Archive for December, 2020

The Pleistocene Christmas Tree

December 24, 2020

I’m hosting family this week for Christmas, and I don’t have time to work on a new blog article. Here is a rerun.


Christmas is a pagan holiday that probably originated during the Pleistocene.  Many of the pagan traditions associated with Christmas are rooted in northern European mythology, and they predate written records, so historians have no way of knowing for sure when they began. However, the celebration of the winter solstice was widespread throughout the ancient world, and people enjoyed this holiday thousands of years before the Judeo-Christian bible was ever written.  The wise men of the primitive world believed that the sun was a God.  This actually makes more sense than what the Abrahamic religions claim because life on earth does depend upon the sun.  The Abrahamic religions propose that a Supreme Being created the sun, but this belief leaves one to wonder who created the Supreme Being.  In a culture without scientific knowledge paganism seems just as logical if not more so than Judeo-Christianity.

The ancient thinkers noticed the days became shorter during…

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A Bowl of Red

December 19, 2020

The forerunner of modern chili has ancient origins, perhaps dating to the Pleistocene.  For thousands of years nomadic people dried meat into jerky to preserve it and often pounded it into power and stuffed it into animal skins, so they could easily carry it.  When it was time to eat, they reconstituted the powder in water and cooked it.  The stew would swell in size and provide a filling meal.  Some nomads added onion and garlic to make it taste better and to retard bacterial contamination.  Dried berries were also added for flavor and nutrition, and when freshly rendered fat was mixed with it, it became pemmican–an energy rich creation of Native-Americans.  Nomads traveling through southwestern North America discovered the small berries of wild pepper plants that grew throughout the region and started mixing them with their meat powders.  Eventually, some Native-Americans became sedentary and cultivated peppers, resulting in many different varieties that varied in flavor.  Present day Mexican cuisine includes hundreds of dishes that mix chilies with meat, but modern day chili, as people in the U.S. know it, is not a Mexican dish.  In fact a Mexican dictionary defines chili as, “a disgusting dish falsely claimed to be Mexican.”

The modern day version of chili probably originated in San Antonio, Texas shortly after the U.S. defeated Mexico in 1848.  American soldiers stationed at the Presidio, a fort located in San Antonio, ate food prepared by Mexican women who were paid to do their laundry.  The big iron cauldrons where they washed clothes doubled as cooking vessels for large portions of meat seasoned with chili peppers, onions, garlic, and cumin.  Tough cuts of meat from locally abundant longhorn cattle, small deer, and even wandering goats were stewed in the cauldrons until tender.  The cumin originated from Spanish settlers who came to Mexico from the Canary Islands.  The Mexican “chili queens” also sold tamales, tortillas, and beans to the soldiers.  De-commissioned soldiers graduated to become cowboys, and they brought the dish north on their cattle drives.  From the stockyards of Chicago the dish eventually spread through the Midwest, becoming a cheap depression-era favorite.  The cowboy cooks spit-roasted the finer cuts of beef, but used the poorer quality cuts and trimmings in their chili.  Canned tomatoes became readily available during the late 19th century, and cowboys didn’t really know what to do with it (some thought it was a dessert), but the cooks started adding it to their chili.  Beans were added to stretch out chili, if meat was scarce.  75% of Texans think tomatoes do not belong in chili, but I disagree.  I think chili without tomatoes tastes awful, but the acidity of the tomatoes brings out the flavor of the chili powder and elevates it to my favorite dish.  Some chili-heads think beans don’t belong in chili either, but I like beans in my chili.  However, I do think beans should not be cooked with the chili or the starch that cooks out will dilute the flavor.

Here is how I like to make my favorite dish after 38 years of practice.  The earliest chili recipes call for great quantities of suet, so the meat wouldn’t stick to the the bottom of the iron pot after hours of cooking.  This is unnecessary in modern kitchens.  I prefer my chili very lean.  Most original recipes also call for a slurry of corn flour and water to be mixed in for thickening.  Again this is unnecessary, if enough meat is used.

