Sunday, June 9, 2019

Cavemen Rock, Part IX: Pre-Contact Neanderthals

Cavemen Rock, Part IX: Pre-Contact Neanderthals

            So, these guys really need no introduction.  Everyone has heard of Neanderthals, and everyone knows that you’re not really supposed to say the th since it’s a German word, and no one cares.  They are the closest known relatives of “modern” humans, or Homo sapiens, outside their own species.  As the popular-science narrative goes, Neanderthals lived across western Eurasia from 400,000 years ago until their gradual replacement by modern humans between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago.  The replacement process occurred gradually, at least partially as the result of genetic admixture with modern humans.  This last point is the big one, for which credit is owed to Svante Paabo and company. 

Their (re-)discovery was monumental: most people today have Neanderthal DNA; if that’s the case, it follows that Neanderthals and “modern” humans had children together.  This happened in the last hundred thousand years.  In other words, most people today—myself included—are part Neanderthal.

            Neanderthals, named after a 17th-century German pseudointellectual (really!), were around between 400kya and 30kya.  The name translates more or less to “Newmandales” (really! neo “new” ander “man” thal “dale”).  Here’s what they looked like:



H. neanderthalensis vs. H. georgicus

            I think it’s a draw.

            As you can see, especially when compared with a more archaic species like H. erectus georgicus, better known to us as Grandpa George, Neanderthals looked a whole lot like us.  If you look closely, you can see that their foreheads and chins aren’t as pronounced as ours, but not noticeably so.  They also had shaggy hair and a beard.  We know they were (comparatively) hairless.  They tended to be about a head shorter than us, but were “denser”—much physically stronger, and consequently needed more calories than modern humans.  They had this great little niche in the northern latitudes of Eurasia, occasionally reaching as far south as the Levant.  They hunted big game of the forest and tundra—mammoths, et cetera.  They lived lives as difficult and violent as you might expect.  Few lived past thirty, which means I’m going to be a pretty old Neanderthal in July.

Behavior, Spoken Language, and Technology

            Now, the primary focus of this series is exploring the development of modern human behavior.  So, how did Neanderthals act?  They looked like us, did they act like us? 

It has become fashionable in the pop-science literature to say, “we used to think Neanderthals were dumb cavemen, but not anymore”.  Well, hang on.  They were cavemen.  They lived in caves—at least some of the time.  A man who lives in a cave is by definition a caveman, especially when that man happens to live in prehistoric times.  They were cavemen, or at least many of them were.  Pop culture, 1.  Science nerds, 0.  PROUDLY IRRELEVANT.

But no, they weren’t dumb—well, at least, they weren’t incapable of learning, and in fact they were almost—almost—on par with people today in terms of behavior and cognitive ability.  The more we examine Neanderthal behavior, the more we come to understand a creature whose ways were almost like ours…behavior that is conclusively pre-modern, but that tiptoes on the edge of modernity.  Toward the end of their tenure, they ran into us—that is, modern humans—which may have exposed them to new ideas and technologies that they didn’t come up with on their own, but were quite happy to borrow from us.  By the time they disappeared, Neanderthals were creating art, music, and ritual items.  But these phenomena only arose after contact with H. sapiens—so, what about beforehand?

I recently got a question asking about Neanderthals and spoken language.  We think right now that Neanderthals could speak, given the skeletal and genetic evidence—their voice boxes and ears were as fine-tuned for speech as ours, and Neanderthal remains have yielded FOXP2, the famous “language gene”.  But just because they could, doesn’t mean they did.  It could also be that Neanderthals had a language that worked, cognitively, for the Neanderthal brain, but wouldn’t work cognitively for ours.  Or maybe Neanderthals had language, but it was simple and easy to pick up, which contributed to our eventual triumph—we could learn their language, but they couldn’t learn ours.  We don’t know.

