Tarragona’s Amphitheater

Grove Koger

Tarragona’s Roman amphitheater is remarkable not only for its position overlooking the blue waters of the Balearic Sea but also for the fact that much of it was carved in situ out of the existing bedrock. The structure is 427 feet by 335 feet in size, and, at the time of its completion in the early second century CE, when the city was known as Tárraco, could accommodate an audience of some 12,000. In its early years, the amphitheater was the scene of the usual array of cruel Roman spectacles, and was renovated during the reign of Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (204-222).

Heliogabalus made quite a name for himself—briefly. According to historian Edward Gibbon, he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury” and was assassinated at the age of 18. So black was his reputation that he was then subjected to damnatio memoriae—the erasure of all references to his existence from the historical record. (The fact that such a practice actually had a recognized name tells us a lot about the time.) Nevertheless, archaeologists have discovered traces of his memory in the inscription celebrating the amphitheater’s renovation. It seems that they found key letters on scattered fragments of marble, allowing them to piece together what would have been a reference to the hated emperor.

Tarragona’s mayor asked modernista architect Josep Maria Jujol to undertake the amphitheater’s restoration in the mid-1920s, but nothing came of the project, and it would be the middle of the century before any serious work was done. Decades later, in 2000, the amphitheater was designated as one component of a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the Archaeological Ensemble of Tárraco.

When Maggie and I are in Tarragona, we stay in a small, family-run hotel a short bus ride up the coast from the amphitheater. After an afternoon of swimming on Savinosa Beach and a light dinner at a chiringuito (beach bar) called Pepe’s & Lugano Restaurant and Chill-out (that’s transcribed correctly, by the way), we can enjoy the view above from our hotel balcony.

Florida’s Crooked River Lighthouse

Over the past decades, Maggie and I have driven by the Crooked River Lighthouse repeatedly, always intending to pay it a visit “next time.” But on our most recent trip to Franklin County (which calls itself Florida’s Forgotten Coast), we finally stopped. After being confined to our neighborhood for a year during the pandemic, we’d learned a lesson: Do it now!

Crooked River doesn’t look the way most people think a lighthouse should. It’s a simple steel tube about six feet in diameter supported by a square steel framework, with a small platform on top that’s open to the public, at least those members willing to climb up the 128 steps of its tightly and vertiginously spiraled staircase. Since I suffer from acrophobia, I wasn’t tempted—and even if I had been, I’m pretty sure that an attempt would have revealed that I suffer from claustrophobia as well.

In any case, the lighthouse is 103 feet high, which puts its light 115 feet above the water and makes it the tallest structure of its kind on the Forgotten Coast. It was built in 1895 as a replacement for the Dog Island Lighthouse, which once stood south of Carrabelle on Dog Island but was destroyed by a hurricane in 1873.

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Along with the lighthouse and several nearby communities, Carrabelle lies on St. James Island, which is bounded by several watercourses, including the tidal Crooked River and St. George Sound. It’s not immediately obvious, by the way, that St. James actually is an island, and it would never have occurred to us to think of the area as one if we hadn’t done some research.

The Crooked River Lighthouse was automated in 1965 but deactivated thirty years later. The Coast Guard intended to auction it off in 1999, but a group of local residents formed the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association, with the result that the structure was ceded to the city through the Federal Lands to Parks program. According to the database Historic Light Station Information & Photography maintained by the United States Coast Guard, the light was relit in late 2007 “as a private aid to navigation.” An attractive visitors’ center (seen below) provides more information.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in the Mani

Today’s post from When the Going Was Good deals with a classic Greek travel book by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died June 10, 2011.


Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (London: Murray, 1958)

Although written earlier than Fermor’s books about his youthful journey across Europe, Mani grows out of a later period in his life. The work recounts his travels in the Mani, a rugged peninsula of southern Greece in which the Middle Ages still seemed very much alive. Thus the book is in many ways a journey through both space and time. Among the most remarkable features of the region are its tall, surreal towers, vertiginous strongholds from which proud clans once bombarded each other with boulders. Fermor and his wife, Joan, were so taken with the remote region that they would eventually build a house there.

