Tag Archives: Africa

Ebola and "the French Disease"

Jim Moore and I were both students in the PhD Program in Anthropology at Harvard a few years ago. He graduated about the time I entered the program. To give a rough historical touchstone, I remember the day he needed to get his thesis off to the Registrar, and there was a delay because it was taking longer than expected to deburst the pages fresh out of the printer. Anyway, Jim is Professor of Anthropology at UC San Diego, and has done a great deal of work with Old World Primates, the evolution of social systems, and related topics. A while back Jim wrote an important piece for American Scientist which was a summary of his intensive research on the complex origin of HIV in Africa. Jim and I got to talking the other day about that topic in relation to the current West African Ebola outbreak (though this really relates to Ebola across the region in West and Central Africa). I invited Jim to write a guest blog post on the topic, he did, and that post is below. The graphic above accompanies the post and is used with permission from Jim’s earlier American Scientist article.

Ebola and “the French Disease”

Jim Moore

The origin of AIDS

By comparing the degree of variation among samples of HIV 1 group M (the virus responsible for the pandemic), we can estimate how long it has been since the original variant existed; that gives us a time for the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) of between 1908 and 1920 (depending on which recent analysis you like). For group O (which has not spread far), the TMRCA is a few years later, about 1920 to 1926. Put in the error estimates for these dates, and the range is about 1903 to 1948. Group N, with fewer than 20 patients known, is thought to have originated between 1948 – 1977 and the range for group P (2 patients) spans more than a century.

By comparing HIV 1 with different strains of SIVcpz and SIVgor (simian immunodeficiency virus of chimpanzees and gorillas), we find the closest match for group M comes from chimpanzee groups in SE Cameroon, just over the border from RP Congo (“Congo Brazzaville” to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], ex-Zaire, ex-Belgian Congo). Group O appears to be derived from SIVgor, most likely someplace in southwest Cameroon. That discovery involved collecting thousands of samples of ape feces from all over Africa and screening them for SIV, a prodigious project overseen by Beatrice Hahn. And a recent paper in Science makes a good case that for HIV 1 group M, after initially becoming established in someone in northern RP Congo/SE Cameroon, the virus traveled down the Sangha River to Kinshasa (personally, I don’t think they can meaningfully separate Kinshasa and Brazzaville at this stage) around 1920, where it was maintained at a low prevalence until about 1960 when the pandemic began.

Do the same exercises for HIV 2, and the two epidemic groups (A & B) most likely originated around 1940 – 1945 (1924 to 1959) from SIVsm (sooty mangabey) someplace in or near Ivory Coast. Like HIV1 group M, the virus seems to have travelled from its point of origin (sooty mangabeys in the Tai Forest, Ivory Coast, have the closest SIV matches to both groups) to where they caught on and eventually became pandemic (Guinea-Bissau, where the war of independence seems to have facilitated the process).

Now here’s the thing: people in both areas have eaten primates, and so been exposed to SIVs, for millennia. And as a sexually transmitted disease, well, sex has been going on for even longer. Massively increased promiscuity in the context of commercial sex workers in rapidly urbanizing and poor populations? That’s more a twentieth century thing, starting early in the century but really taking off after World War Two and ongoing today. Furthermore, in around 1960 disposable plastic syringes became widely available and, in poor areas, were often reused and/or easily available to traditional healers and charlatans, making unsterile injections more common. And of course travel by trains, cars, and planes has increased through the 20th century (with an important caveat that in parts of Africa such as the DRC, many railroads and roads weren’t maintained after independence and fell apart post–1960s).

So exposure to SIV has been going on for millennia, and “the usual suspects” in terms of STD risk factors became important early in the 20th century but increased dramatically (and have remained high) since the late 1950s, and despite that the only strains of HIV that have “caught on” all date from around 1920 – 1945. What is missing?

The French Connection

Those places, those times: French Equatorial Africa and French West Africa. There are SIV-carrying primates in many parts of Africa, under various colonial powers at various times, but all four zoonotic HIV strains happened under the French. Bad luck?

