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We’ll begin our week of serpents with a strange and magnificent-looking viper from the jungles and rainforests of Central Africa. Atheris hispida is also known as the rough-scaled bush viper or the spiny bush viper because of its most unusual physical characteristic—the pointed curving scales which give it a distinctive bristling “punk-rock” appearance. Atheris hispida is a member of the viper family and is thus related to rattlesnakes, adders, as well as numerous tropical vipers in Asia. The species is a strong climber and is often found basking on trees, flowers, or vines. They are among the smallest vipers: the male measures only 73 cm in length (and is longer than the female). Mostly nocturnal, they hunt the trees and rainforest brush for tree-frogs and lizards.
As far as I can tell, there are no effective anti-venoms for the furtive snakes (which range from the Congo west into Kenya and down into Uganda) so despite their hairy appearance and big anime eyes you may not want to pet them!
One of the strangest and most alarming creatures on the planet is the driver ant. Driver ants belong to the genus Dorylus which is comprised of about 60 species. In the larger Dorylus species, each worker ant is only half a centimeter long. The soldier ants which guard the hive are a mere 1.5 centimeters. Males, which can fly, are 3 centimeters long and the queen, the largest of the ants, is from 5 to 8 centimeters long. These are not the sort of sizes that allow one to play professional football, so what makes Dorsylus ants so fearsome? Well, there are lots of them. Driver ants form the largest colonies of all the social insects. They live in hives numbering more than 20 million individuals, all born by one single queen.
When marching or foraging, these hives can overrun and overpower much larger animals and generally everything that can do so gets out of their way (including mighty elephants).
Driver ants are usually found in the tropical forests of West Africa (although some species range into tropical Asia). Although capable of stinging, the ants rarely do so. They prefer to use their powerful sharpened mandibles to shear apart prey. Not only are these mandibles powerful the pliers-like pincers lock into a death grip if the ant itself is killed (or even beheaded).
Male driver ants fly away from the colony very soon after birth. If a colony of foraging driver ants comes across a male ant they rip off his wings and take him to mate with a virgin queen (after which he dies). The queen ant then lays 1 to 2 million eggs per month for the remainder of her life.
All driver ants are blind, but they have an acute sense of touch and smell. Larger columns follow scent trails laid down by scouts. The ants eat any animal life they can get their mandibles on (although the staple of their diet is apparently worms).
When driver ants have stripped the animal life from a particular section of the forest they nomadically pull up stakes and move on en masse. Developing larvae are carried in temporary nests made up of the living bodies of worker ants. Foraging columns or hives on the move are dangerous. While healthy animals can escape, injured or trapped animals can be killed by the ants which enter the mouths and nostrils of victims. One shudders to think of the bad ends which have befallen people who were wounded, bound, or seriously drunk when driver ants were passing through. Farmers however have a different relationship with the ants which can clear entire fields of all agricultural pests in an afternoon.
Last year Ferrebeekeeper featured a two part article concerning turkey breeds which sketched the long agricultural history of the magnificent fowl. One thing that article failed to explain however, was how turkeys obtained their (wildly inappropriate) English name. As you can imagine, the birds are named after the Ottoman nation which bestrides Europe and Asia Minor in what was once the heart of the Byzantine empire. A trail of misidentification lies behind the name, which ultimately involves an entirely different genus of birds from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Turkeys were first domesticated by the ancient people of Meso-America in the distant past (most particularly by the Aztecs who called the birds by the elegant and onomatopoeiac name “huexoloti”). When Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire four hundred years ago, they brought turkeys back to Spain and selectively bred them to reflect Iberian tastes and preferences. The Spanish called turkeys “Indian fowl” as a result of Columbus’ mistaken belief that the Americas were somehow part of Asia and were close to India. This name became enshrined in the French word for turkeys “la dinde” (d’Inde meaning “from India”).
The English saw these Spanish turkeys and mistakenly thought that they were domesticated guineafowl (Numida meleagris) which at the time were believed to come from Turkey (a major shipping nation with long ties to East African commerce). The name stuck and even became part of the scientific nomenclature for the genus–the genus name “Meleagris” comes from the species name of the helmeted guineafowl Numida meleagris. Later as the English explored Africa, the the guineafowl received the more appropriate English name which it now enjoys (insomuch as birds care what they are called). However the unfortunate turkey–one of the most North American of all animals–is foolishly named after an African bird once mistakenly thought to come from Asia minor.
About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not. Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today. In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today. They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet. Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?
That number would be none. The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo). The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns. An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton. Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time. Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.
Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons). For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.
The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt. Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving. Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century. Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge. In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal. In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great! They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.