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The brio that Fermor brings to both his travels and his writings is best illustrated by a now-famous anecdote set in the port of Kalamata, when the “madness of a heat wave hung in the air. The stone flags of the water’s edge, where Joan and Xan Fielding and I sat down to dinner, flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off. On a sudden, silent, decision we stepped down fully dressed into the sea carrying the iron table a few yards out and then our three chairs, on which, up to our waists in cool water, we sat round the neatly laid table-top.” Here they were served by a grave yet bemused waiter. Enthusiastic diners on shore sent them “can upon can” of retsina, which the party shared with fishermen who gathered in their boats around the table.

Upon its publication in 1958, Mani drew generous praise from Fermor’s good friend Lawrence Durrell, who spoke of the book’s “tremendous truffled style and dense plumage.” It went on to win the Duff Cooper Prize, which had been awarded to Durrell himself the previous year for Bitter Lemons.

For further information on Fermor, I recommend Mark Cocker, Loneliness and Time: The Story of British Travel Writing; Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure; Robert Eisner, Travelers to an Antique Land: The History and Literature of Travel to Greece; and Michael O’Sullivan, Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.


The striking dust jacket illustration for the first edition of Mani was by Fermor’s good friend John Craxton, and the map, which also appeared in the first edition, was the work of John Woodcock. The photograph of Fermor was taken by Joan Fermor in 1946 on the Greek island of Ithaca.

Xan Fielding, by the way, was another one of Fermor’s close friends. He served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in several theaters during World War II, including the Greek island of Crete. His book The Stronghold: An Account of the Four Seasons in the White Mountains of Crete was published in 1953.

Rijeka, Fiume, Carnaro & the Burden of History

Grove Koger

Rijeka lies on the northeastern shores of the Adriatic Sea at the head of the Kvarner Gulf, tucked under the mountains between the Istrian Peninsula and the northern Croatian mainland. If you’re heading down Croatia’s sunny coast by ferry, filled with anticipation, you’ll probably begin your trip here. And if you’re heading up the coast, however reluctantly, from the south, you’ll probably pass through here too.

Rijeka is Croatia’s largest port, and the lower city, which is all that most tourists have the opportunity to see, has the typical workaday feel of a port. I’ve been to Rijeka a number of times myself, but I’ve seldom stayed for more than a few hours. I’ve always been anxious to move on. Which means that I’ve paid little attention to Rijeka’s tangled history—or even its name, which, I’ve learned, is derived from the river known as the Rječina by Croatians. To Italians, however, the river is known as the Fiumara and the port as Fiume—and therein lies a clue to the port’s turbulent history.

Over the past two millennia, Rijeka has passed through the hands of a succession of great and near-great powers, beginning with the Roman Empire and continuing with the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburgs, the Kingdom of Hungary, Napoleonic France, and (beginning in 1867) the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. By the turn of the twentieth century, two-thirds of the port’s inhabitants were ethnic Italians, with Croatians and Hungarians making up sizeable minorities.

Austria-Hungary joined the Central Powers during World War I, but Italy threw in its lot with the Allied Powers, anticipating that it would be allowed to annex Rijeka at war’s end. But the victorious Allies decided instead that Fiume should be established as a “free state.” Like so many of the decisions made by the United States and its allies in the heady days following their victory, this one proved to be unwieldy and unwise. Ethnic tensions soon increased and British, American and French troops were sent in to maintain order.

It was at this point that noted Italian poet, novelist, and patriot Gabriele D’Annunzio decided to take up arms, despite Italy’s desperate desire for peace and a return to stability. The writer put together an army of irregulars in September 1919, drove out the peace keepers, and declared the Reggenza Italiana del Carnaro, or Italian Regency of Carnaro. (Here again we encounter the issue of language, as Carnaro is the Italian name for the gulf that Croatians know as the Kvarner.) The designation was short-lived, however, as the Treaty of Rapallo, which was signed by Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) in November 1920, reaffirmed the status of the port and the surrounding area as the Free State of Fiume. In a strikingly ironic turn of events, Italian troops attacked the predominantly Italian city in December of that year with the aim of maintaining the city’s independence from Italy, and the hapless D’Annunzio fled. The free state stood …

But that wasn’t the end of the area’s identity problems. Another treaty, the Treaty of Rome of 1924, transferred Fiume to Italy after all, with the area renamed the Province of Fiume. During the opening years of World War II, Mussolini’s Italian troops expanded the province into Yugoslav territory and occupied the nearby Yugoslav islands of Krk and Rab (which the Italians knew as Veglia and Arbe). Then in 1943, when the Germans and their sympathizers replaced the Italian occupiers, they expanded the territory even further and renamed it the Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland, or Operational Zone of the Adriatic Littoral. And there things stood until Yugoslav troops under the direction of Josip Tito drove the Germans out.  

