Saturday, February 2, 2019

Ago

Two things;

1. There is no easy way to do this. Anything I write here will inevitably seem an obscene rearing-forth from forgotten aeons, a coelacanth dredged from benthic slimes and gasping in implausible sunlight. Never mind.

2. Google Plus is dying. I never used it much but for a very long time I checked it every day to see what was going on. I drifted away from it over the years and am unable to authentically commiserate with those who lament its passing. With G+ gone there is no centralised hub for the movement. No rightful heir being found, perhaps the blogosphere that birthed it shall rise from the ashes.

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This out of the way, I continue.

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I am no longer much of an aficionado of the fantasy genre. I am, however, interested in the human imagination and in human attempts to interpret and understand the world throughout history. This is a very pertinent subject at the moment.

Part of the genre of fantasy for a very long time has been a kind of Euhemeristic reframing of some of the facts about the world that had been derived from rigorous post-enlightenment interrogations of reality. This can be seen as a kind of science-fantasy incursion into a pure let's-pretend-the-epistemological-approach-of-benighted-historical-peoples-was-effective conception of fantasy, and was prevalent during times when our infatuation with prehistory was at its height.

Consider Tolkien. There are several examples in Lord of the Rings where Tolkien could be said to be drawing inspiration from prehistory. His work was very much concerned with capturing an emotional response to the passage of time. Techniques he employed in his construction of languages were designed to evoke, in one with the requisite knowledge of scientific philology, the sense of an extraordinarily long period of time. Much as the anatomical characteristics of basal forms of known lineages of organism would indicate the passing of time to an expert in biological evolution, so too the grammatical structures of Quenya and Sindarin are vastly more archaic than living languages and have encoded in their inflections a plausible reconstruction of the characteristics of the language of an earlier age. Tolkien had mentioned his imagined time for the events of The Lord of the Rings to be something like 6000-8000 years ago, and the archaic grammar he wove into his invented languages was supposed to extrapolate the processes of language evolution backwards in time in such a manner as to evoke that kind of timeframe.

Since I encountered this idea in Ross Smith's Inside Language I have always likened it to the observations of parallax in astronomy. These observations, of the tiny shifts in the position of a star from the vantage point of Earth at opposite ends of its orbit around the sun, are what enabled astronomers to calculate the distance to other stars and thus give us a glimmer of an idea as to the vastness of the cosmos. To conceive of his fictional world in this way required that Tolkien had specialised knowledge. It is possible, given that the languages preceded the narratives, that Tolkien was working to capture the emotional resonance of his perception of the passage of time he encoded within the languages. It is, perhaps, something of an explanation for the whole sweet melancholy of his allusions to Elder Days before the Fall.

But this is merely an aside, the specific elements of Tolkien that I am interested in unpacking here are the prehistoric allusions. There are three examples I'd like to touch on that I see as being characteristic of drawing inspiration, consciously or unconsciously, from prehistory.

Oliphaunts

Cor Blok is the only Tolkien artist I know that Tolkien owned work from


"To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope. ... much bigger than a house, it looked to him, a grey-clad moving hill. Fear and wonder, maybe, enlarged him in the hobbit's eyes, but the Mûmak of Harad was indeed a beast of vast bulk, and the like of him does not walk now in Middle-earth; his kin that live still in latter days are but memories of his girth and majesty. On he came ... passing only a few yards away, rocking the ground beneath their feet: his great legs like trees, enormous sail-like ears spread out, long snout upraised like a huge serpent about to strike. his small red eyes raging. His upturned hornlike tusks were bound with bands of gold and dripped with blood. His trappings of scarlet and gold flapped about him in wild tatters. The ruins of what seemed a very war-tower lay upon his heaving back, smashed in his furious passage through the woods; and high upon his neck still desperately clung a tiny figure -- the body of a mighty warrior, a giant among the Swertings."

