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Chariot fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Chariot fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Chariot fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Crossbow fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Chariot fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Finial fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Corner fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Ring fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Finial fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Tubular fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Finial fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Axle fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Finial fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Round fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Beauty of Bare Bones

Smithsonian Magazine

The room is replete with bones. They fill shelves and boxes, embellish windowsills and walls. A Pleistocene cave bear skull from Russia's Ural Mountains dominates one shelf. Nearby reside the relics of elk and lynx, coyote and loon, pelican and wolf. Old cigar boxes overflow with other, smaller bones.

From this workroom in his home in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, artist Gendron Jensen looks out over the Rio del Pueblo Valley. From time to time eagles fly past, following the course of the river below. Jensen lives close to nature here--close to the heart and soul of his art.

For more than 30 years the 58-year-old artist has devoted himself to transforming relics from nature's midden into art objects of uncommon beauty. His meticulously rendered, often monumental, graphite drawings of bones invite the viewer to see these relics in a new way--to journey beyond their ordinary anatomical context to a deeper, more spiritual realm. Conjuring art from nature, Jensen combines, refines and enlarges these relics, juxtaposing shapes and textures to create sculptural, iconographic forms. These compelling works, at once highly detailed and highly abstract, evoke a primal connection to nature and its many mysteries. "There is a majesty inherent in bones," says Jensen, "a humbling geography that summons me to map its glories." For Jensen, bones represent the very foundation of being. "There is a vital resonance in every bone," he says; "the spirits of the animals are there. They speak of life and the creature they once were."

Largely self-taught, Jensen didn't start drawing until age 26, but his bond with nature was forged early on. As a 6-year-old exploring the shores of Minnesota's Pokegama Lake, Jensen came upon a small rodent skull. "I didn't know what it was then, but I was impressed by the way the teeth curved and fit back into the jaw," he recalls. "That discovery began my journey."

The onetime recluse spent 5 years at a Benedictine monastery in Wisconsin and 17 as a semi-hermit on a former mink farm south of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Ten years ago, he forsook the northwoods of Minnesota for the mountains of New Mexico and a new life with artist Christine Taylor Patten. In the winter of 1986, a grant allowed Jensen to come to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to draw turtle bones (Around the Mall, August 1986). During that stay Charles Potter of Natural History's Division of Mammals took Jensen to the Smithsonian's Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, to see some "real bones." Sliding open the door of an anonymous corrugated-metal building, Potter pulled aside a plastic drape to reveal the behemoth bones of a baleen whale.

"That moment left me changed for all time," explains Jensen. From this experience sprang the resolve for a second collaboration with the Smithsonian, one that the artist hopes will draw attention to the fate of the blue whale. Working with the collections at the Smithsonian and two other museums, Jensen will create a series of large-scale drawings of the skeletal relics of this leviathan. The project will culminate, if funds allow, in a traveling exhibition and a book.

Jensen's drawings, which are all rendered in pencil, have found their way into the collections of such museums as Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "What makes Gendron Jensen unique," says LACMA director Graham Beal, "is his single-minded vision and passionate focus." At the heart of that vision is the bare beauty of bones. "They are inexhaustible," Jensen declares. "I keep going back--they are a source of immeasurable wonder."

By Diane M. Bolz

Unintended Journeys – The impacts of Hurricane Katrina

National Museum of Natural History
Unintended Journeys is a photographic exhibit in collaboration with Magnum Photos on view until August 13, 2014 on the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History. This is the second post in a series exploring the relationship between humans and the environment, and the consequences of human migration...

Photograph of Ruth March decorating the car at the head of a NCNW motorcade

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of Ruth N. March, former president of the San Francisco Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, decorating a1956 Cadillac Sixty Special, the lead car in a voter registration motorcade that took place in San Francisco on September 8, 1956. The car has been fitted with bullhorns and has two signs on its side announcing the Citizenship Education Project. The photograph is adhered to page 39 of Francis Albrier's scrapbook (2010.60.1).

The Rise of the Modern Sportswoman

Smithsonian Magazine

This Olympics, more women than ever have run, jumped, swam, shot, flipped, hit and pedaled their way to glory. Of the more than 11,000 athletes who came to compete in Rio this year, 45 percent are women. Many of them—Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky to name a few—have become household names. But 120 years ago, there might as well have been a “No Girls Allowed” sign painted on the entrance to the first modern Olympics, when 241 athletes, all men, from 14 countries gathered in Athens, Greece.

In the words of the founder of the Olympic movement, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Games were created for “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism” with “female applause as reward.” That women shouldn’t compete in the Games was self-explanatory, said Coubertin: “as no women participated in the Ancient Games, there obviously was to be no place for them in the modern ones.”