It was Tito’s Yugoslavia that my first wife and I visited several times in the 1970s and 1980s, entering through Rijeka. But by the time Maggie and I visited the area in the twenty-first century, things had changed, violently, again. Yugoslavia had disintegrated and Rijeka had become Croatian.

It’s a coincidence, of course, and it’s unfair to the port, but given its status in my personal life as a way station rather a destination, I’ve never felt as if I’ve actually reached anywhere when I’ve arrived in Rijeka. Instead, my inner voice has told me, Not yet, not quite yet … But the next time, I think I’d better pay closer attention.

During our stopover in 2013, Maggie and I had a room in a hostel on Rijeka’s main pedestrian street, the Corso, shown in the postcard at the top of today’s post. The pale colors of the photograph, which dates from about 1900 and has been colorized, match my experience of the port perfectly. The first map shows the national boundaries of the region as they are today, while the second shows the historic Hungarian district of Fiume (in orange) with territory added in 1919 (in yellow); both are reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The first stamp, which is Hungarian, was overprinted for use in Fiume in 1918, while the second was issued in 1920.

Robert W. Chambers Visits Carcosa

Grove Koger

You won’t find Carcosa on any ordinary map.

Ancient though it appears to be, there’s no mention of the city until the late nineteenth century. That occurred in Ambrose Bierce’s 1886 story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” a first-person narrative in which an unnamed protagonist wanders through a dark and blasted landscape.

Carcosa appears again in the 1895 collection The King in Yellow, the second book by Robert W. Chambers, who was born May 26, 1865. As a young man, Chambers had studied art for several years in New York and in Paris at the Académie Julian, but he took up writing in his late thirties. It’s not surprising, then, that a number of his books have a bohemian atmosphere.

The collection opens with “Cassilda’s Song,” a fragment that conjures up much the same frightening landscape as Bierce’s and that’s worth quoting in full: “Along the shore the cloud waves break, / The twin suns sink behind the lake, / The shadows lengthen / In Carcosa. // Strange is the night where black stars rise, / And strange moons circle through the skies / But stranger still is / Lost Carcosa. // Songs that the Hyades shall sing, / Where flap the tatters of the King, / Must die unheard in / Dim Carcosa. // Song of my soul, my voice is dead; / Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed / Shall dry and die in / Lost Carcosa.” The song is identified as coming from a play titled, like the collection itself, The King in Yellow. As we subsequently learn, reading the play leads to despair and madness.

There are further scattered references to Carcosa, The King in Yellow, and something known as “the Yellow Sign” in the first four stories in the collection, beginning with the disorientingly weird “Repairer of Reputations”: “I remembered Camilla’s agonized scream,” writes the narrator, “and the awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa. They were the last lines in the first act, and I dared not think of what followed—dared not, even in the spring sunshine, there in my own room, surrounded with familiar objects, reassured by the bustle from the street and the voices of the servants in the hallway outside. For those poisoned words had dropped slowly into my heart, as death-sweat drops upon a bed-sheet and is absorbed.”

The second story in the collection, “The Mask,” opens with a brief passage from Act 1, Scene 2 of the play. In it, a character identified only as “Stranger” is asked to remove his mask, to which he responds that he wears “no mask”! Within the story itself, the narrator explains that during a period of illness, he “saw the lake of Hali, thin and blank, without a ripple or wind to stir it, and … the towers of Carcosa behind the moon. Aldebaran, the Hyades, Alar, Hastur, glided through the cloud-rifts which fluttered and flapped as they passed like the scolloped [that is, “scalloped”] tatters of the King in Yellow.”

Chambers was wise enough not to elaborate in detail on the ancient city or the play or the Yellow Sign, as the unexplained has a kind of power. What we don’t know can be far more compelling than what we do. And if you suggest realms so dreadful that they defy adequate description, you would do well to avoid trying to describe them.