So, the elephants that remain in the world are not as big as the elephants that lived before. The fossil record of proboscideans gives indication of plenty of examples of huge elephantine animals. One of which, the Woolly Mammoth, is so emblematic of the idea of prehistory that we do tend to magnify it it our minds (it was probably about the same size as surviving elephants). Still, there were bigger mammoths, and, as I shall demonstrate, much bigger proboscideans, but the Woolly Mammoth's primordial shagginess and extravagant curving tusks that so effectively embody the weirdness and savagery of an antediluvian world has thus infiltrated our mythic imagination deeply.

Something of Tolkien's preoccupation with the diminishment of wonder in the world is encoded in this passage. I do not presume a literal attempt to include an extinct proboscidean in Middle-Earth so much as a potential source of inspiration. There were, in Tolkien's time, other endeavours that had begun to indicate the presence in our past of lost worlds.


The Nazgûl Steeds

Alan Lee: Pterodactylic


Tolkien, from Letter 211:

"Pterodactyl. Yes and no. I did not intend the steed of the Witch-King to be what is now called a 'pterodactyl', and often is drawn (with rather less shadowy evidence than lies behind many monsters of the new and fascinating semi-scientific mythology of the 'Prehistoric'). But obviously it is pterodactylic and owes much to the new mythology, and its description even provides a sort of way in which it could be a last survivor of older geological eras."

So he disavows it, sort of. It "owes much to the new mythology". Its inclusion is an element that lays open Tolkien to the kind of criticism he leveled at C.S. Lewis' practice of heterogenous mythological inclusivity in the Narnia books. But it is beautiful;

"The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature; if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil."

I always particularly enjoyed that passage and interpreted it in the kind of way Tolkien admitted was possible in Letter 211. The idea of creatures from the deep time of scientific discovery existing in what is explicitly a created world sets up a kind of paradox that really oughtn't be scrutinised unnecessarily but shimmers weirdly at the edge of my consciousness.

The Drúedain

"There sat Théoden and Éomer, and before them on the ground sat a strange squat shape of a man, gnarled as an old stone, and the hairs of his scanty beard straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss. He was short-legged and fat-armed, thick and stumpy, and clad only with grass about his waist."

There is a slightly different process going on in the descriptions of the Wild Men of Ghân-buri-Ghân. I am tempted to characterise them as a literary creation making reference to the Neanderthals and other archaic hominids but it is perhaps a safer set of assumptions to treat them as simply a race of humans living a more technologically-primitive lifestyle than their pseudo-mediaeval neighbours in Rohan.

One of the telling elements is in the application of the term "woses" to the men of the Drúadan Forest by the Rohirrim. The wose/woodwose/wuduwasa is a potent mythic archetype of the mediaeval mind: the wild man who represents untamed nature (and the untamed nature in humanity). The application of the term as an exonym reframes the Drúedain as being the potential source of inspiration for what is undeniably a mythological being. There is also a similar process in the description of statues associated with the Drúedain as Púkel-Men. Púkel is a word with Old English roots (and a whole host of cognates in Germanic languages) that refers to fairies or spirits. Púkel is cognate with Puck, Phooka, Puca, Bwca, Bogle, Bogie, Boggan, Bauchan, Boogeyman and Bug.

Wild Men flanking some Albrecht Durer altarpiece


As as aside,  Tolkien used archaic forms of English to represent Rohirric as a means of establishing the relationship between Rohirric and Westron in a way analagous to that between the Modern English that stood in for, but was not identical to, Westron, and the Old English that stood in for Rohirric. Aside from the specific  examples of constructed languages in Tolkien, everything is assumed to be a translation. As an aside within an aside, I am intrigued with the idea that there is behind the anglicised story of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee an earthier narrative of Maura Labingi and Banazîr Galbasi (their original untranslated Westron Hobbitish names) tramping around in the early Holocene.