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 11.13.54 AMIt is impossible to be sure, but I have argued that for HIV 1 the catalyst was the combination of two things. First comes the unbelievably brutal treatment of Africans in both French Equatorial Africa (FEA) and the Belgian Congo, resulting (among other things) in labor camps where men were overworked, malnourished, and provided with women as a matter of policy to keep the workers – well, “happy” is probably not the best word, but you get the idea. The second element was the effort to cure smallpox and sleeping sickness through aggressive diagnosis/treatment/inoculation campaigns using traveling “mobile clinics” that had inadequate equipment for the scale of the job they were doing. For example, one sleeping sickness expedition in 1916 into what is now Central African Republic diagnosed/treated more than 89,000 people with just 6 syringes (the number of needles isn’t recorded). Over more than a decade, these mobile clinics, pioneered by Dr. Eugene Jamot, reached – and injected – millions of people. The importance of sterile equipment was well understood, but the logistics (I speculate) would have been prohibitive. The campaigns represent a major humanitarian effort that saved many lives, but the combination of widespread use of unsterile needles and stress-induced immunosuppression could not have been better designed for adapting a virus to new hosts.

I do not know the relevant history of French West Africa (FWA) so am cautious about saying the same thing happened there with HIV 2. However, it is worth noting that in 1931 Jamot was held responsible for the accidental blinding of hundreds of people being treated by one of his subordinates (sleeping sickness was treated with an arsenic derivative, and the subordinate apparently tried out a higher dosage, with disastrous results). With a cloud over his reputation, Jamot shifted from FEA to – Ouagadougou, in FWA. There he took charge of the sleeping sickness campaign, again with mobile clinics and again treating thousands of people under difficult conditions over several years before his health deteriorated.

About 20 years between the origins of HIV 1 in FEA and HIV 2 in FWA, and about 15 years between the onset of Jamot’s work in FEA and his move to FWA. Very circumstantial, but it gives one pause.

Why belabor the French?

Eugene Jamot was a genuine hero, and while colonial support for the mobile clinics wasn’t all humanitarian (there were concerns about the loss of [forced] labor if too many died), I am sure the people involved were doing their best to help other people in need. It might seem mean-spirited to point the finger of AIDS at them.

Well, here is one reason. A recent article in Science by Faria et al. examined the history of HIV 1 group M, concluding that the virus arrived in Kinshasa in about 1920 where it barely kept up with population growth until about 1960, when it began rapidly spreading in the pandemic we see today. It is valuable and interesting work. The actual origin of the virus is not their focus, but they summarize it thusly:

After localized transmission, presumably resulting from the hunting of primates, the virus probably traveled via ferry along the Sangha River system to Kinshasa. During the period of German colonization of Cameroon (1884 – 1916), fluvial connections between southern Cameroon and Kinshasa were frequent due to the exploitation of rubber and ivory. (page 58)

German colonization? Well, yes; the Germans were in Cameroon up until 1916 (when French/Belgian forces that had traveled up the Sangha in 1914 finally drove them out; Jamot was a medical officer with the expeditionary force). But traffic on the Sangha River didn’t end in 1916, and most of it was between Brazzaville/Kinshasa and the French towns of Ouesso, Nola, and Carnot anyhow. Why specify the “period of German colonization”?? I do not KNOW, but I note that (1) there is no other mention of any colonial power in the Faria et al. article, and (2) of the 14 authors, 6 are affiliated with institutions in Belgium or France (the rest, UK and USA). It looks to me like there may have been a bit of whitewashing going on there, and using a scientific article to blow historical smoke in our eyes gets my dander up.

AIDS and Ebola

Here is a better reason for acknowledging the likelihood that AIDS got its start as an unanticipated consequence of underfunded, understaffed humanitarian efforts to deal with infectious diseases in equatorial/west Africa: history can repeat itself. To ignore ebola in West Africa is not an option, and half-measures have whole risks.


