Dino-chores at HMNS

The last three evenings have been spent doing a dinosaur cleaning. Three times a year staff and volunteers give up a few of their evenings to dust the mounts in the Hall of Paleontology. We clean the mounts using a variety of tools ranging from low tech dust clothes and soft brushes to pretty fancy vacuums and air guns. We give everything a thorough inspection.

It’s not all that different from dusting your home. Excepting that a fair amount of the work takes place high above the cement floor maneuvering a multi ton hydraulic lift in and around delicate bones. In some places the clearance between exhibits is just a few inches. Paleo volunteers regularly help with the task.

Our digging volunteer crew is adept at this and I completely trust them,the quarry skills involved in chipping rock away from bones and being able to account for your hands and feet naturally translate to dusting the mounts when they are out of the rock as well.
Another benefit is to see the exhibits and specimens from an entirely alien perspective.

 

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The Mysterious Mummies of Chile

In preparation for the opening of “Mummies of the World” at the end of this month (Member preview: Friday, 9/23, public opening at Noon on Saturday, 9/24) we will be posting a series of blogs exploring the science of mummification. Today, the subject will be Chinchorro mummies.

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Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinchorro_mummy,_south_coast_of_Peru_or_north_coast_of_Chile,_5000-2000_BC_-_San_Diego_Museum_of_Man_-_DSC06921.JPG

Most people associate mummies with ancient Egypt, but the Egyptians were not the first, nor the most successful artists in that craft. Both of those titles belong to South America. Some of the oldest artificially preserved mummies ever found were made by artisans of the Chinchorro culture in what is now Chile. The Chinchorro culture began mummifying their dead more than 7,000 years ago, 2,000 years before the Egyptians adopted the process.

Although the best preserved mummies produced in South America date to long after the Chinchorro disappeared, more in the range of a thousand years ago, the Chinchorro mummies are still quite complex. There are generally considered to be 3 phases of Chinchorro mummification method:

-black
-red
-mud coated

(Sometimes different phrasing is used, or the periods in which elaborate preservation methods are not used are added)

The earliest method of artificial mummification practiced by the Chinchorro, the black method, is quite interesting. The body of the deceased would be skinned, then the bones cleaned. Once those bones were nice and clean-ish, they would be tied back together with cordage, usually made of plant fiber. The jaw would be lashed to the skull, the joints would be tied together and reinforced with sticks to form kind of a skeletal armature. After that, the skin would go back over the body.

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Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ChinchorroMummiesSanMiguelDeAzapa.jpg

Unfortunately, the skin of Chinchorro mummies was preserved in a rather rudimentary way: by drying, sometimes over hot coals or ash. A side effect of this drying process is shrinkage. In fact, this same method was often used to preserve the famous shrunken heads produced by certain Amazonian cultures. In the Amazon, the shrinkage made for a nice, portable trophy/spiritual symbol, but for the Chinchorro it just made things more complicated. In order to fit back over the body, the skin of some Chinchorro mummies was patched up with the skin of animals like seals and pelicans. The resulting bag of bones would then be stuffed with plant material to look more plump and lively.

Next comes the head. The head would often be cut from the body before the skinning process began, possibly in order to clean the brain out. It was desirable that the ancestors have faces in the afterlife, but a face can be a hard thing to preserve, so a new one would often be shaped out of a grey paste made from ash and some kind of binder, like eggs, or animal blood. These faces are kind of the trade mark of the Chinchorro mummies. They are pretty creepy: they have little, round eyes and a gaping mouth. Some say they look very surprised, or perhaps terrified. I think they look rather childish and innocent. They remind me of the crude figures produced by pre-schoolers I used to present to.

And in a way, they do represent a sort of innocence. The Chinchorro people were hunter-gatherers, who had no social stratification. The mummies belonging to this culture that have been discovered show no signs of social differentiation, they all have the same delicate mother of pearl fish hooks, the same basketry buried with them. Some studies have found that men are more commonly found to be buried with hunting tools, like atlatls, while women are more commonly buried with fishing tools, but this is simply a division of labor based on sex, one job does not seem to hold higher esteem than the other.

