13 Dec 2019

Food on the Move

By Claire Eamer

A vital component of a turkey dinner.
Image by skeeze from Pixabay
I've been thinking a lot about food lately. One reason is that I have been auditing a university class on food and drink in the archaeological record. Somehow, ancient peoples seem much more real when you start to figure out what they snacked on during a workday and what they ate and drank at a feast.

(Auditing classes, I've discovered, is a blast! All the fun of learning with none of the stress of exams.)

The other reason for thinking of food, of course, is that we're approaching the season of winter feasting. Turkey dinner. Mashed potatoes. Corn on the cob. Roasted squash. Cranberry sauce. Maybe a little hot sauce on the side for those who like dash of fire with their food.

But if you'd mentioned any of those foods to someone from Europe, Africa, or any part of Asia 600 years ago, they would have been baffled. All those foods came from the Americas, and no one outside the Americas had eaten them until the European invasion of the Americas began just over 500 years ago.

(Okay -- Europe has a kind of wild cranberry, but it's not the sort you'll find in the cranberry sauce served with your Christmas turkey.)

I learned just how many foods originated in the Americas a few years ago when I was researching The World in Your Lunch Box: The Wacky History and Weird Science of Everyday Foods. I was amazed -- not just at the variety of foods, but at how skilled the farmers of the Americas were and how quickly their foods spread to the rest of the world.

Teosinte is on the left, and modern corn is on the
right. Between them is a hybrid of teosinte and corn.
Image by John Doebley.
Consider, for example, corn. At least 8000 years ago, the people who lived in what is now Mexico and Central America began a long process of crop breeding that turned a common grass called teosinte into maize -- the plant served up as everything from tortillas to corn on the cob. Today, maize is still an extremely important food in Central and South America, but it's also the most important food crop in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Or look at potatoes. They come from the Andes in South America, and you'll still find the biggest variety of potatoes there. But 500 years ago, the Spanish took a few kinds of potatoes back to Europe, and they spread. They spread so far and so fast that China is now the world's biggest producer and consumer of potatoes.

And that delicious-smelling turkey? The Ancient Puebloans who lived in the famous cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde 800 years ago kept turkeys penned in the alcoves behind their houses. In other parts of North America, such as the forests of what is now the eastern United States, turkeys were so plentiful that people didn't bother to keep them penned up. Why feed a bird when it can feed itself and still be available to hunt when you need it?

Those are just a few of the foods that came from the Americas. They, along with chili peppers, tomatoes, squash, chocolate, and a cornucopia of other delights, changed the nature and flavour of food around the world.

Now I'm hungry!

6 Dec 2019

Teenage Water Science Technician

posted by Paula Johanson
What was your first job, fresh out of school? Something in retail, perhaps.
Or if you're still in school, are you currently delivering newspapers or mowing lawns?
Guess what job teenager Quentin Rae of North Spirit Lake First Nation has, right after finishing high school... has anyone guessed Water Plant Operator? Good golly, there's science technician work in northern Ontario!

Ninteen-year-old Quentin Rae has been hired by his community to operate their new water treatment plant. He is monitoring and maintaining water quality with the assistance and support of Northern Chiefs Council (Keewatinook Okimakanak). The council is getting Quentin specialized training which will enable his community to have clean drinking water, after fourteen years of a Boil Water Advisory.

You can read about it all in the CBC news article at this link: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/teen-first-nation-drinking-water-1.3563110?fbclid=IwAR261xzPfTv1MQp6hAaYnHM6I7khFUeS1qAAaCmTSJvwuKPut0W_-qjv0Zs

29 Nov 2019

"The Capelin are Rolling"

"The capelin are rolling". That's what the lady in the fluorescent vest answered when we asked her what all the excitement was about. She was preventing cars from entering the already-full parking lot at the cove. Like a hundred others, I had parked along the highway and walked back to the cove.

I had an idea of what capelin were: little silvery fish. Ten days earlier on our trip to Newfoundland, the skipper of our tour boat to Witless Bay had said "You folks are lucky. We're going to see whales. There were no whales here until a few days ago when the capelin showed up and the whales follow and feed on the capelin". But I had no idea what "rolling" meant.

