Taphonomy: Wednesday, August 28, 2019

I’ve spent the whole day today reading up on taphonomy, the study of the changes that influence a faunal or archeological deposit. The word was coined by the Russian palentologist Ivan Efremov in a 1940 issue of Pan-American Geologist, and literally means the “laws of burial.”

Figure 7. Possible taphonomic scenario resulting in the accumulation of giant panda bones in the lower chamber. Drawing by Jennifer Kane. From: Jablonski, N. G., J. Xueping, L. Hong, L. Zheng, L. J. Flynn, and L. Zhicai. 2012. Remains of Holocene giant pandas from Jiangdong Mountain (Yunnan, China) and their relevance to the evolution of quaternary environments in south-western China. Historical Biology 24:527-536.

All taphonomic models emphasize decline in the integrity of the buried remains, which occurs before, during, and after burial. Further decline in integrity occurs during excavation and archaeological biases, which can dictate what’s an “important” find and what’s not. It is a fascinating branch of science and I discovered super curious things today during my reading. 

So I’m reading one of the Cambridge Manuals of Archaeology titled simply Zooarchaeology(2005). From the book: 

“The deposited [faunal] assemblage contains the durable remains of animals either intentionally buried, thrown on a refuse heap, or lost at the site…Foot traffic across the [faunal] site crushes some of the refuse. The plant and animal refuse attracts scavengers and commensal animals. Animals, such as mice and land snails, find food and shelter at the site and their bodies become part of the assemblage if they die there, along with insects and botanical materials. Other animals living at the site, such as [an] owl roosting in [an] overhanging tree, regurgitate pellets of inedible animal remains that mingle with the debris related to human economic and social life.”

If you thought that was the end of it, we’re only beginning. After all of this happens, post-depositional processes further change the site. For instance plant roots and burrowing animals can alter and move the deposits from one place to another. Displacement also happens thanks to flowing water and wind, each of which carries sediments that can add to the deposit. Finally, as if you weren’t having enough fun yet, there’s something called tephra, which is a fancy word for volcanic ashes. Tephra can blanket and seal older deposits beneath more recent ones. 

Now what is really awesome about this is the things you can deduce. Sometimes you will find evidence of cooking but no bones. That’s because cooking shrinks bone, sometimes to the point where the bone completely disappears from the archaeological record. That’s crazy! The bones that do survive cooking will become brittle and appear white or light blue in color. I saw this at my first dig in a cave in Lyon, France. Bluish bone was recovered in modest amounts, evidence that cooking was being done inside the cave. 

The presence of horn, mollusk, shells, and turtle shells may signify the use of these as drinking vessels or bowls. And speaking of turtles, here’s an interesting tidbit: Sometimes turtles enter middens (refuse heaps) but there is no evidence of them. The way you deduce they were there is through the presence of commensals, such as barnacles and bryozoans, tiny invertebrate animals that are filter feeders. Both barnacles and bryozoans live attached to turtles and sea whales. So if you find barnacles or bryozoans at a site, you can deduce that a turtle (or sea whale!) must have passed or swum by!

Now a final note on commensals, this time land snails and house mice. Commensals are attracted to refuse heaps for food, moisture, and shelter. The presence of commensals at a refuse heap means the midden was left exposed to the elements for a long period of time. If there are no commensals, then this means that the pit “was filled rapidly, covering and protecting the refuse from disturbance and destruction by exposure to environmental forces (Armitage and West 1985; Reitz 1994a).”

Another thing that I found curious is how trampling can widely disperse an animal’s remains while leaving them scratched and broken. I can’t imagine walking over animal bones, but there you have it: Homo sapiens at its finest. Heavy foot traffic such as in a house, barnyard, or stable would be places where heavy trampling occurs. But the archaeologist has to be careful to distinguish trampling marks from marks made by the matrix in which the deposits are found. Again, from the Zooarchaeology book: 

“When the soil matrix is coarse and has large sand grains, such scratches are easily visible without magnification. However, if the matrix is soft material, such as dried leaves and pine needles, the specimen’s surface may be so polished that it is similar in appearance to worked bone. Attributing such abrasions to trampling may be incorrect because similar marks also are caused by sedimentary particles, aeolian processes, or aquatic transport (Gifford 1981; Shipman and Rose 1983a).” 

