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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

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. 

Harness fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Behind the Scenes: Skinning Condors in the Name of Science

Smithsonian Magazine

The majestically macabre California condor is the largest bird in North America, Mother Nature’s critically endangered cleanup crew, and a miracle conservation success story. After making a comeback with captive breeding, things are looking up for the condor—but not the birds that recently arrived at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Bird Collection laboratories. These condors were dead, and many of them had been for quite awhile.

During the Pleistocene Era, 2 million to 11,000 years ago, robust populations of condors soared high over the continent like grim reapers, scavenging the carcasses of giant prehistoric mammals. But once giant sloths, stag-moose and mastodons became extinct and human developments grew across North America, the California condor population took a nosedive.

By 1982, their numbers had dwindled to just 23 surviving condors. With extinction eminent, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) launched the California Condor Recovery Program to capture the remaining birds in the wild and restore the population through captive breeding. After just five years, enough birds had hatched in captivity that they could be released to the wild. About 500 descendents of the original 23 condors thrive today, with more than half released and sailing free over the cliffs of California, Utah and Baja California.

Though condors are still critically endangered, the ongoing program continues to both safeguard them from extinction and provide an unparalleled source of ecological insight into these ancient vultures. FWS has tagged and tracked every condor and kept a record of its life milestones. Researchers know exactly where and when each bird hatched, where it nested once released to the wild and when it ultimately dies. Following death, the carcass is collected and stored for future study in a walk-in freezer at the FWS Pacific Southwest headquarters in Sacramento, California.

A few months ago, that freezer filled up.

Even in death endangered species are protected, so FWS needed somewhere to offload their brimming surplus of giant bird carcasses. Luckily, the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Birds agreed to take them and put them to use for research and museum display. Last week, the freight of dead, frozen condors arrived and set off a flurry of activity as specialists raced to prepare the frozen specimens for the museum’s collection.   

The California condor is the largest bird in North America. (© Glenn Simmons, Encyclopedia of Life)

“They’re coming to us in various forms of degradation,” says Christopher Milensky, a museum specialist and orchestrator of the condor preparation activities. FWS has been stockpiling the birds for nearly half a century, “so some are sort of fresh, and some are sort of nasty.” Milensky gives this disclaimer as he walks guests through the cavernous Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland.

The vast 435,000 square-foot complex serves as a storage facility for the millions of specimens that are not on display in museums. It’s also the laboratories and workspaces for the behind-the-scenes preparation of all the museum’s artifacts. With taxidermied animals from around the planet, jars of preserved specimens suspended in liquid, library books, aircrafts and artwork, the place gives the impression of a giant, immersive diorama put together by a confused curator.

Past the stairs guarded by mountain lions, left at the oryx, and through a hall lined with pygmy whales is the Osteo Prep Lab, the facility where curators have prepared many of the skeletons of mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish on view in the Osteology Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. The lab is also home to one of the most valuable players in a curator’s arsenal: a colony of flesh-eating beetles that hungrily await new specimens to feed upon.

“Most of what we’re doing is turning [the condors] into skeletons,” says Milensky, pulling open the door to the lab to reveal a laundry facility and a bank of shower rooms. “We’re just doing the triage here,” he says. Things tend to get a little messy at the Osteo Prep Lab, hence the showers.  “We’ll make them look pretty back at the museum.”

Sprawled across the hallway to Milensky’s right is an enormous, black-feathered carcass. “There’s a condor,” he says. “That’s one I still need to deal with.” The facility is suddenly so full of dead condors they’re literally overflowing into the hallways. As far as problems go, it’s one the Bird Division is celebrating. The Smithsonian hasn’t had a new condor specimen to study or display for nearly a century. Now they’ve got close to 50.

“Here’s the party,” Milensky jokes, entering the big garage-like room where he and his team are working. He notes that the lab can easily be hosed down when they’re done prepping the birds. The room is crowded, buzzing with researchers and specialists, each wearing a pair of gloves and lab coats as they scurry between operating tables and black industrial garbage bags, each of which is stuffed with a condor carcass.

“This is epic,” says Helen James, beaming as she stretches her arms wide to mimic the prodigious 10-foot wingspan of the condors all around her. In her years as curator in charge of the Smithsonian's Division of Birds at the Natural History Museum, she never expected to receive such a windfall of rare specimens in one fell swoop. “It’s a once in a lifetime chance,” she says.

