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“Mermaid Ivory” Stirs Controversy Over How Extinct Species Are Studied

Smithsonian Magazine

The Steller’s sea cow was almost extinct by the time German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller first laid eyes on the plump marine mammal. The species that would bear his name once ranged throughout the North Pacific, but by the time of Steller’s visit in 1741, the last population was sequestered around Russia’s Commander Islands. The species was hunted into extinction before the close of the 18th century.

Then, a discovery complicated this classic story of extinction. In 2014, George Mason University biologist Lorelei Crerar and her coauthors announced that a hidden population of Steller’s sea cow bobbed through the waters around St. Lawrence Island, west of the Alaskan coast, up until about 1,000 years ago.

Why this second pocket went extinct wasn’t clear—in their report in Biology Letters, the researchers proposed that a brief uptick in temperatures called the Medieval Warm Period could have made the kelp the marine mammals ate harder to find, or that Inuit hunted them into extinction. Either way, the discovery of this “hidden” population added a new wrinkle to the animal's tragic tale.

Now the study is making waves for a very different reason: It highlights the squishy state of regulations surrounding “mermaid ivory,” the colorful name for the bones of marine mammals carved into sculptures, and what that means for scientific research.

For their work, Crerar and her coauthors used bone specimens bought at knife shows and on Ebay. The bone dealers assured them that the samples came from St. Lawrence Island. The team's initial intention was to detect whether protected marine species were being illegally traded under the banner of mermaid ivory, says study co-author Chris Parsons. Their genetic analysis identified some of the samples as Steller's sea cow, and those bones were dated at about 1,000 years old, which Crerar and Parsons deem a serendipitous result.

But not everyone is sold on the idea that the sea cows inhabited the waters around St. Lawrence Island way back when. In a response article published this month in Biology Letters, marine mammal experts Nicholas Pyenson, James Parham and Jorge Velez-Juarbe question where these critical sea cow bones came from and, more broadly, how commercially purchased specimens are used in studying the past.

“While I certainly hope that the material did come from St. Lawrence Island, we have no basis, given the current facts, to affirm this geographic placement with confidence,” says Pyenson, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Location is just as important as anatomy or tatters of genes in examining where species used to live. Even though it was not Crerar and colleagues' intention to conduct a paleontological study, Pyenson and his coauthors are dismayed that there is no concrete evidence for where the bone samples came from.

A bone sold as mermaid ivory is stripped of its context and can only give you scant anatomical details, Parham says. “Because the fossil record is so incomplete already, any time we lose attendant data, the science suffers.” Promises from bone dealers are not sufficient, he adds. “In science, you should not really pick and choose which merchant to believe.”

Complicating matters, this species falls through a regulatory loophole.

“The specimens in question fall outside of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, because Steller’s sea cow is extinct. And because these specimens are not technically fossils either, they fall outside of the Paleontological Resources Protection Act,” says Pyenson. That means dealers can legally buy and sell the bones without having to worry much about documenting their origins. And that makes the original study problematic, Pyenson says.

“I think their broad conclusions would be interesting and relevant to a more complex extinction scenario if we did have such traceability," he says. "But what confidence do we have that the isotopic and DNA results can be tracked to actual physical vouchers, given these issues?”

Pyenson and his coauthors are also concerned that the 2014 study grated against the standards of paleontology and other biological disciplines. The bones used in the 2014 study were held in a private collection, which was put in a George Mason University collection last December. That means the original specimens were privately held at the time they were formally described.

When important specimens are in private hands, the owner may deny access to scientists for any reason they like, the trio point out. "And then there’s always the question of what will happen to those specimens beyond the lifetime of the owner,” says Velez-Juarbe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Reiterating that their initial findings were a happenstance that came out of a different project, the authors of the 2014 study dispute these arguments. In a published reply to Pyenson and his colleagues, Crerar says that the samples were not hard to access.

