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November 23, 2004

Killing an elephant

How do pygmies kill an elephant?

Sometimes they use spears and stab it repeatedly, delivering a final blow to the head. Elephants often die still standing, so to check it's actually dead one will touch his speartip to its eye. Other times they use poisoned darts and then track it for days until it finally succumbs. Still other times one will sneak up behind it, a spear or sharp blade in each hand, and with one of them slash across its Achilles tendon and ram the other into its comparatively soft belly. It's not unknown for the elephant to collapse backwards and crush the unfortunate hunter, but whatever happens it's not going anywhere.

Once the thing is dead the tail is cut off and taken to the village as proof, and as a sign the women should come to the site of the kill. The man who wielded the death stroke is given the best cuts of meat and the rest is divided evenly amongst the families. Then the pygmies pray over the animal to ask forgiveness from their god, because they believe what they did was wrong and that now they've killed one of god's creatures they won't receive eternal life. For the pygmies staying alive comes at an infinitely high price.

In 1862 The Geologist journal told of a human skeleton found 90 feet below the ground's surface in Macoupin County, Illinois, beneath a two-foot thick layer of unbroken slate. The earth in which the skeleton was found is estimated to be 300 million years old. In the early 70s, at a dig in Hueyatlaco, Mexico, American archaeologists discovered stone tools and weapons in a layer of earth estimated by geologists from the United States Geological Survey to be 300,000 years old. In the last century gold miners working Table Mountain in Toulumne County, California discovered human skeletons and artifacts in solid rock. The rock is believed to be about 50 million years old.

Within the rock-like structures that are stromatolites live bacteria -- cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. A lot of cyanobacteria, three billion of them per square metre, working in cooperation to build their home. A stromatolite that is a metre-and-a-half high, like some of those in Hamelin Pool in Western Australia, may have taken two billion years to grow. Cyanobacteria use photosynthesis, extracting carbon dioxide from the water and, as a byproduct, releasing oxygen. A simply unimaginable quantity of cyanobacteria living three-and-a-half billion years ago very very slowly turned our atmosphere from oxygen-less to its present state, allowing animal life to exist. Cyanobacteria, and other types of algae, are considered a delicious snack for many forms of sea creatures, and now living stromatolites can be found only two places in the entire world. Cyanobacteria, in the most literal sense, created their own predators.

Humans, including pygmies, share about seventy percent of their genes with bacteria.


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