The majority of the museum’s bird specimens are found in the wild, so they can only make educated guesses about their age or provenance. “Most of our other collections are a mystery,” James says, and that makes comparative anatomy and other studies more of a challenge. That’s not the case for these condors. Thanks to the intensive conservation effort and meticulous monitoring by FWS, James says, “we know how old each specimen is—they were all reared in captivity and followed in the wild.”

In addition to the comparative anatomy and ecological data the condors will provide, these vultures have historical importance as well. “It’s a part of American history,” James says. “It has significance in indigenous populations that have overlapped with its range,” kept alive today through cave paintings and stories of ceremonies where condors were used to heal or imbue people with special powers. 

With that 10 foot wingspan, it takes five people just to measure one of the specimens they’re prepping. “Just look at this bird!” James exclaims as Milensky helps a colleague pull another condor out of a bag on the floor. “It’s the largest vulture,” James says, a master of flight able to reach heights of 15,000 feet and soar more than 150 miles to find a meal.

Scissors snip and feathers fly as the team descends on the condor, skinning it, then trimming and discarding as much muscle and skin as possible. If the birds aren’t stripped of all the juicy pieces, the carcasses run the risk of rotting. The next stop is the flesh-eating beetles, and Milensky points out that they won’t eat any carcass that’s gone bad—apparently it makes them lose their appetite.

“The bugs take it from flesh to bone,” Milensky says, taking a break from the skinning party to go water the beetles (they like it nice and humid). In the beetle room, he picks up a specimen jar that’s recently been finished, awaiting a rinse and rearticulation. Inside is a ghostly white skeleton of a bird that’s been picked perfectly clean.

Being much too large to fit inside a jar, the condor specimens will be placed in enclosed rooms like meat lockers where the bugs roam free. Milensky pulls over a hose and swings the locker door open to give them a spritz. Inside are buckets and trays filled with the carcasses of everything from mice to giant porpoises and turtles. They’re all crawling with the tiny, black, flesh-eating critters. Each the size of a dime, they happily munch meat away from the bones, and in the process help to craft the perfect museum specimen.

Back in the prep lab, Teresa Feo, a postdoctoral researcher, finishes snipping away the last bits of flesh on a condor before breaking for lunch. “Tasty,” she says, picking some condor gristle off her fingers as she surveys her handiwork.

Feo's research relies on fossilized and real feathers in the museum’s collection to study how the mechanical engineering of flight has evolved over time. She’s confidant the condor samples will be tremendously helpful to her research. “I’ve never used them because that type of material is never available,” she says. These condors offer the opportunity to add to her existing dataset an extreme, large bird end member.

“We’re not just talking sparrows and warblers anymore,” she says. One flight feather from a condor is so big it can weigh as much as 30 hummingbirds. She grabs a ball of string and winds it tightly around her cleaned specimen to help keep it intact as the beetles go to work.

“It’s done. The bugs will like it I think,” says Feo as she proffers her trimmed, trussed and beetle-ready condor carcass to Milensky. “Oh, it’s really smelly,” she adds, holding it a bit further from her nose as Milensky swoops in to grab it, saying, “It’s lovely.” 

Rescue of the Aeronauts in the North Sea

National Air and Space Museum
Etching on paper depicting the Rescue of the Aeronauts in the North Sea, 1874. Print shows a rescuing at sea. Aeronauts Jules Duruof and wife and balloon partner, Caroline, are seen being rescued at sea from the basket of their balloon "Le Tricolore" which started to sink after losing altitude off the coast of England during a storm. Duruof is seen keeping his wife supported while a two men in a smaller fishing boat attempt to rescue them. The balloon itself was carried off by the wind after the rescue, but it was later found in the Skagerrak area.

The Birth of Flight: NASM Collections

The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. Enormous crowds gathered in Paris to watch one balloon after another rise above the city rooftops, carrying the first human beings into the air in the closing months of 1783.The excitement quickly spread to other European cities where the first generation of aeronauts demonstrated the wonder of flight. Everywhere the reaction was the same. In an age when men and women could fly, what other wonders might they achieve.

"Among all our circle of friends," one observer noted, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky." Single sheet prints illustrating the great events and personalities in the early history of ballooning were produced and sold across Europe. The balloon sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs.

