Eric Tagliacozzo is a professor of history at Cornell University, and his new book In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds From Yemen to Yokohama outlines five centuries of maritime history in the Asian world. In this wide-ranging interview, we discussed how China created trade routes that stretched all the way to Africa’s Swahili coast, the ocean-going history of Vietnam, and the role of consumer goods, piracy, slavery, and religion in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Pacific, and beyond.
Humans are the only animals to wear clothing, and much of that clothing is made out of other animals. In Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear author Melissa Kwasny explores the worlds of leather, wool, silk, feathers, pearls, and fur. Her research into the animal origins of clothing prompted an exploration of both the history of clothing as well as the ethical and environmental issues surrounding wearable animal products.
Beef occupies a unique place in American culture. In his new book Red Meat Republic Joshua Specht examines the history of the American beef industry. He examines how ranching and range land was seized from Native Americans, how beef shaped industrial and labor history, and the role beef still plays in American ideas of class, gender, and identity.
This week we look at the animal companions of America’s chief executives, including opossums, eagles, and very good dogs.
Brandon Seifert has written horror comics such as Witch Doctor, Hellraiser, and The Fly. Lately, he’s been studying werewolf folklore. We talked about the history of werewolf stories, werewolf witch trials, why people believed in werewolves, and what to do if you live in the 1500s and someone accuses you of werewolfism.
Popular legend holds that Isaac Newton invented not only calculus, but also the cat door. Unfortunately, this colorful legend is not supported by good evidence. Cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, with the oldest known domestic cat possibly dating back to Cyprus 9,500 years ago. Textual evidence for cat doors can be found Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale, centuries before Newton, and there’s no evidence that the natural philosopher even owned a cat. Nevertheless, the myth has been persistent and varied, initially being used to cut the scholar down to size, and later on used to demonstrate his brilliance.
For almost three hundred years Europeans were not entirely sure what rhinos looked like. The most popular image of the beast was a print made by Albrecht Durer in 1515, which shows an Indian rhinoceros as a plated, scaled, animal with an extra horn between its shoulderblades. The print also includes text about how rhinos hunt and kill elephants. Durer never actually saw the rhino, which was a gift from the sultan of Cambay the the king of Portugal, but that didn’t stop his print from becoming one of the most influential pieces of media of all time.
A statue of a dog sits outside Shibuya station in downtown Tokyo. The statue commemorates Hachiko, an Akita who walked to and from the train station every day with his owner, Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor of agricultural science at Tokyo Imperial University. In 1935 the professor died while at work, but Hachiko kept returning to Shibuya to wait for his master. He waited for ten year for the professor to return, until his eventual death in 1935. Like Bummer and Lazarus, Hachiko is a dog that became beloved among his community, and he is one of many dogs that have waited for their humans to return long after death.
In 1910 the United States almost imported hippos as a meat animal. Had it done so, the US would have imported the single most dangerous large land animal on Earth and treated it like a cow. HR2361 also known as the American Hippo Bill, would have allocated $250,000 for the importation of hippos and other animals to the US. The bill had the support of former president Theodore Roosevelt, and even the New York Times favored importing hippos, calling it “lake cow bacon.”
Bummer and Lazarus were a pair of stray dogs beloved of San Francisco in the 1860s. The two dogs were known for their exceptional rat-catching ability, and were a favorite topic of newspapers of the day. Nowadays the two dogs are often associated with Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, but Bummer and Lazarus belonged to no one. The dogs were their own, and are, very probably, the most beloved strays of all time.
In this episode we tackled one of the major issues of our time: Why haven’t more countries used moose as Cavalry? Sweden tried it. The Soviet Union also tried it. But, the mighty moose has consistently resisted being turned into a weapon of war.
Thomas Jefferson loved mastodons, in part because he wanted to prove that American animals were not degenerate. In the late 1700s a French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, published a massive, multi-volume natural history called, appropriately Natural History. In it, Buffon outlined what he called his “theory of American degeneracy,” wherein he argued that all people and animals native to the Americas were, well, degenerate. This enraged Thomas Jefferson, who sought to prove Buffon wrong by finding evidence of American mastodons, an animal that the third president still believed was out there, somewhere, roaming the American west.
Below: Mastodon by paleo artist Charles Knight from 1897.
The platypus appears to be some kind of melding or mashup between a duck and a beaver. It is not, though the first Western scientist to examine a specimen thought that it was exactly that: A taxidermy hoax made of existing animal parts.