Was Tolkien making an attempt to say that our ancestors were inspired by their more technologically primitive neighbours to invent wicked fairies? Probably not, though there is definitely an interesting subject of investigation in the extraordinarily imaginative conceptions of the other by our xenophobic forebears. This example in Tolkien is less an example of the emotional resonance of deep time than of the entanglement of reality and myth that I find so endlessly fascinating.

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Remember the Oliphaunt? Huge, old and tall? For a very long time there was a consensus that the largest terrestrial mammal, and therefore the largest terrestrial creature aside from the sauropods, was an Oligocene giant hornless rhinoceros called variously; Baluchitherium, Indricotherium, or Paraceratherium, extinct for more than 20,000,000 years.

I have no name, for I existed before names were.

But the giant hornless rhinos were not the biggest, we have only recently determined that the biggest mammal to walk the earth (as far as we know) was Palaeoloxodon namadicus, the Asian Straight-Tusked Elephant, which inhabited Asia from Japan to India until the late Pleistocene, 24,000 years ago, and may have weighed up to 22 tons. This thing was not only bigger, this thing had a name (probably several). For this thing existed alongside behaviourally modern Homo sapiens who would, quite obviously, have had need upon occasion to refer to it. In all probability, we contributed to its extinction, along with at least eighteen other proboscideans that existed on the planet at the time of Homo sapiens most significant exodus from Africa about 70 thousand years ago, only to disappear after our arrival on the scene. Along with them died a suite of extraordinary creatures that we once shared the world with. This world of circa 70 thousand years ago was an extraordinary zenith of diversity in which practically every animal that exists now was joined by many others, of which the hugest and weirdest were all huger and weirder than what remains.

Old Oliphaunt am I. Palaeoloxodon namadicus. Image by Roman Uchtyel, extraordinarily prolific palaeoartist, evidently not afraid of giant elephants

The fact of the existence of these creatures alongside Behaviourally Modern humans is, to my mind, astonishing. Behaviourally Modern humans were us, they had language and myth and art.  They named these creatures and incorporated them in stories. The time of our cohabiting the world with these creatures was very recent, evolutionarily speaking.

As a general rule, every highly successful species usurps the niches of previous species. There is evidence in the fossil record of extinction pulses occurring in Africa that correspond to periods of increase in brain size in our lineage. Every time we got smarter we wiped entire species from the face of the Earth. Come 70,000 years ago or so, we had achieved our current level of staggering genius. The world was not ready. Those of us who crossed the Bab al Mandab, the Gates of Grief between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, would find a world heaving under the weight of preposterous diversity.

This all-consuming genius within explains, and to an extent is explained by, our confrontation with this world. In order to thrive and spread across the Pleistocene Earth we had to learn to adapt to environments dominated by the biggest representatives of most of the lineages that are in existence: the biggest land mammal, the biggest terrestrial predator, the biggest cat, the biggest lizard, the biggest bird, the biggest tortoise, sloth, prosimian, bovid, cervid, marsupial etc. Since the beginning of our rapid increase in brain size we have been killing and outcompeting other lineages, once we achieved so-called Behavioural Modernity we were able to overcome the most formidable examples of every other lineage we encountered. They all went extinct and we thrived.

Perhaps it is that bounty of extraordinary diversity and extraordinary size, of the richness of ecosystems that were at a zenith unmatched since the Cretaceous, that gave us the start-up capital we needed to kickstart the Agricultural Revolution and create civilisation. It parallels the idea that the wholesale plundering of the Americas by the European colonial powers gave them the wealth needed to start the Industrial Revolution. Schrodinger said that living things "drink orderliness" from the environment. In order for us to persist with the extraordinarily harmonious organisation of matter and energy we call our lives we need to vampirise the lives of other organisms who are themselves the end-result of a process of billions of years of the evolutionary algorithm honing and perfecting mechanisms to survive. The late Pleistocene abounded with accumulated orderliness, perhaps unmatched in any age of the Earth. Then we came.