Thanks to the generosity of several generations of donors, the National Air and Space Museum maintains one of the world's great collections of objects and images documenting and celebrating the invention and early history of the balloon. Visitors to the NASM's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport can see several display cases filled with the riches of this collection. We are pleased to provide visitors to our web site with access to an even broader range of images and objects from this period. We invite you to share at least a small taste of the excitement experienced by those who witness the birth of the air age.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Present at Creation:

The NASM Collection of Objects Related to Early Ballooning

The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel (August 26, 1740-June 26, 1810) and Jacques Etienne (January 6, 1745 - August 2, 1799), launched the air age when they flew a hot air balloon from the town square of Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783. Members of a family that had been manufacturing paper in the Ardèche region of France for generations, the Montgolfiers were inspired by recent discoveries relating to the composition of the atmosphere. Joseph led the way, building and flying his first small hot air balloons late in 1782, before enlisting his brother in the enterprise.

Impatient for the Montgolfiers to demonstrate their balloon in Paris, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a pioneering geologist and member of the Académie Royale, sold tickets to a promised ascension and turned the money over to Jacques Alexandre-César Charles (1746-1823), a chemical experimenter whom he had selected to handle the design, construction and launch of a balloon. Charles flew the first small hydrogen balloon from the Champs de Mars, near the present site of the Eiffel Tower, on August 27, 1783. Not to be outdone, the Montgolfiers sent the first living creatures (a sheep, a duck and a rooster) aloft from Versailles on September 19.

Pilatre de Rozier, a scientific experimenter, and François Laurent, the marquis D'Arlandes, became the first human beings to make a free flight on November 21. Less than two weeks later, on December 1, 1783, J.A. C. Charles and M.N. Robert made the first free flight aboard a hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries.

A wave of excitement swept across Paris as the gaily decorated balloons rose, one after another, over the skyline of the city. Throughout the summer and fall of 1783 the crowds gathering to witness the ascents grew ever larger. As many as 400,000 people - literally half of the population of Paris -- gathered in the narrow streets around the Château des Tuileries to watch Charles and Robert disappear into the heavens.

The wealthy and fashionable set purchased tickets of admission to the circular enclosure surrounding the launch site. Guards had a difficult time restraining the crush of citizens swarming the nearby streets, and crowding the Place de Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the garden walkways leading toward the balloon. People climbed walls and clambered out of windows onto roofs in search of good vantage points.

"It is impossible to describe that moment:" wrote one observer of a balloon launch, "the women in tears, the common people raising their hands to the sky in deep silence; the passengers leaning out of the gallery, waving and crying out in joy… the feeling of fright gives way to wonder." One group of spectators greeted a party of returning aeronauts with the question: "Are you men or Gods?" In an age when human beings could fly, what other wonders might the future hold?

The balloons had an enormous social impact. The huge, seething crowds were something new under the sun. The spectators who gathered in such huge numbers were just becoming accustomed to the idea of change. The old certainties of their grandparent's world were giving way to an expectation that the twin enterprises of science and technology would provide the foundation for "progress."

The balloons sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs. Party guests sipped Créme de l' Aérostatique liqueur and danced the Contredanse de Gonesse in honor of the Charles globe.

The Americans who were living in Paris to negotiate a successful conclusion to the American revolution were especially fascinated by the balloons. It seemed only fitting that, at a time when their countrymen were launching a new nation, human beings were throwing off the tyranny of gravity. The oldest and youngest members of the diplomatic community were the most seriously infected with "balloonamania."

"All conversation here at present turns upon the Balloons…and the means of managing them so as to give Men the Advantage of Flying," Benjamin Franklin informed an English friend, Richard Price. Baron Grimm, another Franklin acquaintance, concurred. "Among all our circle of friends," he wrote, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky."

Franklin noted that small balloons, made of scraped animal membranes, were sold "everyday in every quarter." He was invited to visit a friend's home for "tea and balloons," and attended a fête at which the duc de Chartres distributed "little phaloid balloonlets" to his guests. At another memorable entertainment staged by the duc de Crillon, Franklin witnessed the launch of a hydrogen balloon some five feet in diameter that kept a lantern aloft for over eleven hours.

The senior American diplomat in Paris purchased one of the small balloons as a present for his grandson and secretary, William Temple Franklin. Released in a bed chamber, "it went up to the ceiling and remained rolling around there for some time." Franklin emptied the membrane of hydrogen and forwarded it to Richard Price so that he and Sir Joseph Banks might repeat the experiment. The delightful little toy was thus not only the first balloon to be owned by an American but also the first to reach England. Both Franklins were soon supplying little balloons to friends across Europe.

