Giants of Gas and Ice

astro pt2a003


We pass by, as if we fly, or if you wish to sail the sky, within your craft a sailboat be, atop the solar sea beside. Remember Apollo 8 and the first picture of “Earth-Rise” beyond the moon. You are farther away now. In the realm of giants!

They are planets, too. And they are big! But it’s not them you want. It is their moons! But first you must navigate through the asteroid belt to reach them. Hundreds of miles of space, just beyond Mars, and thick with shooting stars and meteorites. Come on. You can do it! But be careful. Remember the fate of the dinosaurs.


Jupiter is so big, so bright, and so obvious. It seems to float across our night sky. A thousand times bigger than Earth, all of the bodies in the solar system could comfortably fit inside its circumference. But it is a gnarly, gaseous ball. Powerful winds, and lightning with ten times the power of that found on Earth. And the giant, swirling red spot? It is three times the size of Earth. What’s up with that?

The pressure of the planet’s mass of gas is so great that methane is crushed into diamonds and hydrogen becomes molten, metallic, and electric. That is why Jupiter has the most powerful magnetic field of any planet!

And that field is full of plasma torn away from its closest moon, Io, which is constantly fuming in volcanic eruption, drawn out by the sweeping gravitational tides of Jupiter and its other moons. We have seen plumes of yellow, green, and red shades of sulfur thrust out 300 miles into space from Io!

The four largest moons of Jupiter are known as the Galilean Moons. Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. They are what got Galileo in trouble with the Church. You know, the heresy that planets revolve around the sun and not Earth. Galileo saw the moons first on one side, and then the other side of Jupiter. You can see them yourself tonight in a powerful set of binoculars!

The Church issued an apology in 1992. A little late for Galileo, who died under house arrest in 1642. Although it took 350 years to do it, the Church, like science, can be self- correcting.

And of the Galilean moons, maybe life can be found under the smooth water-ice surface of Europa. You should go look! If you could fly there on a commercial jet, it would take you just 100 years!

Saturn would float on water, so light is this giant ball of gas. But its seven rings are what excite our view. Look at them through an inexpensive telescope. The planet varies its tilt for our visual enjoyment. If its rings were highways, you could drive around one in 258 days! In fact, all of the gas giants have some sort of ring system.

Saturn has many moons. The one that excites us the most is Titan. It is the largest⎯bigger than Mercury⎯and has a dense atmosphere of nitrogen and methane. On its surface are flowing rivers and seas of natural gas, cooled to a temperature of minus 300 degrees. Winds there contain tempting indications of organic material in the surface soil. Alien, for sure, but surely interesting!


Something big must have hit Uranus. Instead of rotating on an axis perpendicular to the plane of the solar system, it lies on its side. This was the planet unknown to the ancients. It was discovered by William Herschel with his famous telescope in 1781. And don’t forget his sister, Caroline. Together, they were quite a team.

Neptune is the farthest planet away. That body has a thick atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, with evidence of hydrocarbons, ammonia, and methane. It is methane that gives it a blue color. Its core is composed of various ices and rock. And it is so far away that it takes light four hours to reach us. And that is traveling at 186,000 miles per second! You do the math. The distance will expand your imagination.

Neptune’s largest moon is Triton⎯not Titan, that’s Saturn. Triton is solid, but its core is geologically active. That must mean radioactive decay and internal heat. Maybe there is a buried ocean that is liquid and harbors primitive life forms. Is that why some of the volcanic ejecta contain what may be a black mixture of organic compounds? But Triton’s surface is exceptionally cold, a frozen nitrogen crust at minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit. That is pretty close to absolute zero⎯minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit!

I know that Pluto is still farther out, but so is a lot of other stuff out there. Eris, Haumea, Makemake, Ceres. They are all bodies in the Kuiper Belt or beyond. And many of them are comets! Why, even farther out in interstellar space is the Oort Cloud of icy planetesimals. So we will stop at Neptune for this essay.

So, if you want to get out of here⎯up there, that is⎯maybe there is a Mars, or Titan, or Triton that you might eventually explore. But I think I will stay here and work to take better care of this place. It has been my job for more than 40 years now.


The Rocky Planets

SolarSystem P1.jpg


Why do you want to get off this one?

There are no gods to visit on those spinning orbs, and they are not very nice places on which to live. Let’s take a quick look in our scientific shuttle.