The following graph shows the effect we had when we arrived.



The world that existed immediately prior to human dispersal across the world was astonishing. A couple of facts about these events bear keeping in mind;

1. All the animal lineages that remain in the world lived in the world before 70,000 years ago.
2. If we hadn't made them extinct then the vast majority of the lineages wiped out by us would remain alongside us.

To which I cannot help but add;

3. We're not finished.
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Back to the elephants;

In addition to the colossal namadicus, there were plenty of other elephants bigger than those that remain, including 10+ ton Palaeoloxodon recki.

Straight-tusked Elephant. Image from Sameer Prehistorica

The Americas were fairly festering with Mammoths, many of whom were present in Eurasia also. Roman Uchtyel again

But there were also various kinds of smaller mammoth, like Mammuthus exilis. From Sameer Prehistorica

There were tiny Proboscideans on many islands, the products of insular dwarfism like this Mammuthus creticus from Crete. Image from Victor Leshyk

And various middle-sized Proboscideans like the Gomphotheres from South America

Malta had a dwarf elephant, Palaeoloxodon falconeri, and a giant swan, Cygnus falconeri (which probably went extinct before humans arrived). Image from Julio Lacerda
The island of Flores had the dwarf elephant: Stegodon florensis insularis, which only looks huge because the Homo floresiensis (also extinct around 50kya) are so tiny

I don't like calling them hobbits but understand why people do.



Leptopilos robustus must have been terrifying to the little Flores people.

Utterly fucking terrifying. It was probably mostly flightless and converging on the terror bird niche and body plan.

Until recently it was thought that the largest bird of all time was Madagascar's famed elephant bird: Aepyornis maximus.

Which went extinct around the time of the Crusades. Image from Peter Schouten

At nearly half a ton it is an impressively huge bird. Image from Roman Uchtyel

But recently another Madagascan bird was described that was bigger, Vorombe titan may have weighed around 700 kg. It was also driven extinct some time in the last few thousand years.

Vorombe titan triumphantly flaunting its unparalleled avian enormousness
  Australia's huge bird species was the Mihirung, Genyornis walleri, still huge at 250 kg, but not record-breaking. It died out during Australia's significantly earlier megafauna extinction about 50kya.




Genyornis had to contend with Varanus priscus (formerly Megalania prisca) the largest terrestrial lizard that ever existed. Only the huge Mesozoic marine reptiles, the Mosasaurs (still technically lizards), were bigger

The size estimates for Varanus priscus range up to 7m long. 5 metres is probably more realistic and sufficiently terrifying. Also extinct c. 50kya.

This is the best Diprotodon I have seen, it really captures the rough-hewn blundering coarseness that characterises remaining megafauna. Diprotodon optatum was at a couple of tons the largest marsupial ever to live, and part of an assemblage of large marsupial herbivores, all of which went extinct after human arrival in Australia. Image from Roman Yevseyev, the second most prolific palaeoartist called Roman. 
Quinkana fortirostrum was only a medium-sized crocodile, about alligator size, but it was entirely terrestrial so it could get you while you slept.
Image by Vlad Konstantinov.




Wonambi naracoortensis, a five metre long constrictor from a now-vanished lineage.
Image from Peter Schouten

We also had Thylacoleo carnifex, the leopard-sized Marsupial Lion, with its weird evil-koala dentition and vicious thumb talons.
Image from Peter Schouten.

And giant short-faced kangaroos like Sthenurus and Procoptodon. The Red Kangaroo, on the right, is the last marsupial species left (aside from the occasional obese wombat) that still qualifies as megafauna .
Image from Roman Uchtyel.

Palorchestes resembled a marsupial version of the giant ground sloth with a cheerfully stupid face.
Image by Vlad Konstantinov.

Giant Horned Turtle Ninjemys (formerly Meiolania) from Australia, relatives of which on Pacific islands were even larger (and were wiped out more recently).
Image from Peter Schouten.

