Tag Archives: culture

Cherrapunji Root Bridges

Cherrapunji, India has a problem with rainfall. The winter is dry, very dry, and most of the plants have had to adapt to drought-like conditions. But the rest of the year more than makes up for it. Nearly forty feet of rain fall on Cherrapunji every year, making it the second wettest place on Earth – only it’s neighboring state Mawsynram has a higher average downpour. The constant rain makes Cherrapunji’s mountain streams turn from creekbeds to raging torrents every year.

These hillsides are covered in life adapted to this constant stress, including it’s people. The War-Khasis are the residents here, a matrilineal set of tribes. Agriculture is hard due to constant erosion. Travel is difficult too – anyone who’s had to cross a strong river knows how dangerous it can be. The rivers are a constant barrier. But instead of giving up or relying on expensive artificial bridges of steel and concrete, the War-Khasis have found a unique solution.

As you can see in the video, one of the local trees, Ficus elastica, anchors itself against the force of the rivers with hundreds of strong, grasping roots. It’s these roots than the War-Khasis use to create their bridges, turning trees into highways. The bridges are immensely strong, easily taking the weight of dozens of people and they only get stronger every year. One particular tree even supports a double-decker bridge.

The bridges seem to have become an emblem of the War-Khasis, ensuring survival of both the people and their culture.

Sources: AtlasObscura

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Posted by on January 6, 2013 in Anthropology, Natural History


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Holiday Cheer

The espresso machines are squealing behind me and a light rain is misting the windows before me. Pike Place Market is a mill of shoppers and merchants – people bunkered down underneath eaves, trying to avoid the cold. So, in celebration of this winter malaise, here’s a few stories to warm your cockles.

Warm Memories – Warm Hearts

It turns out that those warm fuzzy memories you get around the holidays may be doing more than just tugging on your heartstrings. A series of recent studies has shown that remembering previous happy experiences is both affected and affects how we feel temperature. Researchers showed that people were more likely to feel nostalgic in cold environments and that recalling happy memories boosted both a person’s perception of warmth and their resistance to cold stimuli.

Extroverted, Healthy Gorillas

It’s not just humans who benefit from a bit of cheer. Another study just out found that personality can play a big part in the long-term health of captive gorillas. The study asked zookeepers and caretakers to rate their gorillas playfulness, curiosity, and social charisma and compared these surveys to information about the animal’s lifespan. It turns out that, like humans, outgoing sociable individuals tended to live the longest.

North Korea Discovers Unicorns!

If that doesn’t add a bit of a spring in your step, consider that researchers in North Korea have just announced that they’ve discovered the lair of an ancient unicorn once ridden by King Tongmyong! Right….

Trippin’ on Nutmeg

Finally, if you really can’t get over the winter blues, maybe you should just go ahead and load up on that eggnog. Make sure you’ve got the nutmeg though. It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a natural substance with psychoactive properties. Yes, you can get high off it. Although you’d have to really pound it down (feel like eating three whole seeds? Plus, the trip sounds kind of awful, complete with headaches, nausea, hallucinations, heart problems, and irrational behavior that can last for days.

I think I’ll stick to cocoa.

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Posted by on December 9, 2012 in Modernity, Natural History


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Disney Lies about Lemmings

This clip, from Disney’s 1958 feature White Wilderness, is incorrect. It’s been largely credited with the spread of the lemmings-jump-to-their-deaths myth. Lemmings do not commit mass suicide, no matter what Disney or any video game suggests. In fact, that particular sequence was largely faked by the film crew using a handful of individual lemmings who were herded off the cliff into a river.

What does happen is that, during population booms, individual lemmings will sometimes accrue into mass migrations which will seek out new areas. And some do try to cross rivers or streams and end up drowning. That’s about it.

Although, fun fact, lemmings are not the only rodents who do this. In the 1800’s it was fairly common for people living in the United States to see similar runs from the local northern grey squirrel. It was quite a sight. John James Audubon saw one or two of these migrations as they crossed over rivers and streams and wrote on it, saying:

Onward they come, devouring on their way every thing that is suited to their taste, laying waste the corn and wheat-fields of the farmer; and as their numbers are thinned by the gun, the dog, and the club, others fall in and fill up the ranks, until they occasion infinite mischief, and call forth more than empty threats of vengeance. It is often inquired, how these little creatures, that on common occasions have such an instinctive dread of water, are enabled to cross broad and rapid rivers, like the Ohio and Hudson for instance. It has been asserted by authors, and is believed by many, that they carry to the shore a suitable piece of bark, and seizing the opportunity of a favourable breeze, seat themselves on this substitute for a boat, hoist their broad tails as a sail, and float safely to the opposite shore. This together with many other traits of intelligence ascribed to this species, we suspect to be apocryphal… those which we observed crossing the river were swimming deep and awkwardly, their bodies and tails wholly submerged; several that had been drowned were carried downwards by the stream; and those which were so fortunate as to reach the opposite bank were so wet and fatigued, that the boys stationed there with clubs found no difficulty in securing them alive or in killing them.

