriptions. Later scientific expeditions would locate the ground zero of the explosion in a remote area among the tributaries of the Podkamennaya (Stony or Upper) Tunguska River. Seismic stations around the world recorded the ground movement and set the time at precisely 07:17:11 AM.

The closest people to ground zero were Evenki reindeer herders camped along the Chambe River forty kilometers away. They reported being thrown in the air by the shock, along with their tents and belongings. They saw trees broken off by the shock and the forest set on fire. Several herders were injured, but the only reported death was an old man who probably had a heart attack. One herder, Ilya Potapovich, later reported that his brother was so shocked by the explosion that he didn't speak for years after. Their herds were scattered and many reindeer perished in the fire.

The devastated forest at Tunguska photographed twenty years later.

At the Vanavara trading post, seventy kilometers from ground zero, people were knocked to the ground, with enough force to lose consciousness. Windows were broken and buildings damaged. The heat was painful, but not hot enough to start fires. Two hundred kilometers south, the ground shock and wind were strong enough to knock people and animals off their feet. Six hundred kilometers southwest, an eastbound train on the Trans-Siberian Railroad shook so hard the engineer feared the train might be derailed and brought it to a screeching halt.

When all of the reports were collected in the 1920s, it revealed that the object in the sky was visible 700 kilometers away and the explosion was heard over 1200 kilometers away.

Sibir a regional newspaper published in Irkutsk was the first to make an official notice publishing on July 2:
In the N Karelinski village (200 verst N of Kirensk) [one verst equals 1.0668 kilometers] the peasants saw to the North-West, rather high above the horizon, some strangely bright (impossible to look at) bluish-white heavenly body, which for 10 minutes moved downwards. The body appeared as a "pipe", i.e. a cylinder. The sky was cloudless, only a small dark cloud was observed in the general direction of the bright body. It was hot and dry. As the body neared the ground (forest), the bright body seemed to smudge, and then turned into a giant billow of black smoke, and a loud knocking (not thunder) was heard, as if large stones were falling, or artillery was fired. All buildings shook. At the same time the cloud began emitting flames of uncertain shapes. All villagers were stricken with panic and took to the streets, women cried, thinking it was the end of the world.

Another Siberian paper, Golos Tomska, wrote more cynically on the fourth:
The noise was considerable, but no stone fell. All the details of the fall of a meteorite here should be ascribed to the overactive imagination of impressionable people. There is no doubt that a meteorite fell, probably some distance away, but it's huge mass and so on are doubtful.

A few other local newspapers added their stories through the rest of the short Siberian summer, but by late August, when the nights were growing noticeably longer and cooler, the mysterious blast of June was forgotten amid other concerns.

The most likely path of a meteorite based on witness recollections in the 1920s.

Although the Tunguska blast did not raise any attention outside Siberia, the effects of the blast were noticed across the Northern Hemisphere. The dust from the blast was injected into the stratosphere and circled the globe creating spectacular sunsets and bright night skies for the next few days. In London, cricket games continued after midnight. In Scotland, farmers used the extrra daylight to harvest the hay crop. In the cities and countryside of Northern Europe, intelligent observers wondered about the cause of the displays. Newspapers in London, Berlin, Prague, and New York sent reporters to interview astronomers. The most common answer given was that the bright skies were probably unusual auroral displays brought on by energetic eruptions on the sun. A few experts admitted that the displays didn't show the normal characteristic sheets and scintillations of an aurora, but they didn't have a better explanation on hand. Some of the older observers, expert and amateur, came closer to the truth when they compared the skies to the displays that followed the eruption of Krakatau in 1883. The mystery was soon forgotten in the face of other news. There were crises in Central Europe to worry about and it was the regatta season.

European Russia paid even less attention to the mysteries of nature than their neighbors to the West. Ever since the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-05 the empire had been in a state of crisis. The stress of the war brought about a revolutionary situation that was only calmed by the Tsar agreeing to the formation of a parliament. Three separate elections were held during 1906-07 before a government could be formed that could work with the Tsar. Meanwhile, unrest continued in the countryside with peasants burning manor houses and the army burning peasant villages right up till the end of 1907. At the same time as the government tried to establish some kind of domestic peace, it also had to establish a safe diplomatic space in which to rebuild its military strength. Russia's diplomats tried unsuccessfully to balance between Germany and Austria on one side and Britain and France on the other without committing to either alliance. As if all of that wasn't enough, the constitutional ideas of the Revolution of 1905 appeared to have infected Russia's neighbors to the South, Turkey and Persia, adding more crises and instability for the rulers to deal with. The result was that in the cities of European Russia the ruling elites had little attention to spare for exploring Siberian mysteries. No official attention was directed into the explosion at Tunguska until after the World War, the Revolutions of 1917, and the following Civil War were over and the country had had a few years to catch its breath.

The man who brought the mystery of the Tuguska explosion to the attention of the world was Leonid Kulik. Kulik had ideal credentials for the job. Although of a bourgeois background, the son of a doctor, he had been expelled from school for pro-Bolshevik revolutionary activities. He continued his education in forestry, physics, and mathematics in the years before WWI, with occasional breaks to be arrested for continuing revolutionary activities. Working in the Urals as a forester, he had come to the attention of Vladimir Vernadsky and acquired an interest and quick education in geology. The Revolution found him in Tomsk, Siberia teaching mineralogy. He joined the Red Army and served till the end off the Civil War, when he was discharged with honor. He took a museum job in Petrograd (the less German sounding name given to St. Petersburg in 1914) studying under Evgenii Krinov, the country's leading authority on meteors. Thus he came to the problem with a broad education, influential intellectual patrons, impeccable revolutionary credentials, and a familiarity with Siberia.