Nope. Don’t want to go there. Nuclear explosions. Fusion. The conversion of hydrogen gas to helium. You know. Energy equals the quantity of mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. The loss in mass equal to the weight of one million elephants every second.

If you heated the head of a pin to the temperature of the center of the sun, it would instantly vaporize everything within 60 miles. And loops of energy extending off the sun’s surface have the power of millions of volcanoes. Yikes!

Sun God? Phooey! But if the sun were mysteriously extinguished, you wouldn’t know it for eight minutes. That’s how far away it is. And those would be the last eight minutes of your life. Without it, we are lost. Sun God? Maybe!


I wonder if they still teach it in school. I do. Here goes, in order of planetary position: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.

Yes, I still consider Pizza a planet!




An iron ball with a thin crust and gravity one-third of that on Earth. Stand on the surface at midday and you will melt. It’s 800 degrees Fahrenheit! But at nighttime, the shadows will bring on the deep freeze. Minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit! No atmosphere. No wind or rain. No home for us!


Now this planet is different. The very word Venusian conjures up all kinds of romantic images. And in alternate months, it puts us to bed and wakes us up as the evening and morning star. Mysteriously cloaked too, to keep away prying eyes. Edgar Rice Burroughs went there three times in the 1930s, and Flash Gordon in 1955. Let’s go there now!

Ah, no, I don’t think so. Those clouds are made of sulfuric acid. Burning rain drops. Yikes! Isn’t that like what Anne McCaffrey writes about on her planet, Pern?

And the air you breathe in is choking you with carbon dioxide. Ninety-six percent CO2! Doesn’t that cause a greenhouse effect? Yup, big time.

That is why it is 900 degrees Fahrenheit on that planet. Hotter than Mercury! Canyons of molten rock, and volcanoes spewing forth boiling phloem and belching out gas. You will suffocate, assuming you are not crushed by the atmosphere with a pressure ninety times that on Earth at sea level. Assuming that there is enough of you left after the sulfuric acid burns you. And get this. There is little water in the sky, but when it gets there, it explodes on contact with the sulfuric acid. Yikes!


Ah, now that’s a planet. Burroughs sent John Carter there in 1912. His books were Ronald Reagan’s favorites as a summer lifeguard in his youth.

Mars was named after the mythological God of War. Why war? Because it appears red. Like the color of blood? That’s the color of iron oxide in the soil of Mars. Rust to you. And what of its two moons, Phobos and Deimos? Fear and terror in Greek mythology!

There’s not much atmosphere on Mars. But there was once. And there is still enough to generate a wind. Dust devils. Pictures have been taken of them by our landers. Robotic extensions of our laboratories and sense. And those machines are almost like humans. Well, not that much like us, I suppose, but I still think of them as friends. The United States has sent four Rovers to Mars: Sojourner (1997), Spirit (2004-2010), Opportunity (2004-2018), and Curiosity (2012 and still rolling). They are wonderful machines. I build models of them!

There is no magnetic field on Mars to hold its atmosphere or deflect the high-energy radiation from the sun. You would be assaulted there by blistering solar blasts, burning you as you stood on the surface. No magnetic shield to sweep that radiation aside and into polar auroras. Earth does that trick very nicely.

And there is no oxygen-derived ozone barrier on Mars to bar further harmful solar and cosmic radiation from penetrating to the surface. Like we have on Earth.

But it wasn’t always so on Earth. Free oxygen is new here. And so is ozone. Life began generating free oxygen on Earth about 2.5 billion years ago. That’s right. Earth wasn’t ready for us. Life had to “terraform” Earth to its liking. Just like we will have to do on Mars if we move there. And there is water hidden there. Maybe then we can soar through the Valles Marineris⎯the biggest canyon in the solar system. Or climb Mons Olympus⎯the tallest mountain amongst our rocky planets!



Ah, home. I like it here. An earthly paradise, I think. Blue oceans with earth-colored continents. And sweeping slips of white clouds adding a curtained proscenium to our stage in life!


