Sunday, January 31, 2010

Overmodeled skulls

1st image: The surviving facial portion of a Columbian overmodeled skull. Photo by Felipe Cardenas-Arroyo and the Columbian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH). 2nd image: Overmodeled skull from the New Hebrides island of Malakula, Vanuatu. 3rd image: Overmodeled skull from Vanuatu exhibiting intentional cranial deformation. 4th image: Overmodeled skull from Vanuatu with human hair wig anchored with vegetal cords and spider web. Photos by Rob Roy, courtesy of Andrea Kirkpatrick and the New Brunswick Museum, St. John, NB, Canada.

To overmodel a human skull is to apply a malleable substance to the bare bone of its facial aspect and to sculpt the outer surface to resemble the soft tissue and appearance of a human countenance, as has been done to the skulls in the photographs above. This turquoise skull from Mexico does not fit the definition, because it is merely decorated, and neither do death masks. Now that we've clarified that, let me tell you about a new book:

Art Auferheide, legendary paleopathologist and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has examined more mummies than anyone on earth and wrote the encyclopedic The Scientific Study of Mummies. Several years ago, he turned his attention to a specific type of skull mask or trophy sometimes seen with the mummies he has studied and he has just published Overmodeled Skulls. Traveling both hemispheres, tapping the knowledge of museum curators, and seeking the contributions of archaeologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists, Dr. Aufderheide fills in the gap between the skulls from Jericho (7,000 B.C.) and those from modern Melanesia (where overmodeling has been practiced in living memory): the secular and spiritual myths behind the customs and of course the meticulous crafting of these sometimes sinister and sometimes comical objects.

The stated purpose of the book is to identify all known or reported examples of overmodeling and to gather the existing ethnological, historical, and archaeological information about each of the dozen cultures - spread apart geographically (among them Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Egypt, and Ukraine) and chronologically (Neolithic to now) – which practiced this mortuary ritual. The compilation of all this material was no mean feat. The scientific collection of specimens commodified (and therefore presumably tainted) overmodeling and probably encouraged stealing skulls from local burial grounds. In addition, procurement from non-literate societies by other than systematic excavation (for instance, by purchase, donation, or confiscation) makes the specimens difficult to interpret.

The stories of skull overmodeling involve ancestor veneration, funerary rituals, skull cults, secret societies, initiation ceremonies, exhumation and excarnation, trophy skulls, headhunting raids, and trepanation. These sculpted skulls were used to remember, to divine, to harness the powers of the dead. The general reader, who will find the size of the type very friendly and will have access to glossaries for a couple of the chapters, will be intrigued by data gathered by an anthropologist who lived with one tribe from 1876 to 1906 and by descriptions of the practice of cranial deformation, the related creation of mortuary effigies and skull puppets, and the preparation of the Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile. The scientist will have a thorough bibliography, a synopsis of the geographic and environmental motivators of the custom, the anthropological analysis of 39 of the skulls, and the results of CT scans, dental analysis, and radio-carbon dating. A majority – but not all - of the skulls are adult males, most had crudely shaped ears, many had wigs, several were meant to be worn as masks, some held the mandible in place with string and had lost teeth replaced. They were in part portraiture, as evidenced by the modeling of a harelip and the reproduction of correctly-proportioned noses.

Overmodeled Skulls is distributed by Jim Castner's Feline Press for $75 plus shipping. Its 360 pages contain 140 color photographs. Recommended, and if you want to get a discount, order it in combination with Castner's equally fascinating Shrunken Heads ($100 for both, plus shipping). Good reads – and, they'll be a provocative addition to your coffee table!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bees in the weird news

Inspired by the story of a Polish beekeeper who woke up in his casket after being stung and pronounced dead, here is a round-up of recent weird news involving bees:

A man in Nevada survived multiple organ failure after being stung by 3,000 bees after disturbing their hive while moving a bush. An Indonesian boy is in trouble for playing a prank on a classmate that caused her to get stung by a bee. Bees nesting in a vacant home in Tuscon, Arizona, swarmed and killed a family's 3-legged chihuahua. A Mesa, Arizona, woman has been chased from her apartment by bees whose nest may span the entire bedroom wall. Honey oozing from the wall tipped a Concord, New Hampshire, couple off to the fact that 60,000 bees had nested in the wall. Beekeepers relocated a hive of honeybees that had been nesting in the roof of the Dillon County, South Carolina, courthouse for 10 years. A family in St. Catharines, Ontario, has had to relocate 3 times so that large colonies of bees could be removed from their home. A swarm of bees on a Manhattan sidewalk trapped employees in a game store until they could be removed.

A van stacked with beehives crashed into a truck, killing one person and causing the bees to swarm and attack 5 injured people and some 15 first responders. California Highway Patrol had to close a highway after a truck carrying 400 hives flipped, releasing 8 to 12 million bees. A flight training school in Danvers, Massachusetts, had to call in an expert to vacuum a swarm of 10,000 bees from the wing of a plane.

A pair of Chinese beekeepers got married covered in a layer of bees. Beekeepers in Russia had a baby born with a 5-chambered heart - an anatomical structure typical of bees. A beekeeper in Serbia builds his hives in the shape of churches and monasteries because "bees have a soul, too." A blog features an early homemade beekeeper's helmet. Wyoming beekeepers make their money not from their own honey, but from renting their bees to Calfornia almond-growers during the winter months. The geographic profiling of serial killers is based on the way bumblebees search for food. Australian scientists have dosed bees with cocaine to determine more about how their brains work.