“All 200 of the bones are at George Mason University,” she says, with the exception of five that are currently at the Smithsonian, and she says that other researchers have already examined the collection. And while Crerar would also like to know more about where the bones came from, she has not yet visited St. Lawrence Island and talk to the people who dig the bones from middens.

Parsons adds that he is “dumbfounded by the furor over the samples,” especially because the sea cow samples “are tiny fragments that aren’t really recognizable as bones or carvings.” He likens them to genetic tissue samples, which are not always stored in museum collections.

Still, archiving genetic samples has rapidly become a scientific standard for biologists, and museums and zoos around the world are building huge collections of frozen tissues, says Parham of California State University.

While the tricky nature of mermaid ivory may not be resolved any time soon, there is some hope for resolving the mystery of the St. Lawrence Island sea cows. Middens likely to harbor more sea cow bones have previously been excavated on the islands, and their fully documented contents are now being cared for at museums, say Pyenson, Parham and Velez-Juarbe.

“Could there be Steller’s sea cow already in museum collections at Fairbanks?” Pyenson wonders. “I’m going to go and find out.”

“Mega” Architecture: An Evening with Moshe Safdie

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Architect and 2016 National Design Award winner for Lifetime Achievement Moshe Safdie discusses the four design principles that have guided his work over the past five decades and how they relate to the evolution of architecture in the era of globalization. Safdie sheds light on the ramifications of “megascale” and “megastructure,” examining scale, site, buildability,...

“Making | Breaking: New Arrivals” Explores Emerging Technologies and Techniques

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image of Enignum Free Form Chair. Designed by Joseph WalshEXHIBITION FEATURES RECENTLY ACQUIRED CONTEMPORARY WORKS Pushing the boundaries of materials, making and form, 43 new objects recently acquired by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum will be on view in “Making | Breaking: New Arrivals” from May 19 through Oct. 29. Presented in the museum’s first-floor Process Galleries, the exhibition features contemporary works along with...

“Mail Trolleys” tracks era when mail was sorted all across town

Smithsonian Insider

In October 1891, flourishing after a long period of Civil-War stagnation, the city of St. Louis got America’s first mail trolley up and rolling through […]

The post “Mail Trolleys” tracks era when mail was sorted all across town appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

“Lost” 18th-Century Garden Found at Scottish Castle

Smithsonian Magazine

Culzean Castle, one of the grandest estates in Scotland, is best known for its sumptuous landscapes and structures, designed by famed architect Robert Adam in the late 18th century. There is a sweeping swan pond, a collection of foliage-filled greenhouses, and a towering, turreted castle situated dramatically on a cliff. But as Martin Hannan reports for The National, archaeologists recently uncovered an earlier feature of the sprawling property at Culzean: the remains of a walled garden that survived Adams’ renovations.

The stone walls of the garden were unearthed during a construction project to improve the drainage at Fountain Court, a manicured expanse of lawn set below the castle. Stretching for almost 200 feet across the landscape, the walls are “thought to result from work undertaken by Sir John Kennedy of Culzean, 2nd Baronet, in 1733,” the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) said in a statement. John Kennedy’s ancestors acquired the property in the late 16th century, according to Historic Environment Scotland.

The 1733 renovation extended the walls of the garden along the east side of the castle. Lined with a row of fruit trees, the space likely functioned as an enclosed kitchen garden. A 1755 map of the estate did in fact mark the kitchen garden with sketches of plant beds, but archaeologists did not realize that remains of the structure still stood beneath Culzean's grounds.

“[W]e never knew that any of it survived below the immaculate turf of the Fountain Court,” said Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeological Services for the NTS, according to the aforementioned statement.“This work has given us the perfect opportunity to explore a hidden aspect of Culzean’s past.”

In the late 18th century, Culzean was inherited by David Kennedy, “a man who was keen to impress with his wealth and status,” according to the NTS website. Looking to upgrade the estate, Kennedy commissioned Adam to lead a series of opulent building projects at Culzean. The kitchen garden was dismantled—though not completely—during the renovations and moved further afield, thereby improving the view from the castle, according to the BBC.