The pre-contact Neanderthal tool type is known as the Mousterian tradition, which emerged from the Acheulean (remember that?).  The Mousterian tradition is characterized by a complex flaking procedure known as the Lavallois teachnique:


I am not even a fraction as cool as John Shea, my paleoanthropology hero.  Being one of the most badass flintknappers this side of the Great Rift Valley, he’d be able to tell us a lot more about the Lavallois Technique than I could. All I know is that it’s quite difficult and not something you get simply by banging rocks together.  It was a cognitive skill that required mastery in order to survive, and Neanderthals were quite good at it.  Even better than John “the Titan” Shea.

Once we’ve made a spearhead with the Lavallois Technique, we need to stick that sucker on a shaft.  How, you say?  Check this out: Neanderthals could make glue using a complex chemical process.  That’s right, they were chemists too.  In what is now Modern Italy, Neanderthals figured out how to make glue from birchbark (3), a complicated step-by-step process that you or me couldn’t for the life of us work out on our own.  So with Neanderthals, even pre-contact Neanderthals, we’re seeing more complexity and elaborateness than ever before.  We’re not, however, seeing adaptation.  Neanderthals did one thing, did it well, and kept doing it.  Neanderthal technology seems to have changed very little over a very long time—until they ran into us.

Neanderthal Church

Early on, we talked about how one of the marks of behavioral modernity, or “peoplehood”, is a sense of the spiritual.  Could Neanderthals have had this sense?  Neanderthals are the descendants of H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis; indeed, the academic lumpers among us would call H. heidelbergensis an early kind of Proto-Neanderthal.  Do you remember where, behaviorally, we were with heidelbergensis?  They were deliberately disposing of their dead in the same place, and it may just be that they had some conception of an afterlife—the beautiful Excalibur hand-axe perhaps the world’s oldest extant burial offering.  The Neanderthals stood on their shoulders, and seemed to have developed a genuine sense of the spiritual or religious—a key marker of behavioral modernity.

One site that suggests some sort of spiritual activity is—and this is a real trip—the mysterious stone rings of Bruniquel Cave, in modern France (4).  The site consists of these, well, stone rings, made from broken stalagmites and apparently consciously arranged.  This site, furthermore, is so deep into the bowels of the cave that its builders must have had some way of carrying fire there for illumination—and, indeed, ashes remain smudged on the surrounding rocks to this day.  The builders of these circles must have had some means of bringing the fire this deep into the cave—torches or embers, perhaps, with slow-burning fuel.  Modern humans were not at this time present in France—these structures had to have been made by Neanderthals.



What were they?  Winter shelters?  Properly rid of bears etc., the deep interior of a cave provides a toasty place to hole up for a few months if you have fire—which, as we see, they did.  The Bruniquel circles might be the remains of huts.

But if that were the case, we’d see trash heaps and other signs of habitation.  At Bruniquel, we don’t.  It doesn’t appear that anyone lived here—just that they arranged the circles and completed their non-residential business therewith.  What was going on down there?  It’s a maddening question.  Could we be seeing the remains of some sort of cultic shrine?  What else would be down that deep in a cave, with no signs of other use, with structures that took time and labor to make?  Perhaps the structures are ritual, perhaps not.  Perhaps they served a purpose, one that would be eminently clear to a Neanderthal, but unclear to us.  We don’t know.  Maybe they could’ve explained the structures’ purpose us, using conventional language, or maybe they could explto one another in a language that is inherently unlearnable

Just how big was the gap?  Again, we don’t know.   At any rate, however, there is something, some inherent difference, between humans and Neanderthals.  As things are right now, we just don’t know what it is.  We’ll take a few guesses at those differences later on, when we discuss what happened when they met modern humans.


Monday, January 7, 2019

Cavemen Rock, Part VIII: Excalibur, or Homo heidelbergensis

Hi everybody, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show that’s Proudly Irrelevant.  Today we have Cavemen Rock, Part VIII: The Quest for Excalibur!

