Category: Prehistoric


DVD cover, Waking the Baby MammothIn the spring of 2007 Yuri Khudi, a reindeer herder in northwestern Siberia, found a baby mammoth carcass, still frozen and remarkably complete, lying on the snowy tundra. Scientists named her Lyuba (little love) after Yuri’s wife – who did not appreciate the honor! Lyuba’s discovery and the scientific investigation that followed became the subject of a National Geographic program, first aired roughly two years after her discovery, and later made available as a DVD.

From a scientific point of view, the DVD is excellent. Certainly some of the scenes of the finding, disappearance and re-finding of Lyuba must have been re-enacted, but not obtrusively so. The long-distance travel, tomographic investigation and subsequent tissue sampling of Lyuba appear to have been photographed in real time, and give a much better idea of how a frozen mummy can be investigated than is generally available. Some of the discoveries included the definite identification of heat-producing brown fat in Lyuba’s hump, her age at death (only about a month) and that she died, probably by drowning, in excellent health.

The reindeer herder Yuri was able to be present at part of the autopsy, and a highlight of the DVD is Nenets culture as the scientists investigating Lyuba stayed with Yuri’s family as they examined where she had been found. The problem of how her body reached the surface of the tundra without thawing or decay is still unsolved.

As usual in National Geographic DVDs, the computer graphic imaging of mammoths in their Pleistocene setting consists of a relatively few clips repeated several times. To some extent this is offset by a series of charming vignettes of Lyuba against modern backgrounds – wandering the museum, appearing to scientists relaxing in modern settings, and interacting with Yuri’s reindeer.

Lyuba is featured a current exhibition touring the USA and the world from the Field Museum. She is just finishing a visit in Hong Kong.

If you like Pleistocene mammals, this is definitely a program to see. Of course I’m prejudiced, since I used mammoths, among other Pleistocene mammals, in Tourist Trap.

Arctic Dinosaur program coverDinosaurs in the Arctic? I live in Alaska and know several geologists, so I heard about the dinosaur bones on the North Slope almost as soon as they were rediscovered. My first reaction, years before this DVD was made, was, “what was the latitude at the time the dinosaurs lived there?” After all, the fossils were about seventy million years old, and plate tectonics has reshaped the continents and oceans considerably since that time. At first, the answer was “it hasn’t been checked yet,” but when it was checked, it turned out that the fossil location was even closer to the pole that it is now: probably at around latitude 80°.

Rediscovered? Turns out the bones were discovered clear back in 1961 by a Shell Oil geologist named Robert Liscomb. He sent them back to Shell, but when he was killed in a rockslide the following year, the bones were forgotten in the Shell archives. It was not until well into the 1980s and renewed interest in petroleum on the North Slope that the bones were sent to the Geological Survey, where they were first identified as being from a dinosaur.

None of which answers the question of how dinosaurs managed to live at a latitude where there was no sunlight for four months of the year, and no night for another four.

This DVD focuses on two questions. First, it examines the digging of a tunnel into the permafrost along the banks of the Colville River in an effort to find bones that were not broken up by freeze-thaw cycles. Second, it speculates on how dinosaurs managed to survive so near the pole. Were they migratory? What did they eat, especially in the winter? What ate them? What was the climate like? What does the discovery of dinosaurs at such a high latitude suggest about whether dinosaurs, like their bird descendants, were warm-blooded?

Certainly there is evidence for a climate far warmer than today’s on the North Slope, even though the latitude was higher. There is no evidence for sea ice that far back, and an open ocean would have made for a much warmer climate. But plants could not have grown without sunlight, so what did the herbivores eat? Moose today winter on bark and twigs – they certainly nipped all the buds off of my Amur maple last winter, and when I had a crab apple tree, it got smaller every year as the moose nibbled its twigs over the winter. Could dinosaurs have done the same?

Although this video does have some dinosaur animation of reasonable quality, it is of interest primarily for what it reveals about dinosaurs and their fossils. It was originally a TV program, from PBS on Nova. Get it for information, rather than entertainment.

DVD CoverThis disc, although it has a copyright date of 2008, is a collection of TV programs originally aired between 2003 and 2008. Thus none are really up to date.

“The Mystery Dinosaur,” from 2006, deals with the discovery of  “Jane.” This fossil has been variously identified as a Nanotyrannus and a juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex. The program is primarily about the argument, which could date it, but as far as I can tell, the argument has never been resolved. Thus the program is still fairly current, though it is more science than entertainment.