Further reading

The puzzling origins of AIDS (2004). Jim Moore. American Scientist 92: 540–547. pdf

The early spread and epidemic ignition of HIV–1 in human populations (2014).
Nuno R. Faria, Andrew Rambaut, Marc A. Suchard, Guy Baele, Trevor Bedford, Melissa J.Ward, Andrew J. Tatem, João D. Sousa, Nimalan Arinaminpathy, Jacques Pépin, David Posada, Martine Peeters, Oliver G. Pybus, and Philippe Lemey. Science 346: 56 – 61.

Some other material of mine on HIV origins


Further note: Readers of this blog will avoid confusion by noting that this Jim Moore is not the Aquatic Ape Jim Moore. Same name, different guy.

Keeping The Carbon In The Ground Elsewhere: Developing Nations

John Abraham has an interesting post up at the guardian called “Global warming action: good or bad for the poor?” It is a response to a post by a group of guys who tend to write annoying stuff about climate change (you can go to John’s post for that information). Here, I want to make a brief comment related to John’s excellent post.

The crux of John Abraham’s post is this, in two parts: 1) Some have argued that mitigation against climate change is bad for “the poor” (read: people in developing countries) because they have a right to go through the same phases of technological and social development we (read: The West) have done, which would presumably include building numerous dirty coal plants so everyone can have a washer and dryer and blender and other stuff. This, John argues, is wrong at several levels. 2) As John demonstrates through is own activities, described in his post, it is possible to skip the 19th and 20th centuries in developing energy technologies and go right to the mid 21st century, installing carbon-free efficient inexpensive easily maintained and sensible technology.

I worked for several years in South Africa, as you probably know. When I first started to work there, we had problems with communication because we were usually in remote areas where there was no phone. We did get cell phones, but there were two problems with them. First, there were two major TeleCom carriers, and we worked in areas that were serviced, if they were serviced at all, by one or the other but usually not both. So we’d get two sets of cell phones. Second, as just implied, there was no cell phone service in many areas. During one field season we worked in a remote area of the Northern Cape. We were working on a farm not far from Upington for a while. We could get brief and unreliable cell phone service if we climbed a hill and stood near a certain water tank and held the phone up really high in the air. Sometimes. Farther out in the bush, where we spent considerable time, we had no cell phone access at all. There were land lines here and there but this required traveling way out of our way to use an unreliable pay phone.

During a later year, we prepared for our return to that remote area by getting the usual two cell phones, and also, carrying out all of the communications we could prior to leaving, letting people know we’d be mostly out of touch for a few weeks at a time. We packed up the Toyota Prado and the trailer with our gear and food, piled into the vehicle, and set out across the southern African subcontinent. A few days later we came to a key stop in our journey, the entranceway to what was then known as the Kalahari Gemsbok Reserve, on the border of Namibia and Botswana. I was chatting with the students who were on the field school about how our cell phones would be useless here, but there was a land line at the park headquarters that we could use now and then with the TeleCom cards we could purchase at the gift shop. As I was saying this, my field manager, Lynn, drove the car out of the river bed we had been following, and we ascended a hill overlooking the campsite at the entrance of the park. From there we could see dozens of camp sites, occupied by South African campers with their 4X4 vehicles, their amazingly tricked-out trailers deployed to form bedrooms and kitchens. The campers were standing around cooking their braai (that’s South African for BBQ) as it was nearing dinner time, late in the afternoon.

Two sights took my breath away. Well, not really, but these two sights made me stop talking and change my story about making phone calls. First, there was the huge cell phone tower ascending from behind the camp site, the alp glow of the setting sun accentuating it’s technological glory. The other was this: About half the people standing around in the camp site, cooking their boerwors and t-bones, were chatting on their cell phones.

Remember World War II? Yeah, I don’t either. But it happened. Part of World War II involved bombing the crap out of German Industry. Japanese Industry was also bombed but there was probably less of it to begin with. The point is, at the end of the war, German and Japanese industry was toast, and those two countries were under occupation. Then there was the Marshall Plan and all that. This involved rebuilding industry in those two countries. Then, later, each in their own way, Germany (well, West Germany) proceeded to kick our industrial asses by more or less starting from scratch, combining in-place ingenuity, effective corporate culture, and brand new factories to grab several major international markets. There were a couple of decades there, overlapping with the ones I grew up in, during which it was not uncommon to hear Americans griping about that. Those guys, they started the war, we defeated them, then we gave them all this stuff, and now my commie neighbor drives a Japanese car. Dammit and get off my lawn. That sort of stuff.