Last night my roommate told me about bitcoins, a digital currency created two years ago by Satoshi Nakamoto, a shadowy entity who may be a financier, a programmer, or an anarchist (or he/she/it may not even be a person at all). The name “bitcoins” also refers to the software and built-in encryption features which allow the “coins” to be anonymously transferred while still retaining whatever “realness” they have. The concept initially filled me with unreasoning anger, but thinking about bitcoins has caused me to reflect more deeply on the notional nature of all money. Most dollars are no more real than bitcoins: only a tiny fraction of American legal tender exists in the real world (as the paper scraps or metal disks found in cash registers, laundry machines, money clips, dancers’ garters, underground hoards, piggy banks and what have you). The majority of money is ones and zeros zipping through huge servers run by large financial institutions–not really that different from bitcoins (although the dollar is backed by lots of important guys in suits and by a huge military rather than by the personal assurances of a Japanese cyberpunk shadowspawn).
Instead of thinking about today’s national currencies I like to reflect on currencies based on real objects but still not pegged to any use value. The rather beautiful giant stone coins of Yap are probably the most well-known example of such money, however, a more interesting and widespread example is provided by mollusk shells–which have been used as a medium of exchange by different societies worldwide throughout history. Over three thousand years ago the Chinese were using cowry shells as currency. It is said that the classical Chinese character for money was the same as for cowry (I am going to leave Chinese scholars to argue over the actual characters—trying to follow the vagaries of Chinese etymology left my head spinning). In Thailand the “bia” was a unit worth 1⁄6400 Baht and was literally a cowry (which was also a common counter used in gambling). On the East Cost of the United States, Iroquois and Algonquian tribesmen utilized “wampum” belts manufactured from littleneck clams to solidify treaties or as exchange for personal transactions. Tribes of the Pacific Northwest utilized tusk shells or scaphopods for their shell money. Different tribes of Australian aboriginal people utilized different shells as money and often regarded the money shells from other tribes as worthless. Other examples of shell currency are numerous and come from all parts of the world, but one is particularly instructive.
The most infamous use of shell currency may also have been the most complicated and lucrative. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries competing Dutch, Portuguese, English, and French slave traders utilized cowry shells as a common medium of exchange (among several others) to buy slaves along the African coast. The slaves were sold by local rulers who obtained them in internecine tribal wars or by Arab merchants who specialized in mass kidnappings. The cowrie shells used in such transactions originated from the Maldives and later from Zanzibar. They were carried to the Mediterranean and to the Sahara by Arab traders and to Europe by merchants from the miscellaneous colonial powers. The potential “mark-up” on such shells was tremendous since one could obtain then easily from living snails in the Indian Ocean and then exchange them for living people in the Bight of Benin.
My personal feelings about international trade are not as negative as this grim historical example would seem to indicate (I feel that today global trade is, on balance, more likely to deliver people from slavery than into it). However I feel that this example is a good metaphor for the central mystery of money. Cowry shells are pretty and have been used for rituals, games, and adornments for a long time–but their value does not seem intrinsic in any special way–except maybe to living cowries. Indeed the monetized mystique such shells had in the eighteenth century is long gone: I found many web sites which will sell you barrels of money cowrie shells for next to nothing. What is the magic that makes shells worth a human life in one era and a quasi-worthless novelty in another? I have no answer other than to point at the strange epic that is history. I suspect that the smug Federal Reserve Board members discontentedly shaking their heads at the tone of this article do not have one either. Money is a fairly obvious illusion…and yet you will never live your life outside its thrall.
The pangolin is one of the most unusual and fascinating mammals of Africa and Asia. The magnificent creatures have unique strengths and gifts, but because of unhappy superstition (and gustatory whim) they are facing an uncertain future.
Despite a superficial resemblance to anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are most closely related to the carnivora family (cats, dogs, weasels, seals, and so forth). The relationship is not unduly close: pangolins make up their own order of which there is one extant family (Manidae) and one genus (Manis). There are eight species of pangolins, each of which is sheathed in a virtually impregnable suit of keratin scales which act as armor. All pangolins can roll into pinecone-like balls leaving only the razor sharp edges of their scales to confront predators. Not only does the pangolin possess armor, every adult has formidable claws with which to burrow into termite mounds and root insects out of bark (or to utilize as a defensive weapon) as well as a gland capable of spraying a foul acid onto would-be predators. Additionally, while they may lack the uniquely acute mental equipment of the gnome-like echidna, pangolins are considered quite clever. They are gifted at avoiding traps and seem to evince real creativity in seeking out and consuming bugs, particularly ants and termites, which compromise a large portion of their diets. Many pangolins are adept climbers, capable of taking to the trees both to hunt and to escape danger. Tree pangolins even have prehensile tails with which they can dangle from branches. Other pangolins are great burrowers. In fact in Chinese myth they travel everywhere in a great underground network and their Cantonese name “Chun-shua-cap” means the creature that bores through the mountain.
