Monthly Archives: February 2019
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Most school kids can describe in detail the life cycle of butterflies: eggs hatch into caterpillars, caterpillars turn into cocoons and cocoons hatch. This seemingly basic bit of biology was once hotly debated. It was a pioneering naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian, whose meticulous observations conclusively linked caterpillars to butterflies, laying the groundwork for the fields of entomology, animal behaviour and ecology.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt at a time when the scientific study of life was in its infancy. Although she was trained as an artist, Merian is arguably one of the first true field ecologists. She studied the behaviour and interactions of living things at a time when taxonomy and systematics (naming and cataloguing) were the main pursuit of naturalists.
Like most modern entomologists, Merian’s passion for insects started early. At 13, she began collecting and raising caterpillars as subjects for her paintings. She often painted by candlelight, awaiting the moment when a caterpillar formed its cocoon or a newly formed butterfly later emerged from it.
Merian painted caterpillars feeding on their host plants and predatory animals feeding on their prey. She was intent on capturing not only the anatomy of her subjects, but also their life cycles and interactions with other living things. Rather than working from preserved specimens (as was the convention of the time), she captured the ecology of species, centuries before the term even existed.
The fact that Merian found the time to conduct her studies is a testament to the power of a curious mind. Unlike many male naturalists of her day, Merian did not have the freedom to devote all of her time to the study of insects.
In 1665, at the age of 18, Merian married her stepfather’s apprentice, painter Johann Andreas Graff. Her first daughter, Johanna, was born in 1668 and in 1670 the family moved to Nuremburg. Her second daughter, Dorothea, was born in 1678.
Merian’s marriage appears to have been an unhappy one. In 1685, she left Graff to live in a religious community, taking both daughters with her. In 1692, Graff formally divorced Merian.
As a mother of two, Merian was responsible for home-care and child-rearing. She secured her family’s finances by teaching painting to the daughters of wealthy families. In many ways, she was one of the first “science moms”, trying to balance the challenges of her research against a demanding family life.
All of this at a time when women were still being burned as witches – being a curious, intelligent woman was very hazardous indeed.
In Surinam with her daughter
Merian’s work on caterpillars was a key contribution to an ongoing debate of her day. On one side were those who believed that life arose from inanimate matter; flies, for example, arose from rotting meat; other insects formed from mud; raindrops produced frogs. On the other side were those who believed that life arose only from pre-existing life.
By breeding butterflies from egg to adult for several generations, Merian showed definitively that eggs hatched into caterpillars, which eventually turned into butterflies.
Merian’s books on caterpillars (published in 1679 and 1683) would have been enough on their own to earn her a place in science history.
But in 1699, at the age of 52 and with her youngest daughter (then aged 20) in tow, she embarked on one of the first purely scientific expeditions in history. Her goal was to illustrate new species of insects in Surinam, a South American country (now known as Suriname) only recently colonised by the Dutch. After two months of dangerous travel, the two women arrived in an entomologists’ paradise.
Surrounded by new species, Merian was itching to collect and paint everything she could get her hands on. She immediately ran into problems, however, as the Dutch planters of the island were unwilling to help two unaccompanied women collect insects from the forest, a mission they believed to be frivolous.
So Merian forged relationships with enslaved Africans and Indigenous people who agreed to bring her specimens and who shared with her the medicinal and culinary uses of many plants. For example, Merian writes that enslaved Amerindian women used the seeds from particular plants to abort fetuses in order to spare them from the cruelty of slavery. It is a stark reminder of the unmitigated horrors of 1600s colonialism.
Merian and her daughter worked in Surinam for two years before Merian’s failing health forced her to return home. The book that resulted from her time in Surinam, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, was well known in both artistic and scientific circles.
Merian’s eldest daughter, Joanna, eventually made the journey to Surinam and would send her mother new specimens and paintings until Merian’s death in 1717.
I am an insect ecologist and a field biologist; Merian’s work forms the very foundations of my discipline. Yet I am ashamed to confess that until relatively recently I was unaware of the magnitude of Merian’s contribution to biology. It has only been in the last few decades that recognition for her scientific contributions has had a resurgence.