The site where the kitchen garden once stood continued to evolve over the course of the next century. In the mid 1800s, the area was used as a bowling green. In 1876, a large fountain was installed on the turf. Today, the aptly-named "Fountain Court" is popular amongst tourists and wedding parties, who have trod across the land, not knowing that a secret garden lay beneath their feet.

(National Trust for Scotland)

“Los Gauchos de Roldán”: Button Accordion and Bandoneón Music from Northern Uruguay

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Fall/Winter 2011: Dispatches from Latin America

“Los Gauchos de Roldán” Share Down-Home Dance Music Tradition from Uruguay

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Uruguayan accordion master Walter Roldán, from the northern city of Tacuarembó, assembled an all-star group to record the rural dance music that has enlivened the social life of cattle-herding gaucho families since the mid 1800s.

“Less, but better”

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image features an off-white rectangular speaker, the front with two rows of vertical slits; left and right sides faced with square, blond wood panels. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.In celebration of our new exhibition The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, this Object of the Day post explores the multisensory experience of an object in Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection. Dieter Rams, Chief Design Officer for German consumer products manufacturer Braun AG from 1961-95, designed the neutral and unassuming L1 speaker in 1957. Influenced by Braun’s...

“Langley Leap” at the Hirshhorn Library

Smithsonian Libraries
This post was written by Lily Zhang, a senior at Langley High School. I had no idea how real senioritis was until I caught it. Worse than the common cold, the dreaded senioritis hinders motivation with distracting visions of prom, parties, and graduation. But at Langley High in McLean, we are provided with a novel more »

“Khargai Dün” A Mongolian Long Song by D. Byambaa

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
D. Byambaa, a locally trained singer and herder from the Bayankhongor province of Mongolia, sings a long song called “Khargai Dün” in the Khalkh style in summer 2012. Recorded by Sunmin Yoon.

“JEWELRY OF IDEAS: GIFTS FROM THE SUSAN GRANT LEWIN COLLECTION” PRESENTS THE RARE AND RADICAL

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Fall exhibition brings 150 avant-garde works to the public, showcasing the limitless potential of jewelry design. “Jewelry of Ideas: Gifts from the Susan Grant Lewin Collection,” opening Nov. 17, celebrates the recent gift from the renowned collector to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. On view through May 28, 2018, the exhibition, co-curated by Ursula Ilse-Neuman...

“It’s Summer Somewhere in the World”

Smithsonian Insider

As snow sweeps across the country and the cold seeps into our bones, thinking about balmy temperatures on exotic shores offers a little relief from […]

The post “It’s Summer Somewhere in the World” appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

“It screeched, it bellowed… Raucous? Yes. Crude? Undoubtedly.”

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
In celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, Elizabeth Broman discusses selections from the Smithsonian Design Library's collection of jazz sheet music.

“Inventing Utamaro” unveils dark truth behind Edo artist’s work

Smithsonian Insider

“Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered,” open recently at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is a challenging exhibition, says Julian Raby, The Dame Jillian […]

The post “Inventing Utamaro” unveils dark truth behind Edo artist’s work appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

“I Hope It Is Not Too Late”: How the U.S. Decided to Send Millions of Troops Into World War I

Smithsonian Magazine

U.S. General John J. Pershing, newly arrived in France, visited his counterpart, French general Philippe Pétain, with a sobering message on June 16, 1917. It had been two months since the U.S. entered World War I, but Pershing, newly appointed to command the American Expeditionary Force in France, had hardly any troops to deploy. The United States, Pershing told Pétain, wouldn’t have enough soldiers to make a difference in France until spring 1918.

“I hope it is not too late,” the general replied.

Tens of thousands of Parisians had thronged the streets to cheer Pershing on his June 13 arrival. Women climbed onto the cars in his motorcade, shouting, “Vive l’Amérique!” The French, after three years of war with Germany, were desperate for the United States to save them.

