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Archive for May, 2014

8285 Jaipur! Expecting someone else

Relaxed Goat, Galwar Bagh Monkey Temple, Japiur, March 21, 2010

Expressing a fondness for goats these days is a bit like telling people you breathe oxygen. It seems that everyone has discovered the beauty and wonder of goats. Be it through their gorgeous goggle eyes or eminently strokeable ears, goats have entered the affections of most who inhabit the internet. Perhaps this is inevitable. That more than ten thousand years co-evolution, since the dawn of animal husbandry when we first began to shepherd goats, has inclined us to like them.

Without any desire to boast, I can say that in truth I have long been a goat fancier. For me, it’s always been about the ears – the way they hang like the frame of a bob. There’s little doubt that one of life’s great pleasures is to stroke the silky ears of a beast – I strongly recommend dachshunds. Of course, it goes without saying that the eyes and smile of a goat are marvellous to behold, yet without the ears, I doubt the overall effect would be quite so sweet.

This particular beauty was just chilling on a concrete bench, with a sleepy, almost nonchalant insouciance. I would never have dreamed of disturbing such expressive, almost sultry repose and left it alone to enjoy the afternoon sunshine. I can’t help but mention how goats’ teats look like Kibbeh – tell me it isn’t so!

This shot was taken on the outskirts of Jaipur, by the gate at the foot of the hill atop which sits the monkey temple, Galwar Bagh. As is typical of India, there was a splendid selection of animals about the place: piglets, dogs, monkeys, cows and goats – a veritable open air petting zoo. I was very pleased to get this shot, with its great contextual colour continuity, which highlights the shiny blackness of the goat.

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The ability to throw accurately and at high velocity is a uniquely human trait. Other primates don’t even come close to our range, speed and aim. The chimpanzee, despite being immensely strong physically, can only throw at around 20 miles per hour and is not especially accurate. A twelve-year-old human child, on the other hand, can achieve more than three times that speed and a far sharper aim.

bushman-throwing-his-spear-at-a-winded-gemsbok

Deadly ranged attack – Bushman throwing a spear

The ability to kill from a distance wrought changes in the lifestyle and diet of early humans by revolutionising their capacity to hunt and to defend themselves. This not only had significant physical and developmental impacts, it also had social, psychological and moral implications as well. The capacity for a weaker individual to slay a stronger one without engaging in physical contact must have transformed early human social relations.

To be able to kill at a distance in the first place, early humans had to learn how to throw effectively, and this is something they did to a quite astonishing degree. The adaptations that enabled such fast and accurate throwing began to develop around two million years ago in Homo Erectus. The key changes, as identified recently in a study by Dr Neil Roach of George Washington University, were a wider waist, the lower position of the shoulders on the torso, and the capacity to twist the upper arm bone.

Humans vs chimps, throwing

Competitive advantage – Rotating arm, low shoulder, wide waist

Studies tracking the movement of American baseball players clearly illustrate how the human shoulder works like a slingshot by storing and releasing energy in its tendons and ligaments, allowing humans to hurl projectiles with incredible and deadly speed.

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Slingshot action – Baseball Pitcher

The action of throwing begins by first rotating the arm backwards, during which movement elastic energy is stored in the shoulder. When the arm rotates forward, that energy is released in a lightning motion and transferred through the arm to the missile.

Throwing diagram

The Art of Javelin Throwing

It is hardly surprising that this throwing action became so greatly refined and specialised, considering the enormous advantages that it offered. Indeed, one could argue that learning to throw quickly and accurately drove human evolution more powerfully than any single factor outside of upright walking and language. The morphology of organisms is determined by a number of environmental factors, and one of the most key is how they acquire their food and defend themselves. Hence long beaks and tongues for dipping into flowers; huge teeth for grinding bone; incredible speed for chasing or fleeing; sharp claws for climbing or rending flesh, venomous bites for attack or defence – the diet and the nature of external threats drives the design.

chimpanzee with machine gun

This never happened…

If you studied the morphology of hominids over the last two million years and asked, how do these creatures acquire food and how do they defend themselves? – the most obvious answers would be by running, climbing and throwing. Focussing on diet, we then might ask – which of these techniques provide the most protein? – and throwing is the obvious answer. Those more capable of throwing not only made considerably better hunters and had a wider variety of meat available to them, they were also better adapted to seeing off rivals in a dispute. Once humans began to rely on throwing as a key hunting technique, natural selection ensured that those better adapted to throwing passed on their genes.

Consider how natural the inclination is for people to practise throwing and to gain pleasure from it. Just as other animals chase, spar and wrestle in play as a kind of innate training program for skills they will need in adulthood, so almost all human children practise throwing from a young age and derive immense pleasure and satisfaction from their accuracy and skill. We are designed to throw – it is the only explanation as to why we are so good at it. Once early humans began to hurl rocks and spears, there was no looking back – it was, quite simply, the best means by which to acquire rich sources of protein.

Grass Silhouette

Designed to Throw – It’s a human thing

Being able to take down prey at longer range meant access to a great deal more meat, providing more fuel for growing brains and supporting larger social groups. The skill itself must have driven brain development through the complex calculations required to judge a throw – distance, angle, height, wind-speed, tracking the prey’s movement and knowing exactly when to release. The ability to make aerodynamic spears, or choose the most effective stones must also have called upon significant brain power and encouraged manual dexterity.