But that’s not exactly true—the ancient Greek women had their own Olympics-like contest. Rather, Coubertin’s belief that women had always been excluded played into the predominant theory that women (with “women” coded to mean well-to-do white women) were the weaker sex, unable to physically endure the strains of competitive sport.

One revealing statement by Coubertin best illustrates why he didn’t think women should participate:

“It is indecent that spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a women being smashed before their eyes. Besides, no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks. Her nerves rule her muscles, nature wanted it that way.”

Just as women competed in ancient times, women were showing very real physical prowess during Coubertin’s day. During the inaugural Olympics, one or two women (historical accounts differ) even informally competed in the most physically grueling of all Olympic events: the marathon. But it would be a long time before society and science acknowledged that women belonged in the sporting world.

The Weaker Sex

The ideal Victorian woman was gentle, passive and frail—a figure, at least in part, inspired by bodies riddled with tuberculosis. These pale, wasting bodies became linked with feminine beauty. Exercise and sport worked in opposition to this ideal by causing muscles to grow and skin to tan.

“It's always been this criticism and this fear in women's sports [that] if you get too muscular, you're going to look like a man,” says Jaime Schultz, author of Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport.

To top off these concerns, female anatomy and reproduction baffled scientists of the day. A woman’s ovaries and uterus were believed to control her mental and physical health, according to historian Kathleen E. McCrone. “On the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever, they related biology to behavior,” she writes in her book Playing the Game: Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914. Women who behaved outside of society’s norm were kept in line and told, as McCrone writes, “physical effort, like running, jumping and climbing, might damage their reproductive organs and make them unattractive to men.”

Women were also thought to hold only a finite amount of vital energy. Activities including sports or higher education theoretically drained this energy from reproductive capabilities, says Schultz. Squandering your life force meant that “you couldn't have children or your offspring would be inferior because they couldn't get the energy they needed,” she says.

Of particular concern at the time was energy expenditure during menstruation. During the late 1800s, many experts cautioned against participating in any physical activity while bleeding. The “rest cure” was a common prescription, in which women surfed out the crimson wave from the confines of their beds—an unrealistic expectation for all but the most wealthy.

It was upper-class women, however, who helped push for women’s inclusion in Olympic competition, says Paula Welch, a sports history professor at the University of Florida. By participating in sports like tennis and golf at country clubs, they made these activities socially acceptable. And just four years after the launch of the modern Olympics, 22 women competed alongside men in sailing, croquet and equestrian competitions, and in the two women-only designated events, tennis and lawn golf. While the competition was small (and some didn’t even know they were competing in the Olympics), women had officially joined the competition.

Charlotte "Chattie" Cooper was one of the 22 women at the 1900 Olympics. She won the gold in the tennis singles event and the mixed doubles event with her partner Reggie Doherty. (Wikimedia Commons)

Working-class women, meanwhile, pursued other means of getting exercise. Long-distance walking competitions, called Pedestrianism, was all the rage. The great bicycle fad of the 1890s showed women that they not only could be physically active, but also allowed them greater mobility, explains Schultz.

During this time, some medical researchers began to question the accepted ideas of what women were capable of. As a 28-year-old biology student at the University of Wisconsin, Clelia Duel Mosher started conducting the first-ever American study on female sexuality in 1892. She spent the next three decades surveying women's physiology in an effort to break down the assumptions that women were weaker than men. But her work proved an exception to the mainstream perspective, which stayed steadfastly mired in the Victorian era.

The Road to the Olympics

Born in 1884 in Nantes, France, Alice Milliat (her real name was Alice Joséphine Marie Million) believed women could achieve greater equality through sport. In 1921, frustrated by the lack of opportunities for women in the Olympics, she founded Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI). The organization would launch the first Women’s Olympic Games, held in Paris in 1922. At these games, women competed in physically strenuous events like the 1000-meter race and shot put.

Alice Milliat (Wikimedia Commons)

Millat’s success bred contemptment from the athletic establishment, namely the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), who chafed at the independence under which these women flourished. In 1926, an agreement was struck such that the FSFI would agree to follow IAAF rules and drop its catchy name. In turn, the IOC added track-and-field events to the Amsterdam Games.

The 800-meter race—the longest distance women were given to run—would become a flashpoint that would resonate for decades. After the Olympic event, the female competitors appeared, (unsurprisingly) sweaty and out of breath. Even though the men didn’t look any better after their race, spectators were aghast. The distance was perceived as too much for the women. In the words of one sensational newspaper headline, the racers were “Eleven Wretched Women.” The backlash ensured that the distance would be banned from the Olympics until 1960.