Now Pétain told Pershing that French army was near collapse. A million French soldiers had been killed in trench warfare. Robert-Georges Nivelle’s failed April offensive against the German line in northern France had caused 120,000 French casualties. After that, 750,000 soldiers mutinied, refusing to go to the front line. Pétain, who replaced Nivelle in May, had kept the army together by granting some of the soldiers’ demands for better food and living conditions and leave to see their families. But the French were in no condition to launch any more offensives. “We must wait for the Americans,” Pétain told Pershing.

But the United States wasn’t ready to fight. It had declared war in April 1917 with only a small standing army. Pershing arrived in France just four weeks after the Selective Service Act authorized a draft of at least 500,000 men. Though President Woodrow Wilson intended to send troops to France, there was no consensus on how many. “The more serious the situation in France,” Pershing wrote in his 1931 memoir, My Experiences in the World War, “the more deplorable the loss of time by our inaction at home appeared.”

It fell to Pershing to devise the American war strategy. The 56-year-old West Point graduate had fought the Apache and Sioux in the West, the Spanish in Cuba, Filipino nationalists in their insurrection against U.S. rule and Pancho Villa in Mexico. He was blunt, tough, and stubborn—“a large man with small, trim arms and legs, and an underslung jaw that would defy an aerial bomb,” a contemporary wrote. He hated dithering, spoke little and hardly ever smiled.

Resisting French and British pressure to reinforce their armies with American soldiers, Pershing and his aides studied where to best deploy the American Expeditionary Force. Germany had seized nearly all of Belgium and the northeast edge of France, so the war’s Western front now stretched 468 miles, from the Swiss border to the North Sea. The British were deployed in France’s northern tip, where they could quickly escape home if they had to. The French were defending Paris by holding the front about 50 miles northeast of the capital.

So Pershing chose Lorraine, in northeastern France, as “a chance for the decisive use of our army.” If the Americans could advance just 40 miles from there, they could reach Germany itself, cut off the main German supply line, and threaten the enemy’s coalfields and iron mines. On June 26, Pershing visited Pétain again, and tentatively agreed on where to begin the first American offensive.

On June 28, the first 14,500 American troops arrived in France. “Their arrival left Pershing singularly unimpressed,” wrote Jim Lacey in his 2008 biography, Pershing. “To his expert eye the soldiers were undisciplined and poorly trained. Many of their uniforms did not fit and most were fresh from recruiting stations, with little training other than basic drill.” But Parisians wanted to throw a gala celebration for the troops on America’s Independence Day.

To boost French morale, Pershing reluctantly agreed. On July 4, he and the troops marched five miles through Paris’ streets to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. There, Pershing aide Charles E. Stanton delivered a speech that ended with a sweeping salute. “Nous voilà, Lafayette!” Stanton declared—“Lafayette, we are here!” in English—a phrase often misattributed to Pershing himself.

Ceremonies performed, Pershing got back to work. The British and French counted on 500,000 U.S. troops in 1918. But Pershing suspected a half-million soldiers wouldn’t be enough. His three weeks in France had deepened his understanding of the Allies’ plight and their inability to break the stalemate on the Western Front. America, he decided, needed to do more. 

On July 6, Pershing cabled Newton Baker, the Secretary of War. “Plans should contemplate sending over at least 1,000,000 men by next May,” the telegram read. Soon after, Pershing and his aides forwarded a battle plan to Washington. It called for a larger military effort than the United States had ever seen.

“It is evident that a force of about 1,000,000 is the smallest unit which in modern war will be a complete, well-balanced, and independent fighting organization,” Pershing wrote. And plans for the future, he added, might require as many as 3 million men.