The range and variety of habitats available to early humans would also have changed dramatically. No longer required to stay near rich sources of fruit and vegetables, or to use the cover of the woods to surround and ambush prey, early humans were free to enter new habitats, acquiring their food through long-ranged attacks on the herds grazing the savannahs.

The point at which early humans first began to rely on missile weapons has long been debated by archaeologists. Whereas the evolutionary adaptations begin to appear almost two million years ago, archaeology can only provide much more recent evidence for the use of throwing spears, with dates ranging from less than 100,000 years ago, to half a million years. Indirect evidence derived from impact fractures on spear tips suggest people were throwing spears at least as far as 500,000 years ago, but this interpretation is widely disputed and it is difficult to determine conclusively whether spears were thrust or thrown. The failure of wood to preserve well means we lack sufficient evidence and, as the dictum goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Chimpanzees are well known for using a variety of simple tools. Poking sticks into ant and termite nests to collect insects, breaking nuts with rocks, and, it seems, even attempting to spear smaller primates with sharp sticks.

chimpanzee-fishing-for-termites

Chimpanzee fishing for termites

This latter behaviour is, evidentially, rare, and chimpanzees are not known for throwing spears or using them in combat or hunting. Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to consider that if an ancestor with whom we parted ways some seven and a half million years ago uses such technology, then early humans might have taken the sharp stick a few steps further and started throwing them at creatures. On these grounds some anthropologists have suggested that hominids may have been using spears as weapons as early as five million years ago.

Whatever questions may hang over the archaeological evidence, it seems the only place we need look to determine when early humans began to use throwing as a principal means of hunting is the biology. If the adaptations were there two million years ago, then surely this is because early humans were increasingly throwing things two million years ago – it’s the only logical explanation. It is hardly likely to have just been for play, or courtship – the most logical driver is the benefits it offered in food acquisition and self-defence. As to what those early humans were throwing, it is hard to be sure. They likely began with rocks, possibly for dislodging things from trees, before graduating to more refined and aerodynamic missiles.

chimp with rock tool

Chimp with simple stone tool

The huge competitive advantage offered by this skill ensured that humans were able to dominate their environment. It may also have played a significant role in developing the codes of ethics and morality which kept inter and intra-clan strife to a minimum. Dominant males could no longer rely on brute strength and intimidation alone to see off rivals. The knowledge that a weaker, less dominant individual – male or female – could, through a carefully aimed spear, assassinate them, would have transformed the social landscape. More tact, more consideration, more rigid rules might well have emerged in the wake of developing such deadly capability.

chimp with stick

I wonder what will happen if I throw this…

From the humble rock and primitive throwing spear, humans later took their ranged attacks to new heights through the development of better spears, then spear-throwers – Atlatls and Woomeras – and ultimately, bows and arrows, for which the earliest archaeological evidence dates to roughly 13,000 years ago. Some have suggested that these technological advances might in part explain how Homo sapiens outcompeted Neanderthals, but, like so many theories on that front, it is based on a number of assumptions and guesses. Even without the use of spear-throwing implements, which have been shown in tests to have an effective, accurate range of between 45-55 metres, with a maximum range considerably longer, it is possible to hurl a spear a significant distance.

aboriginal spear

The Woomera and Atlatl (spear throwers) dramatically increase velocity

The Olympic javelin record is just under a hundred metres, and whilst no one would suggest such ranges were achievable or desirable with prehistoric weapons, light, wooden spears can be deadly at tens of metres, allowing the hunter to keep a very significant gap between prey – or predator for that matter – especially when the prey failed to perceive that such a distant human could be a threat.

Whatever the case, the development of throwing is one of the main reasons we are here today. It is one of our most refined skills, and for millennia, likely for millions of years, it remained our species’ preferred means of hunting and acquiring food. That we are so good at throwing is no accident – it is simply natural selection favouring the genes of the better hunters. The preying mantis uses lightning speed, the snake has deadly venom, the honeybee favours a suicidal sting and we humans have missiles – that’s just how we roll.

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Slow Burn

It’s been a while since I posted a collection of Sydney shots – as has happened in the past, I got tired of the subject matter. Having said that, subject matter is a pretty fluid thing, so perhaps the problem lay rather with context. Then again, context is transformed by so many factors that its appeal as a theatre of operations ought to be a fluid thing; different seasons, different fashions, different people – it’s a shifting scene sure enough. Before I deconstruct my own excuses further… these shots have come together over a number of months, though most are quite recent as I’ve dedicated more time to pursuing shots – hence the title – Slow Burn.

And it has been slow. The Golden ratio – my own reckoning, detailing the occurrence of “Gold” quality shots – has been disappointingly low; a lot of shots taken without result. In truth, however, I attribute it to a lack of patience. Random stuff is all very well, but often the best results come from sitting on a scene or pushing on relentlessly to find another. More such time has strengthened the focus of late, though having said that, most of these came from things stumbled upon. Enough! Here’s a few shots…

0275 Kale surprise

0967 Love on an escalator 2

1299 Drama at Town Hall station

1143 Lightbulbs

0907 Pink snail

2150 Man with fridge

2157 Man with fridge

2161 Man with fridge 3

1032 Balloon chimp

0713 Dinosaurs!

1447 King's Cross flats

8534 Tennis court

1103 Bricks

1979 Enmore selfie

8389 Broadway scene

1300 Tourists on George

2108 Cool Korean

1236 George street faces

0953 Exit stage right

1221 Micro bureao de change 2

1932 Glebe Point

0675 Swing girl

2030 Lichen & Fern 2

2232 Distorting mirror

2235 Horse IV

 

 

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