The Family Human-part 3


Neanderthal People

The excitement began when bones were first discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. It was Homo neanderthalensis, a cousin that evolved in Eurasia about 450,000 years ago.
Neanderthal People had been widespread in Europe and Asia, and living strong and long before our species arose in the cradle of humankind in East Africa about 200,000 years ago. Only later did we begin to migrate out, first into the regions of the Middle East. Perhaps to those oasis along ancient rivers bordering the Levant and the mountains of Iran. Lands where we encountered the Neanderthal People.
Savage brutes, you say? Well, think on this. If you are of European descent, 1%-4% of your genetic structure is probably from Neanderthal People. And how do you think that happened?
So what did these Neanderthal people look like? A little or a lot like you. But probably with a larger brain.
What kind of tools did they make? “Mousterian” tools, we call them. Fine- edged flakes, points and scraper. And now attached to wooden spears or bone handles as knives. Beautiful tools. And weapons.
Did they draw, make art? Look at the cave paintings in Spain dated to 65,000 years ago. We, Homo sapiens, did not arrive there until 20,000 years later.
Did they bury their dead? At least some did. And not just to dispose of a corpse. Were they spiritual? These are questions that I leave for your own research. That’s how confident I am that I have caught some of your interest.


Until 2010, they didn’t exist. At least not in our minds. So arrogant is our hubris in the possession of limited knowledge. It was in that year that a single finger bone from a young girl was found in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia. Scientists, by then, had developed skills at sequencing all of the genes in a cell’s mitochondria⎯energy generating organelles inherited only from your mother. And when that was done for the still viable mitochondria found in that bone, a stunning discovery was made. That girl was from an entirely new species of humans! Homo denisova.
Yikes! What is going on here? Oh, we have found a few teeth, too. That was enough to sequence more of her genome. And now we find that as much as 6% of the genes of Melanesians, Australian Aborigines, and Papua New Guineans may be of her Denisovan stock.
From a few teeth and a finger bone? You’re kidding! No. The science is good. Your genome is your history, and that of those who went before you. And the structure of its basic code is not complicated. I teach it in my class and build models of its scaffold. Your genes bear a mystery that is not hidden. And, like the Mayan glyphs, we can read them. Glory to be. That is exciting! God’s handwriting, if you will.

Homo Sapiens

We appeared in Africa by 200,000 years ago. We were surely smarter than Homo erectus. Made better tools. But were we smarter than the Neanderthal People? They had bigger brains, stockier frames, and were stronger. One-on-one, we mostly lose. But something happened about 70,000 years ago. Happened in the brain of one of our forebears. Maybe that is the time that God touched our species. No one knows for sure.
But our larynx had settled further down in our throats. We know from the brain impression in old skulls that Broca’s area, the region of our brain controlling speech in our frontal lobe, was well developed. We were primed. Then something happened. Not just speech sounds now. Group action. Gossip. And out of Africa, we surged.
150,000 years ago, we shared the planet with at least four other species of humans. Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo denisova, and Homo floresiensis. More maybe? There might have been one million humans represented by multiple species alive then. But by 30,000 years ago, there was just one. Us. You. Homo sapiens. I wonder why.
Gossip! You’re kidding. No, I am not. It is our ability to talk about things not before us, people that we know, that enable us to form larger groups of people that we trust. Groups who can work together. Groups with people that you can talk about behind their backs!

By 16,000 years ago, we invaded the American Continent to face the last remnant of Pleistocene megafauna that evolved there. It appears that, with the help of climate change, we did them in too. Sobering. Are there lessons here?

The Family Human-Part 2


Family of Man part 2THE FAMILY HUMAN – Part 2

Homo habilis


The “Handy Man,” Homo habilis, was discovered in the Olduvai Gorge of East Africa. Upright and capable of making primitive “pebble stone” choppers from 2.5 million years ago. “Oldowan” tools, we call them. That was a long time ago. Handy Man never left Africa. But he contributed even more than tools to our history. A bigger brain. Thirty percent bigger than his predecessor, “Lucy,” the first upright Australopithecine hominid.

What developed next in that gorge had an even larger brain, pushing 30% bigger than that of the Handy Man. And for very good reason. The tools of this new arrival were even more magnificent. Hand Axes!

“Acheulean,” is what we call those tools, and they were not just rocks with broken edges. Acheulean hand axes were sophisticated, hiding their shape within the surface of that round pebble stone. They had to first be imagined before they could be chipped away and formed. Just like Michelangelo, who saw David hiding in that chunk of marble, Homo erectus saw pointed, sharp-edged hand axes in those rocks. Yes, saw them. “Imagination.” We had arrived!

Homo erectus

First known as Java Man or Peking Man, Homo erectus was the first to spread out of Africa into Europe and the distant Asian lands and islands. That started, after 2 million years ago, a great human diaspora. And Homo erectus maintained its reign

in those regions for more than 1 million years before they left our stage 100,000 years ago. Forced off the stage by newer, more advanced models. Exterminated, probably. And probably by those that begat you.

