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14,000-year-old map, or just a rock with doodles?

Have you ever read an article in the newspaper and wished you were one of the reporters covering the story, because the guy or girl that did cover it failed to ask any useful questions?  That’s how I feel reading this account of an extraordinary 14,000-year-old rock from Navarre, which a team of archaeologists from the University of Zaragoisa say is an ancient map.  And certainly when you take a monochromatic rock, minimise the scratches which don’t figure into the mapping scheme, and color the scratches that do blue and green (like a real topo map), then what you end up with is something that seems a lot more map-like.

A team led by Pilar Utrilla from the University of Zaragoza in Spain, discovered the rock in 1994 but it has taken them 15 years to disentangle the mess of etched lines.

They appear to show a prominent peak nearby as well as rivers, ponds and scrubland. There are also recognisable sketches of animals including reindeer, a stag and some ibex.

‘All of these engravings could be a sketch or a simple map of the area around the cave. It could represent the plan for a coming hunt or perhaps a narrative story of one that had already happened,’ they wrote in the Journal of Human Evolution.

…’The engraving seems to reproduce the meandering course of a river crossing the upper part of side A of the block, joined by two tributaries near two mountains,’ they wrote.

‘One of these is identical to the mountain that can be seen from the cave (San Gregorio), with herds of ibex depicted on its hillsides, on both sides of the gorge in front of which the cave of Abauntz is strategically located.’

— Bates, Claire.  “Oldest map in western Europe found engraved on 14,000-year-old chunk of rock.” Daily Mail, 06 August 2009.

But not everyone is sanguine about this interpretation.  Ms. Jill Cook, head of the prehistory division at the British Museum, downplays the idea.

…According to Jill Cook, head of the prehistory division at the British Museum in London, hundreds of similar etchings have been found sprinkled across Europe.

“Multiple lines positioned over animal figures is not unusual in slabs of this period. We haven’t traditionally considered them to be maps.” She also doesn’t believe humans at the time had any need for maps (see next week’s issue of New Scientist). “Their intimacy and knowledge of the landscape, including the location of individual trees and plants, would be such that maps would be less vital to them. On the whole, art of this period doesn’t include landscape elements – no trees, rivers or hills – so this interpretation is very brave,” she told New Scientist.

— Choi, Charles and Catherine Brahic.  “Found: A pocket guide to prehistoric Spain.” New Scientist, 05 August 2009.

I have to admit I am on the fence with this, as when you look at the bare rock it doesn’t appear to be overly clear; there are lots of overlapping and apparently unrelated scratches.  Still, this is a map, right?  And if the Pyrenees and rivers can be assumed to be in more or less the same position, give or take ten thousand years of erosion and slight tectonic movement, then you should be able to compare it to a modern topo map and say “this is where I think it is”.

Except of course no newsman reporting the story bothered to depict the ancient map overlaid or side-by-side with a modern map.  Terrific.  Perhaps they want to protect the site from looters and Indiana Jones fans?  Very well.  Strip out all the place names from the modern topo map.  Maybe even change some of the non-essentials like add or remove a mountain or plateau to further obfuscate its true location.  But give me a freaking map to compare it to.  It is not as if I have to have a doctorate in anthropology with numerous articles on prehistoric European cultures to know whether scratchy Line A on monochromatic rock is roughly equivalent to River Track B on modern topo map.

When Ms. Cook says that the art of the period doesn’t include landscape items, that seems somewhat conclusive.  But on the other hand it strikes me as unlikely that humanity would not invent rudimentary maps very early on; they would certainly be handy for remembering (and passing on to younger generations) the grazing and foaling areas and migratory routes of early humanity’s various prey animals.

Seems to me a little in-depth reporting would be just the thing for newspapers feeling the squeeze of declining readership and increased competition from other media.  They are never going to surpass the glitz and sensationalism or TV, or the immediacy of the web.  But they do have (or ought to have) a niche in superior research and insight.  Give us stories with meat in them, and not half-baked efforts that leave us wondering whether any of the reporters thought about asking a question.