I remember doing an archaeological survey in a newish exerb in the Boston area during one of those periods when Americans were especially mad at the Japanese for making great cars. In that particular neighborhood, some good ol’ boys (yes, they have the in the Greater Boston Area) had gone around the neighborhood and, using chalk, marked up the driveways of anyone who had a Japanese car. They drew nasty pictures and wrote obnoxious and racist words. So, part of Western Culture, mainly that sub-part that arises from the Allied Powers, or maybe just America (but I suspect the United Kingdom as well) developed an anti-Japanese, and to a lesser extent, anti-German thing based on post Marshall plan resentment.

John Abraham is a nice guy and I am not. Perhaps. John saw the article he critiqued in his blog post as being misinformed and stupid. Fine. I suspect, in my not-as-nice-guy way, that there is something deeper. Let me review before I reveal.

First, some climate change science denialists make the argument that mitigation against climate change by implementing new technologies will hurt poor people in third world countries.

Then, an expert on climate change and energy, John Abraham, notes that this is wrong, because we can implement the newest technologies in places like Sub Saharan Africa and go right from a sort-of-pre-industrial state to a 21st century state.

I note that not only is John right, but that it has happened before, in Japan, Germany, and with my example here South Africa, with various industries (cars, TeleCom, etc.)

And then we have this idea that people in the West have been known to resent those who have sailed past us in technology achievement because they ended up in a situation where they needed to move from the stone age (into which they had been bombed) to absolutely modern, or even next-gen, times.

If we give effective, inexpensive, workable, modern non-carbon energy technology to Africa and help it get deployed, then African nations will, in the near future, show up at international climate change summits with a new message that climate change science denialists and carbon-based energy magnates will not want to hear. They will say this. “Look, we’re doing pretty well without carbon based energy technologies. We’re advancing the standard of living without destroying the planet. Why haven’t you done that, The West?”

And, when it comes to production, new ideas, technology, stuff you want to buy, the raw material of the global free market, the Africans are going to kick our asses.

And that will be great. But some are afraid because of a thing they have. It’s called racism.

Killing The Namibian Black Rhino for $350,000 UPDATED

UPDATE (March 27 2015): US gives Texan rhino hunter an import permit

A Texan who won an auction to shoot an endangered black rhino in Namibia has been given a US permit to import the trophy if he kills one.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service said hunting an old rhino bull helps to increase the population.
There was an outcry when Corey Knowlton won the auction last year, with animal rights activists decrying it. It’s not yet clear when the hunt will happen.

Namibia is home to some 1,500 black rhino, a third of the world’s total.

The US agency issuing the permit said that importing the carcass from Namibia would be allowed because it met criteria under the Endangered Species Act of benefiting conservation.

Since first considering whether to issue the permit in November, the agency has received petitions with around 152,000 signatures demanding that it be denied.

UPDATE: The identity of the hunter has been revealed over social media.

Dallas (CNN) — Corey Knowlton is on edge sitting inside a Las Vegas hotel room, surrounded by a private security detail, explaining why he spent $350,000 for the chance to hunt a black rhinoceros in the southern African nation of Namibia.
“If I sound emotional, it’s because I have people threatening my kids,” Knowlton told CNN. “It’s because I have people threatening to kill me right now [that] I’m having to talk to the FBI and have private security to keep my children from being skinned alive and shot at.”

Knowlton was outed over social media as the winner of the Dallas Safari Club’s auction for a black rhino hunting permit from the Namibian government last weekend. It didn’t take long for the threats and vitriol to start pouring in.