It turns out that "rolling" means that millions of capelin come in to shore to spawn on the beaches. This happens only once a year for a few days. And the locals come in to scoop up the capelin in nets or any handy container. It's a happening scene. You only have to wade into the ocean up to your ankles to scoop up buckets of fish. People of all ages were happily gathering dinner and walking off with shopping bags full of fish. It's quite a defining moment for local culture.

The capelin are rolling at Middle Cove, just north of St. John's

Dead capelin littering the beach
Anyone can scoop up capelin with a net

Buckets and shopping bags full of capelin

But the capelin are significant for more than a fascinating local cultural event. Capelin feed on plankton.  Other animals, including whales, puffins and cod, feed on capelin. So capelin are a critical link in the food chain. And capelin stocks have been declining. In 2018 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced a 70% decline in capelin population. The population is only 25% of what it was in 2014, and that was much smaller than before a population crash in the 1990's!  My first thought at seeing people scooping up the fish was that this must be a threat to the capelin stocks.

But no: most of the fish die anyway right after spawning, so harvesting them then does little to the population. And, anyway, people aren't walking off with more than a few tonnes of fish in their buckets and shopping bags. Somewhat more significant is the commercial catch. Surprisingly, the DFO increased the commercial fishing quota from 17,500 tonnes in 2018 to 18,600 in 2019.

Hard to believe from this picture, but commercial fishing is a minor predator
Why? The scientists at DFO believe that the decline is due more to environmental factors than to fishing, and consider the fishing to be a very minor factor in influencing the population size. They estimate that fin fish alone eat a million tonnes of capelin (and whales and seabirds are also significant predators).

The World Wildlife Fund disagrees with DFO and calls the increase in fishing quotas "short-sighted". Who's correct? It's not clear - there are so many factors involved that accurate forecasts of population are impossible. But maybe you should plan a trip to Newfoundland soon if you want to see the capelin rolling.

15 Nov 2019

Fishy Sauce and a Fishy Date

By Claire Eamer

The Garum Shop in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was a small business that manufactured and sold a fish sauce called garum that Romans adored. The shop went out of business suddenly and permanently in 79 CE when the nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius, erupted and buried it, the city, and several other communities under metres of volcanic rock and hot ash.

This is the Triclinium or dining room of a wealthy family
in Pompeii. The diners would have reclined on beds while
eating dishes liberally laced with garum. Claire Eamer photo.
In 1960, archaeologists uncovered the Garum Shop for the first time in 1880 years. Buried with it were six large ceramic containers called dolia and several of the large pottery vessels called amphorae used for everything from wine to -- in this case -- fish processing. The dolia contained the remains of garum in several stages of production, and some of the amphorae contained the well-preserved bones of hundreds of tiny fish.

Fishy flavour

Now, historians have known for centuries that the Romans loved garum and ate it in huge quantities. But they didn't know exactly what it was beyond a liquid made from decomposed, fermented fish, fish blood, fish guts, and other fishy bits. Doesn't sound very appealing, does it? But no one knew how appealing it might be because no one had tasted it in the better part of 2000 years.
A street-food booth in Pompeii. The railings are modern, but the rest of the shop
is just as the owner left it almost 2000 years ago. The counters have large ceramic
containers sunk into them to hold the day's offerings, certainly including garum.
Claire Eamer photo.

And we didn't have a decent recipe. Have you ever tried to recreate your mother's perfect chocolate cake icing or your grandmother's perfect butter tarts? (I have.) Even if you have the original recipe and you know exactly how it should taste, it's not easy. So -- no detailed recipe and no idea of what it should taste like made garum a mystery.

In the last few years, however, archaeological science has reached the point where those garum remains are more than a curiosity. Chemists are analyzing them to determine exactly what went into garum and in what quantities. And archaeozoologists are studying the fish bones to figure out what kind of fish were used.

Fishy calendars

The top is gone from this three-legged table, but the marble lion
feet remain. It was a valued antique. An inscription says it once
belonged to Casca Longus, the first to strike Caesar when he was
murdered in the Roman Senate in 44 BCE. Claire Eamer photo
That's where the fishy date comes in. For years, the most widely accepted date for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was August 24, 79 CE. That was based on a letter written by an eye-witness, Pliny the Younger, whose uncle died in the eruption. But Pliny's letter was written 25 years after the event, and the original disappeared long ago. We only know it from translations and copies, and they don't agree on what the Roman date translates to in modern terms.