In 1921 the Soviet Academy of Sciences approved an expedition to Siberia to collect information on meteors. The Purpose of the expedition was not particularly scientific. Some had the idea that utilizing the concentrated ore of iron meteorites they might jump-start the recovery of Soviet industry. No doubt the people who approved the expedition were influences by a number of discoveries of giant iron meteors in recent years. In 1894, the Arctic explorer Robert Peary located the Cape York meteorite in Greenland consisting of nearly 35 tons of almost pure iron-nickel alloy. In 1902, an American entrepreneur located the Willamette meteorite in Oregon, which weighed in at 15.5 tons. Most impressive of all, in 1920 a farmer near Grootfontein, Southwest Africa (now Namibia) found the Hoba meteorite with 66 tons of alloy. Kulik was made the head of the Siberian meteorite expedition.

As Kulik was boarding his train to the Far East one of his colleagues handed him a page torn from an old calendar that had a news article about a meteor fall in Siberia in 1908. Almost every detail of the article was wrong. It described a red glowing stone landing near the railroad and curious passengers standing around to watch it cool. However, from the date and location in the story, Kulik was able to figure out what had happened. He prepared a questionnaire about the event that he gave to people across Siberia. Comparing witness accounts he was able to calculate approximately where the streak in the sky should have touched down. Kulik had no doubt that the 1908 explosion was a meteorite.

Despite his confidence, it would take Kulik six years to convince the academy to fund another expedition. During that time he corresponded with other researchers in that part of Siberia and published his theory. S.V. Obruchev, a geologist, interviewed some of the locals in 1924. A.V. Voznesensky, former director of the Irkutsk observatory, did his own interviews and calculated the ground zero for what he also believed was a giant meteorite. He published his findings in 1925. In 1926, I.M. Suslov, an ethnologist working among the Evenki people conducted over sixty interviews and published his work. The force of this collected testimony enabled Kulik to overcome the Academy and get funds for an expedition in the spring of 1927 to ground zero. At this point, no outside had seen the damage caused by the explosion, though Suslov's witnesses described a great area where the trees no longer stood.

In February of 1927, Kulik and an assistant traveled from Leningrad (as Petrograd had been renamed) to Taishet, a station on the Trans-Siberian Railroad 900 kilometers from the believed epicenter of the Tunguska explosion. From there they traveled by horse-drawn sledge and cart to the Vanavara trading post. After recovering for a few days, Kulik began negotiating for a guide to take him to the center of the blast. The local Evenki had developed a strong aversion to the region which they believed had been cursed by Ogdy, their god of thunder. Eventually, Kulik convinced Ilya Potapovich, the brother of the herder who was probably closest to the explosion, to take him there.

After a false start, the group traveled by horse and reindeer north to the River Makirta. As soon as they crossed the river, they began to find whole stands of trees broken off and knocked over. On April 15, Kulik and his group climbed the highest hill they could find to survey the forest. From that vantage, Kulik reports that as far as he could see to the North, the forest had been leveled and burned, with all of the fallen trees pointing south. In all, 80 million trees were flattened over an area of over 2000 square kilometers. Potapovich and a second guide refused to go any further.

Kulik returned to Vanavara and hired some laborers to take him to the center of the blast area. He expected to find a large crater there, like the one that was becoming a famous attraction in Arizona. He found the exact opposite. Kulik could tell, from the direction the trees had fallen, where the approximate center was. Instead of a crater, he found a circular stand of trees still upright, but with all their branches blown off. Kulik deduced that his meteor had broken apart above the ground and the force of that shattering had blown downward, stripping the trees directly below and knocking over the trees further away. Kulik also noticed circular potholes, sometimes tens of meters across and filled with water. He decided these must be the small craters that the fragments of the meteor made. Unfortunately, the summer thaw was now well underway and the countryside was turning into a sea of mud. After taking some photographs, Kulik's group returned to Vanavara.

Back in Leningrad, Kulik's report got considerably more attention than his 1921 report had. Western scientific journals wrote him up. Observatories and scientists began combing through records from 1908 to find out how they could have missed the explosion. The mysterious bright nights of the summer of 1908 were recalled and declared solved. In London, C.J.P. Cave unveils a set of records from a device called a microbarograph. This device invented in 1903, was able to ignore normal changes in air pressure, such as storm fronts, and record tiny fluctuations in pressure. Cave shows that six of these devices recorded four waves of pressure in rapid succession exactly five hours after the explosion in Siberia.

With the whole world watching, the honor of Soviet science was at stake and the Academy quickly approved another expedition for the next year. At first the 1928 expedition didn't seem to have much hope of adding to the information gained the previous year. Kulich, three assistants, and a film maker surveyed the blast area, but the equipment they brought was not up to the task of drilling in the soggy ground or detecting buried metallic objects. When food began to run low, Kulik sent the others home.

They couldn't have arrived at a better time. Umberto Nobile's attempt to reach the North Pole by zeppelin had ended in a crash on the return leg and the crew was left stranded on the Arctic icepack. The Soviet Union dispatched a state-of-the-art icebreaker to rescue them. Day after day the world watched the dramatic rescue take place. No sooner was the drama over, than three scientists arrived from the wastes of Siberia to announce that their leader had refused to leave his work and was stranded there. They had a nice documentary film to go with their story. The press corps turned their attention ninety degrees and looked to Siberia for the next adventure.

The ethnologist I.M. Suslov, who had worked among the Evenki and knew the area, led the rescue expedition. He took along an army of reporters. When they arrived, Kulik put everyone to work digging for meteorite fragments. No one found anything. At the end of the summer, the whole group returned to Leningrad to examine their findings. Kulik and Tunguska were world famous.

There was no question of the Academy refusing a 1929 expedition. This time Kulik had an army of engineers and fifty carts of supplies. Kulik's boss at the museum, Krinov, also came along. They spent two summers and a winter making major excavations at a number of sites around ground zero. The lack of meteor fragments was causing some controversy. Arctic geologists pointed out that the pothole formations were a permafrost structure found all over the North. Krinov and Kulik got into a fight over the exact epicenter of the blast and stopped talking to one another. By the end of the summer, it looked like Tunguska research was over for a while. Kulik's health had been severely degraded by the rough trips. Russia was pulling into isolation under Stalin. The World Depression and new crises in Europe had taken over the interest of the news reading public. Finally, there was no money left for research.