Pershing’s demand sent shock waves through the War Department. Admiral William Sims, who commanded the U.S. fleet in European waters, thought Pershing was joking when he heard it. Tasker Bliss, the War Department’s acting chief of staff, expressed alarm, but had no alternate plan. “Baker seemed unruffled,” wrote Frank E. Vandiver in his 1977 Pershing biography, Black Jack. “Committed to winning peace at any kind of rates, Wilson followed Baker’s calm.” They accepted Pershing’s war plan.

Almost 10 million young men had already registered for the draft, giving the Wilson administration the means to fulfill Pershing’s demand. On July 20, Baker, wearing a blindfold, pulled numbers out of a glass bowl, choosing 687,000 men in the nation’s first draft lottery since the Civil War. By the end of July, the outlines of the war effort’s true scale—1 to 2 million men—began to emerge in the press.

But the news didn’t reverse public and congressional support for the war. The shock of the Zimmermann Telegram and the patriotic exhortations of the government’s Committee on Public Information had overcome many Americans’ past skepticism about sending troops to fight in Europe. By the end of 1918, the United States would draft 2.8 million men into the armed forces—just in time to help its allies win the war.

“Hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy, and utterly delicious”: Reviving indigenous food cultures

National Museum of American History

When Chef Sean Sherman began speaking about his experiences growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he shattered all-too-common stereotypes of indigenous life in 20th-century America. He jokingly noted that some people expect to hear how he hunted buffalo with his slingshot as a kid, but that romanticized myth of American Indian foodways had nothing to do with his work of rediscovering the foods that sustained his ancestors. He shared insights with museum visitors during the “The Power of Place” roundtable discussion, part of the 2018 Food History Weekend: Regions Reimagined.

Four people appear in chairs on stage, a panelChef Sean Sherman speaks on stage at our Smithsonian Food History Weekend

Yes, Sherman and his family hunted wild game, but, for the most part, he ate differently than past generations of Lakota. Like many children growing up on reservations in the second half of the 20th century, Sherman ate non-perishable foods distributed on Indian reservations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Growing up, he noted: “Our shelves were lined with government-issued canned corn, canned carrots, canned peas, canned salmon, chipped beef, saltines, white flour, and bricks of bright orange commodity cheese.” FDPIR, which began in 1977, contributed to a dramatic shift in the eating habits of communities living on reservations—a shift away from traditional indigenous food practices. That shift contributed to the development of serious health problems and a profound sense of disassociation from Native values. 

Within a few generations of FDPIR’s introduction, knowledge of traditional Lakota foodways at Pine Ridge have all but been forgotten. Sherman is trying to change that. He seeks to empower indigenous communities by reviving their healthful historic foodways. 

 

 

In his adult life, Sherman has re-acquainted himself with foods Lakota people had eaten prior to the introduction of FDPIR. Easier said than done. As Sherman noted, he “couldn’t just go online and order The Joy of Native American Cooking,” referencing Irma Rombauer’s canonical cookbook. Instead, he interviewed his grandparents’ generation, probing their childhood memories of family meals and feasts, while also combing through archives to find descriptions of historic foods of the Lakota.

After many years of research into the food cultures of the Lakota and other indigenous communities, Sherman founded The Sioux Chef in 2014—a catering and food education company in Minneapolis that seeks to revitalize and build awareness of indigenous food systems. Through the Sioux Chef business and cookbook bearing the same name, Sherman is shedding light on the diverse farming, foraging, hunting, and production practices of the Lakota and a diverse array of tribes. He is also creating a pathway through which to strengthen indigenous communities’ food sovereignty.

Chef Sean Sherman cooking in our demonstration kitchen, one hand on a food processor and one hand explainingIn our demonstration kitchen, Chef Sherman prepares duck pemmican

During one of our Food History Weekend live-cooking demonstrations, Sherman shared some of those historic food practices with us by preparing duck and wild rice pemmican (Mag˘áksic˘a na Psíŋ Wasná). The dish features dried duck, preserved with salt and maple sugar, which could be stored for a long time and provide protein when game was less abundant. Sherman noted that like many of the dishes in his cookbook, this one does not include any ingredients brought to North America after European settlement on the continent. That means, no dairy, wheat (or gluten), beef, pork, or cane sugar, among other popular ingredients in many Americans’ diets today (and ones regularly distributed through FDPIR). Instead, the food found in Sherman’s cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (2017), relies on flora and fauna indigenous to North America like sea salt, juniper, maple sugar, honey, sumac, maple vinegar, eggs, sunflower oil, wild ginger, and mushrooms.