“Dinosaurs: Return to Life” deals with the observations that the differences between dinosaurs and birds appear to be due to a relatively small number of mutations. Could birds be “reverse bioengineered” to produce something like dinosaurs? Would we really want to?

The four-program series “Dinosaur Planet” first aired in 2003, and unlike the rest of the programs in this set, it is definitely intended to be entertainment. Each of the four episodes focuses on one or two individual dinosaurs and follows them through a period of their lives. Each episode also covers something that is important or intriguing in the fossil record, and links back to that record. Thus “White Tip’s Journey,” featuring a Velociraptor,  suggests one explanation for the famed (real) fossil of a Velociraptor locked in a death struggle with a Protoceratops.

“Alpha’s Egg,” featuring the large sauropod Saltasaurus and the medium-sized predator Aucasaurus,  is based on the discovery of  a Saltasaurus nesting ground,  fossilized in Patagonia.

Pod of “Pod’s Travels” is based on a Pyroraptor,  a European raptor genus. The episode includes the natural hazards (earthquake, tsunami) that made occasional travel between the islands that made up Europe 80 million years ago possible. The focus of the program is on the dwarfing effect that islands tend to have on species. Pod is a Gulliver among Lilliputians when a tidal wave sweeps him to a much smaller island.

“Little Das’ Hunt” follows a juvenile Daspletosaurus  (an earlier close relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex) learning to hunt, and a herd of Maiasaura. The episode is based on a group of Daspletosaurus and Maiasaura found fossilized together in Montana, but the evidence for the kind of pack behavior shown in the episode is scanty and controversial.

Obviously there is a good deal of imagination going into the behavior, color, feathers or lack of them, musculature and behavior of all of these dinosaurs. Here I want to mention three, because they struck me so strongly.

The first is the underline of the creatures portrayed.  Theropod dinosaurs did indeed have a bone jutting back from the pelvis. However, the velociraptors are shown as having this bone stick out of the body, covered by a narrow wedge of tissue. It seems to me that this arrangement would be very susceptible to breakage, and that evolution would have reduced the length of the bone fairly fast. It makes much more sense that the tail and the posterior part of the belly were much deeper, with the projection buried in muscle. In fact a mummified hadrosaur had exactly this conformation, with a tail much deeper than anyone expected. Why not Velociraptor?

Second is the behavior of prey dinosaurs. Granted they didn’t have much brain, but instinct is also guided by evolution. Threatening a predator with teeth adapted to munching relatively soft leaves, and exposing the vulnerable neck in the process, does not make sense. Kicking (recent work has shown sauropods had vicious kicks) or tail swipes are far more reasonable for the big plant-eaters. This bothered me as far back as the Disney dinosaurs in Fantasia, when the stegosaurus turns to try to threaten T. Rex with its tiny mouth, instead of lashing out with its spiked tail. Now Disney may be forgiven – after all, Fantasia came out in 1940. Between making his dinosaurs animatable by artists drawing each cel by hand and the paleontological knowledge of the day, he did a respectable job even if his sauropods did have necks like snakes and his characters never actually lived at the same time. But that stegosaurus is pure theater, and Discovery Channel should have known better.

The third is grass. There is now some controversy over whether dinosaurs and grass coexisted, but the amount of grass shown is almost certainly incorrect.

Overall evaluation? Watch, but don’t believe everything you see. This DVD has a lot of creative interpretation, some of it almost certainly wrong.

DVD CoverThis set of two DVDs, although the cover has a date of 2008, in fact combines episodes originally aired on the Discovery Channel from 2001 to 2008. The first disc contains four episodes:  Valley of the T. Rex (2001), T-Rex: New Science, New Beast (2006), When Dinosaurs Roamed America (2001) and Utah’s Dino Graveyard (2005). Keep the true dates straight, because our interpretation of dinosaurs is changing rapidly, and the episodes at times seem to contradict each other. None of the interpretations are truly currant, or represent today’s ongoing controversies.

This DVD focuses on the processes of finding, unearthing and interpreting fossils, with only minor clips of computer generation of the living animals. It will be of more interest to budding paleontologists than to those looking for entertainment.

Valley of the T-Rex looks at the idea put forward by Jack Horner that T-Rex was primarily a scavenger, not a predator. The idea is hardly new, and is far earlier than the discovery of T-Rex’s tiny arms – Wiley Ley proposed it as a science article in the April 1943 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. I really doubt that there is any such thing as a pure predator or a pure scavenger. Any predator will scavenge a fresh kill, and any scavenger will kill an animal down and helpless, if only by eating it. Like the short-faced bear, T-Rex may have used its impressive size to intimidate other predators off their kills, but that doesn’t mean it never killed.