Kulik managed one more expedition in 1939. By now aerial surveys had precisely mapped the blast area and a road and airstrip had been built to make travel to the site a holiday compared to his journey's of the previous decade. Kulik was planning another series of annual research trips when the war interrupted. His short 1939 trip was his last. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Kulik, who was almost sixty, joined the militia and fought in the defense of Moscow. He was wounded and captured by the Germans and died of typhus in a prison camp in April 1942. When the Soviets mapped the back of the moon, they named a crater for him.

Leonid Kulik memorial stamp issued in 1958 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Tunguska explosion. The cause of the blast was still very much a mystery when the stamp was issued.

To Kulik and many others, it was obvious from the very beginning that the Tunguska explosion was the result of some type of meteorite. However, a large portion of the world scientific community resisted the idea. The lack of a crater or fragments of the impactor were major sticking points, to be sure, but even if they had been found, many would have tried to explain them away. They just didn't like the idea of big things hitting the Earth. Their hostility came from two scientific battles fought in the early part of the nineteenth century.

The founding of the science of geology was made especially difficult because it seemed to go in the face of the Biblical narrative in Genesis. Prior to the Enlightenment, it was commonly believed in the Western world that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. The whole idea of a separate history of the Earth was meaningless, because the Earth was only a few days older than human history. The formation of the Earth was a simple matter of divine will and the structure of the Earth's surface was all conveniently explained as the scars of the Mosaic Flood. The Copernican revolution created the first cracks in this cozy view of the universe. By making the universe much bigger than the Biblical-Aristotelian worldview allowed, astronomers created a need for more time to let cosmic processes work their way out. An older universe had more time for gentle processes, like erosion, to explain the shape of an older Earth. The idea that gradualistic processes were sufficient to explain the mountains and the seas was particularly hard resisted by English speaking Protestants. In fighting to establish geology on a naturalistic basis, scientists in Britain and the United States took an equally hard line against anything that appeared miraculous or catastrophically sudden.

At the same time geologists were fighting to establish the Earth sciences on a rationalistic basis, astronomers were settling a long-standing controversy over the nature of meteors. It may come as a surprise to some to discover that the very idea of meteorites is a new one that was strongly resisted by many in the scientific community. According to the Aristotelian science that was endorsed by the Church, meteors were an atmospheric phenomenon similar to the Northern Lights. When Western thinkers began to reject the miraculous, they lumped reports of rocks falling out of a clear sky together with rains of blood or frogs as something not to be believed. The streaks of light called meteors had nothing to do with things falling from the sky.

The conversion of the scientific world to the idea that rocks really did fall out of the sky came rather quickly. Between 1794 and 1803 a number of meteor falls were well documented in Italy, England, and India. The climax was a meteor shower over L'Aigle, Normandy on April 23, 1803 that dropped over 2500 stones. So many rocks witnessed by so many people was more than could be denied.

To fit the idea of meteorites in with the non-catastrophic, or uniformatarian, view of geology a compromise was struck: it was agreed that meteors really existed, but that they were always small and insignificant as a geological process. This was easy to believe at first. When no one knew where meteors came from, it was easy to say they were by definition small, for example, they might be rocks tossed out by lunar volcanoes. A better understanding of comets and the discovery of asteroids challenged this compromise by adding big rocks in strange orbits to the prevailing model of the universe.

The nebular hypothesis of the origin of the Earth also presented a challenge. In this theory, the Earth was formed by the agglomeration of comets and asteroids in the early solar system. The uniformitarian paradigm absorbed this idea by making the age of bombardment a one-time era in the distant past. Large rocks once hit the Earth, but they don't do that anymore. All visible craters, therefore, were judged to be volcanic in origin and all large meteorites discovered, like the Willamette, Hoba, and Cape York meteorites, were judged to be very ancient, relics of the formation of the Earth. This resistance to allowing the possibility of large meteorites in modern time was mast extreme among American scientists. The Barringer Crater in Arizona was dismissed as volcanic in origin, despite a total lack of evidence, and all of the craters on the Moon were explained as ancient volcanoes.

The resistance to the idea that a large meteorite might be behind the Tunguska explosion created an opening where wild ideas were allowed to proliferate. The ideas can easily be divided into three types: natural objects falling from the sky that are natural but stranger than normal meteorites, natural causes coming up from the earth, objects of intelligent design coming from Earth or space.

The most commonly mentioned natural but strange object from space is a tiny black hole. This idea was first stated by A.A. Jackson and Michael P. Ryan in a 1973 article in journal Nature. Jackson and Ryan described a black hole with a event horizon radius less than a millimeter across. It entered the atmosphere creating a tube of superheated air that created the visible passage across the sky and the damage to the forest with no crater. The black hole itself passed at an angle through the Earth and exited in the North Atlantic. Its exit point off the western end of the Azores should have created an equally spectacular display, but none was reported.

When Kulik was still alive, a fellow Russian, Vladimir Rojansky suggested the possibility the Earth could be bombarded by small anti-matter meteors. In 1965 two American physicists, again in the pages of Nature explored the possibility of an anti-matter meteor explaining the puzzling aspects of the Tunguska blast. The authors admitted that an anti-matter meteor would erode during the entire course of its passage through our atmosphere rather than save most of its energy for blast at the end.

The idea of mirror matter, a type of matter with the particle spins reversed, was proposed in 1956 by two Chinese-American physicists. Mirror matter provides a mathematical solution to some problems of symmetry, but it should be completely undetectable. In a self-published book in 2002, Robert Foot, an Australian physicist, suggested a mirror matter asteroid exploding the upper atmosphere could have provided the energy for the Tunguska blast while leaving no trace of itself. The biggest problem with this theory is that mirror matter has never been found and isn't even widely accepted as necessary by most physicists.

In 2001, a German writer suggested leaking methane from a natural gas field might have caused the explosion. Andreii Olkhovatov of Moscow, postulates something he calls geometeors, an eruption from the Earth caused by an electrical linkage between some kind of meteorological activity and an earthquake. The key problem with all from-below theories is that they ignore the testimony of the dozens of people who saw some thing streak across the sky toward Tunguska before the explosion.