And let’s remember that plant roots can also leave marks on the specimens and burrowing animals can scratch and “rearrange” the position of the same. 

What’s interesting about taphonomy are their studies. These are called actualistic studies. I know of a taphonomist, for instance, who released the bones of cows at a section of a river in Wyoming and then followed them down to see where they ended up. People, however, can get very creative with these studies. Again, from the Zooarchaeology book: 

“In an experiment to document the impact of digestion on fish elements, Wheeler and Jones (1989: 69-75) fed fish to a dog, a pig, and a rat, as well as eating some themselves. They then collected the feces, sieved out the fish remains, and examined them for damage from chewing and digestion. The kinds of damage observed were then compared with those seen in an archaeological deposit of a latrine pit from Coppergate, York. This study of the survival rate of bone first fragmented by chewing and then exposed to digestive juices demonstrates that as much as 80 percent is lost.”  

To go through your own feces in the name of science shows dedication and passion. 

I’ve really had a wonderful day thus far reading about taphonomy, and this is definitely a branch of paleontology I would like to learn much more about. 

I wish I knew the author of this comic in order to give him/her credit.

Dinosaur paleontology in Danger of Extinction: Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Argentina possesses one of the most fertile grounds for dinosaur paleontology and for many good reasons. Patagonia has plains that are arid and leave fossils exposed to plain sight, while the Andes “houses” strata of various periods. Add to that the fact that South America was isolated for a long time from the rest of the continents, and you have a unique suite of dinosaurs unseen anywhere else in the world because they followed fascinating evolutionary trajectories. Take for instance the discovery of Patagotitan mayorum by paleontologist Diego Pol. At 37 meters long and weighing 70 tons, it is the largest dinosaur ever known. It makes our favorite T-Rex, coming in at 12 meters and weighing in at 9 tons, seem like a garden lizard in comparison.

In Argentina, about five new species of dinosaurs are discovered a year, a number that competes with other dinosaur-rich nations such as China and the United States.

But ever since the nation’s economic crisis, which began in April 2018, government subsidies for paleontological work have shriveled up.

Mattías Motta, a PhD student in dinosaur paleontology who works there, comments, “We are really contributing a lot to the knowledge, not only of Argentina but of the whole world, because of all the evolutionary history, what happened in Argentina is particular. Argentina is recognized worldwide for paleontology and that we cannot [be] exploiting it for lack of subsidies is really a shame. It’s like extinguishing science.”

Around 100 Argentine paleontologists are currently working on excavations, but they are privately funded by entities such as the Jurassic Foundation and National Geographic. However, there is a limit to how much money you can continually give scientists when the local government doesn’t cooperate.

The above information was taken from EFE and El Nuevo Dia.

Barcelona: Monday, August 26, 2019

Today I went to Barcelona for the first time since I got here 20 days ago. I went with a newly-made friend from the apartment complex where us graduate students live. I must admit I approached this trip from where we live, Bellaterra, to the big city with some trepidation. The U.S. Embassy has issued a security alert to American tourists advising them of “an increase in violent crime in the city of Barcelona in the summer of 2019, specifically in tourist areas. Local authorities have reported a significant increase in the number of petty theft schemes that have included acts of violence, such as aggressive thefts of jewelry, watches, and purses. In some cases, these incidents have resulted in injury.” On the advice of the Facebook group The American Society of Barcelona, I took a cross-body purse to keep my personal belongings as close to me as possible.

But the trip turned out to be much more relaxing than I had anticipated, and I have my friend to thank for that. He knows the city well and he moved within it with confidence and ease. That confidence and ease rubbed off on me and made me less stressed out.

We visited a taco place, where he had tacos and I simply had a clara, a beer with very low alcoholic content mixed with lemon extract. The place had an eighties vibe with neon lights everywhere.

Margaritas y Micheladas

What really attracted my attention was a Virgin Mary with a neon halo. Mircea Eliade would be tickled pink with this.