Sixteen year old John Quincy Adams also took note of the small balloons offered for sale by street vendors. "The flying globes are still very much in vogue," he wrote on September 22. "They have advertised a small one of eight inches in diameter at 6 livres apiece without air [hydrogen] and 8 livres with it. .. Several accidents have happened to persons who have attempted to make inflammable air, which is a dangerous operation, so that the government has prohibited them."

There was a general sense that the colorful globes marked the beginning of a new age in which science and technology would effect startling change. The results and the implications of the revolution in physics and chemistry underway for over a century were largely unknown outside an elite circle of privileged cognoscenti. The balloon was unmistakable proof that a deeper understanding of nature could produce what looked very much like a miracle. What else was one to think of a contrivance that would carry people into the sky?

If human beings could break the age-old chains of gravity, what other restraints might they cast off? The invention of the balloon seemed perfectly calculated to celebrate the birth of a new nation dedicated, on paper at any rate, to the very idea of freedom for the individual. In the decade to come the balloons and the men and women who flew them came to symbolize the new political winds that were blowing through France. While some might question the utility of the "air globes," flight was already reshaping the way in which men and women regarded themselves and their world.

Of course most citizens of Europe and America were unable to travel to see a balloon. They had their first glimpse of the aerial craft through the medium of single sheet prints. In the late 18th century it was difficult and expensive to publish anything more than the roughest of woodcuts in newspapers or magazines. In an effort to share the excitement with those who could not attend an ascent, to let people know what a balloon looked like, and to introduce the brave men and women who were taking to the sky, artists, engravers and publishers flooded the market with scores of single sheet printed images. Ranging from the meticulously accurate to the wildly fanciful, these printed pictures were sold by the thousands in print shops across Europe.

The business of producing and marketing such images was nothing new. In Europe, block prints from woodcuts had been used to produce book illustrations and single sheet devotional or instructional religious images since the mid-15th century. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the technique was used to produce multi-sheet maps, bird's eye images of cities, and other products. In the early modern era, etching and engraving techniques enabled artists from Albrecht Dürer to Rembrandt van Rijn the opportunity to market copies of their paintings. .

In the 1730's. William Hogarth inaugurated a new era in the history of English printed pictures when he published his, "Harlot's Progress," a series of single sheet images charting the downfall of a young woman newly arrived in London. Other sets, including "Marriage à la Mode," appeared in the decade that followed. Other artists used the medium of the etching or engraving to reproduce portraits and offer examples of their work for sale.

By the late 18th century, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and other English artists made considerable fortunes producing sporting prints and satirical images offering biting commentary on the shortcomings of the political and social leaders of the day. Rowlandson was said to have "etched as much copper as would sheathe the British navy." In order to publish his prints and caricatures while they were still newsworthy, Rowlandson worked rapidly. He would water color the first impression, then send it to refugee French artists employed by Rudolph Ackermann, one of his favored publishers, who would color each of the prints before they were hung up in the shop window. In the 1780's a typical print seems to have sold for a shilling, the price being sometimes included on the print itself.

The appearance of the balloon in 1783 provided artists, engravers and publishers in England, France, Germany and Italy a new subject for their efforts. As the wave of balloon enthusiasm swept across the continent, the production and sale of images depicting the great flights and daring aeronauts flourished. In addition to illustrating the birth of the air age, print makers made use of balloon motifs in comic images satirizing political events or social trends.

In the 19th century new lithographic techniques and the advent of improved presses and smooth paper, led to a revolution in the ability to mass produce images. Balloons remained a common subject of interest to readers, and ready material for satire in the talented hands of artists like Honorè-Victorine Daumier.

Today, the balloon prints produced by 18th and 19th century artists remain as a priceless window into the past. They enable us to share some sense of the excitement that gripped those watching their fellow beings rise into the sky for the first time. Engraved portraits tell us something of the appearance, and even the personality, of the first men and women to fly. Satirical prints utilizing balloon motifs help us to understand the impact that flight on the first generations to experience it.

The National Air and Space Museum owes its collection of balloon prints to the generosity of several leading 20th century collectors. The bulk of the prints in our collection come from Harry Frank Guggenheim (August 23, 1890 - January 22, 1971).. The son of industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim and his wife Florence, Harry Guggenheim enjoyed multiple careers as a business leader, diplomat, publisher, philanthropist, and sportsman.

Aviation was the thread that tied his diverse activities together. A graduate of Yale and Pembroke College, Cambridge University, he learned to fly before the U.S. entered WW I and served as a Naval aviator during that conflict and as a Naval officer during WW II. In the mid- 1920's, he convinced his father to establish the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, which had an enormous impact on aeronautical engineering and aviation in the U.S.

