I’m a fan of Jared Diamond’s classic "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" published back in 1997. Recently, I’ve discovered another two interesting “Big History” books.
Uluru, also called Ayers Rock, the iconic giant sandstone mound in Australia that rises abruptly out of an expanse of flat desert, has always intrigued me. For thousands of years the indigenous Australians have considered Uluru a sacred site, and it is the focus of numerous myths and legends. I understand that mythic attraction – and the geologic history is just as captivating.
Chavín de Huántar, high in the Andes Mountains of northern Peru, was the seat of an important religious power and cult that flourished for hundreds of years, beginning about 3,000 years ago. Shamanic beliefs and practices apparently played a central role in this religion, with some individuals using hallucinogenic drugs to reach altered states of consciousness for interactions with the spirit world. Exotic and somewhat sinister art forms, recognized as an essential part of the religion, depict these transformations.
Machu Picchu, the city built by the Incas on a steep mountain ridge, is a tremendous engineering achievement – and only one of many impressive constructions by the ancient Andeans. Among these is Chavín de Huántar in northern Peru, with a sprawling temple complex that was once the center of a powerful cult and an important pilgrimage site.
I’ve seen lots of sharks when I’ve been on snorkeling excursions in tropical waters. It always feels a bit creepy to see them – afterall, these animals are top predators! (Maybe I remember too many of Gary Larson’s “natural selection” cartoons....?)
Whenever I visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, I have to pry myself away from the cuttlefish, nautilus and octopus exhibits. The intelligence, curiosity, and unique body plans of these cephalopods mesmerize me. So it is a big thrill to see these creatures in their natural habitats.....
The faces of our ancient ancestors are fascinating. Andean art includes portrait head vessels of high-status men created by the Moche culture that flourished along the north coast of Peru some 2,000 years ago. There is careful rendering of nose shapes, chins and other distinctive details of appearance and personality.
Can you think of an animal living today whose relatives, some of them gigantic, ruled the seas for hundreds of millions of years – but then became extinct along with the dinosaurs? This survivor, the chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius), is little changed from ancestors that flourished more than 400 million years ago.
Did you know that complex behavior and intelligence developed on two very different evolutionary branches? In a fascinating book, Peter Godfrey-Smith* writes that the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien is an octopus.
The ancient Andeans revered shiny gold -- but there are dark sides to gold also. During my first trip to Peru I was chagrined to see numerious illegal gold mining operations. I recently found good articles discussing some of the associated environmental problems on a website written by Barbara Fraser (http://barbara-fraser.com/ ).