Swine flu still shaping up to be a pretty ordinary flu

Health Canada microbiologists confirm that the Mexican, American and Canadian variants of the swine flu are all the same strain:

Canadian scientists who sequenced Canadian and Mexican samples of the swine flu virus say it is the same strain, even though the virus seems to cause more severe symptoms in Mexico.

Scientists at Health Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg genetically sequenced and compared samples of the H1N1 flu virus from Nova Scotia, Ontario and Mexico. It’s the first time the sequence has been completed on samples from Mexico and Canada, said officials during a news conference in Ottawa Wednesday.

The results have ruled out a mutation to explain why the Mexican cases have been much more severe than elsewhere, said Dr. Frank Plummer, the chief science adviser of the national lab.

“Essentially, what it appears to suggest, is that there is nothing at the genetic level that differentiates this virus that we got from Mexico and those from Nova Scotia and Ontario, that explains apparent differences in disease severity between Mexico and Canada and the United States,” said Plummer.

— CBC News, “Swine flu is same strain in Canada and Mexico“, May 6th, 2009.

So what makes it so deadly in Mexico?  Pre-existing medical conditions?  Environmental stimulus?  Genetic predisposition?  Quality of care?

Launch every ‘Zig’ for great justice

cyborg_beetleAlthough this has just brought our world one giant leap closer to an enormous insectoid apocalypse (as envisioned in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers), there is something kinda cool about a big scary cyborg bug.

Give it a theme song full of wailing guitars and you’ve got the makings of a kickass Saturday morning kids cartoon.

If I see that thing in the kitchen though, I’m killing it.  Jus’ sayin.

(Via Instapundit.)

Camera + elephant dung = nice pics


Oh, and ten years of following the same lion prides around, so that you know their habitual den spots/watering holes/hunting grounds, et cetera.

Still, terrific pictures.  Many more at the Daily Mail.  I might have to buy the book (The Lions of Mara) when it’s released, two years hence.

(via Gizmodo)

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Weddell seals: Nature’s electronic synthesizer

weddell_sealsImage: Weddell seal mother and pup swim near a breathing hole in the ice.  Source:

Just watched Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, and learned some amazing things.

First, Werner Herzog has a really annoying voice.  If you ever wanted to hear a middle-aged German doing a poor impression of Peter Lorre, he’s your man.  That wasn’t particularly amazing, though.

No, the amazing thing was hearing recordings of Weddell seals.  A scientist at the seal camp described it as “non-organic”.  That’s putting it mildly.  Go to this page, scroll down to the bottom, and have a listen to a male Weddell seal

1. mating call     
.  Apparently on quiet nights, you can actually hear them broadcasting away, even through the 6-foot-thick ice shelf.

Now the obvious question is, why hasn’t an enterprising animal behaviorist trained a bunch of Weddell seals to perform Peter Howell’s version of the 1980-1985 Doctor Who theme?

Up from the depths, 30 stories high, breathing fire…

I suppose it’s a sign of the jaded times we live in that when I saw this sequence of photos, my first reaction was “Huh, another Godzilla movie.  Which monster is that?”

Undersea eruption near Nuku’Alofa, Tonga, on March 18th, 2009.  (Dana Stephenson/Getty Images)
(Via Alan Taylor., The Big Picture, March 19th. 2009.
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One small step for a bat, one giant leap for batkind


A bat that was clinging to space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank during the countdown to launch the STS-119 mission remained with the spacecraft as it cleared the tower, analysts at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center concluded.

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist. The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit.

— Siceloff, Steven. “Bat Hung onto Shuttle During Liftoff“, NASA/John F. Kennedy Space Center, March 17th, 2009.

bat_sts_external_tank02But oh, what a death.  A free-tailed chiroptera, immortalised forever in the annals of spaceflight.

Interestingly, this is not the first attempt by the flying mammals to get into orbit. A previous bat-astronaut landed on the shuttle Columbia during the countdown for STS-90, but aborted his ride-along when the engines ignited.  This latest hitchhiker apparently stuck to his mission profile, at least past the launch gantry.

NASA was not able to confirm whether the bat made it into space, or was sloughed off as the shuttle accelerated through supersonic and hypersonic flight on its climb to low earth orbit.

