Monthly Archives: November 2013

Cholitas luchadoras

While most recognize the cholas or cholitas– Bolivian women wearing full skirts buoyed by petticoats, embroidered shawls and felt bowler hats over their long braids– the image of wrestling cholitas is more recent. But it has not gone unnoticed. The New York Times  and National Geographic among others have published pieces about the cholitas luchadoras in recent years.

Traditional chola clothing is a hybrid of colonization and Andean personality

Cholitas 2
Cholitas meet in mid-air. From Blog El Correo 11/11/2011. 

Nineteenth-century colonists imposed the Spanish clothing style of the time: full skirts, mantillas, and embroidered blouses. That way of dress was called chula, which eventually became chola.

The bowler hats supposedly came into use after a men’s hat salesman, unable to sell his wares, started a rumor that wearing the felt hats guaranteed fertility. Today’s pleated skirts, or polleras, are made of eight meters of fabric and have as many as five embroidered underskirts.

By dressing in these traditional garments a woman is de pollera. It speaks of worldview and of socio-economic status.

Winner of the The Miss Cholita Paceña of 2011, photo of Jürgen and Mike from their blog Bolivia for 91 Days.

Cholita dress is characteristic of indigenous and mestizo people, from cities and rural areas

Sadly discrimination against cholitas is common, although 55% of Bolivians identify as Aymara or Quechua and an additional 30% as mestizo.

Since Evo Morales came to power, indigenous peoples have gained rights and visibility, with women in traditional dress in government and on television. In 2013, the mayor of La Paz declared the bolivianas de pollera a cultural icon.

The Andean wrestling style: lucha catchacanista

The word catchascanista comes from the English catch-as-can. Bolivian wrestling, or lucha libre, combines Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and martial arts. It incorporates figures of mythical Andean culture and tradition.

Like professional wrestling in Mexico, a likely origin for Bolivian lucha libre, it is a combination of sport, choreography, and comical theater.

Wrestlers fall into the camps of rudos (or brawlers) and técnicos (good guys). Their professional identities are often overt archetypes, such as Yolanda la Amorosa (the Passionate) or Claudina la Maldita (the Damned). The rudos are tasked with representing the dark side of humanity.

Cholitas in the ring

According to most accounts, cholas started participating in Bolivia’s lucha libre scene in 2001 or 2002. A promoter from Los Altos, a million-inhabitant city overlooking La Paz, put out a call for women fighters, in the hope that luchadoras would revitalize a waning attendance.

One of the three main wrestling organizations of Bolivia, Lucha Libre Boliviana (LLB). Source LLB, via Wikimedia Commons.

It worked. Cholitas fighting each other or fighting men, became among the most heavily attended bouts. Foreign tourists are especially keen. Tours are specifically organized to attend the matches, which take place every Sunday.

Some propose that women wrestling originates in tinku, where men and women from different communities engage in ceremonial combat fights.

If you’re fond of ambiguity you might appreciate that tinku means encounter or meeting in Quechua and physical attack in Aymara.

They climb into the ring because they love wrestling and their fans

The wrestlers don’t make very much money, except on tour abroad. From profiles of wrestlers, it is clear that everyone, men and women alike, has to have another job. Some make costumes or masks, some have stores or taverns, and others teach or are journalists. Many female wrestlers come from wrestling families, or bring their families into the business.

As discussed by Carmen Rosa la Campeona and Yolanda la Amorosa wrestling is a matter of pride for being de pollera.  However, being a wrestler is not traditional and it is often hard to  combine wrestling with their family life and to be paid equitable wages.

The matches are choreographed

They enact stories that frequently turn social expectations upside down, especially when women and men fight, like the History Channel special where they faced up against ice road truckers.

Choreography doesn’t mean wrestlers don’t train or that they don’t get hurt. It is a performance, but a very physically demanding one. And the stories they tell may be simple but they aren’t empty. Their success lies in providing their fans an opportunity to escape their very difficult lives and inspiring their admiration for their toughness and strength.

As one spectator said:

Our husbands make fools of us, but if we were wrestlers we could express our fury.

Whether you like to watch people fighting or not, cholitas luchadoras capture the imagination

This fascination is reflected not only by the following in Bolivia but by the international attention.