The best news is that the Colony Collapse Disorder that has been killing honeybees nationwide seems to be on the wane.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The sarcophagus Andrew Jackson declined

Ten weeks before his death, 7th president of the United States
Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) (shown in a daguerreotype taken toward the end of his life) was offered a sarcophagus (pictured) - believed to have contained the remains of Roman emperor Alexander Severus (208-235 A.D.) - by Commodore Jesse B. Elliott (1782-1845). It was one of two sarcophagi that Elliott had obtained in Syria and brought home on the U.S.S. Constitution in 1839. One he presented to Philadelphia's Girard College, in which to deposit the remains of founding philanthropist Stephen Girard (1750-1831). The other he intended to house the remains of British philanthropist James Smithson (1769-1825), but Congress had not yet constituted the Smithsonian Institution and Smithson remained buried in Italy. Instead, Elliott gave the 2nd sarcophagus to the National Institute (a scientific body of which he was a member, chartered by Congress in 1842) on the condition that it be used to receive the body of President Jackson upon his death. While encouraging Jackson to live on, the Commodore wrote to the president, "An Emperor's coffin awaits you." The president replied as follows:
"...with warmest sensations that can inspire a grateful heart, I must decline the honor intending to be bestowed. I cannot consent that my mortal body shall be laid in a repository prepared for an emperor or a king. My republican feelings and principles forbid it; the simplicity of our system of government forbids it. Every monument erected to perpetuate the memory of our heroes and statesmen ought to bear evidence of the economy and simplicity of our republican institutions, who are the sovereigns of our glorious Union, and whose virtue it is to perpetuate it. True virtue cannot exist where pomp and parade are the governing passions; it can only dwell with the people--the great laboring and producing classes that form the bone and sinew of our confederacy....I have prepared a humble depository for my mortal body beside that wherein lies my beloved wife..."
Jackson's remains were placed in a lead-lined casket that was soldered shut and entombed next to the body of Rachel Jackson (1791-1828) within a limestone- and brick-lined vault at the Hermitage, his plantation in Nashville - now a National Historic Landmark. The declined sarcophagus - now exempted from its conditions - spent the next 10 years at the Patent Office before being transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, where it stood in front of the Arts and Industries building and was later moved inside. It was proposed that the Smithsonian use the "Syrian sarcophagus" to entomb the remains of its founder, who was exhumed in 1903 under the supervision of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell, but instead his original Italian tomb was installed in the crypt in the Smithsonian "castle."

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I took another stab at understanding fractals this morning. I was familiar with the psychedelic and spiral graphics, but wondered what defines them. Dictionary definitions do little to help. Even the Wikipedia page was a bit dense for someone with no mathematical inclination. I had the weakest of grasps on the concepts of self-similarity, iteration, and recursion. I thought I understood the example of a shoreline having the same configuration as you zoomed in on it, but wasn't getting the overall picture. Well, it was all laid out very nicely by British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) in the film Fractals: The Color of Infinity (click to watch in its entirety). Clarke explains how French/American mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot, the "father of fractal geometry," discovered the deceptively simple math formula behind real-world, nonlinear things like coastlines, plants, blood vessels, etc. (There is also a Nova episode about fractals.) It's all about how irregular things repeat their shapes to infinity when magnified. In other words, a small part of the shape has a similar appearance to the overall shape, as explained in understandable terms on If you want to know more, try Fractals Unleashed. If you like the math and science of factals, you may be interested in a comparison of fractals at the atomic and astronomical levels (Fractal Universe), a description of the types of fractals, or a guided look at finding these forms all around you (Fractals Everywhere). Armed with a basic understanding, it wondrous to appreciate the spiral of a shell, the tributaries of a river, or the texture of a broccoli (pictured). There is an extensive fractal gallery on Flickr.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, the pre-Columbian Inca site located 8,000' above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, is blogworthy at any time, but particularly newsworthy right now. You may have missed the reports that 2,000 people - many of them tourists - have been stranded at the site since the weekend, when 5 days of torrential rains caused the Vilcanota and Urubamba rivers to overflow their banks. The flooding caused mudslides that have blocked the railroad tracks of the train from Cuzco - the only way in or out of the area.

People have been sleeping in and around the train station at Aguas Calientes since the area hostels filled up, and they were panicking as food in the local restaurants became scarce. An Argentine woman and her Peruvian guide were killed in their tent when a slope gave way, raising the death toll to 5. The U.S. and Peruvian goverments - and Perurail, the train operator - have mobilized helicopters to rescue the stranded and ferry supplies including food, water, and tents. According to the Peruvian Times, 475 visitors, including 103 Peruvian nationals, had been rescued as of yesterday, foreign tourists are not being favored, and priority is been given to those who are elderly, ill, pregnant, or with small children. But hundreds still await transport, like a woman who called her family in Australia: "She's in tears," said her mother. "She's been two nights standing in the rain. She said the river was just like a tsunami coming down. They were staying in a hotel, they were told to evacuate because the whole building was shaking." Helicopter operations, which can evacuate 120 people an hour, have today been suspended because of adverse weather conditions, reports John Quigley (no relation) of the Bloomberg Press. Chile, Colombia and Brazil have offered to send helicopters, but the route to Machu Picchu is very narrow and can only accommodate the 11 that are on standby.