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Bodies in the sand found at Arica, a major Chinchorro site. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia comons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinchorro_mummy_bodies_Arica.jpg

So in a way you could say that these burials: not beautiful, but executed with a level of difficulty to suggest great love and devotion, do represent a very different, if not innocent, motive for mummification. The Egyptians and the Inca used their most elaborate processes of mummification to preserve their elite, while commoners just did the best they could. Some suggest that this unique, egalitarian practice of mummification in Chile was the result of frequent climate change. In wetter periods, populations of fishing villages would boom, and their toolkits would be refined by the innovation associated with these boom periods. Thanks to the changing climate, villagers would uncover the naturally mummified corpses of their predecessors in the desert, exposed after storms or by the wind, and would assume that this process of preservation is necessary for one to enter the next life. Over time, artificial mummification would become popular, as people sought to ensure that they were preserved for the next world.

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Photo courtesy of Desert Exploring

It is likely this boom and bust pattern that allowed complex ritual behavior to evolve in a society that was less politically complex than Ancient Egypt, or the Inca Empire. The Egyptian mummification processes, for example,  evolved as their political system, with its organization and improved infrastructure, also evolved. Essentially, as their population grew over time, their political and social systems were refined and developed.  The Chinchorro were developing their elaborate burial practices without having to also increase their political complexity. Population growth occurred as a result of the environment changing favorably. In their generous environment, there was no pressure to make up complex, hierarchical, political systems in order to survive.

This is the theory that some archaeologist propose, however the Chinchorro people still hold on to some of their mysteries, and researchers are looking forward to discovering more details as the mummies are studied.

If this article has wet your apatite for more mummy knowledge, check out www.mummies of the world.com for information on our upcoming exhibit!

 

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The Man Who Predicted Our Evolutionary Future

By Scott Solomon

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“It is not what man has been, but what he will be, that should interest us” – H. G. Wells

On this day 150 years ago in Bromley, England, a child was born to a family of modest shopkeepers. Known to his family as Bertie, he broke his leg at the age of seven, an accident he would later describe as a pivotal moment in his life. To pass the time while recovering from the injury he read incessantly, fostering a love of books that would persist all his life. He would go on to become one of the most influential authors in history and help launch the modern genre of science fiction.

Herbert George Wells became an instant success with the publication of his debut book, The Time Machine, in 1895. His timing was impeccable. The idea that species change through time through a process called natural selection was still new—Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published just seven years before Wells’ birth. The implication that humans had evolved too—and that we might still be evolving—was spreading through polite Victorian society faster than cholera.

 

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H. G. Wells was fascinated by evolution, having studied biology under T. H. Huxley, Darwin’s most outspoken supporter (whose grandson, Julian Huxley, founded the biology department at Rice University where I am now on the faculty). In The Time Machine, the protagonist travels through time to see humanity’s past as well as its future. Arriving in the year 802,701 AD, he discovers that humans have evolved into two distinct species, known as Eloi and Morlocks. The Eloi have diminished physical and intellectual abilities due to generations of disuse, and are tended like livestock by the ape-like, subterranean Morlocks. It was a grim view of how our ongoing evolution might unfold, meant as a criticism of class divisions in Victorian England.

Wells was an educated man, and his dystopian vision was an extension of the latest scientific knowledge of the day. At the time, there was very little information available for forecasting our future evolution. Yet many of Wells’ other imaginative ideas—he predicted technological advances such as lasers, cars, automatic doors, and nuclear weapons—have since come to fruition. What about our future evolution?