As an author, Robert W. Cambers could have achieved more if he’d tried harder, but he was perfectly happy to write prolifically for the market—which he did with considerable success. Aside from The King in Yellow and a handful of stories in other volumes, he’s now deservedly forgotten.


The image at the top of today’s post is the dust jacket of one of the earliest editions of The King in Yellow and features a painting by Chambers himself. If anything, it’s more striking than his stories. The photograph of Chambers is by H.S. Redfield and dates from the first years of the twentieth century; it’s reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The third image is the cover of my prized 1965 Ace paperback with a painting based on Chambers’ own by noted science fiction and fantasy illustrator Jack Gaughan, who obviously knew a good thing when he saw it.

Satie’s Scandalous Parade

Grove Koger

It was a bracing convergence of talents: composer Erik Satie, painter Pablo Picasso, impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Diaghilev’s conductor Ernest Ansermet and his new choreographer Léonide Massine, and—that jack of all cultural trades and master of more than a few—Jean Cocteau.

The year was 1917 and the scene was Paris. There was no better time and place for a scandal.

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It seems that Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, had asked the ambitious young Cocteau for an idea for a ballet. Cocteau, in turn, set down a vague scenario involving music-hall numbers at a fairground and featuring a Chinese magician, an American girl, acrobats and a pantomime horse. He had picked the title Parade after reading a definition of the word in the Dictionnaire Larousse: “a burlesque scene played at the door of a fairground theatre to attract customers.”

After Cocteau shared his ideas with Satie, Picasso designed several cubist costumes and, in something of a contrast, a fanciful backcloth featuring, among other images, a ballerina balanced gracefully atop a winged horse. (At almost 24 by 35 feet, it would prove to be his largest work.) After further consideration, Cocteau added three more characters to his scenario, barkers who strive unsuccessfully to entice the audience into attending the “real” show. He then set off for Rome, where Diaghilev and his company were rehearsing and performing. Joining them, Picasso got to work with Massine in aligning the choreography with the odd costumes. “We created Parade in a cellar in Rome,” remembered Cocteau.

Parade opened at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 18, 1917, in what the distinguished audience assumed would be an afternoon devoted to high culture, another highly romanticized and carefully manicured excursion into unreality.

What they got, however, was … something else. Parade turned out to be an anarchic spectacle that defied easy comprehension. Satie’s score was fragmentary, a seemingly random sequence of circusy tunes and wistful, elusive refrains. Against the composer’s wishes, Cocteau—who was hoping to precipitate a scandal— had enlivened the score with airplane propellers, a lottery wheel, and sirens, although most of these “instruments” don’t seem to have made it into that night’s production. It was as if daily life, in all its unpredictable sweetness and sorrow, had invaded the concert hall. 

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Sirens or no sirens, Cocteau got his scandal. The production began drawing howls of protest and outrage well before its conclusion. There were insults and whistles. One woman shouted “Opium smokers!” Others accused the troupe of being “dirty Germans” (France was still at war with Germany, remember) and “Bolsheviks.” At the ballet’s conclusion, fistfights broke out, and another woman apparently attacked Cocteau with a hatpin. “I have heard the cries of a bayonet charge in Flanders,” he wrote later, in obvious appreciation of the uproar, “but it was nothing compared to what happened that night at the Châtelet Theatre.”

Subsequently, Satie sent an insulting postcard to a music critic who panned the production. In turn, the critic sued, with the result that the composer was fined and sentenced to a week in jail. Fortunately, a wealthy supporter paid Satie’s fine and his sentence was suspended. Cocteau himself was fined and apparently beaten up by the police for shaking his cane at the critic’s lawyer.

For all its notoriety, the production of Parade apparently generated only a modest profit. As eccentric a composer as has ever lived, Satie spent his share adding more umbrellas to his already large collection.


For more about Satie and Cocteau, see my post for April 5, 2018, “Paris When It Sizzled.”