At least three documentaries- Fighting CholitasLas Mamachas del Ring, and Cholita Libre: If you don’t fight you’ve already lost— explore the challenges of the cholitas luchadoras, from family expectations to pay equality.

Cholitas luchadoras prove that being a woman does not mean submission

This is particularly important in Bolivia, which has the highest rate of violence against women of Latin America. 64% of women are survivors of violence from a partner or family member.  It is second in Latin America in maternal mortality.

Wrestling is certainly not the only way to speak up. Yesterday November 25, thousands of cholitas marched to protest violence against women in La Paz.

We can only hope that, whether in peaceful marches or flying through the air in mock choreographed combat, they are heard.

How do the cholitas luchadoras inspire you?

The tufted pua pua, yet another imaginary bird– or is it?

There is much discussion among ornithologists and birdwatchers on the status of the tufted pua pua (Ardea megacristacorax). While some consider it extremely rare, others assert that it must be extinct. Still others scoff at mentions of its existence, saying it is an imaginary bird.

Its geographic range is along the eastern flank of the Andes, with reports from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

Assigned to the Ardea genus

The tentative classification is based on its size: 100cm or more in length, and wing spans exceeding 120cm. Its closest relative is thought to be cocoi heron, although the habitat and geographic range of the latter, a diurnal heron, is much more widespread. Of crepuscular or nocturnal behavior, the tufted pua pua makes its presence known most frequently through its call: a prolonged puuuuua puuuuuua.

Interestingly, when heard, the tufted pua pua is never seen. And when seen, its call is not heard.

Its habitat, like that of other herons, is in the environs of water, usually running water, and most sightings have been made above 500m. It is thought to eat fish and amphibians, although it is also reported to be a terrestrial hunter.

Its name megacristacorax  derives from the prominent (mega) crest or tuft (crista) and the raven-like (corax) behavior.

The original source of information is a tribe that has also seemed to disappear

The tufted pua pua is a key character in Maralabua worldview. The Maralabua, although never widespread themselves, had a strong influence on folklore and shamanic practices throughout the Andean region. Among these practices are multi-day rituals in which psychotropic substances are consumed. Most reports of the call of the tufted pua pua have been associated with such ceremonies in the Maralabua tradition.

The only extant photo of a tufted pua pua. (Or it may be an altered photo of a snowy egret taken by Jason Engman, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Tufted pua pua, guardian and guide to the dead

The tufted pua pua is a psychopomp in Maralabua tales and is said to appear only at the death of a great shaman. It does not call at these times, because its mission renders it mute.

This suggests that the tufted pua pua was never abundant, for the death of a great shaman would happen at most once in a generation.

The few sightings, the asynchrony of vocalizations and sightings, and its central mythological role have led many to conclude that the tufted pua pua is not real.

For these researchers, its characteristics are simply a composite to support legend

The tufted pua pua is the threshold creature, in so many ways…

It mediates between the dead and the living, between the unconscious and conscious, and between knowing and that pregnant moment of all unknowing.

It appears solely to facilitate passage, and only for shamans– those who already master that passage between dead and living, unconscious and conscious, knowing and unknowing.

It inhabits ecosystems of river margins in the Andean wet and cloud forests- threshold between river and jungle, between mountains and lowlands.

The only photo (of an imaginary bird?)

The most recent and best documented information comes from a graduate student in ethnobotany who had been separated from his companions and subsequently disappeared. He was feared dead, but was found five years later, bedraggled and confused. He carried a camera, which was of a make and age (a Зени́т-C) that supported his claim that it was not his.

The student explained that a female shaman had taken him as an apprentice near the ancestral land of the Maralabua. The camera, with a completely exposed roll of film, had come into her possession following the death of a great shaman (and prior to the arrival of the student). Once developed back in the United States, the photos were either all black or all white, except for this single shot.

This muddled account casts doubt on its veracity

Nonetheless it is the only known image of the tufted pua pua.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by imaginary animals, do let me know. And check back here as I’ll be writing about more of them. 

The troll under the bridge

Is there a troll under that bridge? Underpass for the Canal du Midi bike trail.
Is there a troll under that bridge? My photo of an underpass for the Canal du Midi walk and bike trail, November 2013.