Jack Stoneley, in his 1977 book Cauldron of Hell: Tunguska brought up the possibility that the explosion was the largest incident of ball lightening ever seen, but even he wasn't that enthusiastic about the idea, only mentioning it before going on to give the most space to the idea of a spaceship crashing in Siberia. Others have developed variations on this idea comparing the collapse of the ball to a natural atomic bomb.

The most famous alternative theory is the crashing spaceship, which can incorporate anti-matter or an atomic explosion coming from the spaceship engines. Aleksandr Kazantsev, an engineer who also writes science fiction, wrote the earliest version of this scenario. In 1946, Kazantsev published a short story called "The Blast" about aliens coming to steal water from Lake Baikal whose ship malfunctions and explodes. Kazantsev was clearly influenced by descriptions of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the year before. In 1963 Kazantsev developed his idea into a book length work of non-fiction. This is a favorite theory of the UFO crowd and of science fiction fans and has received dozens, if not hundreds of treatments over the last sixty years.

Nikola Tesla: A Serbian with a death ray?

One of my favorites is what I call the oops theories. There are two of these. The first, which appeared in Russia in 1964, is that aliens on a planet orbiting the star 61 Cygni saw the explosion of Krakatau and thought we were trying to communicate with them. Their answer, sent by a super tight laser pulse, burned up a big chunk of Siberia. Messages like that are the extraterrestrial equivalents of sending e-mails written with the Cap-Lock on. The second is home grown. In this theory the brilliant physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla accidentally blew up the Tunguska forest while testing a death ray at his lab at Wardenclyffe on Long Island. When he realized how dangerous it was he dismantled his lab. Of course it would have taken Tesla twenty years to realize how dangerous it was because that's when the first reports from Kulik's expeditions reached the West.

The UFO magazine Nexus published a novel explanation in their 2004 and 2005 issues. The forests at Tunguska, they tell us, are home to mysterious underground installations built by sophisticated ancients. Every few centuries these installations come to life to defend the Earth from rogue meteors and alien invasions. The 1908 blast was just the latest battle waged by these heroic machines.

In describing the Tunguska explosion, a literary tradition has been established of comparing it to a nuclear weapon and describing its power in megatons. The Tunguska blast was equal to about twenty megatons (million tons) of TNT. Hiroshima was about twenty kilotons (thousand tons), one one-thousandth the size of Tunguska. There are good reasons for this comparison. A very hot, concentrated blast, above the surface of the ground accurately describes both the Tunguska and Hiroshima explosions.

But the main reason for the comparison probably has more to do with literary sensationalism than accuracy. Atomic blasts are one of the most frightening things that the post WWII generation can imagine (after clowns). The nuclear weapon comparison allows writers to paint vivid scenarios of what would have happened if the object had detonated over a populated area. The area of blown down trees is approximately the same size as a number of major cities including Washington, DC. It is frequently pointed out that the blast was at the same latitude as the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. If the Earth had been turned four and a half hours further when it met the object, the explosion would have happened over the northern industrial suburbs of the city and burned the entire metropolitan area to the ground.

In one way, the comparison is very false. Whatever exploded at Tunguska, it was not radioactive. The heat of the blast was great enough that it emitted x-rays, elements were ionized, and strange chemical reactions occurred, but these were the result of extreme heat, not of radioactive decay or fission. The atomic comparison brings on thoughts of modern weirdness and opens the door to ideas of strange forms of matter, spaceships, or super weapons. A more natural comparison would be to rank it next to other natural disasters.

In earthquakes, a twenty-megaton explosion releases about the same energy as an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The world sees about a twenty each year that are this strong or worse. The World Series earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1989 was in this range. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 unleashed about 1000 megatons of energy and the Alaska earthquake of 1964 unleashed about 30,000 megatons.

Even a moderate hurricane has many times more power than that. Hurricane Katrina had an energy equivalent of over 8000 megatons or 400 times the size of the Tunguska blast. There are two important differences here: size and time. A hurricane spreads that energy over several thousand square kilometers and builds gradually over hours. Tunguska spread out from a spot only a few meters across and traveled three or four times faster than the strongest hurricane.

Volcanoes make the best comparison to meteors because they come in all sizes and can leak their energy out or deliver it in an explosion. Mount St. Helens delivered about seven megatons in its May 18, 1980 eruption. Krakatau's 1883 explosion is estimated to have been about 100 megatons. The explosion that took away most of the Greek island of Thera in the seventeenth century BC was six to ten times stronger than that.

And Having Writ... by Donald R. Bensen. A humorous alternative history novel published in 1978. The story centers on the extraterrestrial crew of the spaceship that almost crashed at Tunguska. Now stranded on Earth, they do everything they can to jump start WWI in order to advance human technology to the point where they can build a new spaceship and go home. Unfortunately, their best efforts keep causing peace to break out. When this book was published, the idea of the Tunguska spaceship was so familiar to me that using it for an alternate history made perfect sense and needed no explanation.

Over the years, the wilder explanations of the cause of the Tunguska blast have ensured it a place in popular culture. It has appeared in novels by writers as diverse as Stanisław Lem (a spaceship), Spider Robinson (Tesla), Larry Niven (a black hole), and Thomas Pynchon (an Awakened Chthulu like force). It has been mentioned in television shows and movies like Stargate SG-1, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Hellboy, Ghostbusters, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and the latest Indiana Jones. Tunguska was a major plot element in two episodes of the fourth season of The X-Files. An adventure game "Secret Files: Tunguska" is published by Deep Silver. It is even now the name of an herbal energy drink.

Tunguska Blast energy drink made from the same herbs that grow in the mysterious Tunguska region.

While these ideas have kept the name Tunguska alive in the popular mind, conventional researchers have continued to visit the site and collect evidence of a more prosaic meteorite. They have gathered what most believe is convincing evidence that a large body entered the atmosphere from the southeast and exploded at an altitude of some kilometers over the ground zero stands of trees that remained vertical. The main argument among most scientists is over the nature of the meteorite, whether it was a comet, a stony asteroid, or an iron asteroid. The composition of the meteor determines the altitude and power of the blast. Computer models have shown that most of the features of the blast can be explained by an airburst, just as Kulik believed. One of the strongest supports for the comet theory is the timing of the blast. Every year, in late June and early July, the Earth passes through a meteor stream called the Beta Taurids, which are fragments of Comet Encke. The strongest evidence for a stony asteroid is fine particles of dust found embedded in tree sap from the region and dated to 1908.