Well, you’re probably thinking, I wasn’t expecting Bro to make that connection!  What does Arthurian Legend have to do with cavemen?  Well, if you’re a paleoanthropology nut like I am, then you already know!  If you don’t know what I’m referencing, don’t google it yet—that would ruin the surprise.

H. heidelbergensis

To start with, let’s ask RZA for the keys to the Time Traveling Elevator again, and go back this time to between 600 and 300 KYA.  Homo antecessor, whose, shall we say, atavistic behavior we discussed last time, has developed into—or been replaced by—the larger-brained Homo heidelbergensis, named of course for the German city of Heidelberg, where its fossils were first found.  Of course, as I like to pretend, the reality is that Heidelberg was named after him! 

Now, the line of succession here with H. antecessor is a little fuzzy.  Was H. antecessor ancestral to H. heidelbergensis, or was H. heidelbergensis a separate line that arose from ergectus and replaced H. antecessor?  This is a matter of heated debate among the approximately seven people who care.

At any rate, by 600 KYA or so, we see H. antecessor replaced generally throughout Europe by H. heidelbergensis.  Due to the amount of material of this period that we have from Europe, we’re focusing on this part of the world right now.  That doesn’t mean interesting things weren’t happening elsewhere.  In Africa and Asia all sorts of crazy stuff was going on, much of which has just been discovered.  As we do more work in these parts of the world, surely more cool stuff will show itself!  And as for what we have seen from Africa and Asia during this period, we’ll cover that in future episodes.  For the moment, however, we’re focusing on Europe.

One thing that I really like about these heidelbergensis guys is that they were some of the first archaic hominins to look reasonably like us up close.  Remember, if you saw an ergectus from a distance, you’d recognize it as vaguely humanlike, but up close you would change your mind.  On the other hand, with H. heidelbergensis, you’d have to look much closer to see differences.  For one thing, H. heidelbergensis was the first human ancestor to be as tall as us.  On average, they stood at five feet seven, which is comparable to modern humans. For another, they, along with later H. antecessor, had reached the end of the process of body hair loss, which means that they might have been hairy, but no more so than my uncle Jim.  Everyone has an uncle Jim.  He’s the guy who has his wife shave his back every week.

So let’s see what these guys looked like.  We have a wonderful variety of individuals from H. heidelbergensis remains, as I’ll discuss shortly, so we get to see a good variety of variation.  In fact, we have enough data to put together whole family portraits:

By Kennis and Kennis

By Mauricio Anton

            These are two of my favorite pictures ever.  They’re so wonderful.  Of course the individuals these reconstructions are based on probably didn’t all live at the same time, but that’s not the point, doofus.  How wonderful it is to see them together in a community, and look at them as they looked at each other!  There is something almost mystical here.  These are the first human ancestors where I feel as though I could look into their eyes and see my fellow man, my brother or sister in the Romance of the Ages.  When I look at these pictures, even more than other reconstructions, I feel like I’m looking through a window in time.  I would love to hang out with these guys and be friends with them.  And I say “friends” deliberately—I can be friends with my cat or dog, but it’s not the same thing as being friends with another human.  But when I look at these pictures I have to imagine that if these guys and I got to know each other, we could actually forge something approximating a human friendship.

How did they behave?

            Could we be bros with H. heidelbergensis?  You might roll your eyes at the absurdity of this question, but it is an important one.  No matter how much we love our pets, our bonds with them are intrinsically different from our bonds with other people.  Could we have made a genuine human connection with these creatures? 

            First of all, H. heidelbergensis was not behaviorally modern.  There is no evidence for art, symbolism, religion or any of the marks of a behaviorally modern society.  They probably could not speak to the extent that we can.  Still, they were certainly no dummies.  They stood on the shoulders of their H. erectus and H. antecessor forebears, who passed onto them the persistence hunting strategy, the Acheulean hand-axe, and the control—but not necessarily manufacture—of fire(2):

If they practiced persistence hunting, it follows that they knew how animal footprints worked.  That’s huge, because to understand how footprints work necessitates an implicit understanding of cause and effect.  That’s an incredibly complex mental process, and just like the pre-planned nature of Acheulean hand-axes, it would’ve taken thousands upon agonizing thousands of generations for everyone to get on board with it.  But by the time of heidelbergensis, they had been axe-planning and persistence hunting for a good million years.  Furthermore, the advantages of hand axes, persistence hunting, and their requisite cognitive abilities suggest that once developed, they would present an evolutionary advantage and spread quickly.