As Sherman notes in The Sioux Chef, the indigenous diet is “hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy […] most of all, it’s utterly delicious.”

 

 

Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more indigenous eateries, cafes, and restaurants pop up across the United States. In the meantime, try out Sherman’s recipe for duck and wild rice pemmican and watch the recording of the roundtable “The Power of Place” and other conversations from the 2018 Food History Weekend by visiting our website.

A finished dish on a plateChef Sherman’s completed dish

Dr. Ashley Rose Young is the historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and is also the host of Cooking Up History.

The live cooking demonstrations, as part of Smithsonian Food History Weekend, are generously supported by Hilton, Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., and Sur La Table.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 09:00
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“Hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy, and utterly delicious”: Reviving indigenous food cultures

National Museum of American History

When Chef Sean Sherman began speaking about his experiences growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he shattered all-too-common stereotypes of indigenous life in 20th-century America. He jokingly noted that some people expect to hear how he hunted buffalo with his slingshot as a kid, but that romanticized myth of American Indian foodways had nothing to do with his work of rediscovering the foods that sustained his ancestors. He shared insights with museum visitors during the “The Power of Place” roundtable discussion, part of the 2018 Food History Weekend: Regions Reimagined.

Four people appear in chairs on stage, a panelChef Sean Sherman speaks on stage at our Smithsonian Food History Weekend

Yes, Sherman and his family hunted wild game, but, for the most part, he ate differently than past generations of Lakota. Like many children growing up on reservations in the second half of the 20th century, Sherman ate non-perishable foods distributed on Indian reservations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Growing up, he noted: “Our shelves were lined with government-issued canned corn, canned carrots, canned peas, canned salmon, chipped beef, saltines, white flour, and bricks of bright orange commodity cheese.” FDPIR, which began in 1977, contributed to a dramatic shift in the eating habits of communities living on reservations—a shift away from traditional indigenous food practices. That shift contributed to the development of serious health problems and a profound sense of disassociation from Native values. 

Within a few generations of FDPIR’s introduction, knowledge of traditional Lakota foodways at Pine Ridge have all but been forgotten. Sherman is trying to change that. He seeks to empower indigenous communities by reviving their healthful historic foodways. 

 

 

In his adult life, Sherman has re-acquainted himself with foods Lakota people had eaten prior to the introduction of FDPIR. Easier said than done. As Sherman noted, he “couldn’t just go online and order The Joy of Native American Cooking,” referencing Irma Rombauer’s canonical cookbook. Instead, he interviewed his grandparents’ generation, probing their childhood memories of family meals and feasts, while also combing through archives to find descriptions of historic foods of the Lakota.

After many years of research into the food cultures of the Lakota and other indigenous communities, Sherman founded The Sioux Chef in 2014—a catering and food education company in Minneapolis that seeks to revitalize and build awareness of indigenous food systems. Through the Sioux Chef business and cookbook bearing the same name, Sherman is shedding light on the diverse farming, foraging, hunting, and production practices of the Lakota and a diverse array of tribes. He is also creating a pathway through which to strengthen indigenous communities’ food sovereignty.