The most recent revelation from the site came from a team in Italy who examined Lake Cheko eight kilometers north of ground zero. They believe a fragment of the exploding object made it to the ground and is in the bottom of the lake. They will be returning in 2009 to excavate the lake bottom and see if they can recover something that will end the debate.

Besides simply being an persistent mystery that has engaged minds for a century, Tunguska has real relevance to our lives. In 1908, the world had many places like Tunguska that were so remote a giant meteorite could strike and still go almost unnoticed by the outside world. Today, there are fewer places where that is possible. A strike like Tunguska today could have global consequences. Obviously, a strike in a populous region could kill millions, but even the most remote regions are now tied into the global economic infrastructure. Siberia is criss-crossed by oil and natural gas pipelines. Even if people and infrastructure are missed, a large strike could have temporary climactic effects resulting in major food or economic crops failing for one or more years. An increasing number of historians are beginning to believe that meteorites and volcanic eruptions explain certain plagues, famines, and even the fall of empires in the past.

The smooth survival of our civilization might depend on getting to know more about the objects with which we share our solar system. But even if we never have to face a civilization busting threat from space, the knowledge we gain from Tunguska is priceless and the story is a great yarn. Happy birthday, old rock, snowball, spaceship or whatever you were. It's been a fun century and the adventure shows no sign of stopping.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Now What Am I Supposed to Do?

Have I mentioned lately that I was writing a book? Yep, little, old me. Saturday, I finished it. It's written, proofed, noted, biblographied, illustrated, and captioned. Then I tied it up with a virtual bow and shipped it off to my agent. It weighs in at a petite 88,592 words. This morning I heard back from her. She thinks it's satisfactory, or, as she put it, "You are amazing! Not many first time authors (or seasoned ones!) can deliver so complete—and to my quick perusal—excellent, an enchilada on such a tight timeline." I am rather proud of my enchiladas.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trilobite Note

Almost six years ago, I wrote a piece about an early trilobite discovery and evidence of prehistoric and pre-literate knowledge of the nature of trilobites. It was pretty good and was included in The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs, 2010. Flash forward to this weekend. Catching up on my mail, I found a letter from a museum conservator in Utah asking about the source of one of the illustrations in the post and asking about a higher resolution version of it.

I wasn't very good about linking to the sources of illustrations back then. I have since learned better. Worse, the files and drafts of old blog posts are all on the hard drive of a computer that died about three years ago. I figured it wouldn't be that hard to redo the search I made that found the illustration in the first place. I was wrong. I tried Googling the location where the trilobite in question was found. I flipped to the image page and found several copies of the illustration. All of them linked back to me. This is flattering, but not helpful.

The illustration.

After noodling around for a while, I figured out how to find it. I found a scientific paper that mentioned the discovery (as a bonus, it had a photograph of the fossil). From that I found the name of the discoverer and the French journal that published his original report. I did a quick search to see if I could find it online. I couldn't, so I went Gallica, the site that has scanned copies of books and journals in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. There I had no problem finding the illustration, not in the original journal, but in one a few years later. My Google fu is still amazing. While looking for the illustration, I found out a good deal more about that fossil and decided to share it.

Adrien-Jacques-François Ficatier was an army doctor stationed in Paris during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He was also an amateur archaeologist. During the 1880s, he spent several summers poking around caves in the Yonne region southeast of Paris looking for artifacts. In 1886 he explored one of a series of caves just upstream from Arcy-sur-Cure. This cave is almost 60 meters long with a thick layer of earth, rich in artifacts, covering the bottom. The lowest layers have been dated to 35,000 years ago--well before the last glacial maximum. Ficatier excavated the two upper layers in the cave which date 14-15,000 years ago. There he found bones of horse and reindeer along with hundreds of pieces of worked flint, four needles, three spears, and several pieces that had been drilled to be worn as pendants. These were a wolf's tooth, four scallops, other marine shells, a beetle carved from pine, and a trilobite.

The trilobite is small--43 mm long and 23 mm at its widest point--and well worn as if it has been handled a lot. There are tiny holes on either side that would have been used to hang it. In 1897, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, the Society of Historic and Natural Sciences of the Yonne organized a series of excursions to the caves of Arcy-sur-Cure and St. Moré to compliment the usual dinners and lectures. Henri Douvillé, an  influential professor of paleontology at the École des Mines, told the Society that the trilobite belonged to the species Dalmanites hawlei found in Bohemia (the Czech Republic). More recent paleontologists have questioned that identification, but all agree that it was not a local fossil.

The trilobite.

The stratum where the trilobite was found has been dated to about 14,000 years ago. This is after the glacial maximum had passed, but during a sudden cold snap called the Older Dryas. The human culture of the time, called Magdalenian, was originally identified as one of great reindeer hunters. They had an improved set of hunting tools and were using dogs. Of course, they didn't just hunt reindeer. It was at about this time that mammoths died out in Europe.

There was more to their culture than just hunting. They manufactured items for personal adornment. The little trilobite meant something to them. It had enough value that it was a worthy object for long distance trade. What it meant is hard to say. One of the other items Dr. Ficatier excavated that summer might offer some context. The only manufactured amulet is a wood-borer beetle carved from lignite. Like the trilobite, it has holes drilled on the sides, rather than the top, for hanging. In many parts of the world where trilobites were traditionally called some variation of "stone insects". Was the trilobite significant because it resembled a beetle? Were these people the clan of the cave beetle? No one knows.

The best image.

After the summer was over and he returned to his job, Ficatier wrote up his field notes and they were published in a regional journal the Almanach historique de l'Yonne de 1887. It is here that the illustration first appeared. Over the next ten years, it was published in at least three journals that I know of. I've taken my image from the Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie et de biologie de Lyon. The fossil itself, along with the beetle were placed in a museum in Joigny. Later that collection was moved to the Musée de l'Avallonnais. The museum's displays are mostly of local artists. There is an archaeology room, but I have been unable to determine if the trilobite, or the beetle, is part of the permanent display.