Fire and Cooking

But before he left, Homo erectus that is, he did something very important for you. You should remember that every night that you cook.

Homo erectus captured fire and enslaved its power so as to pass its control on to you. Not from a lightning strike on grass. More probably from a smoldering, burnt tree stump. Cradle its embers, feed it twigs and dried leaves, and learn to carry its smoking potential wrapped up in a skin. And every night within your cave opening, urge out a small bit of cinder onto a prepared bed of brush, your altar to the Fire God. And, magically, up leaps fire in warmth and protection, roaring away at any predator that might tempt close. And then, safe and warm, you sit cross- legged before the flames, roasting tough snake meat, or the tawny tendonous fibers scavenged from the bones of an antelope left after the tiger tore off its flesh. Meat made soft, easily eaten, and more easily digested by cooking. More fatty calories for that big, growing brain of yours.

And now, you no longer need such long intestines. Less fiber needed to break down to absorb those trapped plant nutrients. And your teeth have changed. Less vicious in need to tear raw meat, and less massive for crushing raw nuts. The Fire God gives you all of these. Even poisonous foods are rendered nontoxic after cooking. And finally, humans can survive without teeth into old age! I like that though


Homo floresiensis

The people called Hobbits by the press. Only three and a half feet tall, they inhabited the isolated Indonesian island of Flores. There were even Pygmy elephants there. That sister species disappeared about 50,000 years ago. What happened then? Probably the same story as elsewhere. The rise of our species, Homo sapiens.

Were the Hobbits hiding there? Hiding from us? There were other species of our genus, too. What happened to them?

And there are more. There are others. Exposed to us in the caves of France, the hills of the Levant, overhangs in the Chinese hills and on Southeastern Asian Islands.

What about Java Man, Homo erectus? That species seemed to pass from the fossil record 100,000 years ago. And Neanderthal Man, Homo neanderthalensis? They survived to about 30,000 years ago. The circle was closing.

Homo sapiens showed up around 200,000 years ago, spreading out of Africa soon thereafter. We spread everywhere. Conquered all in our path. Maybe there is a reason, beyond biology and religion, that we are the last species standing.

Next week: Denisovans, Neanderthals, and you!


The Family Human, Part 1



Well, Huwoman in actuality. Without the latter, you don’t get the former. Hominids for this essay.

The family Hominidae includes the Great Apes: Orangutans, Gorillas, and Chimpanzees. Humans are also classified as Great Apes. And we act that way sometimes. We are all in the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, and the Order Primates. So there you have it. Biology 101. Taxonomy.


And we have reasonably close cousins and ancestors. Let us start with the extinct Genus, Australopithecus. This one means “Southern Ape.” And early species walked upright, Australopithecus afarensis⎯this is the one we affectionately call “Lucy.” She appeared in the fossil record of Africa about four million years ago. We have footprints of her people preserved in lava beds dated to 3.6 million years ago! They seem to follow Antelope, Elephant, and Rhino prints. But there are also Saber Tooth Tiger imprints. Were they being followed? At about 4’9″, they were probably not following the tiger. And they had no tools or weapons.

But these hominids were special. Standing up, you could see the far reaches of the Serengeti Plain and look over the tall Savannah grasses. And your hands were free. Free to make mischief, but not yet tools. That would come later as Hominid brains grew larger to process and map the new spatial data observed, and develop algorithms for the complex manipulation of fingers and hands. However, for women to walk upright, they needed a more narrow pelvic structure. Better to balance on. But a more constructed space through which to birth a child. All at a time when Hominid brains were getting bigger.


Watch a horse giving birth. Its foal is almost fully formed when it arrives, and ready to run. To get a human baby safely out, we start early, prematurely so to speak, to give birth when the child’s brain is smaller, even pliable. Great care and protection must be provided to bring that child to maturity. Maybe that is why natural selection keeps women healthy after menopause. To help raise that child. The “Grandmother Hypothesis?”

Olduvai Gorge

The northeastern edge of Africa is rifting apart. The Somali Plate is sailing into the ocean. About 100,000 years ago, this action opened a tear in the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania behind it. A steep walled rip that exposed four ancient lakebeds reaching back through time in a ladder-like layering of sediment. Two million years of sediment. Olduvai Gorge. “The Cradle of Humankind?”

