Here Be Monsters Podcast

The Podcast About the Unknown

HBM090: Two Small Creatures with Human Eyes

Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus of Human Origins, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus of Human Origins, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

Natural history museums are art galleries.  Scientifically focussed art galleries, but art galleries nonetheless.  

Ian Tattersall, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is a paleontologist who sometimes oversees the construction of models for the museum.  Of personal interest to Here Be Monsters producer Jeff Emtman are reconstructions of very lifelike early humans, one with an arm draped over the other.  Ian calls these the “Laetoli Figures”—named for the place in modern-day Tanzania where some remarkable footprints of two hominids were found preserved in volcanic ash.  

As far as early humans go, Australopithecus Afarensis are well understood.  There are 300+ individuals in the fossil record, including the famous ~40% complete fossil of “Lucy”.

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Given the evidence, there’s a lot scientists can be pretty certain in declaring: they lived in the trees, but they could walk upright.  They had small brains and big jaws, but their canine teeth looked a lot like a modern human’s.  

There are other questions that are answerable through inference, through studies of modern animals and other fossils.  These techniques can yield a strong degree of certainty.

But if the artist were to stop constructing at the edge of certainty, the models would never be completed. There are certain things that are essentially unknowable about these early hominids, like: “What did their skin look like?” “What color was their hair?” “Did they have the dark sclera of an ape, or the whites-of-the-eye of a modern human?”

These uncertainties are ultimately up to the artist to answer.  “When you’re making a museum exhibit,” Ian (not an artist) points out, “you’re trying to create an illusion.  And to work at all, the illusion has to be complete.  And so you have to have all the details in there.”

But these details are a form of artistry used as evidence by biblical creationists to lambast hominid reconstructions.  They see it as part of an effort to deceive the public, to lead them to believe that these ancient hominids were more human-like than they actually were.  Of particular interest to them is that question of the light sclera vs. dark sclera.  One author writes:

Notice that a fossilized eyeball was not found.  So how would anyone know that the sclera was white, which would cause it to look more human. [sic] The reconstruction is pure speculation about how Lucy’s eye looked.

A replica of the specimen of Australopithecus Afarensis colloquially named “Lucy”.

A replica of the specimen of Australopithecus Afarensis colloquially named “Lucy”.

Natural history museums are faced with a decision: create full-flesh reconstructions that by necessity contain elements of artistic license, or, present the public with mere bones.  Most seem to opt for the former, and understandably so.  The museum serves the public, and, like HBM producer Jeff Emtman, they want to see something relatable and remarkable, a piece of scientifically-oriented art.  

And this question the artist must face, the question of the dark sclera (more ape-like eyes) and the light sclera (more human-like eyes) reveals something interesting about the artist and the process used to create the art.  The choices an artist makes can speak to their worldview, their biases, and their knowledge per their location in the world and the current moment in time.  

Ian recognizes this, saying,

You could not do a reliable reconstruction of an ancient human being or a dinosaur, or an extinct mammal without the science; and you certainly couldn’t do it without the art.  And this is where the two really intersect in a meaningful way.

And the AMNH itself houses exhibits related to the ways in which modern assumptions about the past have affected the way the past is present, such as:  Griffins in the Gobi Desert (protoceratops), Cyclops of the Mediterranean (dwarf elephants), and the infamous unicorn horns of Western Europe (narwhal).

Ian says that, in the quarter century since the construction of the Laetoli Figures, dominant scientific perception has changed to suggest that Australopithecus afarensis might have actually had dark sclera. As he puts it, “science is a work in progress.”

Jeff Emtman produced this episode.  
Voicemails from HBM listeners including Rachel Schapiro and Tony Baker.   

Music: The Black Spot | | | The Other Stars


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HBM089: Human Wish Tree

Tatianna Zichella is the sideshow performer also known as The Amazing Mazi Keen*. Sometimes, Amazing Mazi sticks swords down her throat and into her stomach juices. Sometimes she suspends her body from hooks in her skin. And sometimes she asks people to make a wish, write it on a piece of paper, and staple it to a fleshy part of her body. “Like a human wish tree!” she tells producer Bethany Denton, as she hands her a staple gun.