            Following the premise that, having had a million years’ trial run in fire, knapping, hunting, and fire, it is safe to assume that H. heidelbergensis would have had the cognitive ability to reliably and consistently:

·         plan outcomes (make hand axes);

·         anticipate cause and effect (follow tracks), and;

·         follow step-by-step processes (control fire).

Each of these abilities represents “a giant leap for mankind”: a successful jump over the yawning chasm between man and beast.  If H. heidelbergensis was able to perform these functions, he would finally, definitively, be more mentally like us than like a chimpanzee.  So I think it is safe to say that yes, you could forge a genuine human-to-human friendship with these creatures.  That is not, again, to say they are “behaviorally modern”.  H. heidelbergensis probably couldn’t speak like we do, or learn to read, or write a symphony.  But the groundwork was there, so I think that even if they couldn’t understand human friendship, they did feel it.

            Now, why am I waxing poetic about these guys?  After all, at a date of 400-ish KYA, these guys are still halfway between us and those wacky cannibals that we met last time.  Fair enough, but we do have evidence of something very deep down in H. heidelbergensis that resonates with us today.  It is possible—don’t get your briefs in a knot, I said possible, not certain—that somewhere around this time, H. heidelbergensis caught a glimpse, faint though it may have been, of the spiritual.

Atapuerca Findings

So let’s head back to Atapuerca, the mountain that isn’t really a mountain.  It is here that we find the MOST METAL PALEOANTHROPOLOGICAL SITE IN THE WORLD: La Sima de los Huesos, which is Spanish for…


Isn’t that name badass?  Earlier on I talked about how it’s a shame that there are lots of good Viking metal bands, but no caveman metal bands, at least as far as I know.  Well, if you’re starting that band, I’ve got your name right here.  Take it, it’s yours, just give me a shout-out at the Grammys.

Anyway, the Pit of Bones gives us a wonderful glimpse of this H. heidelbergensis population.  There’s a wide range of individuals that we can study, of both sexes, and of a variety of ages.  We can also find clues about their lives, just like with our H. ergectus finds.  One poor schlub sustained an injury on his face that healed oddly, rendering him goofy-looking for the rest of his life (1):

Fortunately, he was a good listener and had a really sweet personality, so he could still get dates.

But even more interesting, to me anyway, than the physical remains are the implications of their placement here.  If we find a pit full of H. heidelbergensis, it raises the possibility of these remains having been put there on purpose.  Could we be looking at an early form of deliberate burial?  If so, what are the implications for their behavior?  Could we even infer the presence of primitive religious beliefs and rituals?  If not, what are some other possible explanations?

For modern humans, the way we dispose of our dead is a practice that varies by religious or cultural tradition.  Whatever the method, however, every culture has some way of doing this.  Evolutionarily, this must have emerged because dead bodies bring disease and dangerous scavengers.  For modern humans, however, treatment of the dead has become infused with ritual, taboo, and beliefs about the afterlife.  It is therefore natural to jump to the conclusion of “this must be evidence of a funeral”.  We must, however, detach ourselves from our modern cognitive abilities and look at the Pit of Bones from the point of view of H. heidelbergensis.  There is no clear evidence of religious belief—or, indeed, abstract thought of any kind—at this time depth.  Even if the bodies were left there deliberately, he conclusion is unavoidable that H. heidelbergensis was not depositing of his dead here for ritual reasons, but rather simply because a giant hole in the ground is a convenient place to dispose of dead bodies.  Doing something with dead bodies does not necessarily imply the existence of religion, despite modern sensibilities.