I’ve drawn my information primarily from James Harding’s Ox on the Roof: Scenes from Musical Life in Paris in the Twenties (Macdonald, 1972) and Roger Nichols’ Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917-1929 (Univ. of California, 2002). The image at the top of today’s post is Picasso’s backcloth. The second image shows Cocteau and Diaghilev in 1924 at a dapper moment, and the third is a self-portrait of Picasso from about 1917.The final image is Picasso’s sketch of Satie. There are several videos of Parade on YouTube, and while I haven’t found any that try to duplicate the original production, this recording is representative.

The Most Precious Spice

Grove Koger

Saffron is harvested from a species of crocus, Crocus sativus. At one time or another, it’s been worth more than its weight in gold—a fact due to the tiny yield from each plant as well as the arduous methods under which it must be harvested.

Each violet Crocus sativus flower blooms for only a week or two in the fall, and each produces only three stigmas—pollen-bearing structures resembling very short threads—of saffron. The flowers are harvested by hand in the morning, when they’re still closed, after which the stigmas must be plucked and dried within a few hours. You can see a short National Geographic video about the process here.

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Estimates of the number of flowers necessary to yield a specific amount of the spice vary, but one that I’ve run across says that it takes about 4,600 of them, or nearly 14,000 stigmas, to produce a single ounce of the dried spice. Our little bottle of Mancha-Ora brand from Barcelona weighs a gram (that’s less than four-hundredths of an ounce), so if my math is correct, it contained almost 500 stigmas when we bought it.

Saffron is grown commercially in Iran as well as in India and the countries on the northern shores of the Mediterranean. It may also have originated in Iran, or possibly Greece, where it was cultivated in the Bronze Age. Frescoes in the Minoan palace of Knossos show saffron flowers being picked by girls and, remarkably enough, monkeys, leading me to wonder how the creatures might have been trained.

Closer to our own day, Saffron proved popular in England, with Sir Francis Drake asserting that the “liberal use of saffron in their broths and sweet-meats” made the English “sprightly.” For a time, saffron was actually grown in Drake’s homeland, with one of the principal areas celebrating the fact in its name of Saffron Walden.

Dried saffron is generally deep red in color, but its other qualities are elusive, particularly for a substance that’s so precious. To me, it smells a bit like hay or dry grass and tastes both bitter and very slightly floral when steeped in warm water. It’s best considered, I think, as a substance that enhances other flavors. We use it in paella, and find that it adds a warm, golden color and “presence” to the dish.


A late note: Several days after I wrote the text for today’s blog, the Guardian carried a report that Spanish authorities had just arrested several people and confiscated more than half a ton of Iranian saffron that had been smuggled into Spain. The spice had been dyed to resemble Spanish saffron, adulterated with “flower debris” to increase its bulk, and priced to undercut the genuine Spanish product.


The photograph at the top of today’s post was taken by Xtendo (pixabay.com) and is reproduced courtesy of Needpix.com. The second photograph, of saffron stigmas, is by Fotoscot, and the third, of a reconstructed fresco from the Palace at Knossos in Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum, is by ArchaiOptix; both are reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia.

An Artist in Corfu

Grove Koger

If you look at enough paintings, you come to realize that for every artist regarded as great, there are dozens who are equally excellent but who don’t get more than a passing reference in the textbooks. And for every one of those excellent artists, there are dozens and dozens of good artists whose works can give us pleasure.

Which brings me to Sophie Atkinson, a good watercolorist who would probably be completely forgotten if it weren’t for her residence on a Greek island near the beginning of the last century.

Born in 1876 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, into a family of artists, Atkinson received what appears to have been academically solid training in painting in Newcastle and subsequently in Bushey, Hertfordshire, where she studied in a school established by the multitalented Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914). She went on to participate in exhibitions held by the Artists of the Northern Counties and by the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours.

Atkinson spent at least two years during the first decade of the twentieth century living and painting on Corfu, an experience that yielded what appears to have been her only book, An Artist in Corfu (Boston: Estes; London: Herbert & Daniel, 1911).

An attractive, oversize volume printed on heavy paper with deckled edges, An Artist abounds with evocative descriptions of Corfiote landscapes and folkways rendered with an artist’s eye:

“One can be almost vexed one is a painter, so entrancing it would be to wander day-long in the green glades of the olives above the sea, and find new ways among their ancient terraced steeps. There, all through the spring months, the women gather ceaselessly the falling fruit, in gentle coloured groups of blues and browns; not without some accent of red of orange in head-dress and apron, some movement of the accompanying children and goats.”