What is clear though, is that on that glorious day of March 15th, 2009, this bat went higher, farther and faster than any other chiroptera.  And for a brief moment, he became the greatest bat-pilot anyone had ever seen.


“In the hours before Discovery’s liftoff, NASA’s Final Inspection Team (called the “ICE team”) investigated whether the creature would pose a risk to the shuttle if its body impacted the orbiter’s sensitive heat shield tiling. Ultimately, NASA officials signed a waiver confirming that the bat was safe to fly with.

“The bat eventually became ‘Interim Problem Report 119V-0080’ after the ICE team finished their walkdown,” the memo said. “Systems Engineering and Integration performed a debris analysis on him and ultimately a Launch Commit Criteria waiver to ICE-01 was written to accept the stowaway.”

This isn’t the first time a bat has attempted to travel into space. Another bat was seen clinging to the side of the external tank attached to the shuttle Endeavour on its  STS-72 flight in 1996. That one maybe have been a bit more cautious, though: It flew away to safety right before launch.

Coincidentally, an astronaut aboard that flight, Koichi Wakata of Japan, also flew on Discovery this week, making him the first spaceflyer to share two rides with bats. Discovery’s STS-119 mission is headed to the International Space Station to drop off the final segment of the lab’s backbone truss and set of solar array panels.”

— Clara Moskowitz.  “Bat’s fate after shuttle launch appears grim“, MSNBC/, March 18th, 2009.

Go with God, 119V-0080.

Friday anthropology lesson

There are, apparently, more than 100 uncontacted tribes on Planet Earth.  People who are living a pre-modern, hell, pre-Bronze Age existence way out beyond the Red Line of human civilisation on this globe.

This is one of them:

brazil_tribe(Image courtesy AP / BBC News)

They were spotted by a Brazilian government aircraft yesterday.  The BBC has plenty of pictures and some armchair analysis (thankfully free of preachiness) by a representative of Survival International, an NGO that wants us to take a Prime Directive-like approach to dealing with pre-contact societies.

UPDATE: More from the Associated Press:

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) — One of Brazil’s last uncontacted Indian tribes has been spotted in the far western Amazon jungle near the Peruvian border, the National Indian Foundation said Thursday.

The Indians were sighted in an Ethno-Environmental Protected Area along the Envira River in flights over remote Acre state, said the government foundation, known as Funai.

Funai said it photographed “strong and healthy” warriors, six huts and a large planted area. But it was not known to which tribe they belonged, the group said.

“Four distinct isolated peoples exist in this region, whom we have accompanied for 20 years,” Funai expert Jose Carlos Meirelles Junior said in a statement.

Funai does not make contact with the Indians and prevents invasions of their land, to ensure total autonomy for the isolated tribes, the foundation said.

Survival International said the Indians are in danger from illegal logging in Peru, which is driving uncontacted tribes over the border and could lead to conflict with the estimated 500 uncontacted Indians now living on the Brazilian side.

I admit I am on the fence here.  On the one hand you don’t want to blow their minds with the advances of human civilisation in the past few thousand years.  On the other hand, assuming we protect their title to the land, is there really a good solid reason to let fellow men and women live and die with diseases, ailments and conditions modern science and medicine have long since mastered?

SORTA RELATED: If you play the Royal Woodbine Golf Club out by Pearson Airport, there’s a hole or two where, if the planes are landing on the 24L/R runways, you can try to smack an airplane with a golf ball.  I am sure the planes are moving too fast and are actually too far away (in altitude) to be hit with the average guy’s 270-300yd drive, but it’s tempting as hell (and yes, I’ve tried).  Sometimes the aircraft seem close enough to reach out and touch.

Which is a long way of saying you can take the guy out of the jungle, give him a few thousand years of accumulated education and wisdom, and he’ll still try and hit a moving target with whatever’s handy.  Human nature really is immutable.

231709Z JUNE 2008 UPDATE: Sharp-eyed Darcey spots an interesting update in, revealing that this particular tribe (still uncontacted) has been known about since 1910.  The researcher took aerial photos and made a big splash in the media specifically to prevent loggers from encroaching on the tribe’s turf.