More from:
Latin American Herald Tribune
Daily Mail
BBC News (all have been evacuated)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Natural arch collapse

There are photographs before and after the collapse of Wall Arch (above) on August 8, 2008, but - contrary to popular belief - no one caught the rare event on videotape. I was unable to confirm this on, but the press release from the National Park Service states that no one reported witnessing the overnight collapse. Wall Arch was one of the most accessible of the 2,000 arches in Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, and ranked 12th in size (with an opening 71' x 33.5'). The debris from the collapse, and continued rock falls, caused the rangers to close part of the trail temporarily. "The middle of the arch just collapsed under its own weight.," said Chief Ranger Denny Ziemann. Robert Iberia of the Moab Area Travel Council called it "geology in action. You hate to see those go down. But it happens. It's a natural phenomenon." "They all let go after a while," added park official Paul Henderson. A long while. The same forces of wind and water erosion that carved the arches 100 million years ago will eventually bring them all down. As dramatic as they are, collapses are part of the natural cycle, explained Tim Connors of the NPS Geologic Resources Division, who said, "It just reminds us that geology is a very dynamic science. and that nothing lasts forever."
If you would like to look at some galleries of arch images, there are 2 websites devoted to this very photogenic geologic formation. is geared toward those who want to do some canyoneering and offers a look at some of the 162 arches the author has traversed from above and below. Another resource is the Natural Arch and Bridge Society, which supports the study, appreciation, and preservation of natural arches and bridges; offers a robust photo and video section; and assisted one of its members in compiling the World Arch Database.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Beetle brooches

On January 12th, border agents in Brownsville, Texas, confiscated the jewelry of a woman crossing from Mexico into the United States - because it was alive. She had declared the bejeweled insect, but did not have the right paperwork. Although wearing jewel-encrusted beetle jewelry has recently become a fad - and one designer sells the Roach Brooch with the slogan "It's not a pest if it's pinned to your chest" - it is not a new idea. In fact, it is a Mayan custom called the maquech (pictured), traditionally given as a gift to one's mother-in-law. It is said that Jackie Kennedy (1929-1994) received one, as did a Spokane woman named Carol Wright back in 1969 (see top left p. 14). The audacious Ms. Wright named her "pet" Chac-mool and wore him to her job as a clerk in a downtown department store. He had been purchased (along with some wood to feed him) for 3 pesos from a street vendor in Chichen Itza by a friend who apparently smuggled him into the country - as I doubt he submitted "PPQ Form 526 Declaration for Importation or Exportation." Of the recent border crosser's "beetle bling," PETA is quoted as saying, "Beetles may not be as cute and cuddly as puppies and kittens, but they have the same capacity to feel pain and suffer. It's ironic. We spend hours each week helping kind people find humane ways to relocate lost insects such as ants, bees and roaches that wander into their homes. People feel so good about not hurting them, while this woman paid someone to mutilate them." It certainly deprives the insect (Latin name Zopherus nodulosus) of its freedom during its probable 12- to 18-month lifespan, but to me it seems less egregious than pulling the wings off flies...

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Vivisection 1/22/10 British scientists are blowing up live pigs to study the effects of bombs. A man in Oaklan Park, Florida, performs a "coffee-table operation" on a dog he was watching and kills it. Here is a video (caution) of a seriously twisted experiment by Russian scientists.

Gatorland! 1/21/10 Scientists have determined that a shared breathing mechanism indicates that alligators and birds shared a common ancestor.

Kite-fighting 1/19/10 Friend Franck Cordes notes that there is a chapter on kite-fighting in The American Boys Handybook of Camp-lore and Woodcraft by Daniel Carter Beard (orig. 1882).

1/16/10 Moments after I published this post about the swallowing disorder pica, I was contacted by follower Lisa Wood, a gifted artist who collaged a series of plates based on the case histories of the swallowed objects in the very collection I mentioned. And her friend is writing a book on the same subject, due out later this year!

Disaster intensity scales 1/13/10 Here are some aerial photos of the earthquake damage in Haiti from National Geographic. As horrible as the tragedy and its aftermath is, unburied corpses do not pose much of a health risk. Scientists have identified a number of seismic zones throughout the world that are past due for an earthquake.

Mirror miscellany
1/17/10 Reader Kent Schnake points out the often overlooked observation that as long as a mirror is well-polished, we don't see it - we see what is reflected!

Sinkholes 1/12/10 Rubislaw Quarry in Aberdeen, Scotland - the largest man-made hole in Europe - has been sold.

Views from space 1/11/10 There are disputes over the ownership of a large meteorite that fell in Australia. Another meteorite fell through the roof of a doctor's office in Lorton, Virginia. Meanwhile, the Great Wall of China has been recreated in chocolate (although I don't usually link to weird chocolate).

Good cove, bad cove 1/6/10 Dolphins have taken up hydroplaning to catch the fish closest to shore. A French researchers suggests that heroic acts by animals like dolphins are more common than thought. Here is a story from this summer of a beluga whale carrying a struggling diver to the surface in China.

Snakes to the rescue
1/4/10 Federal officials have banned 9 species of constrictors from being imported into the U.S.

Parade floats 1/2/10 The plane that Capt. Sullenberger safely crash-landed in the Hudson River is for sale.

Bushmeat 12/27/09 A curious young chimp in the Congo investigates the remote video camera. The heart-wrenching tale of a humanized chimp named Jerry. A chimp is at the center of a custody battle in Sarasota, Florida.

Nipple shields 12/20/09 There is a strange time capsule in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada - a 1950s-era drugstore - and look what's on the shelf toward the end of the video!

Circus animals on the lam 11/13/09 Spanish photographer Jose Luis Rodriguez has been stripped of his title of photographer of the year because it was discovered that the wolf in his award-winning photo had been rented from a wildlife park. The hippo who escaped from the zoo in Montenegro has returned to her enclosure.

Humpback whales 11/10/09 Close encounters with beluga whales in the Arctic circle.

Odd animals
11/4/09 This strange creature that turned up in Texas has been identified as a hairless raccoon.

Engineering feats
11/1/09 A schematic drawing of the British warship H.M.S. Temeraire, built in 1793.

One man band 10/24/09 Here is a deft performance by a member of the Brooklyn-based chamber music ensemble Project Trio.