The wonderful walking and bike trail along the Canal du Midi in Toulouse sometimes goes under bridges to avoid a surface street. As much as I love forgetting about traffic, it can be downright spooky as the trail narrows, swoops downhill, approaches the water, and turns a corner.

I sometimes worry I might disturb a troll.

Trolls are Scandinavian in origin, and have about as many forms as stories about them. As far as I can tell, the original troll under the bridge is the one the three Billy Goats Gruff met.

The story has inspired several authors, including Stephen KingNeil Gaiman  and Terry Pratchett.

You don’t remember the story? I’ll re-tell it to you 

Once upon a time there were three brothers, the Billy Goats Gruff. Perhaps due to an acute lack of imagination on behalf of Mom & Pop Goat Gruff, all three kids were named Billy. (Yeah, I know, confusing…)

One day, Billy noticed that the grass was much greener on the other side of the river. (Heard that before?) The river was narrow, but deep. He’d avoided swimming lessons, because he was afraid of water, so he skipped along the river bank until he came upon a bridge.

He tippity-tapped onto the bridge. His little hooves woke up the Troll who was napping under the bridge.

“Who’s that tippity-tapping across my bridge?” The Troll was cranky. Who likes being woken up from a nap?

“Just me, the Little Billy Goat Gruff, on my way to the pasture,” Billy squeaked. (He was really small, the size of a Nigerian dwarf goat.)

“I’m going to gobble you up!”

Billy was a fast thinker. “Oh, if you want to, but I’m a runt, all bones and leather. My brother, who’s much juicier, will be by shortly.”

The troll wasn’t terribly hungry since he’d just ordered buffalo wings a few weeks earlier. Trolls are notoriously slow digesters. “Oh, well, whatever.” He turned over and fell back asleep.

Billy tippity-tapped to the other side, where he picked and chose the sweetest leaves of the meadow.

His middle brother, Billy, saw him from the other side and called out, “Hey, Billy ¿Qué pasa?”  (Yeah, I know, confusing…)

His little brother blinked once and kept on munching. So Billy trotted until he reached the bridge. He clippety-clopped onto the bridge, disturbing the Troll’s nap, yet again. The Troll once more made his threat. But Billy convinced him that his big brother would be coming along soon enough.

As the traditionally troubled middle kid, Billy resented his baby brother and considered the older one a big fat bully.

Speaking of which, Billy, who’d been wondering what his younger brothers were up to, finally saw them across the stream. “Dudes, whatcha doin’?” he bellowed.

Billy and Billy rolled their eyes and kept on munching. That bothered (big) Billy. What bothered him even more was that they were up to their knees (middle brother) and shoulders (little brother) in grass and he was  on the other side. He considered swimming across, but didn’t want to get his beautiful white coat wet.

So he halumphed along the river bank to the bridge and clunkety-clunked onto it. Now, (big) Billy was big, like a Saanen goat, and the bridge could barely hold him up.

The Troll saw his roof shaking and yelled, “Who’s that clunkety-clunking across my bridge?” He poked his head over the side and growled.

IMGP0474b troll 11-25-05_small
Now this is a troll. The wonderful 18-foot Fremont troll sculpture by Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead, moved under the Aurora Bridge in Seattle on Halloween 1990. Apparently this guy survives on car parts. You can follow him on twitter!

Billy was shocked at how ugly he was, eyes like hubcaps and a nose like a telephone pole, and skin that looked like the surface of the moon. He shoved him with his pointy horns and the Troll fell backwards into the raging stream, where it’s quite likely that he drowned.

After all, he’d absolutely refused to take swimming lessons and, even worse, it was a bright sunny day and we all know that Trolls turn to stone after long exposure to sunlight, and stones– well, they tend to sink.

Billy tossed his head and swaggered on across the bridge. After bullying Billy and Billy a bit, he was soon distracted by the juicy grass. There was more than enough for all three of them, for a while at least.

One moral of the story is to take swimming lessons 

It can also be a good idea to give your kids different names, unless you’re George Foreman, in which case your charm will let you get away with it.

What’s cool here 

Versions of this Norwegian story appear in other countries, usually with a wolf instead of a troll. It’s been classified under the category Eat me when I’m fatter, where a potential victim uses that phrase to buy time, and not always with a plan in hand.