“You are a BARBARIAN. People like you need to be the innocent that are hunted,” posted one woman on Knowlton’s Facebook page.
Some sounded even more sinister. “I find you and I will KILL you,” read another threat. “I have friends who live in the area and will have you in there sights also,” wrote another commenter.

here is a black rhino in Namibia that will be shot by a sports hunter who won an auction for the privilege. The permit to kill the rhino was won in competitive bidding for the sum of $350,000. All proceeds will be donated to support the rhino conservation efforts in Namibia.

There has been an expected outcry on the internet over this event. There are people who hunt big game some (but not all) of them have little problem with this, and then there is everybody else, and most people find the idea of killing a black rhino, which are endangered, abhorrent.

I want to relate the story of another rhino, a white rhino, that was killed after a similar auction, elsewhere in Africa. I won’t give details of time, place, organizations involved, or individuals involved because I feel that the reaction to this sort of thing could spill over in inappropriate ways. The point of relating this story is to add some nuance to the situation.

There is a rhino conservation project with which I’m intimately familiar. It was initiated years ago by a charismatic conservationist and expert on the rhino. The project has three major components. First, there is a large area fenced off from the surrounding landscape on which both white and black rhinos roam free. You might wonder if rhinos can roam free in a fenced off area, but the area is quite large, nearly 90,000 acres. This is about the size of the city of Montreal or Detroit. Many areas in Africa in which “wild game” live have fences around them, though there is a trend to take down the fences especially where the enclosed areas are on the small side.

Second, there is a larger project that defines a biosphere, including the aforementioned reserve, of nearly 15,000 square kilometers. This is about the size of Connecticut. The biosphere includes numerous game parks, some that allow hunting, and a number of human-use areas, but with restrictions of what sorts of uses are allowed. The biosphere includes one of the more unique floral communities in the world with a high degree of endemism, and is the home of the usual range of African animals including rhinos and several antelope species, though I don’t think there are any elephants there at the moment. This is also home to an impressive avian and reptilian fauna.

Third, there are a number of tourist destinations within the biosphere that bring income to the local communities and help run the conservation projects, including one at the aforementioned rhino conservation area. Some of the tourist destinations, as mentioned, accommodate hunting. In addition to the tourist areas there are also nature-oriented schools and childrens’ programs, though I’m not very familiar with them.

The rhino reserve is big, but so are rhinos. Several years ago, a large and older white rhino took over the breeding rights of a large number of female rhinos in this reserve. White rhinos are not especially aggressive, but when it comes to mating competition they are fairly typical as male mammals go. This rhino was doing damage to other males on the reserve, and was actually starting to damage some of the females. I don’t think any rhinos had been killed but it seemed inevitable at the time.

And, as it turns out, this particular rhino was sterile. This constituted a serious threat to the otherwise very successful rhino breeding program, which had been producing rhinos for introduction into area where they were previously hunted out.

One might think that you could just pen up a rhino like this, keeping it separate from the other animals, perhaps making it an “ambassador rhino” for tourists to see up close. Unfortunately, that turns out to be more difficult than it sounds. Rhinos are large powerful animals and this one was especially large. Black rhinos are very aggressive. Once penned up it would spend considerable effort to escape, and would likely have a certain degree of success. A smaller adult male black rhino that was raised as an orphan, rescued after hunters killed its mother, was easily able to escape from a well built corral a few years ago, at this same reserve. It did considerable damage, focusing mainly on the cars in the nearby parking lot. A white rhino female, also an orphan, raised in the same facility was released at maturity, bred, and the last time I saw her was wandering the bush with her new baby and doing quite well.

The point is this: If you raise large mammals, there often comes a time when one of them has to be put down owing to any of a number of different reasons. The bush in Africa, for the most part, is highly managed. Unmanaged areas tend to have very little in the way of larger wild animals because either they are poached out or the animals die off because populations grow too large and are then affected by drought or disease. If there were fewer people, less human settlement, and no fences, these die-offs would be offset by better conditions in other regions, and animals would later migrate from high-population areas into decimated areas once the latter were ecologically restored naturally.

So, the difficult decision was made to put the large white male rhino down. A permit from the government was obtained. And then the people managing the reserve decided, legally and as per the permitting process, to allow a hunter to put the animal down, which would have the same final effect but produce several thousand dollars in funds for the conservation program. The fee in that case was, if I recall correctly, $10,000.