A collector of everything from fine art to thoroughbred horses, Guggenheim began to acquire aeronautica during the 1920's, gradually focusing his attention of aeronautical prints. His collection had grown to be one of the most complete in the world by the 1940's, when he loaned his prints to the New York museum maintained by the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. When the IAS dissolved its museum in the 1950's, Guggenheim donated his own collection to the National Air and Space Museum.

The NASM collection of aeronautical prints also includes items donated by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and by a number of other private collectors, notably Constance Fiske in memory of her husband Gardiner Fiske, who served with the U.S. Army Air Service during WW I and with the USAAF in WWII; Thomas Knowles, a long-time executive with Goodyear Aircraft and Goodyear Aerospace; and Bella Clara Landauer, one of the great American collectors of aeronautica.

There can be little doubt that William Armistead Moale Burden was one of the most significant contributors to the NASM collection of furnishings, ceramics and other objects related to ballooning and the early history of flight. . Burden began collecting aeronautical literature and memorabilia during the 1920's, while still a Harvard undergraduate. Following graduation he rode the post-Lindbergh boom to prosperity as a financial analyst specializing in aviation securities. His business success was inextricably bound to his enthusiasm for the past, present and future of flight.

By 1939, Burden was reputed to have built a personal aeronautical library second only to that of the Library of Congress. He loaned that collection to the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, an organization that he served as president in 1949. In addition to his library of aeronautica, Burden built a world-class collection of historic objects dating to the late 18th century - desks, chairs, bureaus, sofas, mirrors, clocks, ceramics and other examples of material culture -- inspired by the first balloons and featuring balloon motifs. After a period on display in the IAS museum, William A.M. Burden's balloon-decorated furnishings and aeronautica went into insured off-site storage in 1959. A member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Mr. Burden ultimately donated his treasures to the NASM, as well.

Thanks to the efforts of these and other donors, the NASM can share one of the world's finest collections of works of art and examples of material culture inspired b y the birth of flight with our visitors. We are pleased to extend the reach of our collections to those who visit our web site. Welcome, and enjoy.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The Tragic Tale of the Pygmy in the Zoo

Smithsonian Magazine
In 1904, several Pygmies were brought to live in the anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair. Two years later, a Congo Pygmy named Ota Benga was housed temporarily at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—and then exhibited, briefly and controversially, at the Bronx Zoo.

--The Pygmies’ Plight, in the December 2008 issue of Smithsonian magazine

In October, when we were working on “The Pygmies’ Plight”, I found Ota Benga’s sad story and was disappointed we couldn’t fit more of the details into our article, so I thought I would share some of them here. (For those who are interested in reading even more, I recommend Ota: The Pygmy in the Zoo, by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume.)

Ota Benga, a pygmy, was born somewhere in a forest in Congo around 1883. He married young and started a family. One day he returned from elephant hunting to find his village slaughtered, and he was captured and sold into slavery.

In March 1904, an American, S.P. Verner, found Ota Benga in a slave market. Verner had come to Africa to collect pygmies for the St. Louis World’s Fair. He bought Ota Benga’s freedom and convinced him and, later, eight other pygmies from a tribe called the Batwa to come to St. Louis. The pygmies took up residence in the anthropology exhibit, next to a group of Native Americans that included the legendary Geronimo.

Verner returned the pygmies to Africa in 1905, and Ota Benga tried to adjust to life with the Batwa, even marrying a Batwa woman. Ota Benga also traveled around Africa with Verner, and after Ota Benga's second wife died, he asked to return with Verner to America.

But Verner was having money troubles, and when they arrived in New York City, he arranged for Ota Benga to live at the American Museum of Natural History. People aren’t meant to live in museums, though, perhaps particularly pygmies more used to the forest. At a gathering of wealthy donors, Ota Benga flung a chair at the head of Florence Guggenheim.

The museum then arranged to transfer Ota Benga to an even more outrageous home: the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga roamed freely, sometimes helping out the keepers with chores. He spent time with the chimpanzees in the Monkey House. And then, after a few weeks, some zoo officials found a chance to make a splash when they hung up the pygmy’s hammock in an empty cage and handed him a bow and arrow.