Back to the fish. Scientists studying fish bones from the Garum Shop determined that they came from a small Mediterranean fish called the common picarel (Spicara smaris) -- and that all the fish examined were 10 to 13 centimetres long, about a year old, and all female. Fish have growth rings in their bones, much like the growth rings of trees, so the scientists could even tell that they died when the water was warmest -- late summer or early autumn. Then they were thrown whole into amphorae and packed with brine and, probably, herbs. They had been in the amphorae from one to three or four weeks when the heavens rained hot ash and buried them.

The August 24 date for the eruption was already in doubt because of other archaeological evidence, and the fish evidence made it even fishier. Large shoals of female-only picarel come close to the shores of southern Italy in late August and September, so that would push the eruption date to mid-October or later.

Fish-free evidence

Huge millstones still sit in the courtyard
of a Pompeii bakery and flour mill.
Claire Eamer photo
Just a year or so ago, an even more definitive piece of evidence for a later date turned up -- a bit of writing scrawled on a wall in charcoal. It's just a date, probably left by a tradesman working on a house, but the date translates to October 17 in our calendar, almost two months after the workman should have died in the eruption. The latest guess is that Vesuvius blew its top about October 24.

So fish and a long-dead tradesman appear to have corrected a fishy historical date. And while we still don't know exactly what garum tasted like, the chemists are busy fishing (sorry -- couldn't resist) for the recipe.

Carannante A. The last garum of Pompeii: Archaeozoological analyses on fish remains from the "garum shop" and related ecological inferences. Int J Osteoarchaeol. 2019;29:377-386.

Pompeii: Vesuvius eruption may have been later than thought. BBC News, 16 October 2018. Located at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45874858

9 Nov 2019

Today's Fun Fungus Walk

Our own Joan Marie Galat is a scholar of all things fungus. And she still knows how to enjoy just finding the odd mushroom here and there while out for a walk in the woods. Here are some photos she shared recently with friends. With compassion for those of us who can find it hard to figure out Latin names for various species of living things, she's captioned these photos in a more informal way.

 "Bite marks?"

"A colony."

 "A super-colony!"

 "Notice the rarely-seen upside-down bottlecap mushroom."

"The funnest of fungi!"

You can also explore the outdoors, including trees, wildlife, and the night sky, through the pages of Joan's books [https://www.joangalat.com/view-books/] . Her comments there are considerably more precise, and very interesting!

1 Nov 2019

Are You Taller Than Your Mother? Was She, Too?

“I hate holidays. Everyone always asks me how tall I am,” my son said, looking down at me. At only 13, he could already reach the top kitchen shelf without a step ladder.

“Well why don’t you ask it back?” I said. “Ask if they’re taller than their mom.”

We got great stories from the aunts and uncles that Christmas. And we discovered a surprising thing: even the shortest of the aunts and uncles were taller than their parents!


How can kids keep on growing taller than their parents? Where will it end? Will doorways become hobbit holes? Will humans end up being giants!?

By some measures, we are getting taller and taller. By other measures, average height hasn’t changed much since the Stone Age (well over 8000 years ago). Back then, the average European adult (that we have unearthed) was 168 cm tall. That's only 2 cm shorter than today.

Some of the height humans have gained comes from eating better. Nutrition is getting better understood over time, and it has gotten much easier to get a variety of good foods all year ‘round. Kids are also less often, thanks to sanitation and vaccination, so their growth isn't stunted. That makes the biggest difference before age 2, when a body’s pretty much decides how tall it can get.

In the last 200 years, average height has been creeping up. A full 10 cm more for the average adult Earthling in just the last 100 years. (That's confusing, if you remember Stone Age people were only 2 cm shorter than us. But we've only been able to measure about 80 people who lived in the Stone Age.) The data show that this change might be slowing down. The areas on Earth where we find the tallest adults, those people are not gaining height as fast as they used to. In fact, they're practically not getting taller at all. The human body may simply not be able to take in enough nutrients to make us a race of giants.

Even among healthy, well fed people today, adults are a lot of different sizes. Variety is normal; height isn’t a way to know for sure if one person grew up healthy. Genetics has such a big affect on height that where someone is born — their parents’ genetics — makes a bigger difference than their health. 

Sweden is where you'll find the tallest people, and Canadians are only a couple centimetres shorter. Even location differences are not steady: South Asian women have been getting taller much faster than women from anywhere else in the world. 