Lávese las manos y que Dios le bendiga!/Wash your hands and may God bless you!

We then went to an Asian supermarket where I was finally able to get crystallized ginger, one of my favorite snacks and perfect for my stomach ulcer. We then walked through La Rambla to the most gorgeous stationery store I’ve ever seen, called Raima. There was even time to get hazelnut ice cream. On the way back on the train, we saw jabalíes, wild hogs, in the distance. I was so excited because I’m an animal lover and I’ve been wanting to see jabalíes ever since I got here.

All in all it was a good day and I didn’t even mind walking in the heat. And I have my new friend to thank for that.

Homo Religiosus: Sunday, August 25, 2019

Today I attended a Catholic mass at Bellaterra’s church. The service was in Catalan, but in knowing Spanish, I was able to follow along. I’m not a practicing Catholic, and I haven’t been to confession in years. But I’ve always been fascinated by religion from the point of view of cultural anthropology. Man’s need for ritual has held my attention since I was a kid. Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian of religion and an anthropologist/sociologist, coined the term Homo religiosus to mean that man has always yearned for the sacred. This yearning can be broken down into four beliefs:

1) A belief in a transcendent reality;

2) A belief that the Sacred wants to connect with human beings;

3) A belief that when the Sacred enters a place, it makes it holy. Once a place is holy, a human being can enter it and become holy him/herself;

4) A need to celebrate and recount myths. In doing so, Homo religiousus enters “sacred time” and remembers what Eliade calls “paradigmatic models”–lessons in how to be a good person, what values and virtues to cultivate, what vices to avoid. In this celebrating and recounting of myths, Homo religiosus enters sacred time again and again to discover and re-discover his/her purpose in life.
These four beliefs have been paraphrased from here.

In Chapter 4 of The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade writes:

What we find as soon as we place ourselves in the perspective of religious man of the archaic societies is that the world exists because it was created by the gods, and that the existence of the world itself “means” something, “wants to say” something, that the world is neither mute nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing without purpose or significance. For religious man, the cosmos “lives” and “speaks.” The mere life of the cosmos is proof of its sanctity, since the cosmos was created by the gods and the gods show themselves to men through cosmic life.

The inner patio of the church is well-taken care of as you can see by the lushness of the plants.

Geneticist Dean Hamer proposed the existence of a “God gene,” meaning that we’re genetically predisposed to have spiritual or mystical experience. He studied over a 1,000 people and singled out the gene VMAT2 for predisposing individuals to mystic experiences and the feeling of the presence of God. This gene is responsible for regulating serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. In turn, these neurotransmitters are hypothesized to cause mystical and spiritual experiences in individuals. He believes that having these mystical experiences gives people the will needed to live life fully in the face of death.

This has been an extremely controversial hypothesis because it has been based on one, unreplicated study. Plus, this gene can make you believe in anything, as New York Times science journalist Carl Zimmer pointed out here. Personally, I find the hypothesis fascinating and would love to see whether the study could be replicated. I would suppose that Dean Hamer is today’s scientific exemplar of Homo religiosus, in that he’s looking for a scientific reason for why so many people believe in God and religion.

It was wonderful to attend the service and view it, for the first time, as an anthropological experience instead of as a purely religious experience as I did as a kid. I had a couple sitting across from me that were in full devoted prayer the entire time I was there. My heart went out to them because they were clearly troubled and were asking for divine help.

Starting Over: Friday, August 23, 2019

One of the main reasons why I moved to Spain, in addition to the fact that I will be studying at one of the best paleo programs in the world right now, is to start over. From scratch. No strings attached from a previous life. No unresolved conflicts following me from my past. Here, in a place where no one knows me, I can be myself or I can reinvent myself, and no one would know the difference nor be the wiser.

Starting over holds a deep fascination for all of us. But if you really want to start over, you need to take a good, honest look at yourself and see who you have been and where you’ve been. A good, honest look. No rose-colored glasses. A good, very good look. Don’t only see but recognize your mistakes. And instead of seeing them as mistakes, see them as learning opportunities. What can I do better in case a similar situation arises again? Seeing failures as learning opportunities, and not as failures–which is such a negative word–is the first step to starting over. This is something I had to learn in order to not have my mind ruminating about “failures.”