Megalochelys atlas, at 2000-4000kg, was the biggest tortoise that ever lived, it went extinct in Eurasia after humans arrived

Not my caption but the picture is too good. South America's Agriotherium angustidens (also known as Arctotherium) was the largest terrestrial mammalian carnivore we have evidence for. Estimates range up to 1.7 tons. It went extinct in the relatively recent American extinction about 12,000 years ago.

North America also had huge short-faced bears - Arctodus simus. Alside from their unreasonable largeness, it was their long-legged, far-ranging chasey qualities that made short-faced bears so unpleasant. Disclaimer: The bear on the right was already extinct. We are not to blame.

The Americas had this huge range of predators 12kya: Panthera atrox, (American "lion" the largest cat of all time), the sabretooth Smilodon fatalis (not as big as Smilodon populator, also present in that fauna assemblage), The scimitar-toothed Homotherium serum, the American cheetah Miracinonyx trumani, and the frickin' Dire Wolf (Depressingly, there were many more also wiped out)

There was another Homotherium species in Europe also. Gone now.

Smilodon populator from Charles Knight, who imbued his palaeoart with that glorious overblown American landscape tradition splendour

That is how big and beefy they were. Roman Uchtyel is unperturbed

It is possible that the former presence of the American Cheetah explains why the Pronghorn, second fastest land mammal, is so damned quick. Incidentally, there were 13 species of pronghorns when humans first crossed the Bering land bridge. Now there is only one.

Plenty of examples exist, as in the case of the Ngangdong Tiger Panthera tigris soloensis, of populations of existing species being wiped out from areas where they formerly existed P. soloensis was significantly larger than existing tigers, rivalling the American Lion, and the largest Smilodon as one of the biggest cats of all time.

I always thought the Irish Elk, Megalaceros giganteus, was the biggest deer of all time. It survived well into the Holocene

Nope, the biggest deer was actually the Broad-Fronted Moose, Cervalces latifrons, that was driven extinct by Pleistocene humans. Lovely image from Emiliano Troco.

The largest bovid was probably Bison latifrons, with the comically huge horns, incidentally driven extinct by humans.

But it also could have been Pelorovis antiquus from Africa that survived until 2000 BC, also with comically huge horns. Also humans. Image from Peter Schouten

Madacascar had, in addition to the biggest birds of all time, an extraordinarily diverse assemblage of prosimians, including the huge Archaeoindris fontoynontii, which may have been bigger than a gorilla. 

It also had this giant fossa, Cryptoprocta spleea,  like an arboreal leopard-mongoose. I really don't like the one on the right.

The Madagascan fauna included, until about 1500 AD, two kinds of pygmy hippos, similar species used to exist on various islands around the  Mediterranean. Insular species are very susceptible to extinction so they're all gone. Humans.
Image by Peter Schouten.

The largest sloth to ever live, Megatherium americanum, was around until shortly after humans arrived in the Americas about 12-14kya. It was about the size of an elephant


It was also just part of an array of giant ground sloths that had thrived in the Americas for a very long time, the last of which were exterminated on Caribbean Islands around the time the pyramids were built.

Armadillos, much like sloths, were represented by a variety of huge and bizarre forms, Doedicurus clavicaudatus happened upon an approximation of the ankylosaur body plan.

As did Glyptodon in this lovely old illustration by Heinrich Harder.

A lot of people know there used to be horses in the Americas, the largest , Equus giganteus, (henceforth Gigantic Horse) weighed around 1.2 tons and was thus the largest equine.



Meanwhile, New Zealand was home to a diverse array of birds and very few native mammals (mainly bats). The two Dinornis species, the largest of the nine moa species, were, at 240 kg, about the same size as Australia's Genyornis, twice the size of an ostrich and a third the size of Madagascar's Vorombe. The moa all went extinct during the mediaeval period. Their relatively recent extinction means that we have better quality archaeological sites showing that they were butchered for the choice cuts and much of the meat was wasted. Image from Peter Schouten.

