Archive for December, 2019

Pleistocene Aspirin

December 27, 2019

The oldest human civilizations used plants high in salicylic acid to reduce pain and inflammation.  If the Sumerians were aware of these beneficial plant extracts 4500 years ago, it seems likely some individuals ancestral to them enjoyed this knowledge as far back as the Pleistocene.  I hypothesize this knowledge was lost and re-discovered countless times during the pre-history of man.  I’m sure people got sick and even died experimenting with the nutritional and mechanical benefits of various plants.

Salicylic acid is found in willow bark, meadowsweet ( Filipendula ulmaria ), myrtle, and numerous other plants.  Many different species of willow are found in the northern hemisphere, and they are common alongside streams and within wetlands.  Black willow ( Salix nigra ) is an abundant tree in eastern North America, but about 100 species of shrubs in the willow family occur across the continent.  They are all well adapted for living alongside streams.  Broken willow twigs floating down a stream can take root after becoming lodged in moist ground, giving them an additional mechanism for distribution.  Willow pollen is often found in sediment dating to the Pleistocene age, so it has long been found throughout the environment.  Ancient people made a tea from willow bark to relieve headaches and fever.  However, they couldn’t control the dosage, and pure salicylic acid irritates the stomach.

Black Willow Tree is the most significant willow species in the world. The black willow tree referred to as Salix nigra, swamp willow, or weeping willow; The tree found near wetlands in eastern parts of the United States; The average tree grows at the height of 50 to 65 feet tall.

Black willow tree.

Meadowsweet (Latin name Filipendula ulmaria). Medicinal plant in the natural environment of growth, Russia,Siberia Stock Photo - 67570243

Meadowsweet is also high in salicylic acid.

During the 18th century, the age of reason, chemists began experimental trials using salicylic acid.  In 1838 salicylic acid was first isolated from the extract of meadowsweet.  The first clinical trial of salicylic acid extracted from meadowsweet took place in 1876.  Felix Huffman, working for Bayer pharmaceutical company, invented modern day aspirin when he combined salicylic acid with an acetyl compound, creating acetylsalicylic acid. He had been treating his father’s arthritis with a sodium and salicylic acid compound that severely upset his dad’s stomach.  The aspirin was easier on his dad’s stomach.  Bayer started selling aspirin in 1899, and people no longer had to weigh whether getting rid of an headache was worth getting an upset stomach.  The drug was widely available by 1915, and when the world was at war with Germany, non-German companies started producing it.  There was no competition for aspirin until Tylenol went on sale in 1956, followed by ibuprofen in 1962.  Nevertheless, sales of aspirin remain strong, especially since doctors began prescribing a daily low dose of it for people with an high risk of an heart attack.


Migrating Carolina Bays

December 21, 2019

Referenced within the study I wrote about last week was another interesting paper that determined some Carolina Bays migrated.  I’ve written about Carolina Bays previously (See: ), but I did not know this.  Carolina Bays are elliptically-shaped depressions found in the Carolinas and Georgia, mostly on the coastal plain.  Wind and water erosion during wildly fluctuating Ice Age climates created these fascinating geological features.  Some are in the process of originating now.  Wind during cold arid climate cycles blew out unconsolidated sediment, and wind-driven water during wetter warmer cycles shaped them.  They vary in size and water content.  Some hold water year round, while others are seasonally dry.  They provide important wetland habitat, especially for amphibians because frog and salamander-eating fish are often absent.  Like so many other natural features, a majority of them have been destroyed by development.  Farmers drain and plough over them.

Scientists studied Herndon Bay in North Carolina.  They used ground penetrating radar to find abandoned rims, also known as lips. The abandoned rims date to 36.7, 29.6, and 27.2 thousand years old, and these dates are associated with climate cycle transitions.  In between these dates Herndon Bay stabilized.  Apparently, Herndon Bay was pushed by wind and moved across the landscape in a process that was too slow for the human eye to follow.  It has stabilized at different locations, and one could say this is a kind of migration across the landscape.


Ground Penetrating Radar Image from the below reference.  Note the former basins of Herndon Bay.  It has migrated across the landscape.

Image result for Carolina Bay

Carolina Bay located in Aiken, South Carolina.

Some crackpot scientists think Carolina Bays are craters formed by either comet impact ricochet or a comet striking a glacier, thus causing chunks of ice to fly thousands of miles before landing in southeastern North America.  A single fact debunks this idea–Carolina Bays originated at different times and some are still forming.  They are not the same age, ruling out a single extraterrestrial event.  There are 500,000 Carolina bays, yet less than 200 confirmed impact craters on earth, so this makes it seem highly unlikely as well that they result from multiple impacts.


Moore, Christopher & Brooks, Mark & Mallinson, David & Parham, Peter & Ivester, Andrew & K. Feathers, James. (2016).

The Quaternary evolution of Herndon Bay, a Carolina Bay on the Coastal Plain of North Carolina (USA): implications for paleoclimate and oriented lake genesis.

Southeastern Geology. 51. 145-171.


Proxy Evidence for an Increase in Human Populations at a site in South Carolina Circa 12,838 Years BP

December 14, 2019

The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis, or YDIH for short, is a crank theory that has been thoroughly debunked.  The YDIH proposes a comet impact on a glacier in the Northern Hemisphere 12,900 years ago sparked continent wide fires, caused a sudden drastic climate reversal, and resulted in the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna.  The Younger Dryas was a climate stage that lasted for about 1500 years; and it was a sudden return to cold, arid Ice Age conditions, following thousands of years of warmer, wetter climate.  It’s named for a flower that flourished in Europe during this climate phase.

The Dryas octopetala flower

Dryas octopetalus likes open, cold, landscapes.