The next step is to imagine what your best self can look like. Imagine it fully. Can you be more organized? Can you be more punctual? Can you deliver on what you promise? Can you say “no” more often, thereby avoiding too much and spreading yourself too thin? Can you love yourself more and criticize yourself less? Can you finish a project that’s been lingering on forever? Can you be more fully present to your loved ones? Can you listen more and talk less? Can you listen attentively and not be thinking about the next thing you’re going to say right after someone stops talking? These are a few questions that you can ask yourself as you envision the kind of person that you want to become.

But you must believe that you have the potential of transformation, no matter what other people have told you and no matter what you have told yourself. Some people like to put you down before you even start to blossom. These are the people that in your new life you must avoid as you start over. And they can put you down in multifarious ways: in being emotional vampires and sucking all of your energy; in being so chatty you can’t get a word in edgewise; in narcissistically talking only about themselves but when you talk about you they invalidate you and your experience; in blissfully ignoring your talents and telling that to your face in backhanded ways. People can be subtle and not so subtle in their attempts at aborting your potential to blossom. Don’t let them. These people are troubled, and they are not your responsibility, no matter what they claim.

So that’s the third step, avoid people who constantly invalidate you and surround yourself with people who love you and are actually there for you when you need them. Start discarding negative people, start accumulating positive, gentle souls.

The fourth, and final step, is to live as if you’re already the person you envision. Start right now. If that entails dressing differently, do so now. If that entails setting boundaries with people who constantly overstep them, do so now. If that entails worrying less and practicing mindfulness, do so now. If that entails stopping procrastination at some project, do so now. If that entails going on a diet that works, I suggest going on the keto diet, and doing so now. If that entails exercising more, start right now in your own home. You don’t need a gym. You can start right now in your own home. Just simple, gentle stretches. Start slow and be gentle with yourself.

And reward yourself in your road to starting over and don’t punish yourself if you’re not getting there as fast as you’d like. There’s no better proven system than the action-and-reward system. Think of the popularity of clicker-training with dogs. Think about why this technique of positive reinforcement is so good and fast at training them. There’s no punishment, just positive reinforcement when a desired behavior is obtained. Negative behavior is ignored, and not rewarded. In that way, that negative behavior is extinguished. Clicker-training is so popular it’s even done with horses and dolphins!

This morning I went for a walk with a new friend I made at Bonaparte. She showed me the neighborhood of the town that is next to the university, and now that I know it, I can start walking in the mornings. Back when I was living in Boston, I was walking between 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day, which was great because it kept my anxiety at bay while keeping me in shape. Walking here has been a bit more difficult because of the heatwave, but now that I know that the temperature is under 25 C very early in the morning, I can walk all I want and regain my walking routine.

And that’s the only thing I’m bringing from my “past” with me: my walking routine. Walking for me has always served as a meditation. The constant cascade of thoughts becomes more of a gentle stream, I get answers to questions I have on what to add or delete from a creative writing piece, my intuitive understanding of a subject I’m studying becomes deeper and fuller. Even writers have talked about what they think about while they walk or run. For instance, Haruki Murakami’s excellent What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Everything else I leave behind. Everything else I choose to leave behind because it no longer serves me.

Because I’m starting over.

Make sure to check out the song lyrics of A Quiet Life by Teho Teardo on the Web site’s right-sided content bar. It’s a beautiful song about starting over.

Skeleton Lake: Thursday, August 22, 2019

Roopkund Lake, which sits atop the Himalayas at 16,500 feet above sea level, is also known as Skeleton Lake and for good but macabre reasons. The lake is frozen most of the year but when it thaws, hundreds of skeletons emerge.

