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It is leap day! Every four years the niceties of the calendar give us this extra day. In the past, leap day has caused me to reflect about history, the calendar, and the ineluctable nature of time in general, but this year I am going a different direction. Instead of concentrating on the calendar aspect of the day, we will concentrate instead on “leaping.” And from there it is a short cognitive leap to the microcontinent of Madagascar where we find the masters of leaping, the lemurs.

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Ring-tailed Lemur jumping (Lemur Catta) photo by Luc V. de Zeeuw

Lemurs are strepsirrhine (wet-nosed) primates endemic to the island of Madagascar. They are ancestral primates—the monkeys, apes, and hominids evolved from them (though of course these branches diverged in the Eocene and the lemurs have been evolving in their own directions for 50 million years). In fact, let me say that last sentence differently and better: monkeys (and apes and people) descended from a very lemur-like ancestor.

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There are nearly 100 species of lemurs and they have spread through all sorts of evolutionary niches in Madagascar. It is hypothesized that they reached the island micro-continent by rafting there on masses of floating wood and vegetation. On Madagascar they were free to evolve in their own direction, as other primates back in the ultracompetitive African homeland went down different pathways. When humankind finally reached Madagascar 2000 years ago (from Indonesia!) there were even more strange lemurs, including some as large as gorillas, but the violent humans quickly snuffed them out (and indeed we are rapidly eating the remaining smaller lemurs out of house and home as well (or just eating them outright).

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Female Sclaters lemur with open mouth  (photo by “Tambako the Jaguar”)

Lemurs live in many habitats and specialize in many lifestyles. They are diurnal or nocturnal or crepuscular. They are fructivores, or herbivores, or insectivores. Some are omnivorous. With many different lifestyles come different habitats, but lemurs, like most other primates tend to be arboreal. While some lemurs imitate lorises and sloths and move with deliberate glacial slowness, the majority of lemurs have a different and far showier way of getting around—they leap from tree to tree like acrobats.

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Perhaps I should say acrobats are like lemurs. Not only were the latter here first, but they are also capable of thrilling flights that would cause the most air-worthy flying Wallenda to fall down dead (literally). Using their long powerful back legs, lemurs hurl themselves into the air and then flatten out. They can thus leap up to 10 m (33 feet). And this is not an isolated leap. They can leap again and again and again…thus springing through whole jungles in a series of breathtaking bounds.   The real masters of leaping—the ring-tailed lemur and Verreaux’s sifaka, hardly seem suited for any other sort of locomotion. When Verreaux’s sifaka is stranded in a tree island and is forced to cross open ground the poor creature looks quite ludicrous (see the gif below). It holds its arms above its head and leaps plaintively and swiftly across the hated land.   But Verreaux’s sifaka looks utterly at home in its preferred habitat—hurling itself between spiny trees covered with razor sharp needles.

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The more I read about lemurs, the more I realize I will have to come back and write more about them. It may be four years before the next leap day, but we will be back to lemurs before then!

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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who founded dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tablet features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V, the heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

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