The YDIH is fatally flawed.  There is no known impact crater, dating to the proposed time of impact.  The Hiawatha Crater recently discovered in Greenland has been proposed as the possible impact crater, but the lack of a young ejecta blanket suggests it is millions rather than thousands of years old.  Its ejecta blanket has eroded away–a process that would take a very long time.  There is no evidence of continent wide fires.  Instead, the sites first noted by YDIH proponents to have evidence of the fires dated to many different ages both before and after 12,900 years BP, and the fires were most likely caused by lightning or humans.  Many of the other claimed impact indicators date to different ages.  Megafauna extinctions and extirpations also occurred at various ages–not all at 12,900 years BP.  Some of the so-called impact indicators are not necessarily diagnostic of an impact but can have terrestrial origins.  Other scientists looking for impact markers have not been able to replicate the results of the original YDIH studies.

The Younger Dryas was caused by well understood cyclical climate variations known as Heinrich Events.  12,900 years ago, an ice dam in Canada broke, leading to an enormous influx of cold fresh water into the North Atlantic.  This shut down thermohaline circulation, causing temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere to plunge.  This is the explanation for the Younger Dryas I accept.  Nevertheless, the ridiculous YDIH just will not die.  A paper advocating this bizarre almost pseudo-scientific belief was published as recently as October of this year.  Though I reject the YDIH, this paper had interesting data that I interpret differently from the authors.

Scientists who published this paper took a 1 meter core of sediment from White Pond in South Carolina. White Pond is a ~32,000 year old Carolina Bay.  Carolina Bays are bodies of water formed by wind and water erosion during dry climate phases of Ice Ages, and they are found throughout the Carolinas and Georgia.  The scientists dated the sediment layer by layer and looked for charcoal and sporomiella.  The abundance of charcoal indicates fire in the environment, and sporormiella is a fungus that grows on megafauna feces and is used as proxy evidence for the abundance of large mammal populations.  The scientists found charcoal amounts peaked at 12,838 years ago, indicating lots of fire on the landscape.  Megafauna populations declined to a low point 12,752 years ago.  The authors of this study think the fire was caused by the comet impact, and the resulting changes in the environment led to the local extirpation of the megafauna.


Location of White Pond where this study took place.  Image from the below reference.

My interpretation is different.  I think the fires were set by humans to improve habitat for megafauna. (Indians set fire to southeastern landscapes until Europeans removed them from the region.)  Then it took 86 years for humans to wipe out megafauna at this locality.  Nomadic hunters possibly moved away after eliminating most of the big game, allowing megafauna populations to rebound until 10,399 years BP when they disappear again from the region, this time permanently.


Graph from the below referenced paper.  Note how megafauna populations rebounded until 10,399 years ago–2500 years after the proposed comet impact.  This suggests the proposed comet impact could not have been a factor in their extinctions.

The authors of this study note there is an unconformity in the core dating to the Younger Dryas.  Normally, during wet climate cycles sediment builds up as vegetation dies and turns into soil.  But during dry phases when vegetation is sparse, exposed soil erodes and is blown away by wind, and there is little to no sedimentation.  If this is the case, there should be a gap rather than a continuous line in the graph.  I’m not sure how this impacts the conveyed data.  However, the data is interesting to me because I think it shows when humans arrived at this locality in significant numbers, and how long it took them to extirpate the megafauna.


Moore. C; et. al.

“Sediment Core from White Pond, South Carolina contains a Platinum Anomaly, Pyrogenic Carbon Peak, and Coprophilous Decline at 12.8 Ka”

Scientific Reports October 2019


Pleistocene Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata)

December 7, 2019

When I was attending 3rd grade during the 1970/1971 school year, Perry Harvey came home with me everyday after school.  On occasion he could be reckless.  One unfortunate day he swung a baseball bat at an oak tree, and the bat rebounded, struck him in the head, and knocked him out cold; taking the old cliché “knock yourself out” to a literal reality.  Another day he made the mistake of picking up a baby blue jay that had fallen out of its nest.  Every blue jay in the neighborhood screeched and dive-bombed us.  He put the blue jay down, and the birds chased us into the house in a scene reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds. Like some other species of birds, blue jays practice communal defense.

YouTube video of a blue jay attacking a gardener.

Blue jays are intelligent birds from the corvid family which also includes crows and magpies.  They are well adapted for living in the temperate deciduous woods of eastern North America and have probably occupied that habitat for many millions of years.  However, I have been unable to find any studies of blue jay genetics, and I don’t know how long they have existed as a distinct species.  It seems likely they diverged from the common ancestor of the gray, Florida scrub, and Stellar’s jays before the beginning of the Pliocene over 5 million years ago.  Fossil remains of blue jays dating to the Pleistocene have been found at 3 sites in Florida, 1 site in Georgia, 1 site in Alabama, 1 site in Tennessee, and 3 sites in Virginia.

Blue jays played an important role in the spread of oak, beech, and chestnut trees north following the ends of Ice Ages.  Nuts and acorns are a major part of a blue jay’s diet, and they often carry excess food to distant locations where they hide them for later use.  A scientific study concluded blue jays were the sole reason oaks, beech, and chestnut were able to colonize deglaciated territory so rapidly after the end of the last Ice Age.  Squirrels invariably bury acorns and nuts so near the roots of the parent tree that they could not have been the agent of dispersal.  But blue jays carry nuts as much as an half a mile away.  Without blue jays there would be no oak or beech trees in eastern Canada and northern New England today.


Johnson and Webb

“The Role of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) in the Post Glacial Dispersal of Fagaceous Trees in Eastern North America”

Journal of Biogeography 16 1989