Alas, Chinese legends are not all so kind to chun-shua-cap. Although pangolins are gifted with impregnable armor, mighty claws, keen intelligence, skunk-like acid spray, dexterity, as well as great digging, swimming, and hiding skills, they have a relentless enemy more implacable than any lion or plague. South China’s burgeoning middle class hungers for them with insatiable rapacity. Ancient custom dictates that ingesting their scales somehow magically aids nursing mothers (which, aside from the placebo effect, is a complete fallacy). Additionally pangolins are a prestige food for the newly moneyed millions who do not know what to do with wealth and, like the Very Reverend William Buckland, desire to consume everything that lives. China has eaten its own pangolins and is quickly driving the remaining pangolins of South East Asia, Indonesia, and South Asia to extinction. Additionally, as Africa’s troubled nations become vassals to Chinese cash and commodities-grubbing (and as Africa’s tin-pot dictators abase themselves before China’s moral equivocation) the pangolin trade is starting to gobble-up Africa’s pangolins, which were already facing pressure from the bush-meat trade and deforestation. Pangolins reproduce slowly. Because of their diet and lifestyle they can’t be farmed. If China’s ever-growing demand for them is not curbed they will vanish from Earth forever.
Chinese police, customs officers, and wildlife officials (and their counterparts in neighboring nations) have begun to strike back at the illegal trade in pangolins and other endangered species. But as long as Chinese high officialdom turns a (very) blind eye on consumption, the problem will linger. Come on China! You are always clamoring to be regarded as a truly great world power. I will acknowledge you as such as soon as you rescue the world’s pangolins (and maybe the rhinos, bears, elephants, and tigers while you are at it). Everyone has these wacky superstitions which get in the way of real greatness (just look at America’s checkered history) but saving the pangolins should be possible for a nation whose government possesses such absolute authority. Or will China’s rise merely present a list of needless extinctions and tacky plastic cities as its heritage to posterity?
A friend from the murky bayous of Louisiana asked me to write a post about Baron Samedi, for my Deities of the Underworld category. I’m still writing it, but that post should really be published on a Saturday anyway. First I had better explain an outline of the voodoo religion (and find some methods to protect myself in case anybody or anything thinks I am doing a libelous job with my explanation).
Voodoo is an intensely syncretic religion which came about as the new world was conquered by Europeans and re-peopled with African slaves. The animist beliefs of the Yoruba, the Fon, and the Ewe (among with many other African groups) mixed together with Roman Catholicism and with the indigenous beliefs of the Native Americans to form a whole new faith. Additionally the Celtic folk beliefs of Irish laborers seem to be involved in the simmering mix that is voodoo (along with Polish religious icons and goodness knows what else–the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a tumultuous and experimental time). Voodoo is most prevalent throughout the Caribbean, down the east coast of South America, and along the coasts of West Africa. Like different stews, Haitian vodou has a subtly different flavor from Louisiana-style voodoo, which is quite different from Jamaica Obeia, which itself is only sort of similar to Brazilian Candomblé (and yet there are shared ingredients in all).
The top deity of voodoo is Bondye (or possibly Gran Met, who is Bondye’s wife… sister…mother…female incarnation? I don’t know–ask your favorite voodoo priest). The supreme god, however, has grown indifferent to the world he or she created. The voodoo pantheon is thus built around powerful spirits known as loa who intercede with the creator on behalf of practitioners in the mortal realm. One of the more intriguing concepts within voodoo is the relativist notion of propriety: a person’s moral nature depends on which loa that person serves. A worshipper of the warrior-smith Ogou may have a different code of ethics than someone who venerates the ancestral fertility serpent Damballa. There are wonderful and lovely loa in the Voodoo pantheon like Simbi Anpaka, the loa of plants, leaves, and poison, or Erzulie Dantor the fierce and buxom (and possibly lesbian) protector of single mothers and their children.
Each loa has associated colors and prefers certain specific sacrifices. Damballa prefers the color white and likes a simple offering of a single egg. Ougou loves rum and is represented by the colors green and black (as well as by his trademark sword). Here is a list of popular loa. Additionally every loa is represented by a specific Vévé, a religious pictogram which serves as the loa’s representation in rituals. Vévés are usually drawn on the floor with a powder such as cornmeal, red brick dust, or gunpowder (kids, do not try this at home).
Loa are divided up into families who have differing realms of influence. The Rada family represents morality, tradition, and ancestor worship. The snaky Simbi family is associated with magic and water. The Petro loa are fiery, impassioned and dangerous. The family of spirits which embody fertility and death are the Guédé family. The Guédé family of loa is powerful, scary and numerous. Their leader is Baron Samedi.