A German butterfly hunter before World War I had reported finding bones there. Another surprising result of “The Butterfly Effect.” It was where Louis and Mary Leakey would open the chest of marvels reflecting our fossil history. Your fossil history. Where they found Homo habilis, the “Handy Man.” Handy because he made tools.

Homo habilis

Something special happened there, down in Olduvai Gorge. And quickly, too, in evolutionary terms. Our genus, Homo, appeared there about 2.5 million years ago. And Homo habilis, the Handy Man, was the first to make stone tools. His brain was 30% larger than his Australopithecus predecessor. He walked upright too, maybe 4.5 feet tall, and

about 90 pounds in weight. He ate more meat, and had less specialized teeth. His shorter

intestines reflected a less fibrous diet, even if still primarily fruit. And his long, strong arms reflected the time that he still hung out in trees. But he made tools. And that was a game changer!

The Leakeys found many stone tools in the Olduvai Gorge of this time period. We call them “pebble stone” tools. Really just cobblestones in the creek beds that, when hit against another rock, formed a primitive chopper. Random in design, primitive in conception.

The first tools were probably used to crack open animal bones and suck out the nutritious marrow. Bones left by the more powerful animals that had killed and eaten the meat of their prey.

Yes, we were scavengers. Why not? We knew that marrow was there, and could visualize it. And we had the tools to get to that bone marrow. Those other predators did not.

And so it began.


Louis and Mary Leakey were mightily interested in those stone tools. They had additional backing now, due to their spectacular finds at Olduvai Gorge. So in 1956, Louis Leakey raised additional funding to send out anthropologists to study the habitats of other primates. The journeys of those three women scientists is now the stuff of legend. Jane Goodall was sent to Tanzania to study chimpanzees in 1960. Diane Fossey signed on to study mountain gorillas in Rwanda in 1966. And in 1971, Birute Marija Galdikas agreed to study orangutans in Borneo.

Next: Java Man, Peking Man, and the Man from Neander Valley!


An Oldowan style, “Pebble Stone Tool.”

The Dzungarian Gate


And what it is not, location is. And here is the place. A 3,000-mile, nearly impenetrable chain of mountains blockading China from the rest of Eurasia. 1.4 billion people, and all looking to get out. Or at least to expand a little, like they did in 471 A.D.



The western mountain barrier of China is high and majestic. So far away, with snow-capped peaks reaching up to the Godly spaces. The east slope of those mountains is protected by vast deserts and arid grasslands that taunt those who approach with a thirsty death even before they can reach such celestial heights. They are called Tian Chan, the “Mountains of Heaven.” A place far away from Beijing. Or Baghdad. And even farther from here.

But such distances must be crossed. Chinese silk must find its market, and the central Asian mystery penetrated. Samarkand⎯is there a more exotic name in the world?⎯must be reached. Tamerlane’s beautiful capital of Transoxiana. The Silk Road demonstrated the power of trade then. It was the physical analog to our digital trade in stocks today.

So how to get that road of silk around those Mountains of Heaven? To make way for Marco Polo? Pasta, too, and paper!


From China, to the south, lies the Tarim Basin, the Great Desert flanking a then independent Tibet. No water, few oases, and no grass. So no horses, and few marauding bandits riding them. Up north more water, more grass, and a pass! Ride through, but ride fast. You are not the only ones on horseback there!

The pass is a fault through the Tian Chan Mountains. A straight, flat, six-mile wide passage through to the grasslands of Central Asia and Lake Balkhash. Pass through, turn south, and head toward Samarkand. Follow the wind. For, surely this is the land of the Greek god, Boreas, master of the cold winter blasts. A land of gold guarded by Griffins. And there are dinosaur fossils in the region. You would be kept up at night in the ferocious blowing winds, convinced you were hearing the screams of those long dead monsters.


And that brings us back to 751 A.D. One-hundred-nineteen years after the death of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in Medina, Arabia. Ninety years after the founding of the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus, Syria. And only one year after the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate, soon to be centered at Baghdad. The Abbasids were ascendant and were to enter a golden age of Islamic power and learning.

The Tang Dynasty of China was also in a golden age, exemplifying the advanced culture of Chinese civilization. But it was about to founder. It, too, was

interested in the Silk Road and trading lands far to the west in Central Asia. So China reached out across those vast deserts and grasslands.