Women are usually shorter than men. A full smartphone length shorter, on average. This may change too. In some places on Earth, women’s average height is growing faster than men’s. 

Are you going to be taller than your parents? Probably. But the data shows that may be more about them shrinking than the boundless potential for you to be a giant. We'll talk about the incredible shrinking ancestors in another post.

29 Oct 2019

Youth and Their Science Discoveries

Paula Johanson

There are a variety of stories from around the world, telling of young people using science to discover amazing and useful things! Many of their projects are of particular interest in a world facing climate change and resource emergencies.

Check out the story of Fionn Ferriera, described as an eighteen-year-old wunderkind. At the 2019 Google Science Fair, he took the top prize. His invention? Creating a way to remove microplastics from ocean water. Click here for a link to read more about Fionn and the Google Science Fair.

It's not so simple to tell you the story of a South African youth who was part of a resounding success at rescuing penguins, during the oil spill when a tanker sank off his country's coast in 2000. He learned of the difficulty rescuers were having in removing crude oil safely and completely from the feathers of sea birds. While practising at home with a couple of feathers and a sample of crude oil, this teenager ended up inventing a way to clean oil spills off penguins, using a combination of dish detergent and ... well, that would be telling. Dyan deNapoli tells all about this teenager and his dad as one small part of her terrific book The Great Penguin Rescue: 40,000 Penguins, a Devastating Oil Spill, and the Inspiring Story of the World's Largest Animal Rescue. She's the penguin scientist who was present at this rescue, and you can learn more about her at this link to her website. Dyan deNapoli's book has so much to tell about professionals and volunteers working with animals, and solving this crisis. It's recommended reading for any family with a young person interested in working with animals, or worried about how people can cope with resource emergencies.

There's a family in Colorado that was learning how to test their drinking water. Their daughter, Gitanjali Rao, wanted to find a way to test water reliably and quickly. While browsing the MIT website, this eleven-year-old came up with an adaption for technology she read about in an article. Her portable device tests for lead in water, which is a problem for many people and places. This story is a terrific read for people who are upset by reading all the news articles about undrinkable water in Flint, Michigan or on First Nations reserves.

These three brief mentions are just a little of the great news that can be found about young people using science to make the world a better place.

20 Sep 2019

Newfoundland Rocks!

This summer I visited Newfoundland. I’d heard lots about its attractions - people, music, scenery, food, icebergs, whales, puffins. But I was surprised at what a world-class fascinating place it is for geology. Gros Morne National Park, on the west coast, is a case in point. 

One of the landmarks in the area is the Tablelands mountain range, a reddish lump of rock over 700 meters high, and totally barren of plant life. 

Part of the Tablelands mountain range.

For once, the lack of vegetation isn’t because humans cleared it all. It’s because the rock itself is toxic to plant life. The area is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site because it’s unique. The Tablelands consist of rock from the earth’s mantle. This was discovered by geologist Bob Stevens in the 1970’s and it was an important factor in the acceptance at the time of the tectonic plate theory. 

The earth is made up of layers: core, mantle and crust.

Cutaway diagram of Earth's internal structure (to scale) with inset showing detailed breakdown of structure (not to scale)

Everywhere (almost) the mantle is covered by the crust. The Tablelands is unique in exposing a large chunk of the mantle. The mantle contains a lot of metals: iron (accounting for the rust-red colour), magnesium, chrome, mercury, platinum, nickel. And that's why it's toxic to plants.

Over time, the effect of water on the rock creates serpentinite, a lovely texture like – of course – a snake skin. 

Tectonic Plates

This map shows 15 of the largest plates.

This theory was hotly disputed as late as the 1970’s but has now been generally accepted. The earth’s crust consists of a number of plates which slowly float around on the surface of the mantle. Occasionally (very occasionally) they crash into each other and then drift apart again. Right now the North American plate is moving North-West at a rate of about 2.3 cm (not quite an inch) every year.

The plates don’t necessarily stay intact through this process. Newfoundland was formed by two plates colliding. They were more or less the earlier versions of the North American and Eurasian plates. When they drifted apart, the European bit remained stuck to the (new) North American plate. So the Western half of Newfoundland is geologically similar to the rest of North America, and the Eastern half is similar to Ireland in the Eurasian plate.