Chef Sean Sherman cooking in our demonstration kitchen, one hand on a food processor and one hand explainingIn our demonstration kitchen, Chef Sherman prepares duck pemmican

During one of our Food History Weekend live-cooking demonstrations, Sherman shared some of those historic food practices with us by preparing duck and wild rice pemmican (Mag˘áksic˘a na Psíŋ Wasná). The dish features dried duck, preserved with salt and maple sugar, which could be stored for a long time and provide protein when game was less abundant. Sherman noted that like many of the dishes in his cookbook, this one does not include any ingredients brought to North America after European settlement on the continent. That means, no dairy, wheat (or gluten), beef, pork, or cane sugar, among other popular ingredients in many Americans’ diets today (and ones regularly distributed through FDPIR). Instead, the food found in Sherman’s cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (2017), relies on flora and fauna indigenous to North America like sea salt, juniper, maple sugar, honey, sumac, maple vinegar, eggs, sunflower oil, wild ginger, and mushrooms.

As Sherman notes in The Sioux Chef, the indigenous diet is “hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy […] most of all, it’s utterly delicious.”

 

 

Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more indigenous eateries, cafes, and restaurants pop up across the United States. In the meantime, try out Sherman’s recipe for duck and wild rice pemmican and watch the recording of the roundtable “The Power of Place” and other conversations from the 2018 Food History Weekend by visiting our website.

A finished dish on a plateChef Sherman’s completed dish

Dr. Ashley Rose Young is the historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and is also the host of Cooking Up History.

The live cooking demonstrations, as part of Smithsonian Food History Weekend, are generously supported by Hilton, Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., and Sur La Table.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 09:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=Bco1pNmZ5vg:FMoC0rHxfpg:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=Bco1pNmZ5vg:FMoC0rHxfpg:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

“Hunger” Amidst Plenty

Smithsonian Gardens
Hunger Ghada Amer, (1963 – ), born in Egypt, based in New York Earthwork in “Earth Matters” Site-specific, 2013 Ghada Amer is one of a selected number of artists invited by the National Museum of African Art to take part in the exhibit Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor by creating an earthwork in […]

“Hobbits” Disappeared Much Earlier Than Previously Thought

Smithsonian Magazine

The mysterious hominin known as the "Hobbit" died out far earlier than previously thought, scientists have learned. The revised age, published today in the journal Nature, could help resolve, or reignite, controversies over the diminutive fossil’s origins. It also raises some intriguing questions about why Homo floresiensis vanished—and what role our own species might have played in its demise.

When the discovery of 3-foot-tall Homo floresiensis and its grapefruit-sized head was announced in 2004, the tiny hominin’s odd mix of ancient and more modern physical features captured the public's imagination and created controversy among scientists tasked with figuring out exactly what kind of creature the unusual bones represented.  

Excavations on the Indonesian island of Flores have now revealed that Homo floresiensis called Liang Bua cave home between 190,000 and 50,000 years ago, rather than as recently as 12,000 years ago, which was the surprisingly late date previous research had suggested.

The digs, carried out between 2007 and 2014 by many members of the research team that first discovered the fossil, gradually exposed new parts of the cave only to discover that, thanks to eons of erosion, the sediment layer cake under its floor is unevenly distributed. As teams excavated from the cave’s mouth back toward the middle, it became evident that older deposits had been eroded prior to 20,000 years ago and gradually covered again by new sediments since.

Those younger sediments confused the original dating efforts. Scientists incorrectly associated the Homo floresiensis fossils with the more recent layer, says co-author Thomas Sutikna of the University of Wollongong in Australia, when it’s now clear that they were actually buried in the older layer of sediment.

The bones themselves were also reevaluated for this study with uranium-series dating, which charts the decay of uranium in bones to determine how long they’ve been buried.

Most theories of Homo floresiensis origins suggest they are the descendants of an early hominin dispersal. Co-author Matt Tocheri, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, says there are two main possibilities.

“The first is that Homo floresiensis is the descendant of Asian Homo erectus, and if this is true, then it implies the smaller body and brain size of Homo floresiensis probably evolved in isolation on the island. The alternative," he says, "is that Homo floresiensis is the descendant of another pre-modern species of Homo that may have been smaller-bodied and smaller-brained to begin with when it reached the island.”