Did their armies ride through the Dzungarian Gate? Probably, for they met the armies of the Abbasids just south of that area along the Talas River in Central Asia. They fought for five days, treachery eventually overcoming the Chinese forces. Twenty thousand Chinese prisoners, it was said, were captured.

It was one of those pivotal battles of history. The Tang Dynasty soon faced the “An Lushan” rebellion at home. So they adventured no further to the west. The Abbasids, seeing only deserts and arid grasslands beyond the gate, sallied no further east. Central Asia is predominantly Muslim today, as a result.

But other developments flowed from that battle. Chinese paper-making technology was brought to Baghdad by the Chinese prisoners. Much of the wisdom of the west was accordingly preserved in Muslim universities. And Buddhism in China, which had originally sprung up in India, was now cut off from its roots. No land route for its adherents to travel to India’s holy sites. Is that what caused Buddhism in the east to flourish and develop? What did Huston Smith say? “Big Boat” and “Small Boat” Buddhism?

So, if you were in that place, and your timing was right, you might have seen the battle that you never heard of. And one from which so much of our current world order, and knowledge, still flows.




Pottery shards.

Pottery shards and flint flakes.  You look for them, don’t you?  I do. They are like movie tickets for the latest film.  The one that’s already been shown.  A film that seems to halt the flow of time long enough to look at the product of its passage.  What has gone before us is a long, captivating film.  And there are theaters everywhere.


The Arabian Peninsula is bounded by two defining seas, the Persian Gulf to the north, and the Red Sea to the south.  Some religions have spent a lot of time crossing the Red Sea, while others have spent a lot of time fighting over the different interpretations that exist on either side of the Persian Gulf.  It is that latter Gulf that I wish to explore today.  To find my ticket and watch a film of its development.

During the Ice Ages, not long ago¾they only retreated 12,000 years ago¾sea level was lower.  What is now the Persian Gulf was then a long, beautiful, warm watered river valley.  An extension of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  It emptied into the Gulf of Oman at what we now call the Strait of Hormuz.  It is a choke point.  Physically and politically.  But back then, during the Ice Ages, it opened up into a wonderfully lush, long strip of garden-edged river.  Perhaps like the Nile.  Or Eden.


Eight thousand years ago, glaciers were melting, resulting in rising seas.  Up through the Strait of Hormuz the waters crept, eventually flooding this long inland river up to Nippur and the earliest Sumerian civilizations growing at the shoreline of what is now Iraq.  And this is where Dilmun comes in.  For farther out around that ocean, past what is now Iran and Afghanistan, lay another great civilization forming in the Indus Valley at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.  And trade figured mightily in its economic vitality.

Let’s see.  The Egyptian civilization to the west, Mesopotamia to the north, and the Indus civilization just around the corner to the southeast.  Bingo!  Middlemen. Goods moving up and down what is now called the Persian Gulf.  With the trading network of the Dilmun culture settlements lining its shores.  The bible mentions such a people, the Dedanites, in this area.

Many architectural remnants of this culture may be hidden under the risen waters of the Gulf.  But ancient ruins can be found on the island nation of Bahrain, across the way from the peninsula of Qatar, and on Failaka Island, part of Kuwait.

The cultures of these Dilmun lands are so old that they were referred to in Sumerian poetry 4,000 years ago.  Gilgamesh, the mythological King of Sumerian Uruk, sought Utnapishtim and immortality in Dilmun.  At the gardens of Bahrain.  Back then, much of the coast was called Bahrain.  And had not Utnapishtim survived the great flood?  The flooding of the Persian Gulf?  The Garden of Eden? The Bible?  Climate Change?


But let us reach farther back.  Back when the glaciers still stood tall.  Back when Neanderthal men and women lived in the mountains of Iran.  Then the Persian Gulf was another fertile Nile, with constant water and growth.  Sometime after 100,000 years ago, a new hominoid species began migrating north, out of the great African gorges.  They were us. Just not complete.  Some meeting and mingling with those Neanderthals was going to occur along that oasis-like river now flooded.  Some interbreeding yet left to do.

No more Neanderthals live today.  In fact, all of our sister species are extinct.  And there were a number of species within our genus, Homo.  It is intriguing to explore our part in their extinctions.  But much of us carry Neanderthal genes.  Maybe 4-10% of our genome.  And distinctly round heads!