My re-telling attributes the events to sibling rivalry, but the Billy Goats Gruff might have been quite intentionally strategic. After all, there was plenty of grass on the other side of the river.

Appeasing the water spirits: the bridge sacrifice.

George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey, circa 1985. The toll to cross the GWB, the busiest bridge in the world, is $13 if you don’t have EZ-Pass. Photo from the US Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record collections (HAER NY,31-NEYO,161-28, digital ID hhh.ny1264).

Even though no riddle is posed, the troll can be seen as the guardian of the river. Myths and folktales often speak of payment or a sacrifice to cross a river, usually to appease water spirits.

These payments can be in the form of money: such as the gold sometimes found in the foundations of old bridges.

But others say the bridge sacrifice means a child or person must die so the bridge can be built. Other times stealing a shadow is enough.

Another interpretation of the bridge sacrifice is that it alludes to the danger inherent in bridge building.

From trolls to tolls

While bridge construction continues to be dangerous and expensive, we’re much more likely to find a toll than a troll.

Have you run into any trolls lately? 


Where and what is El Dorado

In his poem El Dorado, Edgar Allen Poe gives its location as

Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow

Which doesn’t help very much

But the directions followed by explorers in their search for the legendary El Dorado, a supposed city of gold and riches beyond belief, weren’t much more specific.

The Cadillac El Dorado was at or near the top of the line for Cadillac after it was introduced in 1952 until it was discontinued in 2002. Photo by Bill Mitchell, 1971 model via Wikimedia Commons
The El Dorado was at or near the top of Cadillac’s line between 1952 and 2002. This is a 1971 convertible. Photo by Bill Mitchell via Wikimedia Commons

El Dorado is an excellent example of an evolving myth, growing and metamorphosing over time. Its allure is fueled by gold and our fascination with it. With gold of course, we find greed.

The search for El Dorado is a tragic one

It led to the devastation of entire civilizations at the hands of the Europeans, sometimes purposefully and sometimes through the inadvertent spread of disease. Evidence is growing that, prior to the arrival of the explorers, missionaries, and colonists, both the spare highlands and the thick jungles were in fact densely populated, with urban centers and complex engineering.

The cost wasn’t negligible for the seekers either. For over three hundred years, scores of expeditions organized by Spaniards, English, Germans, Portuguese, and Dutch often ended in death.

We learned things also: while searching for El Dorado, Francisco de Orellana navigated the entire length of the Amazon river in 1541.

A twisting spreading myth

The origin of the El Dorado myth is commonly attributed to stories of the Muisca in eastern Colombia. At the death of their ruler, the next in succession would enter Lake Guatavita dusted in gold. Jewels and gold objects were then thrown into the water.

The Muisca raft from the Museo del Oro, Banco de la República in Bogotá, Colombia.

This exquisite Muisca raft, found in 1969 within a clay vase in a small cave south of Bogota is dated between 600 to 1600CE. For amazing close-ups go to the Laboratorio Imagine (Universidad de los Andes).  A beautiful 3-minute video the from Smithsonian shows the lost wax method used to make it.

There was also the story of Manoa, a city of gold on the banks of a huge lake (of the same name) with beaches of gold-bearing sand, described by a delirious Juan Martínez on his deathbed in 1531. The lake was apparently source to a river flowing into the Orinoco from the south .

And there were the rumors of a wealthy city to the east of the Andes, to which the Inca rulers had fled from the Spaniards.

Gold objects found among Aztecs and Inca fueled the El Dorado myth 

The Spaniards sent so much gold and silver back to Spain that it destabilized the European economy, and served to fund the global empire of Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany.

The tradition of working with gold in the Americas goes back to at least 1500 BCE, when strips of gold foil were placed in a burial in Andahuaylas in Peru.

Gold was important to pre-Columbian civilizations, but interestingly not as currency. The few functional objects that have been found are heavily decorated and in a burial context. The value of gold was as symbol of the divine. It conferred rank to leaders and priests. Gold objects speak of ritual, of the supernatural and of transformation.

Tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper with a low melting point, was widely used. Applying an acid to the surface of a completed piece dissolves the copper, leaving pure gold over a harder alloy base.