T-Rex: New Science, New Beast is more balanced, mentioning that how T-Rex fed is controversial but not getting into the controversy. Rather, it summarized new (as of 2006) methods of investigating dinosaur fossils. This included learning how to tell how old fossil dinosaurs were at death (which led to the discovery of the fantastic teenaged growth spurt of T-Rex and the relatively young age (29) of Sue, the largest T-Rex found.) At least one dinosaur was sexed, though the technique only works with pregnant (with eggs) females. Study of locomotion in modern animals has been applied to dinosaur skeletons, suggesting a lower top speed for full-grown T-Rex than was previously estimated. The episode also mentioned the discovery that some fossil bone had collagen, study of T-Rex bite strength, and the discovery of feathered theropods, leading to the possibility that T-Rex juveniles, at least, had downy feathers.

When Dinosaurs Roamed America goes through the history of dinosaurs, using an American location to spotlight each time period. Remember this segment, and the computer animated clips included, is eleven years old in 2012.

The video starts with New York (Permian-Jurassic, first dinosaurs, early opening of the Atlantic.) It then moves on to Exeter Township, PA (Triassic-Jurassic boundary, theropod-sauropod split.) Utah was a savannah 150 million years ago, wandered over by giant sauropods, their predators, and the smaller herbivorous dinosaurs that survived at their side. New Mexico 90 million years ago was a tropical swamp, with an explosion of flowering plants and broadleafed trees. The notorious K-T (Cretaceous-Triassic) boundary and the final extinction of the dinosaurs is investigated in South Dakota. The video is not bad, but dated.

The final program, Utah’s Dino Graveyard, covers a single location with a huge number of dinosaur fossils of a single species. Falcarius Utahensis was a strange beast even by dinosaur standards, as are most of its Therizinosaurian relatives. It is one of the earliest of a group that evolved from raptor-like carnivores to big-bellied but still relatively upright herbivores. This does happen – all dinosaurs, even the huge sauropods such as Apatosaurus evolved from early ancestors that ran on two legs and preyed on insects. More recently, the giant panda seems to be a bear that has embraced a diet of bamboo.

The real question is, what killed large numbers of the same species? Their preservation seems to be due to the fact that they all died near ancient springs, with rock from the spring deposits forming a cap that preserved their bones, but could the spring also have played a role in their deaths?

In general the computer graphics are adequate but not inspired, and at times show behavior I have doubts about — but I’ll save that critique for the second disc.

Year 2, Day 337 Continued

To my considerable surprise Songbird, with the authority of the Shaman’s necklace, was actually able to convince Lion that my “godly” powers did not extend to making it rain, though I could transport water-filled containers to a band on the move. They were far more apprehensive about Patches, whom they had not seen before. Songbird laughed and hugged the animal, which seemed to reassure them a little. At least they didn’t totally panic when I had the wild dog get their scent so I could have her track them.

<a href="http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=576&picture=sunset-in-serengeti">Sunset In Serengeti</a>The sun was already low when I teleported Songbird, Patches and myself, along with a ground melon and some groundnuts, to the place where I had left the woman. She, too, was shocked, but chatted freely with Songbird while she kept a wary eye on Patches and I added a few more thorn branches to her barrier. Songbird looked carefully around her before we left. “Could you raise us up, so I can see farther?” she asked. Puzzled, I complied, letting her look around a little before I teleported us all back to Storm Cloud’s camp.

We arrived at sunset, with a hunting bird soaring overhead. “I know where they are,” Songbird told the Shaman as she returned the necklace, “and Jarn will  bring them water as they move North. And I know where your sister’s kinswoman is, too.” She then proceeded to give a series of landmarks I had not even noticed, followed by precise directions for reaching the half-starved woman. How had she known that?

Two of the best hunters listened carefully and then nodded. “We will bring her here, but it will take two days running to reach her, and more to bring her back. Can she walk?” They looked in my direction, though not directly at me.

“She is walking around within the thorn barrier now,” I told them. “But she cannot run. You will set out in the morning? I will bring you water, fish and figs at your night camp.” I would take the same to the woman, I decided. She would need the strength if she was to cover the distance back to Storm Wind’s camp.

It was fully dark by then, and I was eager to get back to the safety of my shelter – but I had one more question to ask. “Songbird,” I said, “how did you know the way to where the woman was?”

She grinned. “Oh, I described where this camp is, she recognized it, and told me how to get to her camp from here. I’ll be able to do it someday, but I don’t know all of the landmarks yet.”