How did such a scientific superhero all but disappear from science history?
Merian was well known in her time. Karl Linnaeus, famous for developing a system for classifying life, referred heavily to her illustrations in his species descriptions. The grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin, cites Merian’s work in his book The Botanic Garden.
But, after her death, inaccuracies began to creep into the hand-painted copies of Merian’s books. New plates with imaginary insects were added. Others were recoloured to be more aesthetically pleasing. The careful attention to detail that made Merian’s work so incredible was gradually eroded.
In the 1830s, naturalist Lansdowne Guilding – who had never visited Surinam – wrote a scathing critique of Merian’s work in a book entitled Observations on the work of Maria Sibylla Merian on the Insects, of Surinam. He uses words like “careless”, “worthless” and “vile and useless” to describe Merian’s engravings, which he felt were riddled with inaccuracies. Many of the errors Guilding attacks were added after Merian’s death and were not faithful to her original work.
There is also a strong undercurrent of sexism in Guilding’s critiques; in one place he accuses Merian of ignoring facts “every boy entomologist would know”. Guilding attacks Merian for relying too heavily on the knowledge of African slaves and Amerindians, people he regarded as unreliable.
The fact that Merian was an artist who had no formal scientific training also played a role in the efforts to discredit her. By the 1800s, biology was practised by university-trained academics and self-trained naturalists like Merian were now treated with an air of disdain. Never mind the fact that women of Merian’s day were barred from university educations.
It didn’t help that some of Merian’s observations sounded fantastical – she claimed that in Surinam there lived tarantulas that ate birds, and ants that formed bridges with their bodies. These claims seemed too odd to be true and so began to attract considerable scepticism.
Other authors began to see Merian’s observations as the flights of fancy of an old woman far outside her depth. And so Merian ceased to be remembered as a pioneering naturalist. She was instead dismissed as an old woman who painted beautiful – but entirely unscientific – pictures of butterflies. Although her work continued to inspire and influence generations of artists, her contributions as a scientist were largely forgotten.
Modern scientists have since confirmed the “bird-eating” tarantula’s habit of occasionally consuming small birds and we now know that army ants do indeed build bridges out of their living bodies.
Merian’s “flights of fancy” were not fanciful after all.
Correction: The original version of this story had two incorrect dates about when Maria Sibylla Merian’s first daughter was born, and when Maria embarked on a scientific expedition, which have both now been updated. Thank you to readers Christiane Meyer-Ebert and Carol Mac for alerting us to the errors.
Black Saturday was a day like no other; it will be forever remembered in the history of bushfire disasters in Australia. The fires burned about 300,000 hectares in a single day; 173 human lives were lost and more than 2,000 houses were destroyed in one afternoon.
Australia was shocked at the scale of the destruction. Questions were soon being asked about how this could happen in the modern world, what could have been done to reduce the loss of lives and physical destruction, and what can be done to stop this happening again.
The many reports, studies and inquiries in the ten years since Black Saturday have created a new regime for assessing and dealing with fires. While this has meant many improvements in how we communicate and coordinate in the face of bushfires, I believe it has also resulted in an overemphasis on accountability and technology at the expense of effective fire control.
As days passed and the fires were still being fully controlled, attention turned to capturing information about the fires so we could better understand what had happened. Victims and people affected by the fires were interviewed by journalists and social scientists, welfare workers and counsellors, friends and family. Nobody, at the time of the fires, had full knowledge of what had happened, so the collective knowledge pieced the puzzle together.
Fire scientists and meteorologist were also trying to capture as much information as possible about the fires and what drove them. This was a unique opportunity to collect information about fire and weather that could never be reproduced in experiments.
Within a few days of the fire, the Victorian premier had announced a royal commission to investigate the cause of the fires, the factors leading to the unprecedented level of death and destruction, and the institutional response before, during and after the fires. The commission ran for 18 months, heard from 434 witnesses, cost more than A$90 million and produced 67 recommendations.
