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Guano Mining

Bird shit stinks. I’ve had the exquisite pleasure of encountering a lot of poop in my life and nothing smells worse than bird shit. My neighbor – a racist and a thief – had a chicken coop that we had to watch while he was away. It was small, dark – little more than a man-made cave with more than a dozen stinking, angry chickens crammed inside, brooding over their own excrement. If you could take ten years of mistreatment and pain and turn it solid, it would smell like that chicken coop.

So it’s surprising to learn that the desire for bird excrement has actually fueled an incredible international industry. Guano mining is a cheap source of extremely useful chemicals known as nitrates and phosphates. Nitrates go into fertilizer and gunpowder. Phosphates are used in industrial chemicals, medicines, and foods. Coca-cola has phosphoric acid in it. Guess where that phosphorus might have come from?

These chemicals have been an object of desire for ages. The ancient Inca used it to enhance their crops. In 1856 the U.S. Congress passed an act specifically for guano excavation that let anyone claim any unoccupied guano islands for themselves – as long as they sold the guano exclusively to America.

This need for guano came to a head on a small island in the South Pacific called Nauru. Nauru is one of the most remote nations on Earth. It’s nearest neighbor is more than 300 km (186 mi) away. It clocks in with a measly 9,000 residents – only the Vatican has fewer people within it’s borders. Nauru was as close as you could be to an island paradise – far away from everyone else, lush beaches, dense forest, warm, balmy breezes wafting across the island.

That is, until the late 19th century, when a chance geological encounter revealed that nearly the entire island was made of guano-rich rock deposits. Within five years a dedicated mining company had started literally digging the island out from underneath it’s inhabitants. I’ll leave most of the details where I originally found them – an amazing story on This American Life, which you can find here and which I highly recommend. Today, Nauru is nearly mined out and a textbook case of environmental disaster. Corruption has nearly bankrupt the entire nation and the forests are gone. All that’s left are these inhabitable limestone spires that erupt from the broken ground.


All for bird shit.

Other Sources:


Posted by on April 8, 2013 in Modernity


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The Birdman Cult

When Europeans arrived at Easter Island the moai were there to greet them. Nearly nine hundred of the multi-ton statues stood facing inward towards the island. The moai were carved from the living rock of the island and transported to their various locations, a feat on the scale of moving the Stonehenge blocks. It is thought that these represented the physical embodiment of ancestor spirits, a combination altar, icon, and occasional home.

But if these were religious icons, something terrible happened to their belief system. Instead of moai worship the Europeans were greeted by the ominously named Birdman Cult, Tangata Matu. At some point in their recent past the moai quarries were abruptly abandoned, unfinished moai left permanently half-formed out of the rock. Concurrently some unknown disaster had caused their island population to crash from nearly 15,000 down to only 3,000.

Although no record exists to prove it, what likely happened to these people was environmental degredation on a major scale. Easter Island today is a land of high cliffs, bare rocks, and thin soil, but when Polynesian settlers first arrived fifteen-hundred years ago, the island would have resembled Hawaii, a verdantly forested island. Over the next thousand years the inhabitants exhausted the forests, chopping down trees for fuel, building, and transport for the immense moai. The people thrived, led by the ariki, high chief and leader of the old moai religion.

But when the forests vanished, so did the fertility of the island. Suddenly deprived of food and building materials, the population crashed. A warrior uprising took place, overthrowing the ariki and replacing his ancestral religion with a new one born out of the warrior’s half-animal patron, makemake, and the only remaining source of food, migratory sea birds.

This leads to the central ritual of the cult. Every year, as the migratory birds, in this case sooty terns, arrived again on the island a select group of people would be named as candidates. These candidates would, in turn, choose young men called hopu to compete for them. Everyone would gather at Orongo, a nearby volcanic crater and gaze out over the water to a nearby islet. The first hopu to go to the islet and grab an egg without dying to drops, drowning, or shark attacks would win.

The winning candidate would be declared as the physical embodiment of makemake and given tribute and special honors. In return they had to go through a transformation, painting their skin, shaving their hair, growing nails into talons, and living in isolation. This was the Birdman, and the island was his cult.

And then the Europeans came and nearly everyone died from smallpox.

Sources: The History of the World in 100 Objects,,, The Birdman Cult, Wiki: Tangata Maku

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Posted by on March 17, 2012 in Anthropology, Natural History


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