Prior to human arrival, the only predator of the moa was Harpagornis moorei, the largest eagle ever to exist. It is gone now.



The largest owl of all time was the Cuban Giant Owl, Ornimegalonyx. Probably flightless but a fast runner. Doubtless hooting hideously as it chases you through the primordial forest dark. Extinct since the end of the Pleistocene.

Rather surprisingly, the largest flying bird of all time, the largest teratorn Argentavis magnificens, went extinct long before we had a chance to drive it extinct. Its smaller cousin Ailornis incredilbilis still had a 5m wingspan, far larger than any living bird, and was the largest thing flying until the arrival in the Americas of humans and the rapid extinction of the colossal creatures whose colossal carrion that would have provided the sustenance for this giant carrion fowl.


Biggest beaver ever. Gone 12,000 years ago.




Finally, Europe was home to a shaggy array of extraordinary shaggy creatures, most of which are sufficiently well-known that I don't feel the need to enumerate them here - Cave lions, Cave bears, Cave hyenas, Cave men, Woolly mammoths, Woolly Rhinos. Its almost like there's a theme. My favourite is this colossal horned muppet, Elasmotherium sibiricum, a primitive rhinoceros the size of an elephant

It's all a sadly familiar story.

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Curiously, a little farther back in time, between 130,000 an 115,000 period there was another interglacial period resembling the Holocene. At this stage, while the numerous human species on Earth already included our own, we were still inhabiting the curious category of Anatomically Modern Homo sapiens and had yet to achieve Behavioural Modernity. The transition to Behavioural Modernity, what Jared Diamond called The Great Leap Forward, probably had something to do with the development of complex language as it precipitated a Cambrian Explosion of cultural development. Humanity during this Eemian interglacial may have ventured out of Africa to some extent, genetic markers in Neanderthal DNA indicate a few furtive forays of our lineage before the great crossing of the Gates of Grief, but did not have the necessary toolkit to conquer the Earth. All human populations in recorded history had the complex set of traits we characterise as Behavioural Modernity. Everyone alive today is from the only lineage of hominid that survived the great extinctions.

The Eemian fascinates me. It was slightly warmer, on average than now (we are catching up). Hippos cavorted in the Thames. The ancestors of the songbirds you know probably had different accents. There were more creatures in the world then. We had not tamed it.

That is a nagging doubt that I return to: that rather than merely being an extravagant waste of irreplaceable diversity, the bloody business our ancestors conducted during the last Ice Age was the necessary Great Taming of the Wild. If they had not done these terrible deeds then maybe I wouldn't sleep so soundly in my bed, knowing that there was no chance I would be killed and eaten by a giant lizard.

And maybe the violence in us is a necessary adaptation to a world far more dangerous than that which remains, our heedless energy a sign of our role as the perennial invasive species, to whom no terrestrial ecosystem is unconquerable.

It explains a lot.

It may not be possible to determine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, which period of evolutionary history supported the greatest biodiversity. The moment in time that immediately preceded human groups leaving Africa may be the strongest candidate. In addition to producing the bewildering array of forms now extinct, far more than I have mentioned, and the forms that remain, it produced several Homo species. The evolutionary algorithm, grinding away behind all things, gave rise to us. The others are gone now.

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 This is from the end of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

“It was an old hunter in camp and the hunter shared tobacco with him and told him of the buffalo and the stands he'd made against them, laid up in a sag on some rise with the dead animals scattered over the grounds and the herd beginning to mill and the riflebarrel so hot the wiping patches sizzled in the bore and the animals by the thousands and the tens of thousands and the hides pegged out over actual square miles of ground the teams of skinners spelling one another around the clock and the shooting and shooting weeks and months till the bore shot slick and the stock shot loose at the tang and their shoulders were yellow and blue to the elbow and the tandem wagons groaned away over the prairie twenty and twenty-two ox teams and the flint hides by the hundred ton and the meat rotting on the ground and the air whining with flies and the buzzards and ravens and the night a horror of snarling and feeding with the wolves half-crazed and wallowing in the carrion.