And that would probably be agreed upon, if it were not for one important find.  As archaeologists dug through the pit, they made an amazing discovery:


            Not only is it well-crafted, but it’s aesthetically beautiful too.  It’s made of red quartzite, which would produce a beautiful sparkling effect in the sun.  What’s more, the material appears not to have been sourced locally, which means that it was brought from some distance away (I remember reading that somewhere, but can’t find the source.  Sorry).  These items took a lot of effort to make, and were the difference between life and death for their users.  Scientists, as a nod to its beautiful workmanship, have given it the name of Excalibur.

            Looking at this frankly amazing piece, one has to wonder what it was doing at the bottom of…


            You almost don’t want to say this, because it would be such an incredible development, but…could it have been left there on purpose?  Are we seeing in Excalibur the first rumblings of humanity’s belief in the afterlife?

            I know, I know, it sounds crazy.  Besides, it could’ve just been that some guy was exploring the cave, and he fell down the pit along with his trusty hand axe.  I acknowledge that this is possible, and perhaps even probable.

            Still, looking at the exceptional quality of this hand axe brings to mind the haunting possibility that we could be looking at some kind of funeral offering.  What could this have looked like?  Let’s get in the Wu-Tang time-traveling elevator and find out:

The Emergence of “Shouldness”

             It was 400KYA.  A tribe of H. heidelbergensis lived in the forests and plains of what is now northern Spain.  They hunted animals like elk and wooly rhinoceros by following their tracks, running them down, and killing them with spears:

This spear, for example, was found in Germany and dated to 400,000 years ago.

These spears were mostly sharpened sticks but they may have worked out the idea of sticking a hand-axe on the end.  Hand-axes were extremely important items, and to be good at making hand-axes was to be evolutionarily successful.  They had no language, and communicated perhaps through onomatopoeic vocal calls, or occasional utterances of isolated proto-words.  They had no music or art, but they could recognize, and liked producing, audible rhythms and visual patterns without understanding why.  They felt, but had no concept of, love.  They valued courage, intelligence, and altruism, again without having any comprehension of these abstract ideas.  Behaviors like hugging, waving, and hand-clapping probably existed among them and were done in specific times and places.  They had also realized that dead bodies attract scavengers, so they had a habit of disposing of their dead:

Art: Mauricio Anton

The most convenient place was a big pit, which was found at the back of a cave where nobody lived.  It was here that they habitually deposited bodies, thereby avoiding scavengers and pestilence:

A scale model of the Pit of Bones…in Lego!

            After a few generations, this habit became so ingrained that even if it would’ve been convenient to do so elsewhere, they were still disposing of the dead in this place.  It had become a tradition in the community.  It was the place of death, where children placed their fathers, and were eventually placed themselves.  They may have had some vague idea of their own mortality, and an idea that they too would someday drop into that great darkness.  That they mourned their dead is virtually certain, since mourning behavior is present in both humans and chimpanzees(4).  Could it be that certain specific actions were performed, in the course of mourning, in association with the disposal of the body?  Perhaps certain vocal calls were made that were exclusive to disposal of the dead.  Perhaps bodies were always disposed of by the same member of the community.  Perhaps even a primitive taboo had developed wherein this place, the place of death, was avoided by the living. 

Finally, one day, somebody was disposing a body, and it just seemed right to toss his friend’s hand-axe down with him:

Whoever did this wasn’t sure why, but he had the feeling that he needed to do it, the feeling of shouldness.  He felt that he should dispose of the dead in this place.  He should make the designated ululations at the time of death and when carrying the body, ululations that he should not make at other times.  And he had a deep, gut feeling that he should leave the hand-axe with its owner.  Perhaps—just perhaps—this feeling was developed enough that he could conceptualize some idea that his friend’s death was not really the end, and left him his favorite tool in that hope.