The track at the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics. (Wikimedia Commons)

The pushback came in part from physical educators, who were trained medical doctors yet believed that women could not handle undue physical strain. “When women were participating [in the physician’s tests] they generally didn’t train,” says Welch. “So when they did something that involved some endurance—after they ran 200 or 300 yards—they were rapidly breathing.” That spurred the idea that around 200 yards was the farthest distance a woman should run.

By 1920, despite these doubts, 22 percent of colleges and universities in the United States offered women’s athletic programs. But physical educators so deeply objected to women’s competitive sports that they successfully fought in the ’30s to replace competition at the collegiate level with game days and exercise classes. The mainstay Victorian belief that vigorous exercise was detrimental to childbearing echoed on.

On the Way to Equality

There were exceptions to the mainstream narrative. Women who swam, for instance, made early inroads. As no one could see them sweat, the sport didn’t look as strenuous. This likely was what allowed aquatics events for women to be introduced in the 1912 Olympic Games. But women had to work around gender norms of the day to train, Welch points out. As beaches required women wear stockings, members of the Women's Swimming Association would swim out to the jetties, where they’d take their stockings off and tie them to the rocks. At the end of their practice, the swimmers  would return to the rocks, untie and put their stockings back on so they looked “presentable” when they resurfaced at shore.

“It was just something they had to deal with,” says Welch.

Gertrude Ederle trained at the Women's Swimming Association (WSA). Referred to by the press as the "Queen of the Waves" she became the first woman to swim across the English Channel. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shaking assumptions about what women were physically capable of took many forms in the early years of the Olympics. The swagger of early women athletes like Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias and Stanisława Walasiewicz “Stella Walsh” served as inspiration for others; both came away with gold hardware at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

But it was after the war, when the Soviet Union entered international sporting competitions, that the dogged, pervasive stereotypes of the Victorian era were finally forced out in the open. At the 1952 Helsinki Games, all Soviet athletes—men and women—arrived ready and trained to win. As the postwar Soviet Chairman of the Committee on Physical Culture and Sport, Nikolai Romanov, put it in his memoirs:

“… we were forced to guarantee victory, otherwise the ‘free’ bourgeois press would fling mud at the whole nation as well as our athletes … to gain permission to go to international tournaments I had to send a special note to Stalin guaranteeing the victory.”

The commanding presence of these Soviet women, whose wins counted just as much as the male athletes, left the United States little choice but to build up its own field of women contenders if it wanted to emerge victorious in the medal tally. By the 1960 Rome Games, the breakout performance of Wilma Rudolph, as well as those of her Tennessee State University colleagues, sent a clear message home, just as the women’s liberation movement was just taking seed.

As the number of women researchers and medical professionals grew, science began catching up with the expanding field of female athletes, says Karen Sutton, an orthopedic surgeon at Yale University and Head Team Physician for United States Women’s Lacrosse. And their research suggested that not only were women not the delicate waifs seen in popular culture, but that there were fewer physiologic barriers between men and women than previously thought.

“Whether or not there is a female response to exercise which is mediated solely by the factor of sex has not been determined,” wrote Barbara Drinkwater, a pioneer in the field, in her 1973 review on women’s physiologic response to exercise.

Though there appeared to be definite differences in the maximum capacities of men and women, several studies at the time documented that physical fitness could “override the effect of sex,” Drinkwater noted. One 1965 study found that oxygen uptake—a common measure of physical capacity—of female athletes could slightly exceed that of sedentary men.

Researchers during this time also began dispelling the widespread fears of combining exercise with menstruation. Long considered dirty or incapacitating in some cultures, menstruation has “historically been the focus of myth and misinformation,” according to a 2012 article on mood and menstruation. “It became justification for restricting women’s participation in everything from sport to education to politics,” Schultz argues in her book, Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women's Sport.

In 1964, researchers surveyed Olympic athletes competing in Tokyo and determined that competition had few detrimental effects on menstruation and pregnancy. Surprisingly, athletes who bore children prior to competing reported that they “became stronger, had even greater stamina, and were more balanced in every way after having a child”—a notion echoed by multiple later studies.

Despite these efforts, available research on women still lagged behind. “The amount of information available in determining women’s physiological response to exercise is relatively small in comparison to that available for men,” writes Drinkwater in 1973.  

The passage of Title IX of the Education Act of 1972 opened up opportunities for women athletes and the researchers who studied them. The historic legislation required that women be given equal opportunity in education and sport, marking the most significant turning point in the history of women’s athletics. Before this mandate, there were fewer than 30,000 collegiate women athletes in the United States. But over the next four decades, that number would increase to 190,000 by 2012, according to a White House press statement. Title IX is a national, not international, initiative. Yet, as Sutton points out, the influence of the United States on the world has had a global impact on girls in sport.

Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, who co-authored the Title IX legislation, exercises with Title IX athletes at Purdue University. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Trouble With Gender

On the world stage, women have gone from being banned from competition to to performing feats that appear superhuman. But with these triumphs came pushback. Women who performed “too well” were viewed with suspicion, and often forced to submit to gender tests, an indignity never asked of their male counterparts.

Since the early 20th century, the IOC and IAAF had focused an inordinate amount of resources on trying to discover men posing as women in competition. But they found no imposters, only identifying intersex women who demonstrated that gender is not as binary as many believed at the time, and still believe today.

One of the biggest gender scandals was the case of Heinrich “Dora” Ratjen, who placed fourth in the 1936 Olympics high jump competition. At birth, Ratjen was classified by doctors as as female, likely confused by unusual scar tissue on his genitalia, later documented on medical examination. So Ratjen was raised as a girl, but long harbored suspicions that he was male. It wasn’t until 1938, when a police officer stopped him on a train for appearing to be a man in women’s clothing that Ratjen was forced to reckon with his gender identity.

Heinrich “Dora” Ratjen (Wikimedia Commons)

As discussed earlier, the influx of Soviet women to the competition had forced the U.S. to up their game—but that also came with a twinge of gendered assumptions about what an athletic woman looked like. “The specter of these muscular women from Eastern European countries turned off a lot of North American audiences,” says Schultz. (It was later shown that the athletes were being fed anabolic steroids under the guise of vitamins in a state-sponsored program.)

In the two years leading up to the 1968 Olympics, officials began gender testing elite female athletes on a trial basis through demeaning genital checks later called the “nude parade.” To quell the rising tide of complaints about these humiliating tests, the IOC adopted chromosomal testing for women competitors in the 1968 Games. But the chromosome tests were far from reliable. “[T]he test is so sensitive that male cells in the air can mistakenly indicate that a woman is a man,” according to a 1992 New York Times article. And what the test results meant remained unclear.

The list of confusing outcomes from the chromosome and hormone tests is extensive. Ruth Padawer explains for The New York Times:

“Some intersex women, for instance, have XX chromosomes and ovaries, but because of a genetic quirk are born with ambiguous genitalia, neither male nor female. Others have XY chromosomes and undescended testes, but a mutation affecting a key enzyme makes them appear female at birth; they’re raised as girls, though at puberty, rising testosterone levels spur a deeper voice, an elongated clitoris and increased muscle mass. Still other intersex women have XY chromosomes and internal testes but appear female their whole lives, developing rounded hips and breasts, because their cells are insensitive to testosterone. They, like others, may never know their sex development was unusual, unless they’re tested for infertility — or to compete in world-class sports.”

Amid complaints from both athletes and the medical community, the IOC resolved to end Olympic gender verification in 1996, abolishing the practice by 1999. But suspicions of gender cheating were aroused again when runner Caster Semenya dominated the 800-meter race in the 2009 African Junior Championships, leading Olympic authorities to require her to submit to sex testing after that year’s World Athletics Championship.

Caster Semenya at the 2012 London Olympics (Wikimedia Commons)

This led the IAAF to implement mandatory tests for hyperandrogenism, or high testosterone in 2011. Women that test positive have two options, Schultz says, they can either drop out of the sport or undergo surgical or hormonal intervention to lower their testosterone levels.  But it still remained unclear if naturally high testosterone levels truly give women an extra boost.

Men are not subjected to any of these tests—their whole range of genetic and biologic variation are deemed acceptable, Schultz adds. “We don't say that it's an unfair advantage if your body produces more red blood cells than the average male,” she says. “But we test for testosterone in women.”

Beyond the physiological aspects of gender testing is a broader social problem. “They say they don't sex test anymore, but that’s just semantics,” says Schultz. “It’s still a sex test, they're just using hormones instead of chromosomes to test for sex.”

The Modern Sportswoman

As research into women’s physiology has continued to expand, women’s athletics have made leaps and bounds. Title IX provided an influx of much-needed resources for female athletes, coaches and researchers.

Of particular importance was funding for female weight rooms, says Sutton, an initiative that was yet another response to the Soviet training regimen. Pumping metal meant the American women athletes could train harder and smarter—strengthening their bodies while preventing injuries.

As women entered universities, they had few resources for sport. It took time for both the Title IX funds to kick in and the minds of male students to change. After Dartmouth College went co-ed in 1972, the male students made huge signs that read, “Cohogs go home.” (Wikimedia Commons/Dartmouth College Alumni Gymnasium)

Medical researchers have realized that women are more prone to specific injuries, Sutton explains, such as tears in the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)—a result of anatomy. Though women can’t change their bone structure, they can change the muscles supporting it. “Strength and conditioning coaches weren't seen as instrumental as they are now; now they're just as key as your nutritionist, your athletic trainer,” she says.