Today, the evidence that has accumulated from the fields of anthropology, demography, human genetics and genomics, medicine, and microbiology allow us better insight than ever before into our evolutionary future. This is the premise of my new book, Future Humans. As an evolutionary biologist, I wanted to know what science can tell us about how humans will continue to evolve based on what we know about our past and what is happening today. My research for the book spanned more than two years and included trips to England, Scotland, Quebec, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and a simulated Martian colony in the Utah desert. My sources include peer-reviewed research articles, seminars, and dozens of interviews I conducted with researchers.

My overall conclusion would not come as a huge surprise to H. G. Wells—as a species we are indeed still evolving. But we are entering a new phase in our evolutionary history—one that I believe makes the future more interesting than ever before. Our ongoing evolution will be influenced by whether we maintain our massive population size (currently 7.5 billion and growing), our global transportation network, how we respond to the constant threat of infectious disease, and our use of technology and medicine—including precision gene editing, assisted reproductive technology and contraceptives, and even online dating.

Socioeconomic divisions play a role in our ongoing evolution, too, but there is no reason to believe that we will become like the Eloi or Morlocks. In fact, if recent trends continue we are more likely to become extinct before any new human species could evolve. That is, unless the efforts currently underway to establish permanent colonies on Mars are successful and we become spread across the solar system (or beyond, to places like Proxima b). Our descendants on other planets may indeed evolve into new species adapted to local conditions, just as plants and animals so often do when they become isolated on islands.

Should that happen, Wells would be at least indirectly responsible. Modern rockets were invented by Robert H. Goddard, who was inspired to find a way to send people to other planets after reading another of Wells’ books, War of the Worlds.

 

Scott Solomon will be will be at HMNS on October 25th to present his fascinating lecture: Future Humans. Tickets are available for purchase HERE

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Citizen Science Saves the Day!

Just recently, our Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, Dr. Dan Brooks, co-presented a poster at the North American Ornithological Congress in Washington, DC about an invasive species of goose present in the United States. In true HMNS fashion, the study enlisted the help of ordinary people, who happen to have a passion for Biology. They call it “citizen science” when lay persons help professional researchers in their studies. The study we’re covering was of the ecology, behavior and reproduction of invasive Egyptian geese (Alpochen aegyptiacus).

 

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Photo Courtesy of Kelly

Egyptian geese are native to Africa, but are invasive throughout Europe, and parts of North America. One of the purposes of the study was to help demonstrate the importance of continuing to research and monitor the effects populations of these geese are having here in the U.S.

The potential ecological and economic effects suggested by the study include aggression toward native species, hybridization, eutrophication (which is a form of pollution caused by an excessive richness of nutrients in a body of water), agricultural damage and aircraft strikes.

 

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Photo Courtesy of Kelly

 

A questionnaire was designed and distributed via internet list-servs, birdwatching festivals, birdwatching clubs, and word of mouth. Citizen scientists completed and returned Information on the questionnaire that was often supported by photographic evidence and other forms of proof.

The results showed that Egyptian geese do not migrate vast expanses, they mainly moved short distances, if they even changed their location. Antagonistic behavior toward native species was not common, however there was one confirmed report of hybridization with a duck.

 

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Photo courtesy of Susan Young

 

The study determined that these geese were generalist in their diet, but did have a high reliance on humans. Of course, since humans are everywhere, this reliance is more of a boon to them than anything else. The study also found that goslings attain 50% of their adult size after the first month, are nearly full grown after 2 months, and disperse from their natal site at a little more than two months of age. A relatively quick growth spurt!

This may sound like simple observations to some, but the importance here lies in formally observing a very large number (sample size) of these animals in order to assess patterns and trends. Many people may notice that the geese at the local pond don’t go anywhere in the winter, but they do not realize the number of ponds inhabited by these geese, or the amount of damage to that can happen when a group of these birds takes up permanent residence.

With research like this, made possible by citizen science, institutions like HMNS can help encourage better management of our environment.

For more information related to this subject, be sure to check out our Hall of Texas Wildlife, which has exhibits, on invasive species, as well as endangered and rare species of animals found in Texas.

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