Brown 2 pounds of lean ground beef, bison, or venison in a dry pan under high heat.  I prefer a chunky chili grind or if I’m not feeling lazy, I will dice a sirloin tip or round steak into small pieces.  A regular grind is ok, however. After the meat is no longer pink season it with 4 tablespoons of pure New Mexican chili powder, 1 dried chipotle pepper cut in half, 2 teaspoons of cumin, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 chopped onion, 4 crushed cloves of garlic, 1 tablespoon of Mexican oregano, and 1 bay leaf.  Mix the spices with the meat while it continues to brown for about 5-10 minutes.  This toasts the spices and brings them to life.  Put the meat and spices into a pot and add a 28 ounce can of Hunt’s crushed tomatoes.  Stir and simmer for 2 hours.  Shortly before serving add a drained can of dark red kidney beans.  Stir and heat through.  Pinto beans, black beans, and even roasted peanuts can be substituted for kidney beans.

My chili the way I like to make it.  If you prefer it soupier, add beef broth.

Mexican oregano is in the verbena family but tastes like mint.  Mediterranean oregano is in the mint family but tastes nothing like mint.  If you can’t find Mexican oregano substitute mint, but don’t use Mediterranean oregano.  


Bridges, Bill

The Great Chili Book

Lyons and Buford Publishing 1981


Squirrels and Blue Jays vs Acorn Tannins

December 12, 2020

For over 10,000 years acorns were the most important source of food for Native Americans wherever oak trees were common.  Acorns are an important source of food for animals too for everything from mice to bison.  However, acorns contain tannins, a substance difficult to digest and even toxic for some animals.  For example horses that eat too many acorns may die. Oak trees rely on animals to spread their seed, but if too much of their seed is consumed, their populations will decline.  The nutritional value in acorns attracts hungry animals, but the tannins act as a semi-deterrent.  Acorns from species in the white oak family evolved a different strategy for coping with acorn predation than species in the red oak family.  White oak acorns contain less tannins and are more palatable, so squirrels and jays prefer these and spread them throughout the landscape, but they germinate as soon as they are buried in the fall.  When a squirrel or jay tries to retrieve them later, it is too late.  White oaks only lose acorns that are consumed immediately.  Acorns from oaks in the red oak family are high in tannins, but the tannins are concentrated in the bottom half of the acorn.  Squirrels gnaw on the top half and abandon the bottom half.  If enough of the bottom half is left, the acorn can still germinate, though red oak acorns don’t need to germinate until spring because squirrels and other animals don’t want to eat the part of the acorn with such an high concentration of tannins. This year the sand laurel oaks (Quercus hemispherica), the most common oak species in my neighborhood, are producing a bumper crop of acorns, and the squirrels are gnawing the tops of them but leaving the bottoms.

Squirrels eat the tops of acorns from oak trees in the red oak family.  These acorns, found in my backyard, are from a sand laurel oak. also known as Darlington oak.  The top part of acorns have less tannins which are hard for most animals to digest.  Nevertheless, squirrels risk death from the 8 cats that live in my backyard to exploit this food source.  Oaks can germinate from acorns with the tops gnawed off.

Squirrels fed a diet of just red oak acorns in an experiment ate less.  Blue jays fed a diet of red oak acorns in an experiment actually lost weight.  Squirrels living in a location with mostly red oaks must vary their diet with other foods such as white oak acorns, nuts, fungi, berries, and insects.  Blue jays fed a diet of red oak acorns and acorn weevil larva maintained their weight, showing how blue jays can survive in the wild on a diet of mostly red oak acorns because the infestation rates of acorns by weevil larva are high.  Incidentally, oak trees were able to quickly colonize New England and southern Canada following deglaciation at the end of the Ice Age because of the acorns that were spread by blue jays.

Tannins posed an obstacle for hungry Native Americans as well.  According to Euell Gibbons, Native Americans processed the acorns by boiling them in water to leech out the tannins.  It’s necessary to periodically change the water–a tedious process.  I tried this years ago with the sand laurel oak acorns in my yard.  After dumping the water out and replacing it 8 times, I got tired of the process and gave up.  The acorns were becoming less bitter, but still not palatable enough to eat in a satisfying quantity.  Native Americans with no modern day supermarkets were most persistent from necessity.