Plus: An important announcement about the future of this podcast.
This week’s episode is an interview with artist and cartoonist Kory Bing about dinosaurs and other extinct megafauna. We talked about drawing dinosaurs, what dinosaurs are, and how dinosaurs and other extinct animals are portrayed in popular culture. Kory writes and draws the webcomic Skin Deep and regularly illustrates dinosaurs, pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and other extinct megafauna. Find her work here.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
Today PT Barnum is remembered as one of the founders of modern advertising and one of America’s greatest hucksters. His first successful hoax was to successfully promote a taxidermy monkey sewn to a fish as the corpse of a mermaid. To do this, Barnum wrote fake letters from different regions of the country to various New York newspapers, and hired an associate of his to pose as an English scientist who had the mermaid in his possession. Using deceit, fake names, and fraudulent correspondence, Barnum successfully stoked interest in the so-called “mermaid.”
The fate of the mermaid is unknown. It was possibly destroyed in a fire, but Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has a specimen that is, possibly, Barnum’s original. After Barnum several other sideshows, museums, and curiosity shops copied the mermaid, and today many is the tourist trap cabinet of curiosities sports the horrific corpse of a monkey glued to a fish.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
The origins of coffee are encircled by myth and legend, sometimes involving goats. It’s one of the most popular beverages on Earth, and for many people (including your humble podcaster) one of the most important. Drinking coffee is a daily ritual enjoyed by millions, and there are myriad stories about coffee’s history that seem to buttress its importance and mystique.
Dancing livestock, beverages on trial, self-sacrificing Frenchman, a sexy Portuguese guy, and a totally wired philosopher all figure into coffee’s mythology. In all probability none of these events ever happened, but their very existence says something about humanity’s reverence and need for the fortifying beverage.
You’ve probably heard to Atlantis, but that’s not the hypothetical lost continent out there. There’s a whole subgenre of supposed submerged continents, with Atlantis being only the most prominent example. Other mythical lands include Mu and Lemuria.
Anymore, Lemuria is now associated with new age pseudohistory, but as an idea it was first posited by an actual scientist. In 1864 Philip Sclater was trying to puzzle out why there were lemurs in both Madagascar and India, but not in Africa or the Middle East. If the animals had migrated from one of those regions to the next, then it stood to reason that there would also be lemur populations between them. To solve this problem, Sclater proposed that there was once a large mass of land in the India Ocean he called “Lemuria” that would have allowed lemurs (and, presumably, other fauna) to migrate from India to Madagascar and back again.
Sclater’s idea was eventually rendered obsolete by plate tectonics, but the idea of a lost continent was seized upon by occultists such as Helena Blavatsky. Charlatans such as Blavatsky claimed to have received special knowledge of humanity’s origin from the lost continent, and a whole subgenre of fake history was born.
At the end of the eleventh century, a group of would-be conquerors followed a goose on crusade.
The standard (and almost certainly overly simplistic) narrative of the First Crusade is that, in 1095 Pope Urban II rallied religious leaders at the Council of Clermont to retake the Holy Land. After a few stirring speeches and cries of “deus vult!” (God wills it!) a holy war began. Again, this narrative is almost certainly factually incorrect, but it’s stayed in the popular imagination.
The First Crusade, though, was far more disorganized than its neat and tidy origin myth suggest. Several lords, kings, and independent military leaders operated more or less independently. One of the most notable leaders of what would become known as the People’s Crusade was an itinerant preacher named Peter the Hermit who stirred his followers with tales of apocalypse, end times, and final battles. Among Peter the Hermit’s followers was a group of crusaders who followed a goose, claiming that that bird was speaking to them through the Holy Spirit.
Nowadays the US-Canada border is one of the most peaceful international boundaries in the world, but in 1859 the US almost went to war with British North America in what is now Washington State. A war sparked by a pig.
The 1846 Oregon Treaty was poorly worded and it left San Juan Island itself in something of a state of limbo. This island was claimed both by the British Empire and the United States, and for several years American settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company mutually occupied the island. However, an American frontiersman shot a British pig, and the squabble between neighbors threatened to turn into an international incident. The two powers were ready for armed conflict and, had a British rear admiral not disobeyed orders to engage the Americans, the conflict might very well have turned violent. In the end, it was a bloodless conflict. There were no casualties, excepting, of course, the pig.