Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Of Augury and Haruspication

Apropos of last week's peaceful transfer of power in Washington, I recommend this weblog entry, which explains the origin of the term "inauguration," and gives a thorough description of the various kinds of divination practiced by the Roman republic.

According to the author, augury (the root-word in question) was not actually divination - it was instead a way to determine, by observing the flight of birds in specified sectors of the sky (or ostentaria), whether the gods approved of a proposed course of action. When a new public official was elected or appointed, the Romans used augures, haruspices - the readers of entrails - and fulgatores (lightning-interpreters) to determine whether his selection was spiritually legitimate.

The article is a bit long, but worth reading - it explains, among other things, how to conduct an augury, what the various terms associated with the practice were, what birds' flight or calls were important, and how the Romans resolved contradictory omens. The link is courtesy of the daybook of conservative writer Jerry Pournelle, who is trying to be a good sport about Barack Obama's inauguration.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Your Knees Cave Man

Happy New Year to all. My first entry of the year, which is based on an article from the December 28, 2008 issue of the Anchorage Daily News, takes us back 10,000 years before present, when a Native American man died in (or, perhaps, died near and was subsequently moved to) a cave in southeastern Alaska. His remains, which paleontologist Tim Heaton found in 1996, included "a male pelvis, three ribs, a few vertebrae…a toothy, broken jaw," and some tools. From this seemingly limited evidence, researchers determined that the man was in his twenties when he died, lived principally on seafood, had traveled some distance to the site of his death, and may have been a mariner.

More recently, geneticist Brian Kemp of Washington State University managed to extract mitochondrial DNA from the ancient traveler's teeth, and determined that he belonged to human genetic haplogroup D4H3. In 2008, genetic mouth-swab testing of 200 Alaska Natives proved that none of them was closely related to this early Alaskan – not surprising, since most of the region's Native Americans descend from later migratory waves. (Anthropologists have identified at least four waves of prehistoric human migration into the Americas: Paleo-Indian, Athabascan, Inuit, and Aleut. Most modern Native Alaskans belong to the latter three groups.) In fact, the only Native Americans who share haplogroup D4H3 are near-coastal peoples who live much further south: the Chumash (California), Cayapa (Ecuador), and Yaghan (Tierra del Fuego).

The discovery thus provides further support for the hypothesis that the first Paleo-Indian migrants to the Americas were seafarers, who used small boats to follow the coasts of the (now-submerged) Bering land bridge and of western Canada to the rest of the Americas. It also suggests that there was more than one wave of Paleo-Indian migrants, since Heaton's prehistoric sojourner was also unrelated to other Paleo-Indian descendents, such as Alaska's Tlingits.

The 10,000-year-old bones, incidentally, were found in On Your Knees Cave – I suspect that's how one enters the cavern – at the north end of Prince William Island. The ancient sojourner has thus received the name "On Your Knees Cave Man," which I suspect neither he nor the Geico cavemen would appreciate.