When I was back at my shelter and putting today’s doings into my journal I thought a bit about these people’s ability to move around their landscape, and their ability to follow an unknown trail from a single second-hand description. I could not do that. But to survive as hunters and gatherers, they had to.

Jarn’s Journal is the fictional Journal of a Human-like alien stranded in Africa roughly 125,000 years ago. His story is part of the remote background of the Jarnian Confederation, the setting or both my science fiction novels. The Journal to date is on my author website.

This is actually a reissue of programs aired on the Discovery Channel in 1997, though the DVD has a 2009 date. The package date is very misleading, as both the facts given and the computer animation are 15 years old – before the first airing of Walking With Dinosaurs. The computer animation, in particular, is very poor, and I would certainly not buy this DVD to watch the dinosaurs!

The DVD includes four 1-hour programs: Renaissance of the Dinosaurs, Land of the Giants, The Killer Elite, and And Then There Were None. In order, they deal with the public fascination with dinosaurs, the large herbivores, the two-legged killers such as T-Rex and raptors, and the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Luckily, the program concentrates not on the videos, but on the science of paleontology. Even that is a bit dated in describing what is known about dinosaurs, though the finding, excavating, packing and cleaning of specimens is worth watching for budding paleontologists. So is the history of our fascination with dinosaurs, including more than the usual information about how our views about dinosaurs have changed since the Crystal Palace reconstruction and the dinosaur wars between Cope and Marsh.

If you are looking for a video to entertain children, this is not it. On the other hand, the DVD does have a number of airings of scientific controversies and field operations.

One point I would disagree with. The question of whether dinosaurs resembled birds or reptiles in care of young is addressed by using fossil bone cross sections to determine whether newly hatched dinosaurs had strong enough legs to stand. I strongly suspect that some dinosaurs could stand and some couldn’t, and the same is true of modern birds. Certainly chicks and ducklings are on their legs and finding their own food almost at once, and I suspect at least some dinosaurs may have been the same. I have seen arguments in later DVDs that some pterosaurs (which admittedly are not dinosaurs) were able to fly shortly after hatching.

All in all, this is not a DVD I would consider entertainment, but it could be of interest to a budding paleontologist.

I found them! And they do not look nearly as hungry as Lion’s group, though they have piled thorny branches higher around their camp than I ever saw when they were near my shelter. Storm Cloud seemed delighted to see me, as was Songbird.

“Have you seen water near?” Storm Cloud asked me at once.

I looked at the water hole near their camp. Once it had been a deep scour in a river – I could see the dry bed stretching out in either direction. Now it was little more than a long pool, and from the cracked mud surrounding it, that pool was drying up. There were fish, trapped by the shrinking of the river, but they could not feed this group for much longer. There were also a few animal tracks in the mud, but only a few. And most of those visible were the paw-prints of predators. No wonder the thorn barrier was high and wide.

I thought back to what I had seen, flying over this land while I searched for Storm Cloud’s band. “Do you have water carriers?” I asked, because the nearest water in the direction toward greener land was a good three marches away.

In response she called out, and the people began bringing everything they had that would hold water. Gourds, mostly, and a few animal bladders and skins made into sacks. Not enough, I thought, but I didn’t believe their water hole would last much longer.

I’d about given up not interfering, and I could see only one way to help them reach the next real water source. “Take all the water you can,” I told them. “Go north. Make your trail easy for me to follow, and I will meet you when the sun goes down tomorrow. There I will take your water carriers, and bring them back filled.” I could teleport water to them, even if I could not walk with them. And as we went farther north, there would be more water. Wouldn’t there?

Jarn’s Journal is part of the very early history of the Jarnian Confederation that serves as the background for my science fiction novels. The setting is Africa, roughly 125,000 years ago. Jarn’s Journal to date is on my Author Site.

Year 2, Day 325

Even the predators are hungry.

Not that I let that stop me from stealing two of their fresh kills and teleporting them to the vicinity of the camp I found yesterday. The shaman, who goes by the name of Lion, begged me to stay, and share my wisdom with them as I had with Storm Cloud’s group. Wisdom? Knowledge perhaps, thanks to the computer library, but it is these people who seem able to adapt that knowledge to their environment. Was it not Songbird who combined her knowledge of basketry with the information in the computer to devise the fish traps?

Well, I could teleport in enough food to keep them from starving from areas where the drought had not been so extreme—but visiting them occasionally would be sufficient for that. I pointed to the half-moon, visible in the daylight sky. “I will return when the moon is full,” I told Lion. “And I will join you at the Gather. But for now, I need to find Storm Cloud’s band.” I was perhaps going too far with the promise to join them at the gather—I still didn’t know were that was! But if I could find Storm Cloud, I could follow that band, no longer constrained by my inability to walk any distance.