What has changed?
Research and the royal commission significantly increased our understanding of what occurred on Black Saturday. Research using these fires still continues ten years after the event. The knowledge gained has resulted in better weather forecasting, better communication about fires and weather to the public, better coordination and cooperation between emergency response agencies and public land managers, and better building and planning regulations for fire-prone areas.
Unfortunately, the close scrutiny of fire and land management agencies has led to greater emphasis on following standard processes and recording all actions and information used during fire events. This has led to a lot of time and resources being allocated to accountability at the expense of effectiveness in reducing bushfire impacts. This is clearly not a deliberate intention of the various agencies, but is the reality of a highly political and litigious world.
Another unintended development has been the increased reliance on technology for both fighting fires and communication. Many people in the bushfire-prone areas demand reliable access to warnings and fire developments, so there has been a rapid expansion of the mobile phone and internet networks across Victoria. However, just because people have access to such information does not ensure that they will respond in ways that emergency response agencies expect.
Other technology such as bigger, stronger fire trucks and the use of aircraft for water bombing has reduced the extent of dry firefighting techniques – that is, controlling fire using firebreaks, hand tools and backburning with little or no water used. This has increased the number of fires growing to damaging sizes and escaping control lines.
This failing has not been fully recognised. Partly, that’s because any “technology” is easily taken by the media, public and politicians as an improvement, when in fact it may not be.
The lessons we’ve yet to learn
The “risk concept” allows public agencies, private groups and communities to reduce bushfire risk to a level that they can afford and are willing to accept. However, how bushfire risk is assessed and communicated, and how trade-offs are negotiated, still has a long way to go if bushfire risk is to be a truly “shared responsibility” as the royal commission recommended.
Another complication is that public agencies have a regular turnover of staff. This makes it more difficult to establish trusted relationships between public agencies and private individuals.
An event like Black Saturday will occur again. The terrain, vegetation, climate and weather patterns in southeastern Australia ensure that. Climate change will increase this risk.
When it does happen again, the extent of what we learned from Black Saturday will be judged by the impact of that event. We should not expect there will be no loss of lives and property in future massive blazes, but we should expect it will be significantly less than Black Saturday.
Rock inscriptions made by crews from two North American whaleships in the early 19th century were found superimposed over earlier Aboriginal engravings in the Dampier Archipelago.
Details of the find in northern Western Australia are in a paper published today in Antiquity.
They provide the earliest evidence for North American whalers’ memorialising practices in Australia, and have substantial implications for maritime history.
At the time, the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga) was home to the Yaburara people. The rock art across the archipelago is testament to their artists asserting their connections to this place for millennia.
So did the whalers encounter the Yaburara? Did they engrave over earlier Aboriginal markings as an act of assertion, a realignment of a shifting political landscape? Or were they simply marking a milestone in their multi-year voyages, celebrating landfall after many months at sea?
The answer to all these questions is, we don’t know.
But these inscriptions provide a rare insight into the lives of whalers, filling a gap in our knowledge about this earliest industry on our northwestern coast.
Such historical inscriptions might be dismissed as graffiti. However, like other rock art, they tell important stories about our human past that cannot be gleaned from other sources.
Whaling in Australia
Ship-based whaling was a global phenomenon that lasted centuries. At its peak in the mid-19th century, around 900 wooden sailing ships were at sea on multi-year voyages, crewed by around 22,000 whalemen.
Most whaling in Australian waters was conducted by foreign vessels, and in the 19th century North American whalers dominated the globe.
Whaling led to some of the earliest contacts between American, European and a range of indigenous societies in Africa, Australasia and the Pacific.
But early visits by foreign whalers to Australia’s northwest are poorly documented given the absence of a British colonial land-based presence in the area until the 1860s.
While explorer William Dampier named the Dampier Archipelago and Rosemary Island in 1699, British naval Captain Phillip Parker King was the first to document encounters with the Yaburara people in 1818. His visit to the archipelago in the rainy season (February) coincided with large groups of people using the seasonally abundant resources at this time.