I spent an evening listening to the story of how that went, told to me by the ranger who was tasked with getting the hunter and the rhino in the same place. It would have been his job to put the rhino down had the decision not been made to bring in the hunter, and he did not relish the idea either way. As he told me the story of how the hunt went, he paused a few times to cry. This, the killing of the rhino in any manner, was something he did not want to do, even though he agreed that it had to be done.

It would be irresponsible for me to relate the details of what happened, but I’ll tell you in private if you buy me a beer. I can say a little about it. After several days of tracking the rhino, stopping several times for meals and other refreshment, the hunter was finally brought to a point where his quarry was visible and in range. He took a couple of shots but missed. The ranger was ready the whole time to dispatch the animal with a good shot in the event that the hunter merely wounded it. In the end, the ranger shot the rhino, and photographs were taken. If I recall correctly, there was no trophy; I’m pretty sure that would have been illegal.

The $10,000 was employed usefully and made a difference.

I’ve spent considerable time on rhino reserves in this area, and with the people who run them. I have never been to a rhino reserve in Namibia but I have met people who worked in that country on conservation, and I’ve worked in a reserve on the Namibian border. I can promise you that there is not a single person involved in rhino conservation in the region who wants to see any rhino put down for any reason, but sometimes, apparently, it has to happen.

Some of the responses people have had to the Namibian black rhino killing seem to lack a sufficient understanding of the situation. This is perceived as a bad thing to do primarily for two reasons. First, it is wrong to kill an endangered animal. This is a bit naive because a given rhino is not endangered; all of them are. Being endangered is something that happens to a species, not an individual. A given animal may be of great value to the perpetuation of the species, while another may be a detriment to conservation efforts. The second common response is that the rhino should just be left alone. In the case of the white rhino mentioned above, that was not an option. The idea that leaving the rhinos alone is untenable given the current situation of human-animal conflict, ecology and climate, and habitat loss. The only places where there are rhinos at all in Africa are places where management is intensive. Sometimes intensive management means taking down an animal.

Namibia puts down a small number of black rhinos every year, about three. These are usually hunted but the permits are not issued outside the country. This particular case is the first time that has happened, and the amount of money being raised is considerably more for that reason. The black rhino being hunted is a “geriatric male” who would normally be earmarked for being killed as part of the conservation program. Not all of the people involved in Namibian conservation think things should be done this way, but generally, those that do not agree are hard pressed to propose alternatives.

It is certainly reasonable to question whether or not sports hunting should be allowed at all, or if specific highly publicized hunts like that of the Namibian black rhino should happen. Even if animals need to be hunted out of a given area for population management, this can be done as part of wild game harvesting, for the most part. Having said that, there is a counter-argument. You can’t really incorporate large older sterile and ornery rhinos in the meat trade very easily. And, of course, there is the money. I think one of the things that troubles people the most, and that troubles me and the ranger who told me the story of the white rhino, is the strong contrast between a big game hunting mentality and a conservation mentality. Even if it can be argued that a great deal of effective conservation occurs in the context of maintaining hunting as a sport, the point of view of big game hunters and conservationists is often dramatically different.

My opinion on the matter is that the rhino should not be put down, but probably has to be even if I don’t like the idea. I’m happy to see $350,000 put into Namibian rhino conservation … that will go a long way … but I think there is a bigger problem here. $350,000 is nothing at the international level for conservation of rhinos. It simply should not be the case that creating this sort of spectacle is necessary to fund black rhino conservation at this level. It is not OK that $350,000 is small change for some lucky hunter, but a huge sum for conservation. That is the problem.

What a Difference a Century Can Make

At the beginning of the 20th century, a traveler in Central Africa made mention of some strange people that he had come across. He was traveling among regular, run-of-the-mill natives…probably Bantu-speaking people living in scattered villages and farming for their food. But along the way, strange people came out of the forest. These strange people had sloping foreheads; they were short of stature, bow-legged and otherwise misshapen. They also clearly were, in the eyes of the traveler, of subhuman intelligence. The traveler described these people as a separate, subhuman race that lived in the forest. As I read this, I began to think that perhaps he was speaking of so-called “Pygmies” who live in this region, and as I began to think that, I started to get mad at this writer because so-called “Pygmies” do not look or act as he described. Continue reading What a Difference a Century Can Make

No place to sit down (or, why do the Efe let some insects live?)

