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National Museum of American History

National Museum of American History

The other day I was chatting with a friend about my long-ago job as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian history museum and we began to muse about what the quintessential artifacts of today will someday be. When historians of the future try to represent our time will they display a bunch of obsolete computer kit (which can not be made to works after a couple of years—much less decades or centuries), or Britney Spears memorabilia, or Segue scooters, or “as seen on TV” junk like salad shooters and such? What is the quintessential object which shows who we are and how we live? We came up with all sorts of answers—most of which did not paint contemporary culture in a wholly positive light—but the one which struck me as the truest was the simple disposable air horn.

An Air Horn

An Air Horn

An air horn is a plastic noisemaking reed attached to a jar of compressed air. When the player (possessor?) presses a button, the infernal device issues a hellish shriek of ear-piercing volume. I do not mean that last descriptor as a metaphor: air horns, like firearms and jet engines, are very capable of causing serious irreparable hearing damage. These horrid novelty items are available everywhere for next to nothing. People use them at sporting contests to distract the opposing team or sometimes in cruel pranks to make an unwitting victim panic. Mostly they are just used to call attention to the loutish person with the horn. Air horns have only one note, but that note is so loud it drowns everything else out—a perfect description of today’s celebrity personalities, advertising tactics, and political discourse.

Air horns evolved from the whistles of trains and the mighty horns of ships. These horns used compressed gasses from engine function in order to warn of eminent departure or collision. They had a real purpose. Yet, while it is possible that Alfred Hitchcock or Tom Clancy (or some other master of contrived suspense) could invent a scenario where a disposable air horn saved the day, I doubt it has ever happened. These objects exist only to make insufferably loud noise. If someone on the street was blowing one to warn of North Koreans, Godzilla, or zombie attack I would ignore it in the belief that it was just some drunken oaf showing off.

or we could just rename it the "fun horn"

or we could just rename it the “fun horn”

Worst of all, I think an air horn speaks directly to the reptile/Kardashian part of the brain which lurks in us all. I do not like air horns, but if someone gave me one I would be fascinated by it and would want to push it. It would sit there menacingly, like Chekov’s gun, just waiting till I could resist no longer and gave it a tiny test. I wish it were not so, but I would have to push it, despite the deleterious effect it would have on my personal relationships and happiness. Because they bear this unwholesome power, I would be shocked if air horns do not end up in a “late 20th/early 21st century” display case highlighting the nature of our times. They will sit there with other loud self-aggrandizing artifacts like Nascar jerseys, Jeff Koons art, MySpace, and Kanye West.

"I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice."

“I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice.”  [Actual Quote]

Air horns do indeed draw attention to us and tell everyone exactly who we are. It is a very well-made item—at least until someone invents something even louder and more annoying.   Or you could ignore my cranky jeremiad and write to tell me what you would choose as the quintessential object of this age!

An Adult Male Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

An Adult Male Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

The greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) is a magnificent large antelope which ranges down the east coast of Africa from the Red Sea to South Africa; and west through southern Africa to the Atlantic coast. Kudus are both browsers and grazers—they eat grasses, shoots, and leaves; but also fruit, roots, and tubers. They live in woodlands and dense scrubland where they conceal themselves amidst the thick vegetation. These antelopes are large: males weigh from 200 to 270 kilograms (430–600 pounds) and can stand 1.6 meters (5.25 feet) tall at the shoulder (although females are substantially smaller). Males have shaggy neck manes and huge elaborate spiral horns upon their noble heads. They use these horns for fighting, sexual display, and (possibly) fending off predators. When “uncurled” greater kudu horns can measure up to 1.5 meters or more (this strange maximalist manner of measurement seems to have been invented by (male) big game hunters).

A herd of greater kudus (female)

A herd of greater kudus (female)

One would not necessarily imagine that a 600 pound animal with giant corkscrew swords on its head would need to hide, yet the greater kudus live in a horrifying world of lions, hyenas, leopards, African hunting dogs, and cheetahs (to say nothing of omnipresent human hunters armed with every manner of inventive weapons). Fortunately, the kudus’ mixed brown coats with beautiful white syrup stripes allow them to melt ghost-like into the dry scrub, small woods, and forests of their vast habitat. If there was an adult greater kudu skulking in your rose garden, you probably wouldn’t notice it.