Beyond El Dorado at the British Museum

Many pre-Columbian objects are currently featured in an exhibit at the British Museum in collaboration with the Museo del Oro on view until March 2014. Some works can be seen online.

On a quest? Take a map 

Map of Nicolas Sanson, considered father of French cartography (1600-1667) showing Lake Parime consistent with Sir Walter Raleigh’s accounts. Source: Biblioteca Digital Mundial.

Maps are helpful for any search. Maps are also key for control, for access to resources, for power.

But areas of rampant vegetation and dangerous animals, seemingly endless rainy periods, rivers that seasonally flood their banks only to fall back to another course, and extreme changes in elevation don’t lend themselves to map-making.

Sir Walter Raleigh had access to Martínez’s story and was sure he could find the mythical city beyond the Orinoco. He had to turn back because of the onset of the rainy season in his first expedition. On return to England he wrote The Discovery of Guyana, which became the likely basis of the 17th and 18th century maps showing Lake Parime (in Arawak language) or Manoa (in Caribe).

However, there is no vast lake in the region, much less one harboring a city of gold. Alexander von Humboldt proposed in the late 18th century that Raleigh’s sources may have referred to Lake Amuku, which floods in the wet season.

Sometimes a mythical quest is just that

But just as most mythical destinations or objects have multiple meanings among those who seek, quests are usually about more than one thing. Raleigh was probably as interested in undermining Spanish authority in South America and beating the Spaniards to El Dorado as he was in finding it.

It didn’t work out so well for Raleigh. After returning from his second (unsuccessful) expedition to Guyana in 1616, where his son was killed, he was executed by James I.

What’s your El Dorado?

Whether you see it as the search for a desirable unattainable something or as a shameful chapter in western history, El Dorado is recognizable to most.

Do you have an El Dorado? What will you do to find it?


The universe was created last Thursday, and you did it

Some years ago my father, one of the most interesting people I know, created a list of arbitrary subjects, for debating or when conversation lulls. (He hates being bored.)

Me: What’s number 4, Last Thursdayism?

Him: The universe was created last Thursday.

Me (speechless)

Him: It was created chock-full of records of the non-existent past. You know: fossils, historical artifacts, ruins…

Me: But I remember things that happened longer than a week ago.

Him: Ready-made memories came as part of the (new) universe.

Me (walks away)

So much for a flagging conversation…

Since then, I discovered the Church of Last Thursday

They note in their creed that, You, the reader, are the Creator of the universe.

What caught my eye this time was the second-person point of view (POV)  of the doctrine. You created the world, but You don’t remember doing it.

Second-person POV is awkward in fiction

Probably because it addresses the reader directly. Fiction aims to draw us into the story, so we forget we’re reading. In its very directness, second-person POV can be exhortative. It tells the reader what they’ve done or thought. So if the reader isn’t engaged,  it can confront and alienate. Many find it bossy or presumptuous.

Italo Calvino used second-person POV in If on a winter’s night a traveller  (1979). This postmodern classic is clever and witty, as is all his work. But, while at first I was intrigued by the second-person POV, it eventually grew tiresome.

If the universe was created last Thursday…

Then Calvino’s book and the list of arbitrary subjects are among the many artifacts created at that time. Last Thursdayism is an extreme parody of the idea of a Young Earth.

Taking the Bible as the ultimate authority about all reality, the earth cannot be more than 10,000 years old.

Since the earth is young (according to the ultimate source), the scientific methods that determine age are obviously erroneous. (At least over long time periods, though more recent records may be accepted.)

But what if things that appear old were created to appear old

Then it’s impossible to use observations as evidence.

Adam and Eve (1533) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Photo by Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons.
Adam and Eve (1533) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Photo by Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons. Giovanni di Paolo gave Adam, Eve and even the angel a navel too.

However this radical position isn’t new, nor is it always meant in satire. In 1857, Philip Gosse  argued in Omphalos that the fossil record was created to make the world appear older. The title (the Greek word for navel) refers to the idea that God created Adam and Eve with navels to prove their human ancestry.

Artists usually represent Adam and Eve with navels, like in the 16th century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Of course, that doesn’t constitute evidence.

