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There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce. The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown. Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).
The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin. The French word for a flea is “une puce”. Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas: so puce has its origin in bloodstains. I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”. Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity. Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it). The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.
The Socotra archipelago (Arabic: سُقُطْرَى Suquṭra), is a group of four islands which lie just off the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The islands are politically part of Yemen but their long isolation from any continental landmass has made them ecologically distinct. Of the many species of plants and animals which are endemic only to Socotra, one species is particularly emblematic: the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari). This monocot tree has an extremely unusual shape which allows it to survive on minimal amounts of soil and water. The crown is dense with foliage to reduce evaporation (and to maximize cooling shade).
The dragon’s blood tree takes its distinctive name from the blood red resin it produces when cut or scraped. The dried sap was a prized commodity in the ancient world when it was used as a dye, a medicine, a magic ingredient, and an adhesive. Even today the sap is still used in traditional medicine (it is said to be a coagulant and a stimulant but also an abortifacient) and as violin varnish!
The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru. Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I'm still tagging this post to that category because...well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice. There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization. Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru. From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.
One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple. Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life. Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying. Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:
Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.
In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.
In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy. Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”
We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves. Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers. They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures. They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation. Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.
The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery. The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century. Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide. It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society. However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD. The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations. Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced. Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.
Some things are easy to write about. For example, the world’s largest catfish was an effortless topic—what a great fish! There is plenty of information about the animal and its giant size makes it instantly fun and interesting (although the specie’s widespread decline does bring a sense of mounting unease). For a wide variety of reasons, other subjects are considerably more difficult to address. Sometimes the information is unavailable or the data is lurid and upsetting. In a poignant incongruity, one of these troubling topics happens to be the world’s smallest catfish, the candiru, which hails from the Amazon basin of Brazil.
The term itself “candiru” can mean either the species Vandellia cirrhosa, or it can refer to several genera of similar small catfishes. There is apparently even a genus “Candiru”. To put it bluntly the candiru is a vampire catfish. It enters the gills of larger fishes and sucks their blood–well actually, it doesn’t suck the blood as such. To quote “fishbase” an online fish resource, “[The candiru] bites mostly at the ventral or dorsal aorta arteries, and the blood is pumped into its gut by the host’s blood pressure. It does not need any special sucking or pumping mechanism to quickly engorge itself with blood, but simply uses its needle-like teeth to make an incision in an artery.” The candiru is small. Vandellia cirrhosa rarely exceeds lengths of 1-2.5 in (2.5-6 cm) with a width of 3.5 mm (although much larger specimens are known).
The junction of the Amazon River and the Rio Negro, (near Manaus, Brazil) is the principal haunting ground of the candiru. The catfish hides in the sand or mud. When prey swims by—either in the day or at night—the candiru uses its tremendous sense of smell and powerful eyesight to hone in on the other fish’s gills for a blood meal. The Candiru has backwards pointing spines behind its gill covers. It can lock itself into a victim’s flesh with these razor sharp rays.
The candiru is not picky about its blood source and this has made it one of the most feared fish in the Amazon. It has been known to enter swimming humans through various orifices or through open wounds. Lurid ethnological reports from as far back as the 19th century detail this fish’s intimate depredations of human hosts.
It is entirely whimsical—even childish—to speculate about whether the catfish is averse to garlic, possesses immortality, has become a hero to preteen girls, speaks with a strong Baltic accent, etc.
One of the most intense epiphanies of my life came from reading a school textbook in third grade. The book revealed that blood is not really a homogenous liquid but a mixture of different sorts of individual living cells suspended in plasma. The ramifications of this were stunning: I am not really an “I” at all but a collection of many, many infinitesimal living things. Perhaps that doesn’t strike you as a particular revelation (not after a few college bio classes anyway) but really think about it. Your heart could be removed and given to someone else—after all it’s just a big collection of living muscle cells. Your memories and thoughts actually exist as chemical slurry somewhere within individual brain cells–each of which is stretching out all sorts of different ganglia to its neighbors like a desperate socialite trying to climb into the beau monde through networking.
The majority of the cells in our body are not even our own cells but symbiotic bacteria (without which we would be unable to digest things and would die) or outright invaders. Even within the cells which are our own there exist mitochondria—alien outsider cells which moved (or were captured) into some remote unicellular ancestor in the fathomless depths of time.
I remember staring out the window of the elementary school in shock that I was made up of tiny living beings. The idea is familiar but it still sends a frisson of alienation through me. Each of us is like a swarm of army ants or a siphonophore or a Renaissance city state: we are units made up of many smaller living things.