The Swan River Colony (Perth) was established in 1829, but permanent European colonisation of the northwest only began in the early 1860s with an influx of pastoralists and pearlers.
Early whaling contact
A few surviving ship logbooks record English and North American whalers on the Dampier Archipelago from 1801, but the heyday of whaling near “The Rosemary Islands” was between the 1840s and 1860s.
The logbooks describe American whaling ships worked together to hunt herds of humpback whales, which migrate along Australia’s northwest coastline during the winter months.
The ships’ crews made landfall to collect firewood and drinking water, and to post lookouts on vantage points to assist in sighting whales for the open boats to pursue.
Research by archaeologists from the University of Western Australia working with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and industry partner Rio Tinto has found some evidence of two such landfalls in inscriptions from the crew of two North American whalers – the Connecticut and the Delta.
The earliest of these inscriptions records that the Connecticut visited Rosemary Island on August 18 1842. At least part of this inscription was made by Jacob Anderson, identified from the Connecticut’s crew list as a 19-year-old African-American sailor.
Research shows this set of ships’ and people’s names was placed over an earlier set of Aboriginal grid motifs. This was along a ridgeline that has millennia of evidence for the Yaburara producing rock art and raising standing stones and quarrying tool-stone elevated above this seascape.
The dates and names found in the inscription correlate with port records that show the Connecticut left the town of New London in Connecticut, US, for the New Holland ground (as the waters off Australia’s northwest were known) in 1841, with Captain Daniel Crocker and a crew of 26.
The Connecticut returned to New London on June 16 1843, with 1,800 barrels of oil, travelling via Fremantle, New Zealand and Cape Horn.
The Connecticut’s logbook for the voyage is missing, so without these inscriptions we would know nothing of this ship’s visit to the Dampier Archipelago.
On another island, another set of inscriptions record a visit to a similar vantage point by crew of the Delta on July 12 1849.
Registered in Greenport, New York, the Delta made 18 global whaling voyages between 1832 and 1856. Its logbook confirms it was whaling in the Dampier Archipelago between June 2 and September 8 1849.
While the log records crew members going ashore to shoot kangaroos and collect water, no mention is made of them making inscriptions or having any contact with Yaburara people.
Given it was the dry season, and the lack of permanent water on the islands, this lack of contact is not surprising.
But again, these whalers chose to make their marks on surfaces that were already marked by the Yaburara. By recording their presence at these speciﬁc historical moments, the whalers continued the long tradition of the Yaburara in interacting with and marking their maritime environment.
Protecting the heritage
Between 1822 and 1963, whalers killed more than 26,000 southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) and 40,000 humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) in Australia and New Zealand, driving populations to near-extinction.
Today there are signs of renewal, with whale populations increasing, and Aboriginal people are reclaiming responsibility for management of the archipelago.
There is a strong push for World Heritage Listing of Murujuga — one of the most significant concentrations for human artistic creativity on the planet, recording millennia of human responses to the sustainable use of this productive landscape.
These two whaling inscriptions provide the only known archaeological insight into this earliest global resource extraction in Australia’s northwest – the whale oil industry – which began over two centuries ago.
They demonstrate yet again the unique capacity of Murujuga’s rock art to shed light on previously unknown details of our shared human history.
Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia; Alistair Paterson, ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia, and Ross Anderson, Curator of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum
The natives of new Holland are perhaps the quickest fighters in the world … They remind me of Homer’s description of his heroes. The warriors throw themselves
into the same attitudes, they harangue, they brandish and cast their spears in a manner similar to
that described by the celebrated poet, “so saying, swaying back and forth, he launched his long-shadowed spear”.
–Benjamin Bowen Carter , 1798
This laudatory account of a group of Indigenous Australians, including Woollarawarre Bennelong, has been
collecting dust in Rhode Island since 1798, when the fledgling United States was just beginning
to stretch into the Asia-Pacific region, led by private
It is contained in one of two 220-year-old journals from the merchant ship Ann & Hope (held in the John Carter
Brown Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society respectively) penned by sailors Benjamin Page,
Jr. the teenage son of the ship’s captain, and Benjamin Bowen Carter, the ship’s surgeon.
