Old and New

Remember the Ice Man? This is the unfortunate neolithic hunter who died in the Alps some 5,300 years ago, becoming entombed in glacial ice until recently, when he was discovered by some hikers as the ice thawed. He became the world’s most perfectly preserved specimen of early european man, and the object of much study in the scientific community. We know what he ate, in which valleys he traveled enroute to his alpine ice grave (due to microscopic pollens found only in specific locales), what he wore, and now, the medical or forensic cause of death.

Forensic examination and CAT scans showed that he was shot in the back by an arrow. The human back is a particularly unfortunate way to be bushwhacked when you are alone, as you cannot reach the wound site to staunch blood flow, or, possibly, pull out the arrow. Once we realized he was bushwhacked, and hadn’t simply fallen into an ice crevasse as first speculated, the question was: was this the fatal wound, or did he carry the arrow into the mountains?

The CAT scan showed that the arrow hit an artery, maybe two, causing an aneurysm and massive hematoma (blood loss). It appears our Ice Man died within a few minutes of being struck down. A remarkable job of modern forensics on a 5,300 year old crime scene.

Driving home after work yesterday afternoon, I slowed down eastbound on the San Mateo Bridge instead of accelerating around what looked like a local bottleneck in the fast lane. Good thing. Seconds later, traffic came to a stop in all three lanes. I turned on the radio to see what was going on. In time, KCBS reported that “The Hayward Accident” was almost cleared. Finally, on land in the East Bay, I saw the mop-up in the opposite, westbound lanes. Our lanes were blocked only by rubber-neckers. For once, instead of being irritated, I saw why.

They had loaded one of the vehicles onto a flatbed. It had been a medium-size sedan of some kind. The front and back ends looked like aluminum foil tinsel that had been run through a shredder, or, if you will, a threshing machine. This vehicle wasn’t just smashed. It was cut to shreds. The passenger compartment was mostly intact. I never found out what happened, but memory of what I saw should make me a more cautious driver.

Speaking of threshing machines: about the time of Ice Man, contemporaries in warmer climes were figuring out how to domesticate wild grasses to produce foodstuff such as wheat and barley. As explained in the August 2007 Scientific American, in the domestication of cereal grains our ancestors favored annual grasses, perhaps because of bigger seeds, and we have favored annuals ever since. It started the annual cycles of cultivation, plowing, fertilization, tillage and harvest that we understand so well today. It also forced the hand of natural selection, favoring the grasses that bore the characteristics we favored for foodstuffs and ease of processing.

All this agriculture displaced huge land amsses populated by perennial grasses, such as found on the prairies of North America. It turns out that perennials are very much an Al Gore kind of plant. Perennials grow roots down to a depth of one or two meters, as opposed to perhaps a few inches to a foot for annuals. They require far less fertilization and irrigation, actually enrich the soil in which they grow, and make for an agriculturally much richer soil medium with a better texture and more nutrients for other plants in the ecology. To grow perennials, you do not need to resort to the expensive and destructive practice of turning and churning the soil every spring, nor of saturating it with nitrates and phosphates that ultimately poison the water table, and the soil does not blow or wash away as in modern fields.

It would seem that perennials are miracle plants that have been burned and plowed under for our more wasteful annuals. Indeed they are. Alas, we have spent five thousand years improving the annual seed stock through “natural” selection (the ones we plant are the ones that thrive) and through modern agricultural breeding and genetic research. Make no mistake, without modern plant hybridization, we could not produce or sustain ourselves much beyond near-starvation levels. It will take a while for science to come up with perennials that can produce comparable crops yields. But we have accumulated more agricultural and botanical know-how in the past 50 years than in the previous 5,000.

It won’t just be agribusiness that benefits from eliminating the enormously wasteful and polluting expense of plowing and fertilizing, but small farmers and poor sustenance farmers world wide. This could be the next big thing, comparable to the original domestication of plant foodstuffs. Imagine giant, cost-effective plains of cereal grasses, deeply rooted in their own moisture-preserving thicket of stable topsoil, stitched and bound together into a nutrient mat by those same root systems, that just keep producing and producing and producing … the Energizer Bunny of agriculture.

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