Heads that are now looking back at what came before. Much like those ancient gazelles on Dilmun cylinder seals.  Yes, seals. Find their pottery shards and you will find the seals of Dilmun.  You might also find the scale weights of their commerce.  Such is the bounty of searching!

And there, where the Arabian Continent is drifting north, it is diving down and pushing up deep deposits of oil and gas.  And that movie is still being filmed!




gilgamesh002 (1)


You see him every winter evening on a clear night. And when it is cloudy, he sees you. He is the oldest myth of the humankind, and the first to be placed in the heavens to honor their power. And he kinda, sorta, looks like a person. Not like one of those later Greek and Roman constellations. They require hallucination in order to make out the recognizable deities in their night sky.

Fortunately, the mind will connect the major stars in any region of the sky into a simple, recognizable pattern. An asterism. You know, the Big and Little Dippers, the Summer Triangle, the Teapot. Geometry is genetic. At least I think so.
The Sumerians
The constellation of which I speak is Orion to you. We got that name from the Greeks. But the legend of Gilgamesh is much older. A product of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. Maybe that is why they built their ziggurats. Giant- stepped pyramids, to reach up to their man god.

And what of the even older Ubaid Peoples? Did they arise in Eastern Arabia, along the Persian Gulf from whence the Sumerians sprung. From where the cuneiform of writing first developed? The stories of Gilgamesh, a King of Sumerian Uruk, were the lesson plan of the ancient scribes learning to write cuneiform. Is that why we have so many partial copies of his poem?

Gilgamesh adventured to the Gardens of Bahrain⎯much of the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf was at one time called Bahrain. He was seeking eternal life from Utnapishtim, who had survived the Great Deluge there. The corollaries to biblical references are of interest here. The Garden of Eden and the Great Flood. And at one time, the Persian Gulf was dry, the ancient seas lower, with a long river running the length of a deep valley to reach the ocean at Hormuz. Was it still so back in the ancient memory of the Ubaid people?Constellations

Back to the night sky. The winter constellations are powerfully visible and easy to find. And they are the object of this essay. They are marked by the bright stars Sirius, Procyon, Castor, Pollux, Capella, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, and Rigel. Greek and Arab names. Get a simple star chart online and look for them. There is much pleasure in obtaining their friendship. And once found, they will never leave you.

The Winter Oval

These stars outline a famous asterism, the Winter Oval. In the center is that human warrior, Orion. Think Gilgamesh, with his three-starred belt and sword flashing within a bright nebula of diamonds. To the lower left, find the brightest star in the sky (Sirius) of Canis Major (the Greater Dog). Then counterclockwise, Procyon of Canis Minor (the Lessor Dog); Castor and Pollux in Gemini (the Twins); Capella in Auriga (the Charioteer); Aldebaran in the horns of Taurus (the Bull); and Rigel, the left knee of Orion. Throw in the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters⎯how many can you see?) just outside the Bull, and you have quite a show!

A Mnemonic

Here is one of my poems to help you to remember your identification of these fine figures:

Sirius hunters, Twins awry,

Ride the Doe Chariot racing high.

Eye of Bull, braying light,

Belie the ladle Sisters hide.

Lo the belted sword aglow,

Kingly knee and ruddy know.


The Hare it hides beneath his sight,

and  gently runs this oval knight!


The hare? Lepus. He is there, too, but hiding at the hunter’s feet! What a delight to see!

The Mayans

But before we leave, let us talk about what the ancient Mayans saw. They had writing, too. And so we know their stories.

Where the Greeks saw the constellation Gemini and its twins, Castor and Pollux; the Mayans saw copulating peccaries⎯wild Central American pigs. And the Mayans saw not a man in Orion. They saw, instead, “First Fire”⎯the Orion Nebula in Orion’s sword. And that fire sat inside a triangle of three stars⎯the Mayan Hearthstones. One star on his belt (Alnitak), and two at his knees (Saiph and Rigel). Go to Central America now. They still make fires with three hearthstones there.

And the Mayans had another beautiful origin story relating to Orion’s Belt. They saw it as a crack in a turtle shell, up from which sprung “First Father” in our current creation cycle. And then grew up the “Maize Tree.” From its corncobs sprang the first humans.

We are an imaginative species. That’s how we got here. But some things seem to be universal. The Greeks, the Romans, and the Mayans saw a Scorpion in the summer sky. Just as you and I do now. I wonder if, in the far distant past, one of us was stung!


The Roots of Cuneiform (photo by Cheryl Van Stockum)