Chang-Macoubrey, A;  A.E. Hagerman, and R. L. Kirkpatrick

“Effects of Tannins on Digestion and Detoxification Activity in Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)”

Physiological Zoology 20 (3) 1997

Johnson, W., Libby Thomas, and Curtis Adkinson

“Dietary Circumvention of Acorn Tannins by Blue Jays: Implications for Oak Demography”

Oecologia 99 (2) 1993



Cave Paintings of Megafauna in the Amazon Rain Forest

December 5, 2020

Archaeologists have been studying ancient paintings on cave and rock shelter walls in Cheribiquete National Park for over 30 years, but last year they discovered an 8 mile stretch that includes rare images of extinct megafauna.  Cheribiquete National Park is located in Colombia and covers 17,000 square miles–the largest tropical forest park in the world.  The newly discovered rock shelter walls are illustrated with images of a giant ground sloth and young, horse, llama, macrauchenia, gompothere, and perhaps bear.  An extinct species of horse known as hippidion lived in South America over 10,000 years ago.  The llama depicted on the wall maybe an extinct or extant species.  All the images are crudely drawn and don’t depict adequate details to distinguish species identification.  These may be the only images of a gompothere and macrauchenia that have ever been drawn by people who actually saw them alive.  Gompotheres were a mastodon-like animal, similar to elephants, but nothing like a macrauchenia lives today.  Their closest living relatives are rhinos, horses, and tapirs; but genetic evidence suggests they diverged from those odd toed ungulates 66 million years ago when dinosaurs became extinct.  Macrauchenia were adaptable animals capable of living in many different kinds of habitats, and they likely occupied a giraffe-like ecological niche because they had long necks.  Fossil remains of macrauchenia are not found anywhere near Cheribiquete National Park, showing how inadequate the fossil record is.


Rock art paintings of pre-historic megafauna.  The art work is poor, but I think they depict a ground sloth and young, gompothere (an animal similar to a mastodon), a llama, an horse, and a bear or another ground sloth?, and a macrauchenia.  It looks like a man is hunting the gompothere (a juvenile?) with a club or atlatl.  It also looks like a man has his armed raised at the ground sloth, but the atlatl isn’t drawn.  In another image it looks like the man is stabbing the bear in the side.

Colombia expands Chiribiquete National Park

The Natives must have used ladders to paint these figures on some of the rock shelters.  They are much higher than a human can reach.  Archaeologists used drones to photograph some of them.

Archaeologists suggest the natives scaled the high rock shelter walls to paint these images.  I think it is more likely they used ladders to reach these heights.  The paintings are thought to vary in age from about 15,000 years BP to the 16th century.  Apparently, natives stopped painting walls shortly after European contact perhaps because the culture shock of this interaction destroyed American civilizations.  The paintings themselves can’t be radio-carbon dated because the substance used was inorganic.  European cave paintings were drawn with charcoal and can be radio-carbon dated.

Some of the articles reporting this discovery are written by people who assume the presence of the animals depicted on the rock shelter walls is evidence of a different local environment during the Late Pleistocene than occurs there today.  This is not necessarily true.  Macrauchenia was a generalist species, and gompotheres likely preferred dense forests.  Clearings in the forest created by gompothere foraging may have sustained populations of horses and llamas.

In addition to the extensive rock shelter drawings, Cheribiquete National Park is home to 82 species of mammals (52 of them bats), an astonishing 410 species of birds, 60 species of reptiles, 57 species of amphibians, 238 species of fish, and over 200 species of butterflies.  Notable animals include jaguars, cougars, monkeys, armadillos, peccaries, tapirs, scarlet macaws, emerald hummingbirds, and harpy eagles.  The park has great potential as a tourist destination.  Unfortunately, it is also an hideout for thousands of FARC rebels.  FARC is an organization that basically is a bunch of communist gangsters who kidnap people for ransom and sell cocaine.  FARC battled the Colombian government for 40 years before finally signing a peace agreement recently, but the region is still not safe enough for tourism.