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Content Note:

- Language

Music: Lucky Dragons

* This name is derived from Mazikeen, a comic book character from the Sandman series, who (in turn) derives her name from the Jewish version of the Arabian jinn or genii.

A post shared by Mazi Keen (@theamazingmazi) on

HBM088: Riptides and a Sinking Ship

A riptide recently pulled Ariana into open water off the shore of Santa Monica.  She thinks it’s her closest brush with death thus far.  A lifeguard rescued her.

Even before the incident in Santa Monica, Ariana had a deep fear of water and drowning—so deep that she wondered if some previous version of herself sunk in a shipwreck.  

The are different kinds of panics, some more helpful than others.  

Music: The Black Spot

Episode produced by Jeff Emtman with help from Bethany Denton.  Please review us on Apple Podcasts.

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The $1* DIY Hydrophone

1. Find a condom

2. Rinse the lube off

3. Dry it out

4. Put it on a microphone

5. Tie off end w/ rubber band

* Microphone not included.  Cheaper if you buy in bulk. 

HBM087: Trifle Not with Sacred Things

It hasn’t been easy for Ashley Fryer to let go of her faith. For thirty years, she dedicated her life to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She grew up attending church multiple times a week, and dutifully studied her scriptures. Over the years, she found inconsistencies in church doctrine, and would pile these up on what she calls ‘the shelf’.  She’d pile it higher and higher, thinking, “well, I’ll deal with it later.”

For Ashley, her shelf broke on November 5, 2015. On that day, a new LDS church policy leaked. This policy said, among other things, that children of gay parents could not be baptized unless they were eighteen years old, living on their own, and had renounced same sex marriage. It was a controversial policy that members of the church came out for and against. This ran counter to Ashley’s personal beliefs, and she didn’t believe the leadership of the church spoke for God. So she put down her beloved scriptures, unsure what to do with relics of a religion she no longer believed in.

Hermod before Hela, by John Charles Dollman in 1909

Hermod before Hela, by John Charles Dollman in 1909

Since then, Ashley has been on a journey of spiritual discovery. She started exploring Wiccan practices, paganism, and her Norse heritage. She found that Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld, resonated with her. Half beautiful maiden, half rotting corpse, Hel is the keeper of dead things. To Ashley, Hel represents a spirit of radical self acceptance, and new beginnings rising from the ashes. Ashley realized that she knew what to do with her LDS scriptures.

This episode was produced and edited by Ashley’s little sister, Bethany Denton. Additional editing help from Jeff Emtman and Nick White.

Music:  The Black Spot

HBM086: Eve is Hungry

In HBM085: Ascended Fiction, we explored a rumor about Scientology and whether there exists a belief that founder L. Ron Hubbard will return to Earth.

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Content Notes:

Language and
substance abuse
 

Sources we talked to within and outside of the Church of Scientology gave different answers, and it's hard to know the actual truth, because the church's most sacred texts are kept secret.

It got us thinking about hidden knowledge, and whether it's moral to withhold information. So in this follow-up episode, we delve into that more, but this time with Christianity.  

Chaplain Vanessa Zoltan (co-host of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text) re-tells the story of Eve seeking knowledge from a fruit tree. We also have additional info from Tony Ortega, and a couple of secret-knowledge-voicemails from our listener line.

You can call us, too. Right now, we're asking listeners this question: what is it about our moment in time that will be unknowable to archaeologists of the future? The quiet pink glow of fresh snow fall? Texting and driving? Something else? Let us know what you think.  
Call us: (765) 374-5263

This episode was produced by Jeff Emtman. Editing help from Bethany Denton and Nick White.

Music: Swamp Dog | | | Phantom Fauna | | | The Black Spot