The skeletons were initially discovered by a forest ranger in 1942, who concluded they were invading Japanese soldiers from World War II. But local folklore has a more colorful explanation. There is a nearby shrine for the mountain goddess Nanda Devi. A king and his queen led a pilgrimage with their attendants, but when Nanda Devi saw how raucous they were in their exultant celebratios, she decided to strike them down. A few years ago, a group of archaeologists concluded that the skeletons belonged to a group of travelers from the ninth century who were struck down by a lethal hailstorm, since many of the skulls show blows to the head.

But a new study has yielded even more puzzling results. The skeletons belong to travelers spread over a 1000 years. There are individuals of South Asian origin dating from the 7th to the 10th century. But then, there are individuals of eastern Mediterranean origin–along with an individual of East Asian origin–dating from the 17th to the 20th century. The natural question is: what were individuals from the eastern Mediterranean doing so far from home and why?

One answer is early ecological tourism. Perhaps news of Roopkund Lake had traveled all the way to Europe and some people decided to pay it a visit.

This explanation, however, does not sit well with Kathleen Morrison, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She calls attention to the fact that a Hellenic kingom existed in India for about 200 years, beginning in 180 B.C. She also points out that radiocarbon dating gets less and less accurate the closer we get to the present day, implying that the date between the 17th to the 20th century of the eastern Mediterranean individuals is wrong. To her, this massive amount of skeletons can only mean one thing: it’s a graveyard.

Regardless of whether the site was a massive dumping ground for the dead, the recent study also discovered that the individuals included both children and the elderly, but mysteriously, none were family relatives. To me, this is evidence that the skeletons belong to pilgrims. However, a search for travelogues and written accounts of journeys or pilgrimages has proved unfruitful. And the mystery remains and deepens.

Featured image was taken by Atish Waghwase.

Photograph by Awanish Tirkey.

Blue Hour and W. B. Yeats: Tuesday, August 20, 2019

It is now one of my two favorite times of the day: twilight. Celtic lore holds that the “veil” between the human world and the fairy world “lifts” during these magical times of day, allowing for fairies to be seen by humans. I’ve investigated what gives twilight its magical blue color in the sky. It turns out that during morning and evening twilight, the Sun is from 4 to 8 degrees beneath the horizon. During these times, the Sun’s blue wavelengths dominate because the ozone layer absorbs the  yellow, orange, and red parts of the light spectrum. This kind of absorption is known as the Chappuis absorption, named after the French chemist James Chappuis. As a result, a magical teal color dominates the sky. The sun sets pretty late here in Barcelona, at aroun 9 p.m. I say late because I’m used to the sun setting at 6:30 p.m. in Puerto Rico, where I’m from. Photographers love to take photos during the blue hour because the blue light is magnificent, as you can see here. It’s almost as if they’re hoping to catch a fairy.

W.B. Yeats once wrote: “At Howth, a great colony of otherworld creatures travel nightly.” The Irish Times has a great article about fairies still living in the Irish imagination. From the article and being quoted from Irish Fairies (1890) by W.B. Yeats:

“When I tell people that the Irish peasantry still believe in fairies, I am often doubted. They think that I am merely trying to weave a forlorn piece of gilt thread into the dull grey worsted of this century. They do not imagine it possible that our highly thought of philosophies so soon grow silent outside the walls of the lecture room, or that any kind of ghost or goblin can live within the range of our daily papers. If the papers and the lectures have not done it, they think, surely at any rate the steam-whistle has scared the whole tribe out of the world. They are quite wrong. The ghosts and goblins do still live and rule in the imaginations of the innumerable Irish men and women, and not merely in remote places, but close even to big cities. 

At Howth, for instance, ten miles from Dublin, there is a ‘fairies path’, whereon a great colony of otherworld creatures travel nightly from the hill to the sea and home again.”

Bonaparte: Tuesday, August 20, 2019, P.M.