One final note. While looking for some biographical information on Ficatier I found out that a Playboy playmate from the 80's named Carol Ficatier is from Auxerre near Arcy-sur-Cure. I don't know how common the name Ficatier is in that part of France but, if it's not common, there's a possibility that they're related. Fame takes many forms.

The uncredited image.
Me. "The First Trilobite," Mammoth Tales. 10/14/2015 (reprint).

The photograph.
Schmider, Béatrice, et al. "L'abri du Lagopède (fouilles Leroi-Gourhan) et le Magdalénien des grottes de la Cure (Yonne)," Gallia préhistoire. Vol. 37,  No. 1 (1995)  pp. 55-114.

The credited image.
"Communication de M. PHILIPPE SALMON, L'Age de la pierre," Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie et de biologie de Lyon, Vol. 6 (1891) pp. 13-18.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Missing Swedish Source

The other day, I went to check out how I referred to something in chapter four to make sure I was consistent in chapter five. To my horror (really, horror), I discovered that the version I had saved was not the last version I wrote; it was the one before. All of the editorial corrections and content additions I had made were gone. After the predictable two hours spent checking everywhere for the corrected version, hoping the additions were in another file, and repeatedly looking in the trash can, I arrived (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression) at an acceptance of my screw up.

Sigh, do it over. My many-times published, childhood friend, David Neiwert, pointed out that, while this is horrifying, having had a chance to get your thoughts together once and mull it over, the second version is usually better. He's right. At least that's how it works in non-fiction. I'm sure many poets would punch us in the face for saying that. But, then, poets are an emotional lot.

And so, after remaking the editorial corrections, I spent today recreating the missing addition. Naturally, I went back and re-researched it. My new version is four times as long as the last version. Telling it in greater detail might add clarity to the narrative, but there is  a problem. This anecdote is the weakest sourced section in the entire book. It's based on what I call "the missing Swedish document."

One of the reasons this book has taken nine years to write has been that I have sourced everything. I don't want to claim to be able to read the minds of long dead people. When I was a kid, the young people's histories we were given (often written in the 19th century) were full of "when Bobby looked at the open sea, his mind was filled with thoughts of the adventures he would have." For all we know, Bobby was filled with terror at the thought that he would be raped half way around the world before dying of scurvy. And leaving such a childish genre, my own graduate studies were filled with statements of what Stalin wanted or was planning. Was Stalin planning to invade Western Europe when he died in 1953? I think he wanted to. I'm not sure he was brave enough to actually have planned to do it. In my studies, the only solid evidence I've seen is that he planned to invade Yugoslavia later that year.

Back to the mammoth. I have what I think is a significant anecdote. I've hesitated to add it because I can't source it. All I have is "a certain Swede said... ." I'm sure I know who the certain Swede is, but I can't find where he said it nor can I find a direct quote anywhere else. All I have is this oblique reference. I'm sure the first reviewer of the book will latch onto this point and ask about it.

I'm doomed.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Zombie Mammoth Bites the Dust

A few years back, I mentioned the mammoth book actually was a byproduct of my love of fringe theories. A lo-o-ong time ago, when I was a teenager, I noticed that each fringe genre recycled a standard set of evidences that were proof positive of each writer's preferred theory. For geological catastrophists, frozen mammoths were right at the top of the list. Working in bookstores in my late twenties and early thirties, I played a game of find-the-mammoth with each new catastrophist book. Very few failed. An important part of the theory was the idea that mammoths had been frozen so fast that its meat was still fresh and delicious tasting. This week, one of those stories about mammoth meat was decisively debunked--not that that will make it go away.

In the 1690s, the literate classes of Western Europe became aware of ivory from a mysterious Siberian creature called mamant or mammoth. The natives said it was never seen alive. They belived it lived underground and died when it breathed surface air by accidentally tunneling out of its subterranean home, usually on river banks. They believed it was a currently living animal because the meat was fresh enough for their dogs to eat. None of these stories said that they ate the meat. And, dogs will eat their own shit, so that's not the best recommendation for the palatability of the meat. This detail, the freshness of the meat, was one of the things that made the mammoth so fascinating, more than any other extinct animal, and kept attention focused on it for the next century.

Once the mammoth was recognized, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a unique, extinct species, native to the North, more focus was placed on just how it came to be frozen. During the previous century, this was not a particularly difficult question. The mammoth was an elephant. During the biblical Deluge, they drowned and their corpses were washed north. When the waters receded, the now Arctic elephants rapidly froze. This theory fell into disfavor as the general literary consensus tipped toward viewing the Deluge as a metaphor or local event in the Middle East. On the geological side, the concept of uniformitarianism, that major changes happen very slowly, in small increments, also denied the idea of a sudden, global flood. This was immediately followed by the discovery of the ice ages. A slow warming and cooling world provided many opportunities for mammoths to become frozen.

Back to the mammoth. By 1850, only fourteen mammoths with some soft tissue attached had been reported since 1692, only four were supposed to have been relatively complete, and only one had been recovered. This made it easy to believe that each frozen mammoth was due to a rare and unique accident. Today, after 350 years, only seventy-five mammoths with soft tissue have been reported and only fourteen have been relatively complete. Due to global communication, the end of the Cold War, a rapid erosion of of local superstitions, and an appreciation of the high monetary value of mammoth carcasses, a third of those complete carcasses were reported and all of them recovered in the last ten years.

But, John, you may be asking (go ahead, ask), when did the mammoth feast enter the mythology? That's a very good question. I commend you on your persip... perisap... smartness. As I mentioned, the earliest reports of mammoth meat only mention dogs eating it. Dogs eating the meat are mentioned again a couple times in the nineteenth century. But, by the dawn of the twentieth century, I can't find a single account of humans eating it, let alone it being the main course of a great feast.