But given the isolation of this occurrence, it does not seem that the community was consistently depositing grave goods with the dead, and thus it seems that they did not consistently have the cognitive ability to sense the need for them.  But one day, somebody was getting rid of his loved one, and he thought something like, “Wherever he’s going, I should leave him this.”

There’s that should again.  The shouldness that this individual felt was the first stirring of the human conscience, of morality, and of religion.  That individual stood, though he did not know it, at the precipice of perhaps the most important development in humanity’s behavioral evolution thus far observed.  If you are a theologian looking for a date to the Fall of Man, I would put it around here someplace.  Shouldness is not mustness, and necessarily gives us free will, the option always being there not to do as you should.  A sense of shouldness, therefore, is a prerequisite for the ability to sin.  It is in this sense, demonstrated by a primitive funeral offering, that we are seeing the first stirring of the conscience, that noblest of Man’s faculties.

Now before you neckbearded basement trolls rev up your keyboards, I’m not saying that this is definitely evidence of funeral practices, or even of deliberate burial.  I’m just saying that it could be, and wouldn’t it be cool if it was.  I don’t know.

So this, I think, is the verdict: we still could not interact with H. heidelbergensis the same way we interact with each other.  But we almost could.  While they could not speak, perhaps their nonverbal communication was humanlike.  Important physical actions at the core of our being, like hand-clapping, pointing, or whistling, would have had some meaning to them.  They probably laughed and cried like we do, for the same reasons.  And I believe there was that shouldness which we call a conscience.  So on the big stuff, we connect with these creatures.  We have crossed the behavioral Rubicon, and have by this time almost certainly had embarked on the path to behavioral modernity.  By this time if not earlier, our ancestors were behaving more like us than like our primate cousins.

Before I go, there’s one thing I want to leave you guys with: under the direction of the man, the myth, the legend, the towering badass Svante Paabo and his team of science nerds, we can now study scraps of H. heidelbergensis DNA, potentially giving us more clues about their story.  I would be interested to see whether this genetic data could give us any clues to their behavior.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Bro Does His Laundry

My apartment, as I said in my last post, is generally ok, but there’s one problem.

            I don’t have my own washing machine, which means that once a week I have to take my clothes to the laundry mat in the strip mall.  Of course, the only time I have time for this is on weekends, when the bus doesn’t run.  Which means I have to walk.  That wasn’t a problem at the beginning of the semester, when I could just stick my stuff in a suitcase and wheel it along behind me.  It worked for a time, but I knew those halcyon days wouldn’t last forever.  I knew the snow would come.

            Which, of course, it did.  And with it, my life has taken a surreal, Jack Londonesque turn.  My fifteen-minute stroll to school has become a desperate struggle through a blinding white void.  The mile walk to the laundry mat has become a tactical expedition through sheets of blowing snow and howling winds as cold as death.  My poor suitcase, designed for a carefree career of being rolled across marble airport floors, is not quite up to the challenge.  The snow gets stuck in the wheels, and you may as well be dragging the stupid thing.  So I take a plastic sled and some rope, tie the suitcase (with the laundry in it) to the sled, and then drag it behind me through the snow.  Which sounds ridiculously annoying, and it is, but I also get to pretend I’m a Ket hunter dragging his sled through the endless forests of Siberia.  Which is fun.

            Fun Ket fact: the traditional Ket unit of land measurement (like a mile or km) was the itaƋ, literally “day-drag”: the distance a man could drag a sled in one day.

            So the other day I got my sled and suitcase together as usual and set off for the laundry mat.  I walked for what seemed like an eternity.  The cold pierced through my coat, but I trudged on, leaning into the freezing wind.  Time and space blended together in the storm’s rage.  Somewhere in the distance I could hear Yes playing “South Side of the Sky”:

            I staggered on, and in the corner of my eye, visions of Vikings stepped from the snow and beckoned me to join them.  Tall and proud they stood in their horned helmets and chainmail loincloths (ouch).  Fair rang the song of the Valkyries, wheeling above my head.  My time had come, they told me.  They beckoned me to join them, to let the storm consume me, that I might take my place at the feasts of Valhalla!