Addo_National_Park_-_Grand_koudou

Female kudus and their calves form together in little herds of half a dozen to two dozen individuals. Bachelor males form even smaller herds and mature males are solitary. Mating season occurs just after the rainy season. Males fight each other for dominance and then dominant males trail after females making plaintive guttural moans. Eight months later, when the grass and vegetation is at its peak, females give birth to a solitary calf (or occasionally two). There are three (or possibly four) subspecies of these majestic animals occupying slightly different ranges (as seen in the map below). Although hunting (and poaching) and habitat loss have effected the greater kudu, the great antelope have also benefited from irrigation, wells, and reservoirs. They are not endangered—or even threatened—so the world should be able to benefit from these exquisite adaptable antelopes for a long time to come!

Range of Subspecies of Greater Kudus

Range of Subspecies of Greater Kudus

 

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Sadly, today the rhinoceroses are few on the ground.  There are only five extant species of the family Rhinocerotidae and none of them are doing well–because of habitat loss and humankind’s obdurate (and extraordinarily foolish) belief that rhino horns have magical supernatural powers. Yet once the rhinos were a mighty force—in fact, the largest land mammal ever, the Paraceratherium, was a sort of rhino.  There used to be multiple tribes of Rhinocerotidae, each containing numerous genera (which could in turn contain dozens of species) of these great horned perissodactyls. None of the extinct rhinos was more splendid that the magnificent wooly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) which roamed Eurasia during the icy Pleistocene epoch and even survived (probably) up until the beginnings of human civilization.

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

A wooly rhinoceros was a substantial creature.  From fossils and mummified remains, we know they measured around 3 to 3.8 metres (10 to 12.5 feet) in length, and had an estimated weight of around 2,700–3,200 kg (5,999–7,000 lb)—so they were not much smaller than the still-living white rhinoceros (although wooly rhinoceroses are more closely related to the contemporary Sumatran rhinos—which do not become so big and heavy).  As you might guess from the name, wooly rhinoceroses had magnificent hairy coats to help them survive the cold and they had two large horns for defense and for mating displays.  For a long time, paleontologists have argued about whether the Coelodontas grazed grasses or browsed on tender shoots, berries, and mosses, but paleobotanical evidence (taken in tandem with fossilized skeletal features) now seems to indicate they were browsers, like bison or cows.

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly rhinos roamed the frozen steppes of Eurasia–a habitat which was much larger in those days due to the ice age and the lower sea levels of the Pleistocene.  For example, wooly rhinos could be found on the dry & icy wastelands of Southern England and they thundered across the cold plains which would later become the fertile hunting lands of Doggerland (which are now submerged beneath the North Sea).  They were also prevalent across northern Europe and down through Central Asia all the way to the Tibetan Plateau.

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Based on cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, humankind seems to have had an early fascination with these great furry beasts.  Unfortunately the last wooly rhinos apparently went extinct around eight to ten thousand years ago (according to somewhat disputed carbon 14 readings from a specimen found frozen in the Siberian permafrost).  Many large species of Paleocene megafauna died off at approximately the same time: whether the great behemoths went extinct from humanity’s increasingly effective hunting, climate change, or from some great pandemic which affected large animals is unclear (although contemporary scientists have been inclining towards climate change as a primary cause).

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

This blog has examined and analyzed many Deities of the Underworld, but we have always shied away from the principle dark deity of the three Abrahamic faiths, namely the Devil (aka Lucifer, Iblis, Shaitan, The Antagonist, The Prince of Lies, etc.). However if there were ever a day to cast an inquisitive eye on the Lord of Hell, it is surely Halloween, that strange day when paganism and Christianity mix and the veil between this world and the next is thin.

Actually, one of the reasons I have avoided writing about this dark deity is because even though the devil might be a familiar figure in the popular imagination, he is only a sketchy presence in actual scripture.  In the Masoretic Text, the holy book of Judaism (which roughly equates with the Old Testament), the Devil never appears by name–although the books do contain a cunning serpent (in Genesis), a fallen star, and an adversary.  The New Testament Gospels feature a more familiar devil–who tempts Jesus, promotes evil, and lays waste to the world–but the books never describe this anti-savior except as a tempter, a dragon, a dark prince, or an ancient snake. In the Quran, Allah created the evil jinn Iblis out of smokeless fire to cast evil suggestions into the heart of men.  Hmm, this is theologically interesting–but where does the fallen angel with the red skin, the horns, the barbed tail, the dapper van dyke beard, and the goat’s hooves come from?