Despite these advances, today’s athletes still must contend with some lingering Victorian-age logic. Just this week, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, clearly in pain, mentioned in a post-race interview that she was on her period. Many applauded her for freely speaking about menstruation in public. But the fact that this made headlines at all emphasizes the stigmas that still surround periods.

Still, unlike in 1896, women are an integral part of the Olympic narrative today, and the women in this narrative are more diverse and inclusive than ever before. In an Olympic first, in 2012, every country sent at least one woman competitor to the London Games. Though many countries have yet to move past token representation, there is a long road ahead. Just as the Rio Olympics will turn its eyes to Tokyo in the closing ceremony, the future beckons and the Olympic flame looks bright.

While there are many more chapters to unfold, for now, we'll end it with a period.

Chariot fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Mystery of Easter Island

Smithsonian Magazine

Hundreds of years ago, a small group of Polynesians rowed their wooden outrigger canoes across vast stretches of open sea, navigating by the evening stars and the day's ocean swells. When and why these people left their native land remains a mystery. But what is clear is that they made a small, uninhabited island with rolling hills and a lush carpet of palm trees their new home, eventually naming their 63 square miles of paradise Rapa Nui—now popularly known as Easter Island.

On this outpost nearly 2,300 miles west of South America and 1,100 miles from the nearest island, the newcomers chiseled away at volcanic stone, carving moai, monolithic statues built to honor their ancestors. They moved the mammoth blocks of stone—on average 13 feet tall and 14 tons—to different ceremonial structures around the island, a feat that required several days and many men.

Eventually the giant palms that the Rapanui depended on dwindled. Many trees had been cut down to make room for agriculture; others had been burned for fire and used to transport statues across the island. The treeless terrain eroded nutrient-rich soil, and, with little wood to use for daily activities, the people turned to grass. "You have to be pretty desperate to take to burning grass," says John Flenley, who with Paul Bahn co-authored The Enigmas of Easter Island. By the time Dutch explorers—the first Europeans to reach the remote island—arrived on Easter day in 1722, the land was nearly barren.

Although these events are generally accepted by scientists, the date of the Polynesians' arrival on the island and why their civilization ultimately collapsed is still being debated. Many experts maintain that the settlers landed around 800 A.D. They believe the culture thrived for hundreds of years, breaking up into settlements and living off the fruitful land. According to this theory, the population grew to several thousand, freeing some of the labor force to work on the moai. But as the trees disappeared and people began to starve, warfare broke out among the tribes.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond refers to the Rapanui's environmental degradation as "ecocide" and points to the civilization's demise as a model of what can happen if human appetites go unchecked.

But new findings by archaeologist Terry Hunt of the University of Hawai'i may indicate a different version of events. In 2000, Hunt, archaeologist Carl Lipo of California State University, Long Beach, and their students began excavations at Anakena, a white sandy beach on the island's northern shore. The researchers believed Anakena would have been an attractive area for the Rapanui to land, and therefore may be one of the earliest settlement sites. In the top several layers of their excavation pit, the researchers found clear evidence of human presence: charcoal, tools—even bones, some of which had come from rats. Underneath they found soil that seemed absent of human contact. This point of first human interaction, they figured, would tell them when the first Rapanui had arrived on the island.

Hunt sent the samples from the dig to a lab for radiocarbon dating, expecting to receive a date around 800 A.D., in keeping with what other archaeologists had found. Instead, the samples dated to 1200 A.D. This would mean the Rapanui arrived four centuries later than expected. The deforestation would have happened much faster than originally assumed, and the human impact on the environment was fast and immediate.

Hunt suspected that humans alone could not destroy the forests this quickly. In the sand's layers, he found a potential culprit—a plethora of rat bones. Scientists have long known that when humans colonized the island, so too did the Polynesian rat, having hitched a ride either as stowaways or sources of food. However they got to Easter Island, the rodents found an unlimited food supply in the lush palm trees, believes Hunt, who bases this assertion on an abundance of rat-gnawed palm seeds.

Image by Terry L. Hunt. Two statues sit on the slopes of the Rano Raraku statue quarry. Nearly half of Easter Island's statues remain near this area. (original image)

Image by Terry L. Hunt. Hanga Roa Village is one of Easter Island's main settlements. (original image)

Image by Terry L. Hunt. The moai at Ahu Tongariki form the island's largest ceremonial platform. A tidal wave in 1960 sent 15 of these statues inland. Some 30 years later, archaeologists finally restored the site. (original image)

Image by Terry L. Hunt. Students with the University of Hawai'i Rapa Nui Archaeological Field School inspect the stratification at Anakena Beach in 2005. (original image)

Image by Terry L. Hunt. Petroglyphs still remain at the Orongo Ceremonial Village. (original image)

