Category Archives: Entertainment

Dolphin Hunters and The Cove

Like many others who watched the Academy Awards last night,  I was very disturbed by the clips I saw from The Cove, the  film that won in the  Best Documentary category.   The Cove portrays the dolphin hunt that takes place each year near the small Japanese fishing village of  Taiji.  There hunters herd more than a thousand dolphins  into a small cove, where they spear them from small boats.  The most disturbing clip was an aerial view of the cove after the slaughter:  the water was blood red.

Taiji’s inhabitants are apparently up in arms now over the film.   According to a CBC report I read today,  Taiji’s mayor has now released a statement defending the hunt. “There are different food traditions within Japan and around the world,”  he notes. “It is important to respect and understand regional food cultures, which are based on traditions with long histories.”

I will come back in a moment to the ethics of this hunt.  But the mayor does make a valid point.  Dolphin hunting does indeed have a very long history along the rim of the Pacific Ocean.  Archaeological evidence shows that dolphins were a major food source along the coast of California–not far from where the Oscars were handed out last night–as early as 9000 years ago.

Mark Raab,  a professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside,  and his colleagues excavated a trove of dolphin bones at a site on San Clemente Island, 60 miles off the California coast.   As it happened,  I was there at Eel Point with the crew when they dug a small portion of the site, and I was amazed as I watched faunal expert Judy Porcasi sort through the recovered  bone fragments.  Porcasi kept shaking her head as she picked out something familiar in a screen. “Dolphin,” she said.  “Dolphin.  Dolphin.”

Her later analysis showed that a whopping 38 percent of the identifiable mammal bones from the dig belonged to dolphins.   And though the intensity of the hunt varied over time,  the  people of Eel Point hunted dolphins from 7000 B.C.  right up to A.D 1400.   And this raises an important question.  How did they manage kill so many dolphins?  The excavations did not turn up any sign of a harpoon.

In search of clues, Porcasi and Raab began scouring accounts of how traditional cultures elsewhere around the Pacific hunted dolphins.  From this they discovered that human hunters had long employed a simple but deadly technique.

In the Solomon Islands,  for example,   hunters struck stones together underwater: this created a terrible cacophony of sound that essentially “jammed” the animals’ echo-location,  a sonarlike system that guides them underwater.   With this system down, the animals became so disoriented  that hunters easily drove them into shallow water,  where they could then be “captured by hand,”  says Raab.

Raab now argues that the first migrants to Eel Point likely brought this clever hunting technique with them from Asia.  This strikes me as a very plausible argument,  and it suggests  that humans have been hunting dolphins in places like Japan for more than 11,500 years.

But does this make the practice morally acceptable today?   I don’t think it does and here’s why. Japanese villagers do not need dolphin meat to survive,  as hunters did in times past.   And there is no suggestion that hunting these marine mammals plays an essential part of their culture.   Last, but definitely not least,  I think we know much more about dolphins today than hunters did in the past,  because we are able to observe their underwater behavior in ways that earlier people could not.

On the strength of these observations,  we now know how very intelligent dolphins are.  They have recognizable personalities,  can think about the future,  are capable of working together cooperatively,  and are excellent problem-solvers.  In other words, dolphins are a lot like us,  and so  some scientists have recently proposed they should be treated as “non-human persons.”

I do not support the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan.  I hope that the international community can now pressure the Japanese government to bring this terrible slaughter to an end.

Egyptian Mummification–On a Reality Show Coming Your Way

What sensational balderdash is this? A British production company is currently looking for a terminally ill person willing to undergo ancient Egyptian mummification. While some people might welcome immortality Tutankhamen-style,  there’s a huge catch.   The whole stomach-churning procedure will be caught on camera and shown later on high-def television across Britain.  Can you imagine watching anything worse on a 54- inch screen?

Steve Connor, a wonderful journalist at the Independent, broke this story a few weeks ago, and ever since fellow science writer Josie Glausiusz emailed me about it, I’ve been fuming.  In the late 1990s,  I flew down to Chile to attend a major conference of the world’s leading experts on mummies,  and later wrote a book about my experiences.   Two of the experts I met there,  Bob Brier, a senior research fellow at Long Island University, and Ron Wade,  director of the State Anatomy Board in Maryland,  had just completed an important project in experimental archaeology.  The two men had managed to mummify a modern human corpse in the lab by using ancient Egyptian methods recorded in early texts.

In other words,  we know exactly how the Egyptians did it.  Science will not  be gaining anything from this program.   And I have to ask myself how many viewers  in their right minds will want to sit down with their kids and watch a real mummification.   The procedure begins,  for example,  by piercing the subject’s cranial vault.  To do this,  the mortician has to thread a metal tool through one of the nostrils and puncture the ethnoid bone that sits between the eye sockets.  Then the mortician has to either draw or pour out the grey viscous brain matter.  And that’s only for starters.   The embalmers–who will not be skilled at this–will also have to haul out fistfuls of intestines and other internal organs by reaching blindly into  a small incision.  Good luck.

I find it hard enough to write about this.  Imagine watching it, particularly after you have gotten to know the terminally ill person in the opening episode.  That’s the particularly twisted part of the producer’s  plan.  He wants viewers to meet the subject as a living person,  so that they will have an “emotional response” during the mummification process.

The ancient Egyptians had far more sense.   Their morticians set up their workshops on the outskirts of towns,   away from prying eyes,  and they tended to guard their trade secrets very carefully.   I think it’s enough to know these secrets today.  I don’t see any reason at all to parade them ghoulishly in front of a sensation-hungry public.

Making Clothes for John Adams

A few months ago,  my husband and I curled up with a bowl of popcorn, our trusty Labrador retriever Max,  and a little stack of DVDs–all from HBO’s much admired 2008 miniseries,  John Adams. Loosely based on David McCullough’s best selling biography , the series started with the Boston Massacre on a cold March night in 1770,  and ends with the death of Adams,  the second American president,  in 1826.

The series was more my husband’s cup of tea than mine–I found all the constitutional wrangling extremely dull–but I loved the visual attention to historical detail.   The producers had scrupulously avoided a common trap: prettifying the past.  Indeed,  the actors themselves looked as if they had been lifted straight from a William Hogarth painting,  and the costumes struck me as letter perfect.

Just this morning,  I discovered why John and Abigail Adams’s clothing looked particularly authentic.  In browsing on online,  I found a fascinating article by Rachel Dickinson  at Smithsonianmag.com about Thistle Hill Weavers,  a small workshop in upstate New York run by textile historian Rabbit Goody.  (Great name, eh?)  Goody and her fellow weavers specialize in creating historically accurate reproductions of 17th, 18th, and 19th century fabrics.  And it was Thistle Hill who created much of the homespun cloth for John Adams.

The article is definitely worth checking out.