Back to catastophism. Frozen mammoths are now a staple of catastrophist theories. Frozen mammoths are among the usual suspects that catastrophists trot out to prove that Atlantis was real, the Earth’s axis can suddenly change location, a planet-sized comet caused the plagues of Egypt, some cosmological event dumped millions of cubic miles of ice on the earth, or that the Deluge was real. When any new catastrophist theory is proposed, frozen mammoths cannot be far behind. The mammoth most often cited, though often anonymously cited and turned into a plural, is the mammoth discovered on the Beresovka River in 1900.

This mammoth was only the second complete mammoth to be recovered. It was found halfway down a high bluff over the Beresovka River in northeastern Siberia. Its claims to fame are based on the date of its discovery and its high degree of preservation. It was only the second relatively complete mammoth recovered; the first was a century earlier. It was better documented than the first. Mikhail Adams, who recovered the first mammoth in 1806, was a botanist who quickly lost interest in it. The main documentation of it was written by the person who reconstructed the skeleton, Wilhelm Tilesius, who hated Adams. By contrast, the Beresovka mammoth was recovered by Otto Herz and Eugene Pfitzenmayer, who both were interested in the mammoth itself and respected each other. Finally, they wrote during a time when the interested audience for information about such discoveries was magnitudes larger than the audience for the Adams mammoth. They not only wrote several scientific articles on the discovery, the samples they brought back allowed other scientists to write papers on it. Pfitzenmayer even wrote a popular book on mammoths. Quite simply, the world knew more about this mammoth than any discovered before then and any since until Dima in 1977.

From here, the details of this mammoth move into catastophist literature following two paths. The first is because of the high quality of the remains themselves. The flesh and even parts of the organs were recognizably intact. Plant tissues from its last meal were still in its mouth and identifiable nearly a century before DNA sequencing. All of these details have led catastrophists to believe the mammoth was frozen suddenly and completely. An entire industry has grown up around this belief. Someday, I'll go over all the details of that, but, today, let's go over the small aspect of that belief that was debunked this week.

Catastrophism means suddenness. The significance of the Beresovka mammoth to catastophists is the idea that the perfection of its preservation was due to its being frozen in a few hours--faster than any known means of freezing. One line of thought using the Beresovka mammoth was based on the supposedly non-arctic food found in its unflossed mouth. The other is based on the quality of its meat. Twice now I've mentioned that several recorded accounts, before 1901, mention dogs eating the meat, but none mention humans eating it. So, did Herz or Pfitzenmayer make this claim about their mammoth? No, they did not.

The origin appears to have come from Herz' comment that the mammoth's flesh "looks as fresh as well-frozen beef or horse meat." This has been taken to mean it tasted like well-frozen beef or horse meat. It did not. Pfitzenmayer wrote that they could smell it a mile away and that they initially could only work on excavating it for a few minutes before fleeing to get some fresh air. Though it's not mentioned in either of their initial accounts. One of them did taste the meat.* One night, toward the end of their work, they got drunk and began daring the other to eat come of the meat. The dogs had shown that it wasn't fatal to eat (see dogs and shit, above). Finally, fortified with a lot of vodka and pepper, one of them was able to chew up a chunk of mammoth, but not swallow it.

Before I adjudge this story to be the origin of all mammoth feast stories, I want to suggest the possibility of an undocumented oral tradition that also fed into it. I'm an Alaskan. Many old, white Alaskans have a grandfather, know someone who had a grandfather, or whose grandfather knew someone who regularly ate frozen mammoth. The Seattle catastophist Donald Patton wrote that "mammoth steaks have even been featured on restaurant menus in Fairbanks." None of these stories has been documented as true. All of these stories date back to the gold rush days. None of the Russians before then make that claim, none of the Anglo-white guys since then make that claim, and I've never met an Alaskan native that makes that claim. My opinion is that all of these stories are based on sourdoughs (old white Alaskans) BSing cheechakos (newcomers).

And now, after many digressions and distractions, I've finally arrived at the great mammoth feast. In 1920, Martin Gardner published A Journey to the Earth's Interior, Or Have the Poles Really Been Discovered? His book is the most mature development of the hollow earth theory. The central idea of this theory is that the surface of the earth is a bubble with an empty space inside. The earliest western development of this idea was by Edmond Halley of comet fame. Various later versions developed ideas of what was inside. Gardner watched the many attempts during his life to reach the poles and decided it was not possible because there were no poles. When explorers reached a certain high latitude, they entered a hole that led to the interior world. Gravity held people against the under side of the bubble and a tiny sun balanced at the center made life possible there. When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his Pellucidar based on the same idea, Gardner wrote to him asking if he had anything to do with the books. I don't know if Burroughs answered.

Gardner, for once, did not need the biblical flood or any other type of catastrophe to put frozen mammoths in the Arctic. Like most catastrophists, he believed that mammoths were normal tropical elephants whose appearance in the Arctic needed explanation. His solution was that they lived in the eternal tropics of the inner world. Occasionally, however, they would fall into rivers or off the northern coast, drown, have their bodies carried through the polar hole, be deposited on the Siberian coast, buried, and frozen there before they could decompose--obviously.

Gardner dedicated an entire chapter to the mammoth and within that chapter, a subtitled section to the mammoth feast. Gardner specifically says it was Herz who held a banquet with meat from the Berezovka mammoth "and he asked scientists in other parts of the world to contribute other ancient foods--such as corn dug up from the ruins of Egyptian cities." Later versions of the story have added that Tsar Nicholas II was the guest of honor. Other versions of the feast removed Herz from the story and made Guillaume Apollinaire, the Italian/French poet, the guest of honor. Later, when asked about the feast, Gardner would only vaguely say, it was in all the papers, look it up yourselves.

This, Klondike tall tales, and other rumors established the popular legend that, at some time, there had been a feast or dinner of mammoth steaks. Thirty years later, a newer version appeared: at some point, soon after WWII, the Explorer's Club of New York featured mammoth steaks on the menu of its annual dinner. Oddly, this story, with its exactness, has not been repeated as often as Gardner's vague story. But there is some truth to this story, the Explorer's Club is a real organization, it is in New York, and it has a fancy dinner with exotic fare every year. Despite this story having so many verifiable points, I have never come across a catastrophist who looked onto it enough to verify the fact of the mammoth steaks. But, academic rigor has never been a feature of fringe thought; recycling is their primary feature. After sixty-five years, someone has finally looked into this factoid.

