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Not Your Father’s World History Part 9:
“Vast fog-enshrouded lands to the east”

22 November 2005

Ainu in Traditional Dress
Photographed by Tom Coyner

Curious Article No. 18:

The mid 1600s saw the popularization of several estimates for the earth’s age. One of these was that of Dr. John Lightfoot, who in 1642 wrote that the world was created on Sunday, September 12, 3928 bce and that man came onto the scene the following Friday at 9 AM. It’s easy for us to poke fun at him, but in the larger scheme of things his achievements were laudable by any century’s standards. As a young Church of England minister already skilled in Latin and Alexandrian Greek, Lightfoot met Sir Rowland Cotton, a Hebrew hobbyist who inspired him to master that language too so that he could pursue a richer understanding of the Old Testament. In time he surpassed his mentor and became his country’s most highly regarded Hebrew scholar, quite a trick considering that Edward I had expelled all his Jews from the island in 1290 and that they didn't even start to trickle back until 1659.

When Dr. Lightfoot died he left a body of writings on ancient history, botany, the Bible, and the Talmud filling nineteen volumes. The paradigm-shifting work of geologist Charles Lyell and naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin wouldn't come along for another two centuries. For the record, other premodern estimates for the earth’s birth year were: 5199 bce (Pope Urban VIII), 4004 (Irish Archbishop James Ussher), 3993 (astronomer/mystic Johannes Kepler), 3952 (the Venerable Bede), and 3374 or 3114 (the Maya). Aristotle took the opposite extreme and believed the earth was infinitely old.

In 1669 the Ainus led by chieftain Shakushain rebelled against the Kakizaki clan which ruled the area around Matsumae on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Ainus were descendents of the Jomon people who had arrived in Japan from central Asia or Siberia between 18,000 and 33,000 years ago. The Jomons/Ainus subsisted as hunter-gatherers and appear to have been the first in the world to develop ceramic pottery in around 10,500 bce. They worshipped bears, made moccasins from fish skin, and wove geometrically ornamented clothing out of elm bark fibers. Those we think of as the modern Japanese migrated as the Yayoi from the Korean peninsula much later on in the fourth and fifth centuries bce, contributing metalworking, wheel-thrown pottery, and wet rice cultivation.

At first the two unrelated races coexisted amicably with some intermarriage and trade, but in time the Yayoi came first to dominate and then to persecute their predecessors. They looked down on them because of their more primeval lifestyle, lighter complexions, greater height, hairier bodies, and strange language. Heck, even their teeth were different. Yet in 1669 the Kakizaki clan was actually quite intimidated and according to some accounts Shakushain’s rebellion had nominally succeeded. As the two parties met to negotiate peace terms, however, the Japanese killed Shakushain — some say by poison — and forced the demoralized Ainus to surrender. From that point on the Japanese cruelly suppressed subsequent uprisings and enacted one law after another that each time further circumscribed the Ainus’ rights and privileges. By 1900 they were effectively reduced to a landless slave race. Even to this day most Japanese still claim the ancient Jomons as their own illustrious ancestors and consider themselves a race apart from mainland Asians. Archaeology and DNA say differently.

Danish astronomer Ole Römer measured the speed of light, for the first time with fair accuracy, in 1676. He carefully recorded the eclipses of the moon Io as it orbited Jupiter. Since Io’s orbit is quite circular, it always moves at pretty much the same angular rate. But Römer saw that with the passage of months the intervals of these eclipses appeared to lag somewhat, while later still they would catch up to their previous rate. In a flash of inspiration he realized that these slowdowns occurred when the earth and Jupiter were the furthest apart and represented the time it took light to traverse that extra distance. From this he deduced the speed of light in vacuo, which scientists call c, to be about 133,000 miles (214,000 km) per second. That’s about 70% of the correct value of 186,282.397 miles (299,792.458 km). But there’s an aspect of c that Römer would never have dreamt of. Recent work by Dr. João Magueijo, Dr. Andreas Albrecht, and many others shows that it’s been slowing down.

It’s only reasonable to wonder why the Russians didn't beat the pants off the other Europeans in reaching the New World. After all, Siberia stretches to within 58 miles (90 km) of Alaska and, even more helpfully, the two Diomede Islands provide handy rest stops halfway across. One problem was that the Russian Empire didn't actually extend to the Pacific Ocean until August of 1639 when fur-extorting Cossacks led by Ivan Moskvitin reached the Sea of Okhotsk. A decade later another Cossack named Semyon Dezhnyov sailed around the eastern tip of Siberia but his countrymen paid little attention.

Alexander II & William Seward
Alaska Dealmakers
Alexander II and William Seward
In the ensuing years native Chukchis told tales of vast fog-enshrouded lands to the east to any Russian who would listen, but though Peter the Great was intrigued he had his hands full fighting Sweden and chose not to pursue it. Finally in the late 1720s the Empire commissioned Danish sea captain Vitus Bering to explore that ultimate hinterland in earnest, and after a false start he finally crossed the strait that now bears his name and made landfall in Alaska in 1741. Fur trading and the usual missionary work followed apace but the Russians repeatedly wore out their welcome with the natives and largely annihilated the local sea otter population. By 1867 their Emperor Alexander II realized Alaska was far more trouble to them than it was worth and gladly handed it off to the United States for $7.2 million or about twenty-five cents per acre in today’s money.

Engineers have pondered building a bridge across the Bering Strait for over a century. Though the tourist attractions of Siberia’s Cape Dezhnev or Alaska’s Cape Prince of Wales might be a touch dispiriting, such a link would enable truck, train, and auto traffic to span most of the globe. One would be able to drive from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope, for example, or from any point in England or western Europe to Los Angeles or New York. The physical challenges such a project would pose are not trivial. Arctic conditions would only allow a four month annual construction season, gale-force winds and powerful currents are frequent, and any such structure’s abutments would have to stand up under the frequent crashing and grinding of house-sized ice floes. A less glamorous but thriftier solution might involve a tethered underwater tunnel. American Lynne Cox was first to swim the Bering Strait, through 38°F (3°C) water without even a wet suit, in 1987. Brrrrr.

Next: Doomsday for Iceland and Robespierre’s spiritual swan song »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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