Can we prove Last Thursdayism is wrong?

Last Thursdayism and Omphalism aren’t scientific premises, as they can’t be falsified— all evidence is tainted by definition. As Stephen Jay Gould said in The Flamingo’s Smile (1987):

Omphalos is the classical example of an utterly untestable notion, for the world will look exactly the same in all its intricate detail whether fossils and strata are prochronic or products of an extended history.

Last Thursdayism is a straw man argument because its exaggeration misrepresents the position it wishes to critique.

Last Thursdayism can be a little zen

Many Eastern philosophies note that the past is gone and the future may not arrive.

There is in each moment only that moment. Our compulsion to plan our next steps, to fantasize about future events or to worry, and the equally common tendency to ruminate about the past can get in the way of appreciating and living the present.

On the other hand, we can be considered a sum of what happened before, as famously expressed by William Faulkner (Requiem for a Nun, 1950):

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

But just maybe, we aren’t obligated by it.

It might not matter. The universe will end next Thursday. (Or in five minutes.)

What’s your experience with second-person POV? Any books where it really worked? Do you think Faulkner’s right? Do you ever fall into obsessive remembering or worrying? 

And, most importantly: where were YOU last Thursday? 

Creativity: what yoga has to say

Creativity has many definitions, many perspectives- probably as many as practitioners. When discussing creativity I often remember Justice Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Creativity leads to the new 

This can be a thing of beauty or one that challenges us. A performance that vanishes after it’s over. A new tool or instrument. In some arenas, like science, it’s a way of asking old questions in a new way.

Creativity is often uncomfortable, because the outcome always involves uncertainty.

Creativity is an attitude 

Creativity transcends activities traditionally considered creative, like the arts. The corollary is that creativity is inherent to any activity– if one is willing, to be open, to look sideways.

Creativity doesn’t happen once, but rather every day. It doesn’t rely on the arrival of inspiration, but is grounded in repetition.

Like many intangibles, we’d like to capture it, so manifestos and rules abound, even though creativity is about breaking out of molds.

What yoga has to say: sthira and sukha

Patanjali wrote in his Yoga Sutras over 2000 years ago:

Sthira sukha asanam.

  • Sthira translates to effort, steadiness, discipline
  • Sukha is joy, repose, rest
  • Asana is the seat, the yoga posture, the position

In a yoga context this sutra encourages the reader to engage in their practice with both effort and ease, discipline and release, steadiness and joy.

Taking position isn’t just the physical practice of yoga

It also means to take one’s seat to write or draw, to stand in the center of the room before singing or dancing.

It’s puzzling over data in a spreadsheet, examining a chest X-ray, looking back at a class of bored students. It’s tying your shoes for a morning run before the sun rises, looking in the refrigerator for the makings of a meal.

It is, in essence, to be.

Sthira and sukha chase each other, like the exhale and the inhale

Sthira is acquiring and expanding tools and skills, practicing them, exercising them. It is relentless curiosity. It is systematic wonder. It is the discipline of showing up, every day. The 99% perspiration required for anything we do.

Sthira is activity and effort, reaching. It is holding the course.

Sukha is looking away from the canvas or the blank page. It is composting ideas and images, memories and dreams. It is allowing the part of the brain we don’t always use solve the problem. It is seeing further by not looking straight on.

Sukha is releasing and receiving, letting go. It is taking a different path.

Hey, they’re contradictory

Of course. The opposing tendencies of sthira and sukha create a dynamic tension. Like all opposites they revel in balance, and like any balance, it will be different for each person and each day, each moment.

Creativity is new each day, and also the same. (Yeah, that’s a contradiction too.)

How do you define creativity?

Islands and lost worlds, from the Odyssey to Arthur Conan Doyle

In a world where wonder hijacks you when you least expect it, connections abound. Like between the Odyssey and Arthur Conan Doyle, via Darwin and genetic studies.

It’s the islands

The Odyssey, composed by and for a sea-faring culture, is brimming with islands in a wine-dark sea. The story reminds us of something Darwin later used to develop his theory of natural selection.

Islanders- be they people, plants or animals- are isolated. That isolation means they adapt to their environment with relatively little influence from elsewhere. (Is anyone thinking finch beaks?)

