Exhibit Critic

Hey there everypeoples!

For most people, museums are just places to take the family on a lazy weekend or places you go to gawk at stuffed animals and ancient skeletons that have no practical applications to their lives or society. For me though, they were one of the only places i ever felt at home, where i belong. I have been going to museums to feed my passion for the natural world all my life. Whenever we went on a trip i was always looking for a museum to go to. And these days, i my enthusiasm has not waned. Since i hope to open my own museum someday, i am always looking at museum exhibits closely, looking for inspiration, what works, and even things not to do.

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Better Know a Museum: The Cooper Center

Hey there every peoples!

I’m having a little trouble with my math homework, so i haven’t been able to blog as much as I’d like. Anyway, here is a video of my recent jaunt to the John D. Cooper Center in Orange County, California. This awesome little gem is the official home of all the fossils and artifacts found in Orange County (the the bad ass crusher walrus Gomphotaria was absent). The paleontology curator, Meredith Riven, was nice enough to show us around.

Till next time!

Yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity

At least for those of us with dignity. I was recently contacted by a man from the History Channel. How exciting! Not as much as you may think. He wanted to use my mediocre picture of an African pterosaur for the 3rd season of the show “Ancient Aliens”. My response:

As much as i’d love to see my photos on tv, i’m afraid i have to decline. I detest the subject of the show. It is lowly pseudoscience based on no recognizable form of logic. I think the greatest mystery is how that show made it past the first season. So no, you may not use my photo.

The photo wanted for spreading ignorance and falsehoods

Like i want my photos used to promote such horse shit. I hope to one do a review of that show on my youtube channel. The concept is utterly stupid and deserves nothing but scorn. Just a quick update, I’ll have a better post tomorrow.

Did the Polynesians beat Cabrillo to California? Part 2

In my last post I gave you some background information on the theory that Polynesians voyaged to the new world. Today I will discuss the title question. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a Spanish explorer who was credited as being the first outsider to California. In 1756 he sailed into San Diego harbor, thus ensuring his place in history. He continued up the coast to the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands. This area was the home of the Chumash people, the subject of this whole two-parter.

The Chumash wereone of the greatest and most sophisticated of California’s tribes. The spanned the Central Coast from Morro Bay in the north to the southern reaches of Ventura County. They had a class system based on wealth. They had a crude economy that used shell beads as currency. They lived in sedentary villages where they harvested acorns, wild seeds, bulbs, cherries, and hunted game on the land while harvesting shellfish, fishing, and hunting marine mammals in the sea. They had a complex cosmology with many myths and vibrant art. Each person had their own specialized craft. They set up extensive trade routes throughout the Central Coast. They played a wide variety of games; they particularly loved gambling games, with the stakes being shell bead money, prized possessions, or even the resolution of political issues; they also had a game called shinny, which resembled modern field hockey (at large ceremonial gatherings, there could be as many as 300 players on the field). Chiefs gained their rank through ancestry and usually had an assistant chief (who could sometimes be a woman), and many tribes came together to form chiefdoms. The Chumash were undoubtedly a fascinating and complex culture.

Though what is often considered their greatest achievement is the tomol, also known as a plank canoe. While most Chumash tribes used canoes for fishing, the plank canoe was particularly common along the Santa Barbara coast, where it was used for trade with the tribes living on the Channel Islands. Accounts from Cabrillo’s voyage talk of how the Chumash paddled out in their canoes to greet the new comers. The tomol could be between 12 and 30 feet long and could take anywhere between 40 days and 6 months to build. The canoe was built from memory and was a laborious undertaking. First wood had to be gathered. Redwood was valued in particular (because it swells when wet) but since it does not grow on the Central Coast they would use pieces that washed up from the north. Once enough wood was collected the pieces would be split into planks ¾ of an inch thick using stone or whale bone chisels. Then the planks would be smoothed with shark skin sandpaper. Pine pitch and tar (two awesome facts about tar: 1. The Chumash word for tar is “Pismu”, which would give Pismo Beach its name; 2. Carpentaria in the early 20th century was the first asphalt mine in the world) were collected and ground, boiled, and then applied to the boards to hold them in place. Then holes would be drilled into each end of the plank where they would be tied together with milkweed fiber. Finally seams were sealed with tule reed and caulked with tar. Canoes were often painted with natural pigments. There was a special group of men called the Brotherhood of the Canoe who specialized in building and operating tomols and wore bearskin robes as a sign of their status. The tomol has almost become a symbol of the Chumash. It is mentioned and portrayed wherever you find the Chumash mentioned and portrayed:

Modern reconstruction of a Chumash tomol or plank canoe at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Model of a tomol at the Carpentaria Valley Museum of History

Part of a mural on the side of a building in Lompoc depicting Chumash men paddling a tomol. Mural by Robert Thomas

But to some, this canoe represents a critical piece of evidence in who discovered the new world before Columbus. A couple of experts, Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar, have noticed similarities between Chumash and Polynesian names for the tomol. Tomol is just short hand; the full name is tomolo’o, which Jones and Klar argue is very close to the Polynesian word tumuraa’au. It has further been argued by Jones that the tomolo’o is very similar to plank sewn canoes used in Polynesia. Another expert, Yoshihiko Sinoto sees similarities between Chumash fish hooks and fish hooks from Tahiti.  And I happen to have a little observation (because we all know I am oh so good at that /sarcasm) that may represent another possible link. In 2009 my dad and I took a trip to Painted Rock out in Carrizo Plain National Monument. Painted Rock is a large horseshoe shaped boulder on the northwestern edge of the valley. Inside lies the rock’s namesake: dozens of Chumash rock paintings. The paintings have suffered much from the elements and human carelessness but many are still clear and fascinating to look at. One in particular caught my eye. It was what appeared to be a horned anthropomorphic figure:

A Chumash pictograph portraying a horned anthropomorphic figure at Paint Rock, Carrizo Plain National Monument

It looked vaguely familiar. I felt like I had seen a similar piece of rock art somewhere before. It was only when I got home and looked through some old pictures that I realized where I had seen it before: Kona, Hawaii.