I have discovered a new place to hang out and it’s called Bonaparte Pa i Dolç. It is a franchise bakery located in Bellaterra. It opens early (7:30 a.m.) an closes late (8:30 p.m.). Imagine that right in the middle of vacation month. The personnel is very sweet and the people who frequent it are very nice. Just this morning I met Manuel, a professor of literature at the University of Barcelona. He casually mentioned to someone that he was looking for someone to teach him English and that caught my attention. Since the culture here in Spain is just like in Latin America, I decided to volunteer that I knew English. He was thrilled! He also told me that he visited the bakery every morning, and I was thrilled. I can completely envision this place being my local hangout. The girl behind the counter was also very helpful in suggesting ways I could learn Catalan, and we talked about our love for novels by the Barcelonan Carlos Ruiz Zafón. She even told me about a plaza near the Cathedral of Barcelona that appears in one of his novels. All in all a good day so far. I’m awaiting the coming storm with rotund joy.

Ancient Church: Tuesday, August 20, 2019, A.M.

Yesterday was a bit of a weird day. It wasn’t as hot as I thought it would be, so that was nice. But the things I wanted to do were cut short by stomach pain. I was able to visit the doctor, who was very nice but suggested I get an endoscopy done. I am very reluctant to get an endoscopy done in a country that is not my own. The procedure entails some risks I don’t want to take, and if something happens to me, no one will hear from me again, and that fills me with terror. Plus, I already know I have an ulcer and re-diagnosing an ulcer wouldn’t change the treatment plan, which is a rigorous course of antacids and Spain’s answer to Pepto Bismol. I was able to go to the supermarket to buy chicken broth and chicken soup as directed by the doctor, and I visited the church in Bellaterra.

But get this, the church was closed. They only open on Saturdays and Sundays during the month of August. Because you guessed it, it’s vacation month. Gone are the days when you could visit a church on any day of the week, even if it was not for prayer and only a respite from walking, and have it be open for people. I remember in my childhood that churches were open at all times. But in speaking to my mother, who is a fund-raiser for restoring dilapidated churches, the world has changed. Robbery and disagreeable events have made churches close unless mass is being given. She said St. Patrick’s may be one of the few churches open to the public all the time. So, in essence, I could only see the outside of the church, which was very beautiful (see photo).

I then had to go home and lay down for awhile in order for the stomach pain to go away. But I was able to catch up on my reading for my master’s and work on my Web site, which was a class on WordPress all to itself. I want to thank the anonymous person at the other end of the live support chat who was so patient with me, answering every single question I had on how to customize the site.

Today is cleaning day. My apartment comes with a weekly cleaning. Not only that but today, as promised by someone, we’re getting a storm, which will cool things down a bit. I’m excited. I’m about to make myself my first cup of decaf coffee so the ulcer doesn’t complain. I’ve never made decaf coffee because the idea is anathema to me. Coffee always makes my day exciting, though. Baby steps with that darn ulcer.

Lavazza: Monday, August 19, 2019

Today I have a busy day ahead of me. I don’t have a printer yet and I need to print out some papers that a professor sent me to read. What this means is that I have to walk 20 minutes under the hot Barcelona sun to my department and have them printed there. But I’m determined to make this as painless as possible. The earlier I get there, the less sun I will have to deal with. Luckily, I have discovered a delicious coffee that helps me wake up in the morning.

At the nearby town of Sant Quirze (only two train stops away), there is a huge commercial center called Al Campo, which is the French’s answer to Costco. But unlike Costco, it is several times bigger. It’s like 3 airplane hangars big and in there you can find *anything* you can think of. Household items, electronic equipment, soccer (sorry, fútbol) balls, sports clothing, hair tint, car coolant, jamón ibérico; you name it, they have it. It’s a little intimidating when you walk in because you get immediate choice fatigue. So when you go, you better have a list of things and a healthy sense of agency; otherwise, you can end up like some people I’ve seen there: completely dazed, wandering aimlessly through the aisles.

So back to the coffee. At Al Campo, I discovered a coffee by Lavazza called Qualità Rossa, which has to be the best coffee I have ever tasted after Puerto Rican coffee, which for me continues to be the best thing in the world. Qualità Rossa has flavor notes of chocolate. It makes for a rich brew, low in acidity. In the United States, it’s sold on Amazon, if you care to try it.

After I get those papers printed, I have to buy T-shirts, an item of clothing I haven’t owned in years, because of the heat. Finally, I want to visit a small church in Bellaterra, which is the town next to the University. It’s ancient, and I’m curious to see it.