At times they were strewed, as it were, over the surface of the water, and some of them being fatigued, sought a few moments’ rest on our long “steering oar,” which hung into the water in a slanting direction over the stern of our boat. The boys, along the shores and in boats, were killing the squirrels with clubs in great numbers, although most of them got safe across. After they had reached the shore we saw some of them trimming their fur on the fences or on logs of drift-wood.

The migrations seemed to have stopped with the trimming of North America’s forests.

Sources: Snopes, Disney,

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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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A Short Survey of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a tricky subject for me. One the one hand, it often stands apart from western medicine and science, roughly in the same area as homeopathy or other alternative medicines. Untested cures based on tradition, rather than evidence. On the other hand, not a lot of study has flown the other way, either. With such an array of history, it’s quite likely that some if not many of the cures are actually effective in some manner, but not a lot of research has been done with regards to Traditional Chinese Medicine and a number of interesting compounds are now being discovered thanks to these cures. That said, I think I’ll stick with vaccines and vitamins.

But Traditional Chinese Medicine also has a societal aspect to it too, one that is just as complex as the scientific aspect. Demand for rare animal parts has fueled decades of poaching and destruction. A major fraction of tiger and rhino poaching goes directly into the black markets of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But on the other hand, this is a rich tradition that goes back thousands of years and the philosophies it has been based on have long been a cornerstone of how China viewed the world.

Tricky. Tricky.

Well, enough of opinions and hard thought. It’s time to point out some of the more interesting ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Now, most of the time you’ll see things like ginger or ginkgo. Maybe a lotus root or two in there somewhere, but these ingredients are substantially weirder.

  • Ophiocordyceps sinesis A parasitic fungus that grows out of the heads of subterranean caterpillars high on the Tibetan plateau. The price of this aphrodisiac and cancer treatment has exploded. A pound can cost up to $50,000.
  • Dried seahorse – Seahorses tend to arrive on the market as bycatch from shrimp trawlers around the Phillipines and India, although some are specifically hunted by lamplight. Dried seahorse can be used for impotence and incontinence, aiding circulation, and relieving swelling.
  • Turtle shell – Invigorates the blood and attacks malaria.
  • Silkworm feces – Used to treat diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Also apparently keeps your stomach from growling.
  • Scorpions – Clears the liver and relieves headaches.
  • Cinnabar – A vibrant red ore, actually a natural form of mercury sulfate, ground into a powder. It’s taken to calm the heart and reduce anxiety. Just like in European alchemy, Chinese Taoists believed that mercury was essential in creating their elixir of immortality. Mercury is, of course, highly toxic and neurological symptoms can develop if taken incautiously.
  • Realgar – Also known as ruby sulphur, these bright red crystals are taken for sore throats, swellings, and to kill intestinal parasites. And it certainly will kill those, realgar is actually a form of arsenic and like cinnabar should be taken with care.
  • Cicada moultings – Clears rashes, relieves visual obstruction, and ‘disperses wind’.
  • Pangolin scales – Used to keep menses regular and prevent period cramps.
  • Hornets nests – Relieves pain and toothaches and clears up ringworm.
  • Centipedes – Prevents lock jaw and seizures as well as counteracting toxins.

Yeah, I don’t think I need any centipedes, thanks.

Sources: seahorse-australia, yinyanghouse

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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Anthropology, History, Medicine, Modernity


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Chewing Coca

Two friends of mine each visited South America. One went to Bolivia, the other to Peru. Both spent a significant amount of time hiking through the hills and peaks of the Andes. The Andean mountain range is the world’s second highest mountain range (only the Himalayas go higher) so it’s understandable that running around the Pacific Northwest had not quite prepared them for the trek. Both times, the locals recommended that they chew coca leaves. They assented and both immediately felt better, more energetic, and less fatigued. They continued running around South America and eventually returned to the United States.

It seems like a simple story on the surface, but science and politics surrounding those small round leaves is actually much more complicated.

Coca, a thin, bushy plant has grown in Central and South America for millions of years and is one of the most notorious and controversial plants in the region – the coca plant is the base ingredient in cocaine. Dried coca leaves are macerated with sulfuric acid and ground into a paste before undergoing a long process of chemical treatment featuring compounds such as ammonia, kerosene, and lime. During these steps, various chemicals naturally found in the leaves are slowly turned into the familiar white powder we know as cocaine.

In order to stem production of this narcotic, various governments have tackled the problem at the root, prohibiting or even trying to exterminate the plant. Cocaine is a dangerous narcotic and the drug trade has given rise to violent cartels and international crime.

But there’s an important distinction here. What my friends tried in South America was not cocaine. They did not become addicted, nor did they suffer the extreme physiological effects associated with it.

And nobody made snow-angels on their desk.

Chewing coca leaves produces much milder effects than cocaine, acting only as a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant. After all, while they are the base of cocaine, the compounds in coca leaves are still chemically different, in smaller quantities, and absorbed by the body much more slowly than cocaine (as a general rule, eating any drug is substantially slower than inhaling it).