I seen Studebaker wagons with six and eight ox teams headed out for the grounds not hauling a thing but lead. Just pure galena. Tons of it. On this ground alone between the Arkansas River and the Concho there were eight million carcasses for that's how many hides reached the railhead. Two years ago we pulled out from Griffin for a last hunt. We ransacked the country. Six weeks. Finally found a herd of eight animals and we killed them and come in. They're gone. Ever one of them that God ever made is gone as if they'd never been at all.

The ragged sparks blew down the wind. The prairie about them lay silent. Beyond the fire it was cold and the night was clear and the stars were falling. The old hunter pulled his blanket about him. I wonder if there's other worlds like this, he said. Or if this is the only one.”


Bison skulls destined to be used as fertiliser


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But what of the Ampersand and its Flanking Capitals? 

I have not forgotten about that. I do not think it needs to be spelled out but wallowing in carrion is our birthright and we must continually invent more worlds to conquer.

14 comments:

  1. This is a big comeback. Great post.

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  2. Always jump when you see fit to post. Great associative information here.

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  3. This is an inspiration motherload. I've always loved prehistory-turned-to-myth.

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  4. There’s a sense of awe when viewing the elephant that pales in comparison to the visceral wonder at titans who tread the earth before we came. I think part of our job is to recapture that magic. Well done.

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  5. Your task is now to make daily posts of this quality until your death. I will accept nothing less.

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  6. Thanks for reading. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post.

    Except for you, Compare Electric Rates. Fuck you.

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  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  8. You're back! I'm dutifully adding you to my blogroll once I get off work.

    Re: megafauna, there's this sense that violence echoes within us, exciting our very fiber and quite unexplainedly. The truth is, even as we've conquered these times, we've not really genetically lived them down, engaging as we do in make-pretend-play rituals that see us reenact the long night of tooth and nail.

    The result however, was never in doubt, as the biomass progressively shifted into human shapes, from where it was exceedingly hard to harvest back, the big predator crowd had less and less sources to turn to. We didn't really have to tangle with these tigers, just kill their prey base and see them migrate away from our econiche.

    Now, if there had been even one of these whose primary diet had been hominid, rather than taking us on as a dish of opportunity, we probably wouldn't be thumb-opposing our phones for some millenia still, if ever.

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree that we retain in us precisely those characteristics that enabled (or impelled) us to plunder the Earth of its wonder, and that these characteristics are troublesome. I also think, as I alluded to, that being the hominid especially well-adapted to going over the next horizon and killing and eating what we find there has endowed us also with a special predilection for imagining strange new worlds.

      Bruce Chatwin wrote, in his book Songlines, about how the Pliocene sabretooth cat Dinofelis may have been a specialised predator of primates, even of hominids, and the prototypical ancient adversary of humanity.

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  9. Behavioural Modernity is a myth, and I tell you this because everything becomes more interesting when you accept the evidence against it. See this book for instance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_10,000_Year_Explosion

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  10. From the description, that book does not refute the idea of Behavioural Modernity at all. The modernity in question is in comparison with the comparatively static and unsophisticated humans that preceded it and is a very clear indication of something extraordinary occurring in the lineage. Every known population of humans in history had (or has) the defining characteristics that defined them as different from those that preceded that something extraordinary.

    Obviously, this does not mean evolution finishes. It continues. Its continuity does not detract from the watershed moment (though that moment may have taken thousands of years to occur) that gave us metaphor and symbolism and compound tools and such. Whatever diversity exists now is nothing like the diversity that separated those who could and could not understand complex language.

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