Image by Terry L. Hunt. Polynesians chiseled the moai (above, on the lower slopes of the Rano Raraku statue quarry) out of volcanic rock. Carved in honor of ancestors, the statues stood on average 13 feet tall and weighed 14 tons. (original image)

Image by Terry L. Hunt. At Anakena Beach, several moai, perched on a four-foot tall stone wall called an "ahu," stand with their back to the sea. (original image)

Image by Terry L. Hunt. Participants in the University of Hawai'i Rapa Nui Archaeological Field School fly a kite at Anakena Beach. The moai of Ahu Nau Nau provide the backdrop. (original image)

Under these conditions, he says, "Rats would reach a population of a few million within a couple of years." From there, time would take its toll. "Rats would have an initial impact, eating all of the seeds. With no new regeneration, as the trees die, deforestation can proceed slowly," he says, adding that people cutting down trees and burning them would have only added to the process. Eventually, the degeneration of trees, according to his theory, led to the downfall of the rats and eventually of the humans. The demise of the island, says Hunt, "was a synergy of impacts. But I think it is more rat than we think."

Hunt's findings caused a stir among Easter Island scientists. John Flenley, a pollen analyst at New Zealand's University of Massey, accepts that the numerous rats would have some impact on the island. "Whether they could have deforested the place," he says, "I'm not sure."

Flenley has taken core samples from several lakebeds formed in the island's volcanic craters. In these cores, he has found evidence of charcoal. "Certainly there was burning going on. Sometimes there was a lot of charcoal," he says. "I'm inclined to think that the people burning the vegetation was more destructive [than the rats]."

Adding to the civilization's demise, European explorers brought with them Western diseases like syphilis and smallpox. "I think that the collapse happened shortly before European discovery of the island," Flenley says. "But it could be that the collapse was more of a general affair than we think, and the Europeans had an effect on finishing it off."

Flenley, who initially surveyed Easter Island in 1977, was one of the first scientists to analyze the island's pollen—a key indicator of foresting. The island's volcanic craters, which once housed small lakes, were ideal sites for his research. "The sediment was undisturbed. Each layer was put down on top of the layer before," says Flenley, referring to core samples from one crater's lakebeds. "It's like a history book. You just have to learn to read the pages." The samples showed an abundance of pollen, indicating that the island had once been heavily forested. The pollen rate then dropped off dramatically. "When I dated the deforestation at that site, it came starting at about 800 A.D. and finishing at this particular site as early as 1000 A.D.," a finding in line with other radiocarbon dates on the island. Since this was one of the first settlement sites, Flenley says, it makes sense that deforestation would have occurred even earlier than it did on other parts of the island.

This crater, Flenley believes, would have been one of the only sources of freshwater on the island, and therefore one of the first places the Polynesians would have settled. "It wasn't only a site of freshwater, it was also a very sheltered crater," he says. "It would have been possible to grow tropical crops." Anakena, the beach where Hunt did his research, would have been a good place to keep their canoes and to go fishing, but not a good place to live. Hunt, Flenley says, "has definitely shown a minimum age for people being there, but the actual arrival of people could have been somewhat earlier."

Other scientists who work on the island also remain skeptical of Hunt's later colonization date of 1200 A.D. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, founder of the Easter Island Statue Project and a scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of the island's leading archaeologists and has studied the moai for nearly 30 years. "It's not logical that they were constructing megalithic sites within a few years of arrival on the island," she says. Van Tilburg and her colleagues have surveyed all 887 of the island's statues. "By 1200 A.D., they were certainly building platforms," she says referring to the stone walls on which the islanders perched the moai, "and others have described crop intensification at about the same time. It's hard for me to be convinced that his series of excavations can overturn all of this information."

Despite these questions, Hunt remains confident in his findings. Many scientists, he says, "get a date, tell a story, invest a lot in it, and then don't want to give it up. They had a very good environmental message."

Hunt, Lipo, and their students continue to do excavation work on the island. They have recently moved on from Anakena to do work on the northwest coast. They also plan to date the earliest rat-gnawed seeds. "We keep getting a little more evidence," says Hunt, who has published his findings in Science. "Everything looks very consistent."

Scientists may never find a conclusive answer to when the Polynesians colonized the island and why the civilization collapsed so quickly. Whether an invasive species of rodent or humans devastated the environment, Easter Island remains a cautionary tale for the world.

Whitney Dangerfield, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. whose work has appeared in National Geographic and the Washington Post, is a regular contributor to Smithsonian.com.