But no…I hadn’t finished my quest to become Midgard’s mightiest comparative philologist!  My journey was not over yet.  My eyes met the Viking chief’s, and I shook my head.  My road did not end here.  He nodded, understanding my quest yet regretting the loss of such a mighty ally in the war of Ragnarok.  A single tear rolled from his battle-weary eye.  I adjusted the laundry sled’s rope on my shoulders, and turned my back on the gates of Valhalla.

I looked around me, hoping to fathom some landmark in the void, something to tell me where I was.  Somewhere in the distance, a vague outline could be seen through the whirling snow.  It was…my mailbox. 

I was standing at the end of my driveway, perhaps fifty feet from my front door.

            Screw this.  I turned around and headed back inside.  It’s time for the big guns.  Deep in the recesses of my closet I unearthed a misshapen cardboard box, and took out my secret weapon against winter: my Mongolian winter robes:

            Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, a winter deel.  Used in Mongolia by the world’s baddest-ass nomads, this is a garment that not only keeps you warm when eagle-hunting/Eurasia-conquering in thirty-five below, but it also makes you look good doing it.  Quilted on the inside with wool felt and topped with a padded hantaaz jacket, the warmth of this thing is only exceeded by the jaw-dropping awesomeness of freakin’ cool as hell dragons woven in freakin’ gold silk.  In fact, when I’m wearing it, I have to go outside right away or I start sweating.  But just to be safe, underneath I layered with long underwear, fleece, sweatshirt and a camel-hair vest (also Mongolian).  Around my neck I wound an Andean llama-wool scarf, and put rabbit-fur mittens on my hands.  Upon my head I placed a Russian hat that had once been something alive and cute.  Thus attired, I stepped back outside, astronaut-like, into the frigid vacuum.

            Except it wasn’t a frozen white void anymore, it was a frozen black void.  It was 2:45 PM, you see. The sun had gone down.

            I walked along the forest trail—that’s right, in Alaska the laundry mat’s on the other side of a frozen Forest of No Return, full of angry wolves, bigfeet and, for all I know, wooly mammoths.  But at least I didn’t have to worry about the cold anymore.  The blizzard unleashed its fury on my deel; it did as much to me as much as a gentle wind to a stone pillar.  What was I thinking earlier—this, cold?  You call this winter?  Pathetic.

            In fact, I was hot.  Wishing Fairbanks would get some cool weather for a change, I took off my dragon jacket, badass as it was.  I continued on through the heat of the day (night?), unfastening my top buttons to let a little air in and cool off.  Global warming.  We used to have real winters when I was a kid, not these wimpy death-rattles of an ecosystem destroyed by the avarice of Man.  I didn’t come to Alaska to die of heat exhaustion.  If I wanted that, I’d go back to Hangzhou.  Ridiculous.

            I made a triumphant entrance in the laundry mat that day.  Ice clung to the rims of my glasses, and I dusted snow from my princely Mongol garb as I stepped in.  Around my shoulders was lashed a rope leading to a plastic sled carrying an oversized suitcase.  The owner of the establishment, always one to choose his words carefully, regarded me for a moment over his newspaper.

            “What the fuck’s this?” he said by way of greeting.

            I paid for a machine, threw my clothes in, and sat down in a plastic chair.  On the TV a courtroom drama was playing.  Year-old People magazines littered the table in front of me.  I exchanged awkward nods with the fat man next to me.  I could have been in any laundry mat in the country, and compared the manner of my laundry trip to that of a reasonable, well-adjusted person.

Damn, I thought.  I didn’t bring a book.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Bro Goes to Alaska

                So as a few of you guys might know, I’m currently in Fairbanks, Alaska to do grad school.  This is my first time in Alaska, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Same as any other American town, I figured, just colder.  So I got an apartment about a fifteen-minute walk from school, but on the very edge of town.  There’s a bus stop, which is fortunate because there’s no other way to get to the supermarket unless you feel like walking for hours in subzero wind.  But there’s no true civilization nearby, except a strip mall a mile or so away from my apartment.