Atkinson writes in a graceful, intimate style, but offers few personal details. She thanks unnamed “friends both in Corfu and in England” for their help in the “making” of her book, and she speaks frequently of “we” and very occasionally of “E.,” who is apparently a sister or a female friend, but that’s about it.

Atkinson traveled to India and several European countries after World War I. She then visited California in the mid-1920s and continued on into Canada, where she took advantage of the free passes offered to artists by the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1949 she settled in Revelstoke, British Columbia, founding the Revelstoke Art Club several years later. Atkinson returned to the United Kingdom in the late 1960s and eventually made her home in Edinburgh, where she died on May 5, 1972.

The images in today’s post are, top to bottom, Fortezza Vecchia, The Market-Place during the Tomato Season, Olive Pickers, and Barbadoni at Home.

The Majestic Pont

Grove Koger

During the time that Maggie and I stayed in Avignon in 2008, we booked a tour with a local guide that took us to the little hilltop towns of Gordes and Les Baux as well as the Pont du Gard. In architectural terms, the Pont is a bridge, but not the usual sort. More specifically, It’s an aqueduct bridge over the Gard (or Gardon) River designed to carry water from a reservoir fed by springs near the town of Uzès to the city we know today as Nîmes.

The Pont was completed in 18 BCE under the supervision of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the deputy of the emperor Augustus. According to David A. Hanser’s Architecture of France (Greenwood, 2006), it was expertly designed to withstand the strong winds that blow through the Gard Valley as well as the flood waters that can race through the river gorge itself. Its lowest tier is the most massive and its highest the lightest. It’s about 160 feet tall at its highest point, but was built without mortar. The entire aqueduct is about 30 miles long, but constructed with such skill that it drops less than two feet per mile, assuring a steady, manageable stream from Uzès.

Writing in her book In the Rhône Country (Dutton, 1910), Rose G. Kingsley described the Pont standing “majestic and aloof in the solitude of its lonely valley against the intensely blue sky.” We weren’t the only tourists visiting that day in late June, so we couldn’t enjoy the sense of solitude that Kingsley had experienced, but nothing else seemed to have changed in a century.


The image at the top of today’s post is one of Maggie’s photographs of the Pont. The second is a 1923 poster designed by E. Couronneau for the Compagnie des Chermins de fer du P.L.M, and the third is a watercolor by David Gentleman for the cover of the Faber edition of Lawrence Durrell’s Quinx (1985), the final volume of his Avignon Quintet.

Thor Heyerdahl’s Bold Voyage

Grove Koger

Today’s entry from my book When the Going Was Good deals with Thor Heyerdahl’s most famous book.


Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, trans. by F. H. Lyon.(Kon-Tiki Ekspedisjonen. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1947)

Thor Heyerdahl studied biology and geography at Oslo University in Norway but was far more interested in anthropology. In 1937 he conceived a controversial theory while on the French island of Fatu-Hiva. Noting the similarity between the monolithic statues on the island and those found in South America, he suggested that South Americans had taken advantage of ocean currents and prevailing winds to reach the islands of the Pacific. Yet professional anthropologists “knew” that the Polynesians had sailed from the other direction, and were equally certain that the South Americans did not have boats capable of the voyage until the arrival of the Spanish.

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The obstinate Norwegian set out in 1948 to demonstrate the validity of his theory in practical fashion. In what he called the most decisive moment of his life, he set sail from Peru with five human companions and an obstreperous parrot on a forty-foot balsa-log raft with three sails. Heyerdahl had built it exactly as early Spanish explorers had described such craft, and christened it Kon-Tiki in honor of a legendary leader who had led his fair-skinned people across the Pacific 1,500 years earlier. Finally, 101 tumultuous days and 4,300 miles later, the raft and its party fetched up on the atoll of Raroia in the Tuamotu Archipelago. (Keep the name of that archipelago in mind!)