Lizard lore
10/17/09 Villagers in Indonesia are supplying Asian demand for geckos to be used in traditional medicines.

Dinosaur eggs 10/3/09 American paleontologists have announced that prehistoric velociraptors also spit venom at their prey. Australian scientists blame humans for the demise of the megafauna that lived 400,000 years ago.

Animal clarity 8/16/09 The unusual shell of the scaly-foot snail, discovered in 2003, may assist in the design of armor for soldiers and vehicles, say American researchers. Similarly, the silence of owls in flight (pictured) have inspired aircraft technology.

Jaws in 1916 8/8/09 A harrowing account of an Englishman being eaten by a shark while on holiday in Cape Town, South Africa.

Creative cremains 7/24/09 The far-flung posthumous travels of American adventurer Ralph White. Ongoing repairs at a crematorium in Coventry, U.K., are marring Sikh death rituals.

Bride and groom 6/1/09 A British teacher sacrificed himself and drowned to save his bride on their honeymoom in Egypt.

Cave paintings at Lascaux 5/27/09 Plans are afoot in Italy to breed the aurochs depicted in cave paintings back from extinction.

The art of David Teniers the Younger
5/22/09 Japanese macaques huddling together for warmth.

Chihuahuas in the weird news 5/2/09 What's a follow-up without a chihuahua story? This one was found by security staff at the Dublin airport being smuggled in a Bulgarian man's suitcase.

Emmett Kelly 4/25/09 An example and explanation of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, a form of synchronicity.

Bears in the news 4/24/09 The den of a black bear hibernating in Minnesota is being monitored by a remote camera that just captured the birth of her 3 cubs!

Giants 4/17/09 A German model stands 6' 9" tall.

Centenarians 3/26/09 Here is a fantastic video of people aged 1 through 100.

Spider prey 3/7/09 Video of a giant centipede eating a bat. And watch this toad's defense when it is about to be eaten by a tarantula!

Megafishes 2/15/09 A blind British woman landed a 214lb catfish in Spain, after which she released it back into the river.

Disturbing decapitations 1/23/09 A human head and a red flower were found at the tomb of a Mexican drug lord.

Caves 1/15/09 A BBC video of the Crystal Cave of Giants in Chihuahua, Mexico.

More mammoths 1/6/09 DNA analysis of frozen soil by an international team of scientists shows that woolly mammoths existed for thousands of years longer than previously thought.

Dr. Seuss 12/25/08 A disagreement in Minnesota parallels the plot of Dr. Seuss's story The Zax.

Blizzard of 1888 12/14/08 Many wondrous photographs of ice caves around the world. A long-predicted form of stable ice has been confirmed in the lab by British scientists. Scientists have assessed that the ice in the artic Beaufort Sea is "rotten." Pioneering 19th c. images of snowflakes by American photographer Wilson A. Bentley have gone on sale. Photos and an explanation of hair ice. And a live audio feed from under the ice in Antarctica.

Conjoined twins
11/29/08 The world's oldest conjoined twins, Ronnie and Donnie Galyon of Ohio, are moving in with their brother rather than into an assisted-living facility.

Albinos 11/18/08 "White Bambi" spotted in the Italian Alps.

Oldest zoo in the world 11/10/08 A neighborhood association has stopped the Oakland Zoo from its practice of cutting down non-native trees and feeding the crunchy snacks to elephants and other animals. An Asian elephant has been born for the 1st time at the Melbourne Zoo. A Norwegian man who is trying to collect 1 million giraffes to win a bet is nearly halfway there.

Animal extinction
11/9/08 The eel population in London's River Thames have dropped precipitously (98%).

Fiddlehead ferns

Time for something green. Have you ever eaten a fiddlehead fern? I haven't, but my Mom and sister ate them in a salad in Connecticut several years ago. My sister reports:
"It might have been in Litchfield....I like them a lot, but mostly because they are so cool-looking. The only thing is their tightly curled shape sometimes harbors bugs or worms. Thinking that I might encounter one or the other sort of kills the joy of eating them for me."
No one on the web mentions encountering insects, although Wikipedia has a short list of possible health effects.

Fiddleheads are more than a novelty for many, who look forward to them each year because of their short growing season and because they are the first green vegetable to emerge in the early Spring. But don't expect a native New Englander to show you where to forage for them - their stands in the woods are closely guarded secrets! writes, "Tiny gray-green spirals reaching into the first really warm days of Spring. Each of them wearing their own little fur overcoat to protect them when it was chillier weather. Snapped up and eaten by whoever has the sense and taste to do it." The chef at a restaurant in Vermont knows where to find them and cooks them with duck confit in a pasta dish called "Duck and Fiddle." (The ferns got their name because they resemble the carved ornamentation, or scroll, on the neck of a violin.) You may be able to find some at your local gourmet market: a Canadian company in Port Colborne, Ontario, harvests and sells them to grocers fresh, frozen, or marinated and offers a whole list of recipes. The University of Maine offers tips on gathering and pickling this delicacy. Maine resident Charlie Burke also offers a recipe in the on-line magazine The Heart of New England and writes, "They have a delicious intense flavor which reminds me of the scent of woodland moss. Most describe it as resembling asparagus, but I think this is a reach. Cooked to crunchy tenderness, they are a flavorful and versatile treat. Most recipes call for blanching prior to final preparation, but I eliminate this step, preferring to sauté them directly." If we can find some at the store, we may have to serve them up as a side-dish with our not-yet-cooked squid-ink pasta!

Saturday, January 23, 2010


An illustration by Italian physician, anatomist, and inventor Guido of Vigevano (c. 1280-1349) depicting his idealized impression of the ancient technique of trepanation.

I have been meaning to do a post about trepanation and the news article I saw this morning about removing part of the skull to facilitate better brain scans is my catalyst. Trepanation (also known as trephination) is the intentional perforation of the skull, by gouging, cutting, scraping, or drilling a hole (caution). It is the oldest known surgery, dating back 10,000 years to the Stone Age. The ancient peoples of what are now Peru and Bolivia were particularly good at it - and did it in some cases to relieve the pressure of depressed fractures received in battle and in other cases ostensibly to release the malicious spirit causing a particular illness. An hour-long documentary about the procedure is available and the website is worth checking out, even though the link to the trailer seems misdirected.

I first heard of this surgery in the context of archaeology and paleopathology. I learned that physical anthroplogists can easily tell from an ancient trepanned skull whether the patient survived by examining the bone growth at the margins of the hole. It was shortly thereafter, due to my interest in weird news, that I found out about modern trepanning and the surprising number of do-it-yourselfers. The anecdotal evidence is that the self-surgery expands the consciousness in increasing the blood flow and cures ailments like depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. The positive effects have been experienced by Robert Lund of Brooklyn, who was trepanned involuntarily in the hospital after a brutal mugging. The International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG) has led the movement to study the benefits of trepanation and to make it available as a voluntary procedure by the medical establishment once they are able to document the improved cerebral circulation.

Trepanation may yet enter mainstream medicine. While it has been used for years to relieve epidural and subdural haematoma, it is now being studied as a possible treatment for dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Friday, January 22, 2010


As I continue to read about dissection in the preparation of my next book, I learn more and more about vivisection - the dissection of live subjects. In modern times, the term is applied to many forms of animal experimentation and many organizations exist to oppose it, including the American Anti-Vivisection Society (est.1883), National Anti-Vivisection Society (est. 1929), and In Defense of Animals (campaigning since 1983). But back in the day, it was not about product testing and instead about gaining anatomical knowledge. Vivisection dates back to ancient Greece (c. 500 B.C.), when optic nerves were cut to determine their relationship to vision. In classical antiquity, apes were used because their anatomy corresponded to humans. In the Middle Ages, vivisectionists tended to use pigs, while dogs were favored in the Renaissance. The procedures were performed to show the action of the heart, the motions of respiration, and the intricacies of generation.

Greek physician working in Rome, Galen (129 A.D.-199/217 A.D.), is known as the "father of vivisection." He is depicted in a 1541 illustration vivisecting a pig (2nd image) to show that severing the laryngeal nerves renders an animal voiceless. The founder of modern human anatomy, Belgian physician Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), vivisected animals, notably a pregnant dog. His student, Italian anatomy professor Realdo Colombo (c. 1516-1559), found the vivisection of dogs and other animals indispensible for acquiring physiologic knowledge - and sometimes performed them in his own home - but drew the line at dissecting humans. Colombo also objected to dissecting pigs, but only because they were too fat and noisy. English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) performed vivisections to accurately describe the circulation of blood by the heart, and to debunk many of Galen's beliefs.

Italian surgeon Marco Aurelio Severino (1580-1656) thought vivisection was invaluable, particularly in comparative anatomy, and established the discipline of zootomy, the dissection of animals. The belief of French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) that animals do not feel real pain influenced many vivisectionists, but by the 17th c. there were vocal objections, not only out of pity for the creatures but out of concern about the effect that their inhumane treatment had on their dissectors. Today's vivisection techniques require anesthesia and usually approval as "scientifically necessary" by an ethics review board. In biology classrooms, frogs are still vivisected to demonstrate the beating heart (click 3rd image for animation).

Thursday, January 21, 2010


In 1999, while visiting my sister and family then living in Orlando, I walked* through the iconic alligator jaws (2nd photo) to enjoy the many sights and sounds of Gatorland. The evidence is in the staged tourist shot I posed for (3rd photo) - my sister posed for one with a live snake around her neck and a lizard in her lap! The 100-acre park was established in 1949 and houses thousands of alligators and crocodiles, including some albinos. The animals can be seen from boardwalks and an observation tower, and high-jumping for chickens and being wrestled in live shows. The preserve also offers a petting zoo (not for the gators!) and an aviary.

Imagine my dismay on November 6, 2006, when I saw in the weird news - from my desk at Georgetown University - that Gatorland had gone up in flames! The newspapers reported that there was massive fire damage, but no one had been injured and only 3 animals were killed: 2 pythons and an alligator. "A fire of this magnitude would be dangerous to fight in any situation but now you have to throw in the fact that there are dangerous animals inside - alligators that are more than likely spooked by the commotion," said a local reporter. Many animal rescue crews responded to offer their help. It took 2 hours for firefighters to bring the blaze - electrical in origin - under control. After the road reopened, employees showed up wanting to help with the clean-up, and "people drove by to snap pictures of the place that has meant so much to generations of Central Floridians."

The fire (1st photo) destroyed the front entrance, the gift shop, and some administrative offices, but the owners vowed to rebuild. "This park is like an old alligator. Gators fight, they get scarred up, they get beat up, they tear each other up, but they're resilient," Gatorland official Tim Williams said. By the end of the month, the park had reopened. Since then, they have made even more improvements to the 12th most popular attraction in the Orlando area, which draws 400,000 visitors each year. I'm glad to have been one of them!

*I was walking with a cane at that point, and remember having to sit down for a rest more than once because it was very hot.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ancient Egyptian finds

Last night I watched a fantastic episode of "Nova" on PBS called "Riddles of the Sphynx," and I woke up this morning to news that a 2,ooo-year-old temple to the cat-goddess Bastet has been discovered in Alexandria. So here is a round-up (organized by date of news article) of the many archaeological discoveries of mummies in Egypt over the last few years that I have been compiling:
  • 3/21/01 11 1,800-year-old mummies, including that of a small boy whose gold mask depicts him crying, in Bawiti
  • 3/4/05 3 mummies from the 26th dynasty (664-525 B.C.) with beaded face masks (3rd photo) in Saqqara
  • 5/3/05 A 2,300-year-old mummy in a beautiful sarcophagus (2nd photo) in Saqqara
  • 2/10/06 5 mummies from the 18th Dynasty (c. 1539-1292 B.C.) in Luxor
  • 6/25/07 A 3,000-year-old mummy, thought to be a high priest, in Luxor
  • 6/27/07 A mummy discovered in 1903 in Luxor has been reexamined and may be the body of Queen Hatshepsut
  • 2/9/09 24 mummies in a 2,600-year-old tomb in Saqqara
  • 4/15/09 10 mummies - one of whom may be Cleopatra - on the outskirts of Alexandria
  • 4/26/09 30 well-preserved 4,000-year-old mummies among dozens found in a cache (1st photo) in Fayoum.
  • 1/10/10 The 4th-Dynasty (2575 B.C. to 2467 B.C.) tombs of an unidentified number of men who built the Great Pyramids at Giza
This incomplete list tallies more than 80 mummies discovered since 2001 - including (possibly) those of Cleopatra and Hatshepsut. Amazing!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Kite-fighting is a popular sport in many parts of the world, particularly Asian countries. The contests usually involve cutting down the opponents' kites, so the string is usually coated with an abrasive:
"Probably the most important aspect of the kite is the string used to anchor and eventually cut the opponent's line. Kite fighters around the world have come up with ways to strengthen and sharpen their strings to ensure that a slight graze sends the rival kite into a tailspin. In Afghanistan a mixture of powered glass and glue is pasted onto the string and this makes it razor sharp. Across Asia a similar paste of ground glass and glue is applied to a thin but strong hemp line. Synthetic lines, which are similar to fishing lines, have become popular in recent times and metallic lines are used in some instances as well. To avoid getting injured hands fighters usually use ordinary string for the length that is expected to be handled and the abrasive string is used closer to the head of the kite."
Japan is known for its many kite festivals. The 2-day Sanjo Great Kite Battle (pictured) - held in Nigata prefecture, 2 hours from Tokyo - is one of many events, some of which involve teams and the forcing down (rather than cutting) of the fighter kites. In India, kite-fighting is practiced year-round, but is particularly popular on holidays. In Afghanistan, the obsessive sport of kite-fighting has been taken up again with a vengeance, since flying kites was banned under Taliban rule. Although largely off-limits to females, the colorful kites are an "unexpected and wonderfully incongruous" sight in the war-torn country, says the New York Times.

In neighboring Pakistan, kite-fighters are just as passionate, but the annual Basant festival has met with some problems. A 2003 ban on kite-flying, which interrupts Lahore's electrical supply, has been lifted each year for the occasion. But in 2007, more than 100 people were injured and 11 died - some as a result of sharp kite string. And in 2008, the centuries-old festival was postponed after the assassination of Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007), then cancelled altogether out of fears of terrorist attacks. "How can we ignore the deaths of innocent people to celebrate anything?" asked city spokesman. As far as I can tell, the fighting kites have never officially gotten off the ground since then. For the past several years, a kite festival has been held by the Pakistan Information and Cultural Association in Gilbert, Arizona, but the American version of Basant allows only harmless string. In fact, the U.S. is known for a style of kite-fighting - and an annual championship - that practices "line-touch," rather than severing strings. But people of many cultures still practice their traditional forms of kite-fighting and have done so in New York since the 1960s.

You don't have to tell that to Jared Kopeloff. The 12-year-old was skateboarding between 2 buildings in Queens in October 2009 when, he says,
"I heard a noise like bees. I thought I went into a beehive. Going down, I felt something on my neck." He had ridden into a glass-encrusted kite string that was hanging down from the roof after having been severed in a duel in nearby Flushing Meadows Park. He was thrown to the ground with the wire buried in his neck and is now scarred ear-to-ear by a laceration that took 400-500 stitches to close.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Coma birth

In October, Reuters reported the case of a 40-year-old German woman who had a heart attack and fell into a coma in the 13th week of her pregnancy. Still in a coma 22 weeks later, she gave birth to a healthy baby, although it was unclear whether the infant was delivered naturally or by caesarean section. According to a spokesperson at University Clinic in Erlangen, it was the first time that a woman in a persistent vegetative state was able to deliver a healthy baby. Not true!

In March 1996, a 29-year-old woman from Rochester, New York, who had been in a coma since 1985 as a result of a car accident gave birth to a premature but healthy baby. The woman had been raped at the nursing home in which she resided, and her parents had opted to continue the pregnancy when it was discovered in December.
"It was a very difficult decision, because nobody could predict the future, her capacity to survive a pregnancy, her capacity to deliver a child. There are not many cases similar to this," said the family's lawyer. Bioethicists said the case raised troubling ethical concerns about using the woman as a vessel.

In July 2001, a 24-year-old Kentucky woman in a persistent vegetative state since being injured in an auto accident only 2 weeks into her pregnancy delivered a healthy, full-term baby girl. "Alexis" weighed in at 7lb 7oz. A neonatologist at Cincinnati's University Hospital said, "This is one of the only cases ever in the United States where the woman was in a coma throughout the entire gestation." The doctors induced labor, but the mother gave birth vaginally, quickly, and smoothly without pain medication.

In August 2005, a 26-year-old woman from Richmond, Virginia, died after giving birth to a daughter by caesarean section. She had been kept on life-support to give the fetus time to develop since losing consciousness 3 months earlier due to an undiagnosed brain tumor. "Susan" was 15 weeks premature and weighed only 1lb 13oz., but was said by the woman's brother-in-law to be "doing well."

In June 2007, a 24-year-old woman in Lancashire, England, slipped into a coma during labor. She was comatose for 6 weeks, became partially paralyzed, required extensive surgery, and had no memory of having given birth to "Benjamin" (pictured), delivered 8 days after his due date.
"The doctors and surgeons are scratching their heads - it's a miracle," said her husband.

A study by the University of Connecticut Health Center revealed that there have been at least a dozen such cases published in the English medical literature since 1979. One case was presented in Reproductive Health in 2006. In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that the maintenance of brain-dead pregnant women was ethically justified, and a 2006 book on the subject discussed considering the infants as "post-mortem gifts."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mirror miscellany

A reflection in one of the ponds in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by Jake Dobkin).

I've been loving hyperlinks lately, so here is an organized collection (by no means comprehensive) on the subject of mirrors:

n. A reflecting surface, originally of polished metal but now usually of glass with a silvery, metallic, or amalgam backing; such a surface set into a frame, attached to a handle, etc., for use in viewing oneself or as an ornament; any reflecting surface, as the surface of calm water under certain lighting conditions; something that gives a minutely faithful representation, image, or idea of something else. tr. v. To reflect in, or as if in, a mirror; to imitate accurately.
[1175–1225; ME mirour < class="ital-inline">mireo(u)r, equiv. to mir- (see mirage ) + -eo(u)r < class="ital-inline">-ātor -ator]

Art: Mirror anamorphosis is art that is distorted unless viewed with a mirror, like this. An installation outside London's Tate Gallery by Italian artist Monica Bonvicini consists of a functional public toilet in a cube of mirror glass. Fact: The invention and history of the mirror. A video of American physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) explaining the mirror image. Fiction: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). Fun: Still and video images at a site that sells carnival fun-house mirrors. Nature: Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia is the world's largest salt flat (4,085 square miles) and therefore - when covered with a thin layer of water - the world's largest natural mirror. Nonfiction: Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection by Mark Pendergrast. Practical: How to tell if a mirror is 2-way. A wall mirror that doubles as a table. Theory: The Mirror Stage, the point at which an infant recognizes him- or herself in the mirror, is identified by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) as a turning point in life in which a person assumes subjectivity. Science: Researchers have developed a universal mirror, a mirror that reflects without distortion from any angle. What exactly is happening when mirrors reflect each other to infinity. Superstition: Mirrors capture the soul. Greek myth of Narcissus.

  • "Speech is a mirror of the soul: as a man speaks, so is he."--Latin writer Publilius Syrus (1st c. B.C.)
  • "All action is of the mind and the mirror of the mind is the face, its index the eyes."--Roman orator Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
  • "The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart."--Christian saint St. Jerome (374-419 A.D.)
  • "A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can not expect an apostle to peer out."--German satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 - 1799)
  • "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."--American novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
  • "A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Everyone you meet is your mirror."--American author Ken Keyes, Jr. (1925-1991)

Saturday, January 16, 2010


People swallow some strange things - and not always accidentally. But this post is not about regurgitators and sword swallowers...

Pica is a medical disorder characterized by an appetite for things other than food, and manifests itself most often in pregnant women, small children (old enough to know better), and the developmentally disabled. A Frenchman swallowed $650 worth of coins. An Ethiopian man swallowed 222 metallic objects. A woman in the Netherlands was found to have ingested 78 items of cutlery: "I don't know why but I felt an urge to eat the silverware - I could not help myself," she said. There are associated dangers with ingesting objects. Children are in danger of eating lead paint, for instance, and adults with a taste for dirt risk swallowing parasites or chemical toxins. Pica may be caused by mineral deficiency, stress, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Trichophagia, the eating of hair, is an example of pica and can result in a bezoar like the 10-pounder that surgeons removed from the stomach of a Chicago woman in 2007 and this one that accumulated in the stomach of a 25-year-old woman with autism.

Of course, there are accidental ingestions, some more spectacular than others. These scissors were inadvertently left in a patient's stomach during surgery, but these were swallowed accidentally by a man using them to clean his teeth. And you've heard urban legends of people swallowing their dentures, but how about this story of a woman swallowing her partner's dentures during sex. A bulimic woman accidentally swallowed the spoon she was using to purge. And a 7-year-old boy accidentally swallowed the hip-hop grill, a metal mouthpiece, that he was wearing. There are special dangers associated with swallowing magnets, beyond the strange story of a magnetic toy that reassembled itself in a boy's stomach after he ate the parts.

Whether swallowed accidentally or due to pica, the objects are sometimes collected and make astonishing exhibits. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia lays claim to the Chevalier Jackson Collection of over 2,000 ingested items organized in narrow lie-flat drawers labelled "Bones," "Coins," "Nuts, seeds, shells or other vegetal substances," and "Dental material, along with the instruments Dr. Jackson (1865-1958) - a laryngologist - designed and used to extract foreign objects without resorting to surgery. A case on the wall at Children's Hospital Boston includes 120 objects aspirated or ingested between 1918 and 1962. And in my Dad's hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, the Glore Psychiatric Museum offers a display case (pictured) that contains 1,440 items found in the stomach of a patient suffering from pica.

If you still haven't had enough, there are plenty of lists and slideshows to be found, but I - for one - am fully satiated - and it's time for lunch...

Friday, January 15, 2010


Views from space 1/11/09 An incredible photograph that shows an avalanche on Mars!

Recent feral children 1/10/09 "Cambodian jungle girl" Rochom P'ngieng, who spent 18 years in the jungle before being found and returned to her family in 2007, has begun to speak again.

Follow-ups 1/9/09 In a follow-up to a follow-up, I linked to a story about a chicken in a sweater. Apparently, it's not the only chicken to be sporting clothing.

Hit and (unsuccessful) run 1/6/09 A 23-year-old woman inTokyo struck and killed an 80-year-old pedestrian, then drove 8km home with the woman's body lodged in her windshield.

1/4/09 In this set of follow-ups, I linked to a story about a dog whose strangled tongue had swollen to several times normal size. Here is a story about a dog learning to cope after getting its tongue stuck in a paper shredder.

2009 in review 12/31/09 While USA Today suggests that the word "tweet" be tossed, the American Dialect Society has voted it the 2009 Word of the Year.

Eye news 11/21/09 Recent news articles about special effects contact lenses and prisoners tattooing the whites of their eyes sent me searching for weird contact lenses: cat eyes, spirals, fire, Hello Kitty, and extra-wide for that anime look (pictured). And if those aren't strange enough, here are some that offer eye jewelry.

Alligator urban legends 11/14/09 Some photos of Nile crocodiles hatching from their eggs.

Circus animals on the lam 11/13/09 The hippo at a private zoo in Montenegro has escaped in a flood.

Library of Human Imagination 11/9/09 Another wealthy man, Scott Jones, has been able to outfit the house of his dreams - including this spiral stair slide!

Fatal coyote attack 11/2/09 Two boys in British Columbia, Canada, were saved from cougar attacks - one by his dog and the other by his Mom. By the way, the cougar, puma, and mountain lion are all the same animal.

Happy Halloween! 10/31/09 My Mom pointed out an article in a magazine about the town of Collinsville, Connecticut, where we lived in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Who knew that after I moved away, a huge Halloween tradition would begin?! I found lots of other celebrations of my favorite holiday on the web: Greenwich Village, New York; Meadville, Media, and Nazareth, Pennsylvania; Little Five Points, Georgia; Anoka, Minnesota; Toms River, New Jersey; Morris Cove, Connecticut; North Halsted, Illinois; West Hollywood, California; Bonner Springs, Kansas; Wellfleet, Massachusetts; Rutland, Vermont; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Key West, Florida; and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Good to see so much spirit out there!

Shackleton 10/28/09 Here is a fascinating look inside the hut used by British explorer Robert F. Scott on his Antarctic expedition.

The Mary Rose 10/15/09 A 1925 Bugatti that spent 73 years at the bottom of a Swiss lake has been raised and auctioned.

World's heaviest insects 8/28/09 CBS Sunday Morning featured the insect art of Christopher Marley.

Femur scepter 7/18/09 Scientists in Italy have developed a way of turning rattan wood into bone that is almost identical to the human tissue.

Hazards of hail 6/16/09 A woman in Lakeland, Florida, has kept a "pet snowball" in her freezer for 33 years!

"Seven Pounds" 6/14/09 A man fishing off the side of huge ship off north Queensland, Australia, was stung by a jellyfish that was carried up 25M by a spray of water. A woman in Buffalo, New York, had to make the agonizing decision of who to donate her kidney to - her brother or her sister.

Oldtimer 6/6/09 Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who hid Anne Frank and her family for 2 years and saved the teenager's diary, has died at the age of 100. Dorothy Geeben, America's oldest active mayor, has died at the age of 102. Joe Rollino, famous Coney Island strongman, was struck and killed by a car at 104. Frank Knight, a Maine centenarian, has to cut down a 240-year-old tree that he has been nursing for 50 years.

Elusive animals 6/4/09 An invertebrate zoologist in South Carolina has determined that the green sea slug produces enough chlorophyll to be considered both an animal and a plant. Scientists have found that killer whales in the North Atlantic are in the process of splitting into 2 different species. A nocturnal cricket that pollinates orchids has been discovered on an island in the Indian Ocean. A new and very large (14cm) spider has been found in Israel. And a new species of bird has been discovered in the Borneo rainforest (it's rather nondescript, so I almost didn't include it, but I like the phrase "snacking on mistletoe").

Whales, articulated and dismantled 5/28/09 In this post, I linked to a time-lapse video of the installation of a humpback whale skeleton at the Museum of Osteology. Here is a time-lapse video of an army of ants reducing a lizard to bone.

Vultures 5/4/09 The house and lawn of a woman in Ridgeway, Virginia, have been besieged by a flock of 30-35 hostile vultures.

Bears in the news 4/24/09 A bear of mythical proportions is terrorizing the inhabitants of Incline Village, California. After a bear ravaged his plane in Alaska, a charter pilot patched it up with duct tape and plastic sheeting and flew it home.

Rediscovery of ancient Egypt
4/19/09 A massive statue of an Egyptian pharoah has been found in the Sudan - further south than any other.

Tree tales 4/14/09 There has been a trend on the coast of Poole, Dorset, U.K.: gouging the trunks of trees that block the view so that they will die.

Fossil fuels 3/25/09 Coal in Xuan Wei county of Yunnan province, China, has been linked to the area's highest incidence of cancer in non-smokers.

Snow ropes 1/27/09 In this post were snow photos taken by my brother-in-law in Seattle. Here is a photo my Uncle Chuck took recently in Illinois showing the Mississippi River frozen over. Here are some pictures of snow bales taken in Yeovil, Somerset, U.K., recently. Speaking of snow and ice, a Canadian man was forced to take down this great snow fort that he made for his kids.

First U.S. face transplant! 12/17/08 A Swedish teenager does not need a face transplant after a devastating skin disease (caution), because her own face grew back. Meanwhile, a woman from Belgium has a new windpipe - transplanted from a cadaver and first implanted in her arm to grow new blood vessels.

Fatal tiger mauling 10/28/08 A 66-year-old Canadian man who kept exotic cats has been mauled to death by his tiger.