The apocryphal scriptures, those strange half-holy books which were omitted from the Bible, provide more of the story.  The Book of Enoch gives us the story of the rebellion and the fall of Heave’s brightest and most beautiful angel.   This is the source of Milton’s Satan, however the text does little to describe the appearance of Lucifer.

The Devil Sowing Mushrooms (Jacob de Gehyn II, 1565-1629)

Gothic paintings from the middle age shows us demons and dark winged beings (you can find old posts about such hellspawn here and here).  Sometimes the devil appears as a winged monstrosity or a sort of dark bat-like angel, but he does not appear in the guise which is so popularly known now–the red man with the horns, the trident, and the hooves.

In fact the familiar portrayal of the red devil is comparatively recent—perhaps even modern–but the imagery used is based on the ancient Greco-Roman deity of Pan.  Pan, the horned half-goat shepherd was a god of nature, fertility, and goat-herding in the classical world.  Because of his licentiousness, bestial appearance, and paganism he was a longstanding target of the Christian church.  In the nineteenth and twentieth century Pan became a focus of neopagan art and letters.  Christian reaction to Pan’s resurgence resulted in his image being translated to that of Satan.  The red color seems to have been thrown in for good measure.

Also a Corporate Shill

It’s clear the devil is a complicated figure whose attributes, appearance, and meaning have changed greatly depending on the time and the place.  We’ll get back to him–the underworld god of the world’s great monotheistic faiths–but right now it’s time to leave theorizing about devils, demons, and spirits behind and to go out and join them.
Happy Halloween!

An Adult Muskox (Ovibos moschatu)

It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age.  Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family).  Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads.  Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.

In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves.  The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.

Go ahead, run in and bite the little muskox.

A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds).  Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.

Raw qiviut and spinning equipment

Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares.  Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.

Qiviut yarn

Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting).  Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently.  Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms.  A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).

Aw! The baby muskox is too cute.

Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland.  Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.

Here's one playing with a rubber ball.

Aurochs Fighting Wolves (Heinrich Harder)

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?

Domestic Cattle

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.

Aurochs Cave Painting (ca. 15000 BC)

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.

Aurochs Mosaic on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (ca. 575 BC)

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.

RIP Aurochs

Pronghorns

The second fastest land mammal is the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), a delicate artiodactyl which ranges across the western wilderness of North America from Canada to the Baja deserts.  Although they look similar to antelopes, pronghorns are actually the last surviving species of the family Antilocapridae. They can run at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour and (unlike impalas or cheetahs) they can run at full throttle for a fair distance.

The Range of the Pronghorn

Pronghorns are named for their forked horns—which are not antlers but true horns made of bone with a layer of keratin.  They shed the hollow outer sheaths each year in late autumn and grow a new pair over the winter. Adult pronghorns stand 90 cm (three feet) high at the shoulders and weigh up to 50 kg (110 pounds).  Although pronghorns can run swiftly, they are poor jumpers.  Herds of pronghorns make great migratory treks across the country and face pressure from human developments and from fences (which they can’t jump over but must run under).  If you are a rancher in pronghorn country you might consider putting a non-barbed strand of wire as the bottom wire on your fence.

 

Two Pronghorn Bucks

Pronghorns once had many close relatives.  The Antilocapridae family is most closely related to giraffes but the different family members filled many of the same niches that bovids do in the old world.  These animals came in an array of shapes and were widespread across North America. There were once 22 varieties of antilocapridae (which you can explore here) but they died out ten to fourteen thousand years ago when the Clovis hunters arrived and slaughtered North America’s megafauna.

The distinctive head of Osbornoceros

Sick or injured pronghorns are sometimes preyed upon by wolves, coyotes, or cougars, but when they are healthy, adult pronghorns can easily outrun all contemporary North American predators. Their blazing speed is not an evolutionary extravagance: pronghorns once needed their swiftness to escape Miracinonyx trumani, the American cheetah which could probably run nearly as quickly as the living African cheetahs.  Like the avocado the pronghorn was molded to fit an ecosystem which has died out: today they are literally running from ghosts.

An American Cheetah Hunting a Pronghorrn

 

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