In a sort of random walk through the internets this morning I bumped into this photo essay on the popularity of Indian clubs in European countries. The origin of these is usually ascribed to the enduring popularity of a series of fifteen western novels written in German by Karl May in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
This reminded me of an excellent essay in the New Yorker from 2012 by Rivka Galchen on the Karl May phenomenon, I had always meant to blog about. It discusses the cultural position of the novels as well as the annual Karl May Festival, attended by hundreds of thousands, where May’s stories are presented as a series of plays in a vast outdoor amphitheater.
This continued interest by Europeans in stories of Indians and the American West has helped our friends Mike and Kathy Gear whose prehistoric Indian-themed novels sell well there. Mike recounted to me that they had had dinner once with a person who had translated several of their books into a European language (I won’t say which one). He asked the translator, “Our books refer to lots of North American trees and other plants that don’t occur in your country and don’t have names in your language. How do you handle naming those plants in the translation?”
The translator replied, “Well, if I don’t have a name for a plant, I just pick a random European plant name and go with that.”
“What scaled and feathered fetish shakes awake our loamy sleep
in these sealed vaults where dust and sand enrobe our golden masks
that hover over dreaming faces drowned in tinted musk?
Here where the spider curls and chitters in the crystal locket.
Here as time’s mouth leeches blood and brain and bids
the leather skin to tighten in on the empty, staring socket,
and bind the breath that fading far once laughed within the dusk?”
Here is your thin tin trowel,
And here your sable brush,
For prying loose these mitered stones,
And sweeping off the dust
That sifts between these shaded souls
Like paling ebony snow,
As you squat above the site
Where you worshiped once below.
Come thrust your torch
Through these shattered walls,
And map the stains on stone,
And explicate these distant deaths
From strewn patterns of bone.
The distance that such deaths define
Is measured by that ageless path
That winds up from the sea’s last limb
Meandering to the blood’s demands,
And, rolling over shells’ sharp rims,
Finally finds its well-trod way
To midnight’s flaming brands
Where vacant, lusting faces grin
Within masks of whitened clay.
This path slopes through the stunted woods
Where the mantis ruts and broods,
Then spirals down to the sacred caves
Where men in twitching files repeat
The witless chants of wind and waves.
“Thick curds of rancid smoke performed our genuflections.
Our flayed limbs writhed, then steamed in screams of light.
Our lidless eyes became one daring crow’s confections.
Our shriveled nerves shrank back from the chittering coal’s delight.
Our marrow melted fast as flames licked up our blackened bones.
Our gaping mouths spewed rancid smoke as if they would relate
the secret magic flint and steel on tethered flesh create.”
Here is your iron pick,
And here your crested spoon.
Not silver, true, but still
The emblem of your art,
Which is, to wit,
To lay these bodies bare;
Explain their ritual agonies,
Deduce their sorry fate,
Describe their diet, sex,
The colors of their hair,
And tell how long
Their ashen lair
Has lain beneath
Our present pleasant State.
– Gerard Van der Leun
One of the benefits of Helen’s success with H is for Hawk has been that she got a gig writing a monthly nature column for New York Times Magazine. Her latest effort, with the title of this post, appeared today. Her column, which began in March, is titled On Nature, and if you scroll down near the bottom of today’s piece you will see links to her five previous columns if you haven’t read them.
My favorite sentence from today’s column:
“Airborne swifts are renowned for their speed and grace, but the birds in front of me resemble a cross between subway mice and a pile of unexpectedly animate kindling.”
I just received an email from Jackson, and he says Libby told him Steve came through his procedure earlier today with flying colors. Apparently he is already back looking at his computer and may post something himself before long. I just wanted to get the good news out as soon as possible.
Connie and I returned last night from an amazingly wonderful trip. In the coming days I will put a lot of material up on the blog on some of the experiences we had while there. Like watching these two old bulls devour an acacia tree in the Endumet Wildlife Area.
Or seeing this dark-patterned giraffe also in the Endumet.
Or watching this Grey Crowned Crane at Ngorongoro Crater.
Earlier in the month, I volunteered to help the Colorado State University field school when they conducted an excavation at a nearby site here in Douglas County. It’s common for archaeology field schools to take their students to archaeological sites other than the one they are working on to broaden their exposure to other site types and materials. Another volunteer and I who are familiar with local archaeology helped by taking the students to some local sites after their work day was done.
On one of these visits to a site located on County Open Space lands, one of the students saw what she identified as an odd-looking biface on the site surface (see picture). Having previously worked in the Great Basin and California I was able to identify this as a Paleoindian crescent tool, an artifact rarely found here in Colorado. These date to about 8 – 12,000 BP and here is a short article about them.
Here is a picture of a crescent we found on one of my projects in the Mojave Desert in California about ten years ago.
The current theory is that most of these were actually used as projectile points on atlatl darts. They were mounted transversely with the concave end oriented as the “tip” of the point. It is believed that these were used for hunting water fowl. In the late Pleistocene, the Great Basin and California were covered with many large permanent lakes (Great Salt Lake is a shrunken remnant of one of these) that would have teemed with millions of ducks, geese and swans. Research has shown that these crescents are usually found near the shores of these extinct Pleistocene lakes (the one we pictured above from California certainly was) and excavated sites containing them have significant quantities of water fowl bone.
If you are interested in learning more about this artifact type and its likely role in the peopling of the Americas, I recommend you watch this YouTube video of a lecture given by Dr. Jon Erlandson of the University of Oregon a few years ago. If you watch, stay on through the Q & A period at the end which contains lots of information. If you really want to dig in, you can go here and buy a copy of a comprehensive article on them by Dr. Madonna Moss and Erlandson published in the Journal of World Prehistory in 2013.
As I alluded to earlier, these are extremely rare in Colorado, where we didn’t have those large Pleistocene lakes. The Moss and Erlandson article contains a distribution map that shows two in our state and one each in Wyoming and New Mexico. Asking around to knowledgeable people, I have been able to find a picture of one from a private collection in northeastern Colorado. We certainly would have had water fowl here, but not in the huge numbers that would have merited devoting a large number of distinctive projectile points to hunting them. The site this one was found on is located near a confluence of two major creeks, but not near any lake.
I am also intrigued by the fact that this crescent is made of a locally sourced petrified wood. It was locally made, and not some exotic object traded in from elsewhere. Did the person who made this travel to the Great Basin where he found out about crescents and come back to make one? Or migrate from the Great Basin to here, perhaps? Interesting to speculate.
Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
– Richard Feynman