The pygmy exhibit was immediately controversial. In addition to what we would call a natural aversion to locking up a person as a zoo exhibit, some Christian ministers objected to the “demonstration of the Darwinian theory of evolution.” (And, yes, I think it’s sad that we’re still arguing about evolution a
century later, even though now at least we know that pygmies aren't a "missing link.")

The zoo discontinued the exhibit in the Monkey House, but now Ota Benga was hounded by visitors as he walked the zoo’s grounds. An incident with zookeepers in which he apparently threatened them with a knife led to his removal, first to a New York orphan asylum and later to a Lynchburg, Virginia seminary.

In Lynchburg, Ota Benga’s pointed teeth (a form of cosmetic dentistry still practiced by some African pygmies today) were capped and his name changed to Otto Bingo. He briefly worked in a tobacco factory before turning to odd jobs in return for room and board. He made friends, although it was hard to convince people that his impossible story was true. And on March 22, 1916, he shot himself in the heart with a stolen revolver.

Chariot fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Crossbow fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Connecting the Oceans: 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal

Smithsonian Institution Archives

E. A. Goldman near Porto Bello, Panama, c. 1912, by Seth Meek, Field Museum Library Photo Archives, neg. no. 38659.On August 15, 1914, the cargo ship S.S. Ancon made the first official transit of the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  The Ancon rose through the locks to Gatun Lake and then on through the Culebra Cut to the Pacific.  Although a great celebration had been planned, the outbreak of war in Europe that same month made this first crossing a quiet and austere affair. 

The Panama Canal was not just a great engineering feat or major event in the history of world commerce, it was also a major environmental disruption – potentially mixing the waters of the two oceans, allowing species to invade new regions, creating new lakes and waterways, and destroying human and natural environments.  Panamanians were resettled from the Canal Zone, forests were felled as regions were flooded to create the canal watershed, and massive campaigns to destroy insect life were launched to limit the spread of insect-borne diseases.

Playing cards with images of Panama Canal construction; Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg. no. 99-2397.Smithsonian naturalists at the U. S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), government scientists, and many of their colleagues at museums and colleges across the United States were concerned about the environmental impact of the canal construction.  Thus the Smithsonian led the Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone from 1910 to 1912, to establish a baseline of what animals and plants were native to the region and to document environmental conditions, such as weather, soil types, etc.  To secure funds for the survey, they turned to an old friend of the Smithsonian, President Teddy Roosevelt, who had started donating natural history specimens when he was a boy, had supported the construction of a new National Museum building, now known as the Natural History Museum, and encouraged the Smithsonian to acquire the Freer Gallery of Art.  Roosevelt laid the groundwork for U. S. federal government support, although he had left office by the time the survey began.  With federal and private funding, from 1910 to 1914, North American naturalists surveyed the natural world and collected specimens for the National Museum.

Submerged forest surrounding Barro Colorado Island, c. 1923-1924, by Albert S. Hitchcock, Record Unit 229 - United States National Museum, Division of Grasses, Records, 1884, 1888, 1899-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg. no. SIA2009-2921.Although the original plan was to survey the Canal Zone, naturalists soon realized they needed to survey the entire region to determine the geographic distribution of plants and animals.  Field naturalists such as Edward A. Goldman of the Bureau of Biological Survey and Albert S. Hitchcock of the Smithsonian’s National Museum explored swamps, cloud forests, bat-filled caves, arid mountainsides, rural farmlands – all of the diverse environments they found in the small nation.  The explorers carefully documented the specimens they collected, noting soil conditions, the plants and animals a particular species interacted with, and the geographic range and density of populations.  They began regular monitoring of weather and other physical conditions, a program that continues today. 

The inauguration of the Barro Colorado Island Biological Laboratory, March 29, 1924, Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s - , Smithsonian Institution Archives,neg. no. 95-20294.When the Canal opened in August of 1914, the Smithsonian had created a baseline of written information and biological specimens that could be studied to determine the effects of this massive engineering project.  Indeed, as the survey ended, the consortium of museums, colleges and research labs agreed to establish a permanent research station so they could continue to observe and learn from the changing dynamics of the region.  They selected Barro Colorado Island, a small island that had been a mountaintop before the region had been flooded to create Gatun Lake.  They watched as majestic trees turned into waterlogged stumps and large mammals disappeared from the new small island.  At the close of World War II, the Barro Colorado Island laboratory was transferred to the Smithsonian’s aegis, known today as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.   As the large new locks are constructed today, once again STRI scientists are monitoring changes and conducting salvage field work as the excavations reveal evidence of ancient human, animal, and plant life.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama today.

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