                Speaking of my apartment, it’s quite a place.  My landlord decided to take an old single-family house and turn it into an apartment building.  To get to my apartment, you go inside, down the stairs, and take a right.  That is to say, I’m a denizen of the lower depths.  The underdark.  I am…a basement dweller.  Not in the sense that I’m living in my Mom’s house having 3:00 AM online arguments with strangers about Boba Fett, but in the sense that my apartment is literally in the basement and all you can see out the window is dirt.  Frozen dirt actually.  Permafrost.

                My apartment is an ok place to live, if you don’t mind the front door not closing and the bedroom door not existing—“an open-concept apartment”, they said.  The hole in the front door’s frame doesn’t match up with the doorknob, so it never really closes.  When I leave in the morning, I just set the deadbolt, which I tell myself works just as well.  I sleep on an air mattress and have exactly one plate, one glass, one fork, and one beer stein that I drink oolong tea out of.  But that’s ok, because I’m in grad school and this is apparently how it’s supposed to be. 

The apartment has a fireplace (that doesn’t work) and tile floors, which of course is great to walk on barefoot when it’s freezing.  Still, it turns into a decent enough place with a six pack in the fridge and a Conan the Barbarian poster on the wall:

It really ties the room together. 
Being as it is on the edge of town, my place is on a dirt road in the middle of this great little redneck wonderland that somehow got transplanted from the Ozarks.  My neighbor on one side is a guy with a “Don’t tread on me” flag and an upside-down jeep in his lawn.  Across the street the house is surrounded by a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire.  Perched on the roof is a satellite dish almost as big as the house itself.  This, I can only assume, was installed the purpose of intercepting transmissions between Bigfoot, the Pentagon, and their alien overlords.  Behind the houses is the vast, eternal forest stretching far, far into the distance.  I like reminding myself that if I started walking west from my apartment, I would not leave this forest until I reached Norway.  The forest behind my house forms part a circle around the world,  the immensity of the Canadian and Alaskan subarctic.

                It’s an interesting neighborhood.  A couple months ago I was coming home from school.  I walked up my driveway and I saw my neighbor standing in front of my house:

                JUST KIDDING THAT’S A MOOSE.  A MOOSE WITH HORNS.  A BULL MOOSE IS IN MY LAWN.  I didn’t notice him until there couldn’t have been more than twenty feet between us (picture taken later).  It was huge.  Each noticed the other at the same time, and froze with the same jolt of adrenaline.  Our eyes met.  These things charge people, don’t they?  I thought.  Shit.  I moved as fast as I could without making sudden movements behind my landlord’s car.  There now being a physical barrier between us, I backed away down the driveway, and into the dirt road.

                Well, what do I do now?  There he was, blocking my building’s front door, gnawing cheerfully on a shrub.  I decided I wouldn’t try to scare him away, since I didn’t feel like getting killed.  But I couldn’t get inside with him in front of my door.  All I could do was wait in the street.

                I must’ve stood for twenty minutes, watching him eat.  His bored, dumb eyes mocked me.  So, moose, I thought.  Despite the toys and contrivances of Man, you have defeated me.  it was then that the door opened, and my landlord stepped out.  His eyes, too, met the moose’s, and they regarded each other with what I can only call a bored acknowledgement, like when you see a coworker on a Tuesday morning.  There clearly being some mutual understanding between them, he walked out the door, perhaps five feet from certain death, and asked me what I was doing standing there.  “He won’t hurt you,” my landlord said, rolling his eyes at the effete delicacy of people from the Lower 48. “Just walk by him and go inside.”  I looked back.  The moose had moved to about ten feet from the door.  Just walk by him…

So, gathering up my courage, that’s what I did, more than meeting my recommended daily intake of mortal danger.  Sure enough, the moose didn’t bother me at all, probably because my landlord told him I was cool.