Harness fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Upside of Rotting Carcasses

Smithsonian Magazine

After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution swiftly spread west into the Great Plains, bringing with it the sky-choking smoke of railroads, factories, and industrial pollution. But even before that, the region’s rivers weren’t exactly pristine. An 1869 dispatch from Theodore R. Davis, a staff illustrator for Harper’s Magazine, dubbed one stream the “Stinking Water.” Davis writes:  

“The name was conferred by the Indians who have more than once been forced to abandon a camp-ground on this river on account of the offensiveness of the water, caused by the decaying carcasses of buffalo that have been mired in the mud and there died. ... Hundreds of buffalo perish each year in places such as this stinking water, for an accessible crossing-place is difficult to find.” 

Those pesky American bison—colloquially known as buffalo—were dying naturally. But by the late 1880s, just 20 years after Davis’s account, the distinctly unnatural forces of rifle-wielding white settlers, industrialists and cattle ranchers had nearly driven the bison to extinction. The collapse was catastrophic for the Native Americans who relied on the massive beasts for food and clothing, not to mention the buffalo themselves.

Few if any observers, however, fretted about the disappearance of large rotting carcasses from the waterways. 

Now, modern studies on another drowning-prone large herbivore suggest that the bison carcasses may have been doing far more than just stinking up creek beds. African wildebeests that die en masse on the Mara River in Kenya and Tanzania not only feed scavengers, but also release key nutrients directly into the river, according to a recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As the carcasses decompose, maggots hatch, and mats of brown and green algae and bacteria grow over the bones, providing year-round sustenance for the local fish. 

Altogether, it takes seven years for the wildebeest bones to fully disintegrate, releasing nutrients like phosphorous and carbon into the river. This slow decomposition, while unpleasant to smell, is crucial for the Mara River ecosystem, sustaining microbes, insects, and fish, as well as large scavengers. In the past, river ecologists had assumed that high levels of dissolved carbon from rotting corpses are unhealthy and unnatural for rivers. But the researchers found  that protected parks actually have more dissolved carbon their rivers compared to unprotected ones, suggesting that less human influence can sometimes mean more putrid rivers. 

“It sounds cheesy, but death and decomposition are the other half of the circle of life, and that’s very obvious in the Mara Serengeti ecosystem,” says ecologist Amanda Subalusky of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, a co-author on the recent study. “Where some might see a stinking river full of maggots, I see the other half of the whole circle happening.”

Subalusky recalls witnessing the aftermath of a 2011 mass drowning in which 5,000 creatures died in a single crossing. The resulting orgy of life may not have been pretty, but it was critical for the ecosystem.

“We were walking the river bank counting carcasses,” she says. “As we walked around each bend, there would be these mounds of carcasses, piled up, anywhere from just a few, like five or ten, up to a couple hundred. There were crocodiles basking on banks. Just huge, fat, sated crocodiles. We saw crocodiles mating. It just seemed like a big crocodile party. There was storks and vultures kind of roosting along the trees and defecating, so certain trees were covered in guano ... The whole river smelled of decomposing carcasses, but it was fascinating to see all the life.”

A scene depicting American buffalo sketched by artist George Catlin in 1832. From his Letters and Notes: “Near the mouth of White River, we met the most immense herd crossing the Missouri River—and from an imprudence got our boat into imminent danger amongst them, from which we were highly delighted to make our escape. It was in the midst of the ‘running season,’ and we had heard the ‘roaring’ (as it is called) of the herd, when we were several miles from them. When we came in sight, we were actually terrified at the immense numbers that were streaming down the green hills on one side of the river, and galloping up and over the bluff s on the other. The river was filled, and in parts blackened, with their heads and horns, as they were swimming about . . . furiously hooking and climbing on to each other. I rose in my canoe, and by my gestures and hallooing, kept them from coming in contact with us, until we were out of their reach.” (George Catlin / Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Mara River isn’t the only modern ecosystem that relies on rotting carcasses for sustenance. When large whales die, their bodies sink to the seafloor, where their bodies form an entirely unique ecosystem. First, scavenger species such as hagfish tear away large pieces of soft tissue, but later the carcass is colonized by even stranger creatures, such as the “bone-eating” worms—which have no mouths, no anuses, and only globules full of symbiotic bacteria to help them digest the whale carcass.

These “whale-fall” communities can last decades, in the cold, dark depths of the ocean, and marine biologists have discovered over 60 species that seem to live exclusively in “whale-fall” communities. 

That means that it isn’t just whales and their prey that suffer at the hands of commercial whaling, which by some estimates, killed off as many as 90 percent of living whales during the 18th and 19th centuries. “Some of the first extinctions in the ocean may have been whale-fall communities, because we removed that habitat before we even knew the communities existed,” says conservation biologist Joe Roman of the University of Vermont, who was not involved in the wildebeest study. 

