Genetic clue to Easter Island mystery

Easter Island has always been a puzzle to archaeologists and historians.

Hundreds of miles from the nearest land, this small Pacific island hosted a culture that built the famous Easter Island statues, and then vanished as mysteriously as it appeared.

Now DNA evidence has shed new light on where the Easter Islanders came from. It turns out that while most of the islanders’ heritage has roots in Polynesia, as scholars have long believed, they also have some South American ancestry.

Norwegian scientist Erik Thorsby has found genes among Easter Islanders that are only in South American Indian populations. These genes had recombined with Polynesian genes, something that only happens after many generations.

The findings are tentative because Thorsby only tested one extended family but supporting evidence comes from an excavation in Chile that found evidence of Polynesian visitors in the 14th and 15th centuries. Given that the Polynesians were arguably the best sailors of the preindustrial world, they probably went lots of places we don’t know about.

Ancient migrations were more common than most people believe, and in recent years DNA evidence has revealed many anomalies not recorded in history. It’s best to be cautious, however. Some overeager researchers called hyperdiffusionists want to see all sorts of cultures coming from one source–the Greeks or the Egyptians or whatever their favorite happens to be. They tend to make unsupported claims about places like America’s Stonehenge, which is probably not ancient, and descend into New Age archaeology.

As Thorsby’s findings show, real science can be much more exciting than myth making.

[Photo courtesy user davitydave via Gadling’s flickr pool]

The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors

When most people think of the fall of the Roman Empire, they think of hordes of howling barbarians swarming over the frontier and laying waste to civilization. That’s only partially true. In reality, many tribes were invited, and even those that weren’t came with their families not just to conquer, but to settle. This is why historians prefer the term “Migration Period”. And although these tribes conquered, the Romans ended up changing them more than they changed the Romans.

Take the gravestone pictured here, for instance. The product of “barbarians” who had taken Spain, it has Christian symbolism and is written in Latin. It reads, “Cantonus, servant of God, lived 87 years. He rested in peace on 22 December 517 AD.”

The Visigoths spread over much of the western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Their attacks prompted the emperor Honorius to withdraw his legions from Britain so he could get reinforcements, but this didn’t stop the Visigoths from sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. Like other Germanic tribes, they came to settle, and eventually moved as far as southern France and Spain. There they took over the government but left the society pretty much intact. Roman bureaucrats still ran day-to-day affairs. The Visigoths were already Christian like most Romans by this time, and since they lacked a written language they started using Latin.

Their kingdom lasted from 475 to 711, when they were defeated by the Umayyid Muslims. That’s a long time, but the Visigoths have basically become the Invisigoths, a forgotten people sandwiched in time between the Romans and the Moors. Why? Because they had little effect on the people they ruled. The Iberian Romans continued pretty much as they were, developing from the crumbling Classical era into the Early Middle Ages. These Ibero-Romans vastly outnumbered their Visigothic rulers. The only Visigothic word to make it into Spanish is verdugo, which means “executioner”.

If you look hard enough, you can still see traces of the Visigoths. Four of their churches still stand, two in Spain and two in Portugal. One of the best is San Pedro de la Nave near Campillo, Spain. Two shots of this church are in the gallery. Bits of other buildings have been incorporated into later structures. In Mérida, a Moorish fortress called the Alcazaba uses a bunch of pillars taken from a Visigothic hospital. They’re shown in the gallery too. The Visigoths had a distinct artistic style of carvings in low relief, showing plants or animals or people in Biblical or battle scenes. The Visigothic Museum in Mérida has an excellent collection of these.

The Germanic tribes were also good at making jewelry, and the Visigoths were no exception. They liked huge, intricately carved pins called fibulae to hold their cloaks, and wore bejeweled belt buckles big enough to make any Texan proud. Several of their chunky gold crowns also survive, with the names of their kings spelled out in gold letters hanging like a fringe around the edge.

So when visiting Spain’s many museums and historic sights, keep an eye out for remnants of Spain’s underrated rulers!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The wine and cuisine of Extremadura!