Neither Lion nor any member of his band could tell me exactly where to find Storm Cloud’s band. They did, however, have considerable awareness of the regions each band roamed over. Not teleport coordinates, not a map, but a general awareness of landmarks, and distance (in days’ travel) and direction between them. By the time I left Lion’s band, late in the evening, I had a much smaller area to search in hopes of finding Storm Cloud and Songbird.

I can only hope they are in better condition than Lion’s band.

 Year 2 Day 320

I don’t think the rains are going to come.

Oh, there have been a couple of showers, but barely enough to lay down the dust. Everything around me seems to be burning, except what is already burned. I am in no danger—the well is providing all of the water I need, and the shelter, built from the remains of the escape capsule, is fireproof. I hunt, fish and gather far to the north, where the rains have fallen and the world is green. But how are the nomads faring? Can they find enough food? Where are they?

I no longer think, or even hope, that they will return this year. What could they find to eat here? The herds have not come, and with the stream dry, there are no fish to be caught. But I cannot stand to be alone much longer, and the only other R’il’nian-like species I have found is hostile.

I have decided to try to find those I know. It won’t be easy. This is a big continent, and all I know is that they should be somewhere to the north where it is green enough they can find game. Probably somewhere north of the rains. They are a rare species—I know that, for I have been watching for them, casually, for fivedays now. It is time to intensify the search. Perhaps with the aid of Patches I can find them, or if not the group I know, some other group of the same people.

I wish I knew where their gather site was.

Jean Auel began her “Children of Earth” series over 30 years ago, with Clan of the Cave Bear. The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage and The Shelters of Stone followed. Her latest addition, The Land of Painted Caves, continues to follow Ayla and Jondalar, still having difficulty communicating, and this time includes a tour of the cave paintings of France.

All are long books – The Land of Painted Caves is 828 pages in paperback and the others are about the same length. All are well researched. I discovered the series 30 years ago, primarily because of my interest in the Pleistocene and human evolution, and most of this review will be from that perspective.

From a writer’s point of view, the most recent book is full of information dumps, and rather weak on plot. That hasn’t stopped it from being a best seller, but there were times when I had to force myself to pick it up. I did manage to find a number of usable Twitter quotes, which are being posted and their contexts will be explained on February 29.

A good part of the book is description of the cave art of France. Auel does include a map keyed both to what the Zelandonii of her book called the caves and what archeologists call them, but I wanted to see some pictures of the cave art, not just descriptions. I actually searched the web for images from the caves, but found very few even when I knew the name of the cave. Good general references are http://myrencounter.blogspot.com/2011/07/land-of-painted-caves.html and http://www.donsmaps.com/indexauelfans.html, but they have more photos of the locations of the caves than of the actual paintings. White Hollow, identified as Lascaux, does have some images of the art at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/12/inside-lascaux-the-versai_n_712645.html.

One possible source, at least for drawings of the cave art, is The Nature of Paleolithic Art, by Dale Guthrie. Dale is an artist himself, and while he suggests that a good deal of the “art” in the caves was equivalent to graffiti found in mens rooms, his first interest in cave art was as guides to reconstructing extinct animals. This is a huge book, with hundreds if not thousands of drawings of Pleistocene art from all over Eurasia, but putting the drawings in this book together with what Ayla saw would be a major project.

Leaving the art, there has long been a controversy in archaeology as to whether modern humans and Neanderthals (what Ayla calls the Clan) ever interbred, or whether such interbreeding was even possible. The argument went back and forth during the time period over which Auel’s books were being written. DNA for a time was used to claim such interbreeding never occurred. Then, less than a year ago, DNA evidence made it quite clear that such interbreeding had in fact happened. The basis of Auel’s books was if anything ahead of the archaeology of the time.

In one point, however, she was clearly wrong, though there was no way she could have known it at the time she started the series..  Jondalar and Ayla are described as being blonde and having blue and gray eyes respectively. Recent gene sequencing has strongly suggested that all blue and gray-eyed people are descended from a single common ancestor who lived between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, well after the setting of Auel’s books. There is at least some argument that blonde hair may have evolved after the ice ages. Still, I cannot help but wonder if it could be derived from that Neanderthal admixture. If fair coloring is an adaptation to getting vitamin D in a region with little sunlight, such as Europe, the Neanderthals lived in Europe long before the Cro-Magnons arrived.

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