A petroglyph depicting a horned anthropomorphic figure at a site outside Kona, Hawaii

Similar names for similar technology. Fish hooks that bear uncanny resemblances to each other. And a possible link in ancient art forms. This is all tantalizing evidence that Polynesians visited California in the ancient past. But could it be true? About.com notes that implements for making the canoe (like drills, tar, and splitting wedges) have been found at the 8,000 year old Eel Point site on San Celemente Island (how reliable this source is I don’t know). Maybe further discoveries will shed more light on this enigmatic puzzle. The Chumash and the Polynesians continue to be two of my favorite “primitive” cultures. Finding evidence that they once met would be sweet icing on the cake!

Till next time!

Did the Polynesians beat Cabrillo to California? Part 1

Hey there every peoples!

Why do we celebrate Columbus’ so called discovery of the new world? Columbus was an overzealous nut job who made enemies everywhere he went, even driving his own men to mutiny. I guess we made it a holiday to mark the glorious day when the Americas were opened up to the “civilized” world. Except it was a load of crap. Not just the fact that Columbus’ mission was to find new lands to exploit to cover the crown’s debt, but also because he was not the first outsider to make it to the Americas. We have fairly good evidence that in 1000 AD the Vikings made a temporary settlement on the eastern coast of Canada. There is even some evidence (in the form of butternuts) that they may have gone further south into the northeastern United States. While many other ideas have arisen, only one can rival the Vikings legendary voyage.

If I were to ask you who the greatest sailors of the ancient world were, what answer would you give? Would say it was the Phoenicians? Or would you say it was the Chinese? Or maybe it was the aforementioned Vikings? Well what if I told you it was actually the Polynesians? Believe it or not Polynesians were master sailors, able to settle some of the most remote and isolated specs of land on earth using only Stone Age technology. They sailed in massive double hauled canoes capable of carrying dozens of people with cargo. They used charts made of stones (representing islands) and sticks (representing ocean currents) to chart their way across the Pacific. But did they get to the Americas? A growing body of evidence suggests that they did.

A Polynesian style double canoe. They ranged from 36 feet to over 60 feet long. Image from Tahiti1

Sweet potatoes were a major crop for Polynesians but the tuber is not native to the tropical Pacific. It is only found in the Americas. Sweet potato remains from Polynesia were analyzed and were found to be very similar to a variety grown in Ecuador.  An adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl proposed that ancient Peruvians had developed sea travel and spread the sweet potato that way. He even made a boat out of reeds and sailed it to show that such an idea was plausible. His hypothesis was met with much skepticism. But the discovery of bones on Mocha Island off the coast of Chile hinted that instead of Americans venturing out to Polynesia, it was the other way around. The bones bore several Polynesian traits, such as a rocker jaw and a pentagonal shaped cranium. It was tantalizing but far from conclusive. Enter the chicken bones!

Archaeologists digging at a site called El Arenal discovered a cash of chicken bones. Since we know chickens were not found in the new world before the Spanish arrived, the initial conclusion was that the site was post contact. But a few scientists scrutinized the bones and found they had traits of Polynesian breeds. A carbon dating test was applied to the bones and the date came back as being between a.d. 1321 and 1407. The Spanish had arrived on the western coast of South America in 1528. That would mean the bones came from a chicken that lived well before the Spanish conquest. The scientists argued that its genes meant it could only have come from one place: Polynesia. The discovery was so astounding that Archaeology Magazine named the chicken bones one of the top 10 discoveries of 2007.

One of the chicken bones found at El Arenal which bears Polynesian traits. Image from Archeaology.org

The bones immediately aroused controversy. A year later a paper was published that claimed the chickens were European descendants and that the dates may have been wrong. They claimed that dna of modern Chilean breeds have unique markers tying them to European stocks rather than Polynesians. They went on to add that marine sediments could have contaminated the bones, making them appear older than they actually are. A co-author of the original paper countered that further research only confirmed the original suspicions. Isotopes showed that the diet of the chickens was land based, not marine based, thus disproving the contamination idea. And since the dates seem solid, that would mean that the chickens were pre-columbian and hence had to come from somewhere else. (As a side note, they compared the dna of modern breeds. It is possible that breeds introduced by Polynesians were overwhelmed by the ones brought by the Spanish. It may be that the vast numbers of chickens brought by the Spanish could have drowned out the Polynesian traits. Just another random likely false thought by me).

The case for Polynesians making the voyage to South America is mounting. Even though physical evidence is turning up, there is of course the conundrum looming over this debate. Jan T over at Raising Islands puts it very well:

How could the amazing Polynesian voyaging culture have populated virtually every isolated island in the vast Pacific and missed the Americas? Answer, of course: It didn’t. The Polynesians simply failed to settle in the Americas, perhaps because there were already people there.

Take Rapanui (Easter Island) for example. It lies 2500 miles from Chile and 1500 miles from the Marquesas. Rapanui is 63.1 square miles in size. That’s almost 1/8 the size of Los Angeles. How the hell would they have managed to find this small spit of land in the middle of buttfuck nowhere and not be able to find their way to the Americas? It’s looking a lot like they did. What does this have to do with California? I’ll get to that in the next post, since I have gone on for so long I better split it up. Stay tuned for the intriguing conclusion!

Till next time!