Wildebeest migration one of the natural wonders of the world

Every year during this season, millions of wildebeest migrate northwards from Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. It’s part of their annual cycle of looking for green pastures and plentiful waters. Zebras, antelopes, and other animals come along too, with predators like lions and cheetahs hanging on the edges of the herds hoping to catch the slow or the weak.

The Maasai Mara Game Reserve and Serengeti National Park are the two most popular places to see the migration, and the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation reports hotels are already full, with even the Kenyan tourism minister saying he couldn’t find a room.

The annual migration is like a dream safari intensified, with the plains blackened by the herds. This National Geographic video shows just how big this mass movement of animals is. So if you want to see what ABC News has dubbed one of the new wonders of the world, you better book early for next year so you don’t get caught out. Sadly, there’s another reason to act soon. Observer Science Editor Robin McKie includes the migration in his list of ten natural wonders we can no longer take for granted due to global warming. McKie points out that if current trends continue, the plains will dry up and there won’t be enough pasture for the herds.

Image courtesy user Haplochromis via Wikimedia Commons.

The amazing red crab migration of Christmas Island

Experiencing the annual red crab migration on Christmas Island is an amazing sight. This remote landmass, named for the day it was discovered in 1643, is an Australian territory that’s considered “the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.” Sparsely populated, Christmas Island is ringed by the most hauntingly beautiful limestone cliffs, and shaped something like a tiered wedding cake. Each year, Christmas Island’s beaches are filled with an annual migration of millions of the local red crabs.

While there are fourteen species of land crabs living on the island, the sheer numbers of the animals during migration season (estimated to be as many 100-120 million crabs) is something visitors will never forget. In addition, each adult female crab gives birth to an estimated 100,000 babies!

From October through December, adult crabs make their way from the interior forests to the beaches to spawn. It is a slow-moving stampede. While the crabs are not aggressive, seeing a moving wave like a gigantic seafood smorgasbord is a little terrifying. Some of the animals are 50 or 60 years old, and they are very large (nearly 5 inches long). The males are larger, and the females have daintier claws. The colors of the crabs vary: some are orange and coral-red, with a rare purple animal now and then. They eat almost anything, including grass, fresh or rotting leaves, and even dung!

The annual crab migration has a significant effect on the activities of Christmas Island residents. Signs that announce “Crabs cross here” are posted across the island. Crabs on the golf course create special rules during the migration, and shouts of “holy crab!” are heard often. They surround houses, get into the laundry and enter schools. Residents have even developed special crab-related expressions in honor of this strange event. Saying that someone “has a face like a smashed crab” is not a compliment, and “He’s off like a bucket of red crabs in the hot sea” is something better understood after experiencing the event.

While some locals do eat the red crabs, (they are edible and delicious) crab dinners are frowned upon by local government. Each year up to two million of the red crabs fail to complete their marathon journey because of hungry residents, squashing by cars, dehydration (it’s a long walk from the forest) and even cannibalism (watching them eat each other is terrifying!). The smell of dead crabs creates a pungent and unappetizing.

Jimmy Buffett once penned a song about this peculiar island: “How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? How’d you like to spend the holiday away across the sea? How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? How’d you like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?” Buffett neglected to mention one very important detail: this Christmas “paradise” is swarming with millions of red crustaceans. Talk about false advertising!

** Images courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **

Migration junkies, unite.

Migration Information Source ( was started as a hobby by its an American-born editor, Kirin Kalia, 32, who describes herself to the NY Times as “half Dutch, half Indian, 100 percent American and total migration geek.”

The Source covers a wide range of migration topics: from giving advice to asylum seekers through listing the top migration issues facing the world today to focusing on Tajik construction workers in Russia, Latvian mushrooms pickers in Ireland, farmhands from Burkina Faso who pick Ghanaian crops and the Peruvians who take jobs left behind by Ecuadorean workers who have migrated to Spain.

There are about 200 million migrants in the world (probably a record in both relative and absolute terms) and more than 80 percent live outside the United States. I can’t wait ’til we live in a world where everybody is a migrant. It seems like it would eliminate a lot of issues. Go migrants!