Here is the story as reconstructed by Jessica R. Glass, Matt Davis, Timothy J. Walsh, Eric J. Sargis, and Adalgisa Caccone in an article in PLOS One. The famous menu was the from the 1951 annual Explorers Club dinner, held in January that year. The source of the popularization of the story is an article in The Christian Science Monitor that appeared several days later. The first point they make completely kills the legend. The menu didn't say mammoth; it said Megatherium, which is an extinct species of South American giant ground sloth that did not live in the far north. Although this might disappoint catastrophists, in its way, it is much more interesting. Megatherium remains are far rarer than mammoths and, as it is not an Arctic species, well preserved soft tissue would have been insanely rare. If only there was some way to prove that.

There is. Paul Griswold Howes, the curator of the Bruce Museum missed the dinner. Wendell Phillips Dodge, the chairman of the club, was good enough to save a piece of the Megatherium for Howes. Rather than eat the tasty bit, Howes preserved it and added it to the museum's collections. Dodge was rather--well--dodgy about the origin of the meat. Originally, he claimed it came from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. If true, this would have extended the range of the Megatherium by over 10,000 miles. He is also reported to have said he had discovered a formula by which he could convert sea turtle meat into giant sloth meat. I think we can assume that formula included a generous helping of bullshit.

Spoiler: It's not mammoth meat (source)

Glass et al. have the tools to go beyond merely determining that the meat was not mammoth. They were able to determine what it really was. All they needed was the sample that Howes stored at the Bruce Museum. Howes carefully labeled the sample so it wasn't difficult to find. The meat had been cooked and stored in isopropyl alcohol, but this didn't prevent them from extracting DNA for identification. Unlike forensic crime dramas, they weren't able to determine that it was a near-sighted, left-handed, yellow sloth from a bad part of Davenport, Iowa. However, they were able to determine that it wasn't a mammoth or any kind of sloth. It was, in fact, a green sea turtle of a sub-species native to the Pacific Ocean. They weren't able to narrow it down further than that. The green sea turtle is now an endangered species. In those days it was a favored species for making turtle soup, a major factor in its becoming endangered.

Although it's easy to dismiss the mammoth feast as so much fringe silliness, it has had a very real effect on how the public perceives mammoths. The idea that there is almost perfect mammoth tissue available in the Siberian tundra is one of the drivers of the idea that each new discovery might provide the necessary genetic material to clone a mammoth. Hundreds of frozen mammals have been in the northern tundra. None of them have provided decent DNA for cloning.

This isn't the end of the story. In 1979 a prospector near Fairbanks uncovered the frozen remains of a steppe bison. Rather than try to blast the thing clear, he reported it to the University of Alaska and R. Dale Guthrie was able to conduct a proper excavation of it. It is one of the best preserved Pleistocene mammals ever recovered. It was brought to the university and, along with being properly examined, the main parts of the body were prepared for display in the museum. The chief taxidermist, Erick Grandqvist, saved a piece of meat from the Bison's neck. When his work was done, he Guthrie, and visiting paleontologist, Björn Kurtén made a stew out of it. The meat was tough, but edible.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Book Update

We sold the book.

I've been holding my breath over this, but it finally came together today. Last spring I started sending lots of query letters to agents. In June, one asked to see my full proposal. A few days later, she asked to talk to me. At the end of the talk, she offered to represent me. I accepted and she sent me a contract. After that, we worked on improving my proposal and working up a better sample chapter. Just before Thanksgiving she said she thought it was ready and that she was sending it out to publishers. The week before Christmas, two publishers wrote back asking for more information. One was a small university press. The other was a major publishing house. Ten days ago, the University press made an offer. It was a much smaller offer than I had hoped for, but it was exciting to think that, no matter what happens, the book will see the light of day.

Fast forward to today. We still haven't heard back from the big publishing house. It's Friday. There was only junk mail in my box. Considering the time difference, it was already after lunch in New York. I figured that meant I wasn't going to hear anything this week. I deleted all the junk mail and as Gmail refreshed, a new letter appeared from my agent. A third press was interested and was making an offer. The new offer was more money, greater marketing mojo, and a hardback release sooner than the university offer. Other than the million-dollars-and-a-cheese-sandwich offer that I never really expected to get, this was everything I had realistically hoped for. I wrote back basically saying "OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG, YES!!!"

The normal procedure, at this point is to notify anyone else who has expressed an interest to see if they want to start a bidding war. An hour later, my agent wrote back to say, this morning's publisher raised their bid and the other two dropped out. Most people who have met me will say that, with exceptions that don't need to be listed here, I'm usually a fairly reserved person. I was screaming and dancing in the kitchen. "Tell them yes! Tell them yes! Tell them yes!!!!"

And that, dear friends, is where we stand. The publisher will send a formal contract to my agent stating the terms of the bid; she'll examine it and, if everything is above board, send it to me to sign; I'll fall to the floor in a swoon, then get up; and sign it. Naturally, about five minutes after I gave her my permission to accept the bid, my impostor syndrome kicked into overdrive. Unless some drunken prankster in mail-room of the publisher sent the bid, I now have four months to deliver a draft.

It's finally real. Ever since I was a teen-ager, I've wanted to be a writer. My topic has changed over the years: first I want to be a science fiction novelist, then I wanted to make important contributions to my fields of graduate study (modern Balkans and colonial Africa). After dropping out of grad school, I became a technical writer. It was pretty cool to fill out the "Occupation" box on my tax forms with "Writer" even if the writing wasn't that exciting. Blogging was a little more satisfying, but eventually that became harder to do as traffic dried up. Somewhere along the way I stumbled into mammoths. It was nothing more than a blog post that I meant to use to illustrate a different point. Nine years later, it's a book. I think on my next tax form I might write "Author."

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 3, 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.

Friday, September 4, 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.