They have been largely forgotten by historians, bar one or two, but shed light on Bennelong in particular: a celebrated yet misunderstood man. For much of white Australian
history, Bennelong was portrayed as a tragic victim of alcoholism and cultural
homelessness. Captured in November 1789 under orders from Governor Arthur Phillip to be
taught English and serve as a cultural intermediary, he was later taken to England, returning to his homeland in 1795.
In their 11-month journey around the world, the Ann & Hope’s crew spent just four days in Sydney. But Page and Carter wrote thousands of words about New Holland’s
people, environment, and trading prospects. Chief among their fascinations was witnessing Bennelong adjudicate an
unusually messy payback punishment, which they recorded in excruciating and bloody detail.
so, they inadvertently reveal that Bennelong continued to hold positions of authority long after his return from the UK – in contrast to accounts by many
eminent historians and popular authors that depicted him as lost between two worlds, comfortable in neither.
According to writer and academic Deborah Bird Rose, in Aboriginal communities,
designed to re-establish social relations ruptured by wrong-doing is called ‘payback’. It is
physical violence that is expected to be roughly equivalent to the offence. Its purpose is to
restore a sense of balance and to effect a form of closure.
Echoing this desire for balance, Carter
observed in 1798 that:
The generosity of these people is singular. When their enemies have
discharged their spears, they will return them and prepare themselves for another assault. They
frequently during the battle ran up to the opposite party and received their spears from the enemy. Nor did their antagonists throw a foul spear or improve in the least the advantage put into
their hands, of killing an enemy when alone or unguarded.
Unfortunately, this protocol went awry when Bennelong decreed (apparently unconvincingly)
that the appropriate punishment had been met.
He was violently rebuffed and, according to Page:
Whilst Bennelong was sitting down unguarded to our great surprise we saw one spear pierced
through the left side of his breast he rose up immediately and had another flung at him which he
kept off with his iron shield by his looks and words he seemed to enquire who did it then several
of both parties arose and seemed to be in a great passion the women especially who were crying
and beating themselves at a terrible rate at length.
Bennelong walked away about a hundred yards and sat down with the spear then through him
after it was pulled out with the loss of blood he fainted then the women began with more
tremendous shrieks and yells than before thinking he was dead and were down upon their knees a
sucking the blood from the wound after several were speared through the legs & thighs.
Nearly being killed while adjudicating a payback punishment does not paint Bennelong in the
most favourable light. But the fact that as late as 1798 he was given the honour of adjudicating such a
ceremony challenges much of the outdated historiography about him.
Bennelong has been mistakenly remembered for centuries, encouraged by national
institutions such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The dictionary is currently rewriting its
entry on Bennelong and other Indigenous Australians to reflect the new findings of scholars such
as Shino Konishi, Keith Vincent Smith, Kate Fullagar, and Emma Dortins.
Bennelong’s 1966 entry in the dictionary is especially careless for highlighting how, after being the
first Aboriginal man to visit England in 1792, he returned to Sydney,
and thereafter references
to him are scanty, though it is clear that he could no longer find contentment or full acceptance
either among his countrymen or the white men. Two years later he had become “so fond of
drinking that he lost no opportunity of being intoxicated, and in that state was so savage and
violent as to be capable of any mischief”.
Less disparagingly, Inga Clendinnen argues that, after
returning from Europe, Bennelong, “with his anger and his anguish, simply drops from British
In reality, he dropped from official British records, but certainly not from positions of
authority or from visiting American sailors’ notice.
The New South Wales government’s pledge to
build a memorial on the land where Bennelong is buried certainly could not come at a better time.
Meanwhile, historians who have been diligently rewriting
Bennelong’s history are finally being written about in the mainstream press. And who knows, maybe there
are more dusty journals scattered around the world that will contribute to this rewriting over the
next 200 years.
The author thanks Josiah Ober of Stanford University for translating from Greek the Iliad
quote at the top of this page.