Roman’s research focuses on how whales help distribute nutrients during their lifetimes, most notably by swimming large distances and then pooping. “We’re learning what we lost by restoring these species,” he says. “When marine ecology started, there basically weren’t any whales in the ocean ... People didn’t consider whales very important. As we’re seeing those numbers increase along coastlines, we’re starting to get an idea of the role they might play.” 

Unfortunately, there are few ecosystems that can directly compare to the Mara. That’s because humans have disrupted nearly every large herbivore migration on the planet, and continue to kill off these key animals faster than they can kill themselves. It’s practically impossible for human biologists to get an accurate sense of what ecosystems looked like before the loss of large animals, because, according to many paleoecologists, humans have been wiping out large animals since the prehistoric migrations out of Africa. 

The human migration across the Bering Strait into the Americas 15,000 years ago was followed by the extinctions of American mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths, sabre-tooth cats and giant armadillos. Other continents also suffered losses. When humans first landed in Australia 60,000 years ago, they would have encountered 500-pound kangaroos, 10-foot-tall flightless birds, wombat relatives the size of rhinoceroses, and monitor lizards that grew to over 20 feet long. By 45,000 years ago, all of those species were gone.  

“There’s no record of [large-bodied animals being] more prone to extinction until humans arrive on the scene,” says S. Kathleen Lyons, a paleoecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Something that humans do targets large-bodied species and causes them to go extinct.”

It isn’t hard to see why large animals with ample stores of meat and fat would be attractive to hunters. But Lyons says that the ancient human-driven extinctions weren’t solely due to hunting. The expansion of farming could have resulted in habitat fragmentation even then. Humans also could have carried diseases or changed wildfire patterns, leading to more deaths. Whatever the reason, extensive losses of large animals almost certainly disrupted nutrient cycling, says Lyons.

“Let’s say that most of these species weren’t migratory and so they don’t have the mass drownings,” says Lyons. “Even without that, they’re still pooping and moving nutrients around the landscape that way.” 

Whales are yet another large-bodied animal whose carcasses can support a bevy of other animals. Usually, dead whale carcasses sink to the bottom of the ocean, where "whale fall" ecosystems crop up around them. (Ray Bulson / Alamy )

During the Industrial Revolution, technology sped up both expansion into the habitats of large animals habitats and efficiency in killing them. That’s when a funny thing happened: white settlers recognized that bison carcasses could be used as fertilizer. Settlers would gather bison bones and sell them to chemical manufacturers in places such as Dodge City, which would extract carbon and other nutrients from the bones to make fertilizer and other products. In essence, humans were using dead bison for the same purpose that the ecosystem was. 

“What this is, is the American economy kind of acting the way the environment would have already figured out how to act; it’s just that the American economy did it in a much less efficient way,” says environmental historian Andrew Isenberg of Temple University, who wrote a book on the bison’s demise. 

Kendra Chritz, a geochemist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who studies large animals’ impact on savannah ecology, concurs. “We don’t actually have very many large herbivores in North America, so what do we have to do to make sure that our lawn stays trimmed and they get more nutrients? We have to mow them all the time,” says Chritz, who wasn’t involved with the new study. 

But these human actions have limits. “Somebody has to do the job of cycling nutrients,” she says. “Now the job has largely been taken over by human beings, and we can’t really do that everywhere on Earth.” 

As to whether the bison regularly drowned en masse, the historical record isn’t clear. But accounts of carcasses strewn along riverbanks abound.

In his March 29, 1805 journal entry, Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis & Clark expedition noted: “We found a number of the carcasses of the buffalo lying along shore, which had been drowned by falling through the ice in the winter.” In 1795, a trapper named John MacDonnell found another bison mass grave, writing “observing a good many Carcasses of Buffaloes in the River & along its banks I was taken up the whole day with Counting of them & to my surprise found I had numbered when we put up at night 7360 Drown'd and mired along the River and in it.”

Mass deaths on that scale would undoubtedly have released huge amounts of nutrients into the surrounding environment. If MacDonnell’s count of over 7000 carcasses is accurate, that single drowning would have released over a million pounds of drowned bison meat into the Assiniboine River—or the equivalent of 34 blue whales. It’s hard to say what the impact of mass drownings would be in other rivers because temperatures, water flow and ecosystems vary so widely, Subalusky says. But it would have been vast.

Although bison populations are growing thanks to restoration efforts, it’s impossible to know what river ecosystems of the Great Plains lost. “One of the problems with talking about the historic Great Plains is that it’s all educated guesses,” says Isenberg.  “[If] you look at remnant grasslands in the Great Plains now, they’re not necessarily what like what a historic grassland would have looked like 100 or 200 years ago.” The same can be said of whale fall ecosystems that are no more, and other areas where large herbivores are winking out as a result of human actions. 

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