Tocheri notes that the new ages won’t do much to move the needle from one of these options to the other—only the discovery of more fossils will do that. “If there was a book that chronicled the entire evolutionary history of Homo floresiensis, then it would be like we have only a few tattered and torn pages with the rest of the pages missing but hopefully not lost forever,” he says.

Some scientists, though a distinct minority, maintain that Homo floresiensis isn’t a new species at all but an abnormal, dwarfed member of our own Homo sapiens suffering from some ancient pathology like cretinism, microcephaly or Down’s syndrome.

Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London argues that the new dates do impact the feasibility of this scenario—and in fact make it much less likely. “They would seem to fatally undermine remaining claims that the ‘Hobbit’ fossils belong to diseased modern humans, since the material now dates beyond any modern human specimens known from the region,” says Stringer, who wasn’t affiliated with the research. 

Was There a Human Hand in the Hobbits’ Extinction?

Adding to the Hobbit’s intrigue was the relatively recent age originally assigned to the fossil, which had pegged it as the last known human species to vanish from the ancient world—excepting our own, of course.

The dates made it possible, though not certain—given the island’s remote location—that our two species coexisted for some significant part of those 40,000 years, which would have been a unique arrangement between modern humans and earlier human species. “I wondered how [Homo floresiensis] could have survived for so long after the arrival of Homo sapiens in the region at least 50,000 years ago, when other forms of human, such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans, had physically disappeared long before,” notes Stringer.

However, it’s still unclear if the Hobbits survived long enough to encounter modern humans at all. The earliest evidence of humans on Flores—in the remote string of islands stretching east of Java—doesn’t appear until some 11,000 years ago. But modern humans were on some of the region’s other islands by 50,000 years ago and had even reached Australia by that time. Their impact there, along with the apparent timing of the Hobbit’s extinction, suggests our own species could have possibly played a dark role in the disappearance of the Hobbits. If, in fact, the two ever met.

“At least for Australia, the weight of evidence points to humans playing a decisive role in the extinction of the giant endemic animals or ‘megafauna’ that once roamed the continent,” says co-author Richard “Bert” Roberts of the University of Wollongong in Australia. “So was Homo floresiensis another casualty of the spread of our species? This is certainly a possibility that we take seriously, but solid evidence is needed in order to demonstrate it. It will definitely be a major focus of further research.”

Homo floresiensis wasn't the only unusual inhabitant of Flores, and, interestingly, many of those creatures also seem to have vanished around the same time. Shifting climates or catastrophic volcanism could have plausibly played roles in these extinctions instead of, or in addition to, the arrival of modern humans, Tocheri notes.

“Theoretically the loss of pygmy Stegodon [an extinct form of elephant] could have caused a disastrous reaction stretching through the food chain,” he adds. “Pygmy Stegodon is the only large-bodied herbivore known on Flores during the Late Pleistocene, and it was clearly a primary food source for the vultures, giant marabou storks and Komodo dragons, which all disappeared from the island at roughly the same time as Homo floresiensis. If something happened to cause the pygmy Stegodon population to crash, then it more than likely would have had an adverse effect on these other species.”

More evidence will be needed if we’re ever to untangle what actually happened.

Even if modern humans did help force the Hobbits into extinction, Chris Stringer raises the tantalizing possibility that, like Neanderthals or Denisovans, they may not have vanished entirely.

“At least some of those other forms of humans did not go completely extinct since their DNA lives on in us today through ancient interbreeding between the archaic and early modern populations,” Stringer explains. “This leaves open the fascinating possibility that even H. floresiensis might have contributed some of its DNA to living groups in the region, if there was at least a short overlap between floresiensis and sapiens about 50,000 years ago.”

“Hear My Voice”: Smithsonian identifies 130-year-old recording as Alexander Graham Bell’s voice

Smithsonian Insider

The inventions of Alexander Graham Bell—most famously the telephone but also methods of recording sound—have allowed people to hear each other’s voices for more than […]

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