I knew a couple who had spent a lot of time in the Congo in the 1950s. He was doing primatology, and she was the wife of the primatologist. And when she spoke of the Congo or Uganda, where they spent most of the time, she always said “The thing about Africa is that there’s no place to sit down.” Continue reading No place to sit down (or, why do the Efe let some insects live?)

Stories from the field: Jon Kalb’s Newest Book

People who do a lot of field work end up with interesting stories to tell, especially if the fieldwork is diverse and the conditions are adverse. Often, the sort of thing people want to know about is very different from the repertoire of available stories, but as long as the expectations of the audience is not too rigid, experienced fieldworkers in the various sciences that do field work make the best cocktail party extras.

I never met Jon Kalb, but we have a lot of colleagues in common. I first heard of him as one of the scientists on the same expedition that found the famous fossil “Lucy” (and her various friends and families). The whole Ethiopian foray was interesting as stories go. Research in the Afar region as well as down in the Omo basis was linked to numerous interesting stories worthy of a great deal of lecture time in any reasonable course on human evolution, or several pages of descriptive prose in any book on human evolution. And this is entirely aside from the actual discovery of any actual fossils.

I recalled that Kalb was the guy who was accused of being a CIA agent and thus tossed out of the country (Ethiopia) after doing quite a bit of work there. The person who told me that also assured me that it was not true; he was not a CIA agent. But that particular story goes with a lesson: don’t ever let anyone think you are a CIA agent because they’ll toss you out of the damn country.

The reason I’m telling you all this is because Joh Kalb has written a book, perhaps I can fairly call it a memoir if that term has not been broken into a million little pieces by some other author, of his time in the field. The Ethiopian bit is part of the story, but only a small part, as Jon had done quite a bit of work both before and after. Much of the attraction of books on human evolution and other field sciences is the fieldwork stories, and that’s what Jon’s book is all about. There are stories from North America, South America, Africa, from the driest regions of the world to under the sea. The research is all over the map as Jon was himself, with human origins work being only part of it. (Jon is a geologist so he is not bounded by taxon!)

Hunting Tapir During the Great Flood and Other Tales of Exploration and High Adventure is a rollicking adventure very much worth the read.

Kalb is also the author of Adventures in the Bone Trade: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression.


More on Human Evolution

More Book Reviews

Which works better, Acupuncture or Changa?

Acupuncture is the ancient East Asian practice of poking people with needles in specific places and in specific ways in order to produce any one of a very wide range of results that could generally be classified as medicinal or health related. I don’t know much about it, but Wikipedia tells us:
Continue reading Which works better, Acupuncture or Changa?

Wildlife of Southern Africa

Wildlife of Southern Africa , by Martin Withers and David Hosking, is new (August 2011) and good. If you are planning a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana or anywhere nearby, or if you live there and like to go to the bush sometimes, consider it.

This is a pocket guide, it is small, has good photographs, is inexpensive, and accurate.

Continue reading Wildlife of Southern Africa

The Best Eclipse Ever (of the moon and of the sun)

I remember my first solar eclipse. I was a kid, and it was the one Carlie Simon sang about, in March 1970.

(The eclipse reference is just past three minutes. Some other time we can argue over whether or not Carlie, singing in this video on Martha’s Vineyard, was referring to the March 1970 eclipse or the July 1972 eclipse, but I’m sure it was the former, because that’s the one everybody got all excited about.)

I was such a geek that I actually missed the eclipse because I was busy collecting data. There was a phone number you could call and a lady’s voice would give you the time and temperature. Perfect. I called the number again and again and wrote down the time and temperature and made a graph. And I got results!
Continue reading The Best Eclipse Ever (of the moon and of the sun)