The island hidden by a ring of mountains

Odysseus at the court of Alcinous by Francesco Hayez, 1814-1815, in Galleria Nazionale de Capodimonte, Source, The Yorck Project, via Wikimedia Commons.
Odysseus at the court of Alcinous (1814-1815) by Francesco Hayez in Galleria Nazionale de Capodimonte.  Odysseus is the one crying. Source: The Yorck Project, via Wikimedia Commons.

Odysseus visits many strange islands in his ten-year trip home.  When he washes ashore in Scheria, the gracious Phaeacians welcome him with great hospitality. The king, Alcinous, and his court listen to his story and bestow him with gifts. Then they take him to Ithaca. Home, at last!

One of the reasons it’s taken so long for Odysseus to return to Ithaca is because he provoked Poseidon by blinding his son, Polyphemus. When the god of the sea learns the Phaeacians have helped Odysseus, he punishes them by turning the ship that carried him home to stone.

Poseidon also wanted to lift a ring of mountains around their island, but Zeus discouraged him. The mere sight of the ship “rooted in stone” just off the harbor is warning enough for the Phaeacians to never take castaways in their ships again.

If Poseidon had surrounded Phaeacia with mountains it would have been completely cut off from the rest of the world. No chance to travel. Nor to receive travelers. A tragic fate for a nation that lives by trade.

And like islands, thus mountains

Since mountains are higher than the surrounding land, their summits and slopes tend to be colder and wetter. Animals and plants adapted to these different conditions are effectively isolated. For this reason, the distribution of organisms (also known as biogeography) of mountains is like that of islands.

A tepui in the Canaima National Park of Venezuela. Photo by DamianFinol via Wikimedia Commons.

Tepuis are found in southern Venezuela, north- eastern Guyana, southern Suriname, and northern Brazil. They’re tall (1000 to 3000m) and their sides are steep cliffs.

Tepuis are also ancient…

Now, age is pretty relative when we talk about tepuis, as you’ll soon see.

Tepuis are the remnants of a sandstone massif that covered the continent of Gondwana 450 million years ago. After Gondwana broke up into Africa, America and Eurasia, the sandstone eroded and became a series of tabletop mountains 70 to 90 million years ago.

Tepuis are Sky Islands 

Like islands, they represent a fragmented habitat for plants and animals. More than half the vascular plants (ones that have support tissues) are endemic, that is, they’re only found there, as are many animals.

In the Pixar movie Up, the characters travel to a tepui in a house carried by balloons. Cool, huh! I wonder if the wonderful imaginary bird Kevin was a Lost World relic.

Inspired by their age and strangeness, Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes) wrote about dinosaurs roaming the tepuis in his novel The Lost World.

No sign of dinosaurs so far

But, given the abundance of endemic species, scientists have proposed the Lost World hypothesis, whereby the ecosystems on the summit may have been there since before the tepuis separated (70-90 million years ago).

Others assert that the isolation hasn’t been absolute. Organisms could have moved between different elevations on a given tepuis. Birds, insects and (seeds of) flowering plants may have gone to other tepuis by air: island-hopping.

So a good test of the Lost World hypothesis would be an animal unlikely to island-hop, say a tree frog.

What the tree frog told us

According to a 2012 genetic study, four species of the tree frog Tepuihyla shared an ancestor less than 5.3 million years ago. Some of the studied populations were separated as recently at 2.5 million years ago.

Excuse me, is that recent? Um, yes, compared to 70 million years. Most importantly it falsifies the Lost World hypothesis for this tree frog genus.

Other populations of Tepuihyla appear to have moved up or down the slope a few thousand years ago coinciding with changes in climate.

For more information, Carl Zimmer wrote an excellent NYTimes article on the study.

The Lost World hypothesis is not completely disproven

There may be populations that were separated when the tepuis formed, but the genetic studies haven’t been carried out. What has been proven is that the ecosystem includes recent additions.

Back to the Phaeacians

In other words, if a ring of mountains had been raised by Poseidon to isolate the island of the Phaeacians, it wouldn’t have been impenetrable. As Arthur Conan Doyle put it in The memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893):

“Excellent,” I cried.

“Elementary,” said he.