Furthermore, while producing cocaine is harmful to society, chewing coca is actually an old cultural practice that’s been around nearly as long as civilization. Coca leaves have been found buried with the Moche mummies of Chile and widespread cultivation was practiced by the Inca elite and seen as having a divine origin. After European conquest, the Catholic Church, perceiving coca as a problematic link to the native’s own religion and an obstacle to conversion, tried to outlaw the plant. But Spanish landowners, seeing how important its effects were on their workforce, beseeched the crown to step in on their behalf. King Philip II subsequently declared that the plant was essential to the welfare of the natives and that the church could not prohibit its use. In modern times, multiple groups have stepped forward to promote the benefits of traditional coca use, citing medicinal, cultural, and nutritional benefits.

The governments of Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela have all followed suit, resisting outside pressures to ban cultivation, even while they crack down on cocaine production. Coca leaves, in any form, are heavily regulated in the United States and most of Europe as a restricted substance. The only major exceptions are for medicinal production and, amusingly. Coca-Cola is famous for having previously used cocaine in their formula and, while they haven’t used cocaine in their drinks since around 1900, Coca-Cola still relies on other compounds in coca-leaves to help flavor their drinks.

Sources: NYTimes, GlobalPost, Wikipedia, erowid,

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Posted by on October 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


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You Can’t Die in Svalbard

It’s illegal. At least in Longyearbyen, their largest town.

Svalbard is an icy archipelago that lies well north of the Arctic Circle. It’s nearly 400 miles from the rest of Norway and temperatures tend to stay between -16 and 6 degrees centigrade year round, barely rising above freezing in the summer. More than two-thirds of the islands’ area has been declared as nature reserves and arctic wildlife is plentiful. In fact, polar bears are so common here that people are required to carry rifles while outside of town, just in case.  The resident population numbers in the low thousands, but a constant stream of researchers and tourists keep the island active. There are even a number of hotels for temporary visitors.

But even though these arctic islands continue to welcome numerous guests, there is one place that you will absolutely not be allowed to stay: Longyearbyen’s graveyard. For the last seventy years, officials have not admitted any new bodies to be buried here.

At its heart, the problem stems from the fact that most of Svalbard’s soil is permafrost, land that is kept below freezing year round. Decades ago, officials discovered that the bodies simply weren’t decomposing like they should. The cold was essentially keeping them refrigerated year-round. Scientists have even been able to recover traces of the dreaded Spanish flu from a body interred in 1917.

Instead, if you fall terminally ill, either you or your body will be flown back to Norway’s mainland. It might seem harsh, but I guess when you live on the edge of the world sometimes you have to make concessions.

Longyearbyen is also the home of Norway’s famous seed vault.

Sources: BBC

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Posted by on September 30, 2012 in Modernity


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The box is long, airy, and emanates a constant stream of soft squeaks and chirps. Three fishermen stand around it, fit dark-skinned men with loose, cool clothes. The muscles on their arms stand out like beads on a cord. One of them holds onto a paddle, steering the boat towards the river’s center. Once there, the fishermen finally open the squeaking box’s lid. Three long, sleek shapes spill out, sliding around the boat before slipping ghost-like into the river. Satisfied, two of the men start playing out the nets as the shapes get to work.

The three shapes are actually otters – what we are witnessing is one of the few fishing techniques left in the world to use domesticated animals. In this case, the men are using specially trained individuals of a local species, the Asian smooth otter (Lutra perspicillata). How it works is that two of the three men on our boat will work the nets, specially-made constructs nearly as long as the boat itself. The other man steers the boat or directs the animals. The men and otters work in synch – the otters will chase nearby fish into the nets, which the men then haul aboard. While the fish they catch are not typically very large, this teamwork allows the men to take in a steady, reliable catch. The following video, about six minutes long, shows one of these boats at work.

Unfortunately, economic and social pressures have largely eliminated this traditional fishing practice. Once common throughout Bangladesh, today this practice is restricted to two or three nearby districts. And while this can actually be one of the most efficient methods of fishing, the technique requires daily expeditions to stay profitable. Broken equipment, heavy rain, or other disasters can quickly cause trouble for otter-assisted fishers. This is compounded by high start-up and maintenance costs – many of the fishers end up relying on money lenders throughout at least part of the year. Furthermore, many of the communities are made up of ethnic minorities, which can hinder societal or governmental support.

But it appears that people are starting to take note of this unique teamwork. Like many traditional techniques, what is lost in profitability can be made up for in cultural and ecological value because, besides preserving a unique fishing technique, these communities are also unintentionally playing a larger part in South Asia’s burgeoning conservation movement.

In the wild, these otters are facing increasing threats from a modernizing Bangladesh. However, these trained otters can not only breed in captivity, it’s been shown that captive animals can be successfully reintroduced to the wild (possibly due to how the fishermen use and promote the otters natural fishing instincts). It’s hoped that direct involvement by national and international groups could make these otters a hallmark example of traditional conversation.

Sources: Feeroz, Begum, and Hasan (2011).

Bangladeshi Men Fish with Otters

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Posted by on September 27, 2012 in Modernity, Natural History


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