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Kon-Tiki is a brash, bright adventure touched with genuine wonder. The craft was visited by whales, porpoises, squid, and an enormous whale shark (the largest of which can grow up to sixty feet long), but other sea creatures defied identification. Heyerdahl and his crew surmised that the “large dark mass, the size of the floor of a room” that they glimpsed from time to time beneath the water’s surface was a giant ray, but they never passed close enough to be sure. Kon-Tiki is also the gratifying account of an amateur who seemingly bested the professionals, although to this day few scientists have accepted his premise. Heyerdahl himself points out that his success—which attracted world-wide attention—did not necessarily prove that his migration theory was correct, only that it was possible. 

However … evidence has recently emerged that, just as the explorer had suggested, a migration from east to west really did take place. A team led by Alexander Ioannidis of Stanford University has analyzed genetic data from several hundred French Polynesians and coastal South Americans and concluded that there had been, in Ioannidis’ words, “a single shared contact event” about 800 years ago. What’s more, the findings support the idea that the first contact took place in Polynesia. According to a summary from BBC News on July 8, 2000, “Wind and current simulations have shown that drift voyages departing from Ecuador and Colombia are the most likely to reach Polynesia, and that they arrive with the highest probability in the South Marquesas islands, followed by the Tuamotu Archipelago.… Both of these archipelagos lie at the heart of the region of islands where the researchers found an ancestral genetic component from Colombian Native Americans.”

Sadly enough, Thor Heyerdahl had died on April 18, 2002—long before the vindication that awaited him.

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The Tuamotus also figure in two classic literary works, The Hurricane by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (see my post for April 21, 2020) and the short story “The Seed of McCoy” by Jack London.


The image at the top of today’s post reproduces the cover of an early Gyldendal edition of Kon-Tiki and the second shows the raft at sea. The color photograph (shot from a drone) of a section of Raroia was taken by AFundManager and is reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wrangel Island & Its Mammoths

Grove Koger

The world’s last mammoths survived until less than 4,000 years ago—on an island you’ve probably never heard of.

The island is Wrangel (or, in Russian, Ostrov Vrangelya) and it lies north of eastern Siberia at 71°14’N—well within the Arctic Circle. It also lies astride the 180th meridian, which was chosen in 1884 as the International Date Line, although the line was set eastward in order to avoid dividing Wrangel and the Siberian mainland.

The island is named for Russian explorer and cartographer Ferdinand P. Wrangel (1797-1870), who pinpointed its location based on the reports of indigenous Siberians but who many never actually have set foot on it himself. (Accounts differ.) Subsequently, Russian and American fur traders visited the island, and it was it was eventually annexed by the Soviet Union, which proceeded to settle permanent residents there in 1926. Wrangel and its surrounding waters were declared a nature reserve in 1976 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016.

A prime breeding ground for polar bears, walruses, and the like, Wrangel is also noted for being the last refuge of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), a species that once ranged widely over northern Eurasia and North America. Rising sea levels left the island’s mammoths isolated about 10,000 years ago, but while they became somewhat smaller than those on the mainland as a result, they never developed into a dwarf variety, as occurred on the Channel Islands off California. The lack of genetic diversity also led to a growing number of defects among the animals, but their relatively abrupt disappearance about 4,000 years ago suggests that something other than inbreeding led to their demise.

Could human hunters have been a factor, as they were in other parts of the world? There’s evidence of human presence at the Chertov Ovrag site on the southwestern coast of Wrangel, but, so far, no indication that hunting might have played a part in the mammoth’s disappearance. An extreme weather event may be the likeliest cause, but there’s doesn’t seem to be evidence of what, exactly, that event might have entailed. For the time being, the mammoths’ disappearance is more of a mystery than their survival.

But were Wrangel’s mammoths really the last? In his landmark study On the Track of Unknown Animals (London: Hart-Davis, 1958), Bernard Heuvelmans discusses tantalizing accounts suggesting that they might have survived much longer, possibly into the earliest years of the twentieth century. Heuvelmans was a cryptozoologist, but a cautious one, as his carefully worded approach to the subject indicates. The English translation of his book, by the way, includes an introduction by the famous Gerald Durrell!

The image of the wooly mammoth at the top of today’s post is from the Naturkundemuseum Stuttgart and is reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia. The map was created by Norman Einstein under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, and is reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The third image is a 2012 Russian postal souvenir sheet commemorating the Wrangel Island nature reserve, and the fourth is a 2012 stamp from the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan.