Friday, June 28, 2013

A Civilization Collapses: The Strange Case of Easter Island


Scientists now believe that Easter Island was colonized by the Polynesians in the fifth century A.D.  At first there were perhaps twenty or thirty colonists on the island.  As the population grew closely related households formed clans, each with its own religious and ceremonial center.  Competition between the clans produced the giant statues of Easter Island.  At each ceremonial site the clan members erected between one and fifteen of the huge stone statues that survive today.

The statues were carved using only stone tools.  Each statue is the same, carved to resemble a male head and torso. On top of the head was placed a 'topknot' of red stone weighing about ten tons. The carving was time-consuming rather than a complex task. The real problem was transporting the statues, most at least twenty feet high and weighing several tons, from the island’s quarry across the island and then standing them up straight on the clan’s ceremonial platform.  The solution to the transportation problem sealed the fate of the island’s people.  The statues were moved by human labor using tree trunks as rollers.

The population grew steadily from twenty or thirty in 450 A.D. to some 7,000 by 1550 A.D.  As the population grew, the number of competing clans grew and the competition to create ever larger and more numerous statues intensified until by 1600 there were over six hundred huge stone statues dotting the island.  When the society was at its peak, it suddenly collapsed because of massive environmental degradation brought on by the deforestation of the whole island.

The most demanding requirement for wood came from the need to move the large statues to ceremonial sites around the island. Larger and larger quantities of timber were required as the competition between the clans to erect statues grew. As a result by1600 the island was almost completely deforested and statue erection was brought to a halt leaving many stranded at the quarry.

The deforestation of the island spelled the end of statue building and the sophisticated ceremonial life of the island.  It had even graver consequences.   The shortage of trees forced people unable to build huts to live in caves.  Canoes could no longer be built so people could not leave the island.  Removal of the tree cover badly affected the soil of the island.  Crop yields dwindled.  The food base could no longer support the population. Conflicts over diminishing resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare between the clans. As the amount of food available fell the population turned to cannibalism.

By the time the Europeans discovered the island, the primitive islanders could no longer remember what their ancestors had achieved and could only say that the huge figures had “walked” across the island.

The real mystery of Easter Island is not the giant stone statues but the question: Why were the Easter Islanders, knowing that they were isolated from the rest of the world and totally dependent on the limited resources of the island, unable to find harmony with their environment when disaster was staring them in the face?



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The U.S. and the Axis in Latin America


In the late 1930’s the United States took various substantive steps to check Axis penetration of Latin America. President Franklin Roosevelt, anxious to displace the influence of Fascist military missions in Latin America (which intermingled Fascist propaganda with military training), initiated a program of military assistance to Latin America which successfully displaced the Axis powers. The success of the U.S. effort centered on Washington’s willingness to underbid its competition and offer supplies and quality technical assistance at bargain prices. By acquiring a supply monopoly on military goods, the U.S., in addition to benefiting its own industries, gained a significant degree of economic and political leverage over Latin American military establishments, thus helping to prevent the rise of anti-American nationalism in the armed forces. Such leverage was a potent instrument in the defense of U.S. interests in Latin America. The roots of U.S. massive military involvement in Latin America in the 1950’s and 60’s were established during the Good Neighbor period.

By the late 1930’s defense considerations indicated that the proper course for the U.S. was to ward off Axis influence in Latin America by tying the Latin American economies more closely to its own. The U.S. economic offensive helped to curb growing Axis penetration in the Hemisphere. The Volta Rendonda steel complex, the Export-Import Bank’s most dramatic project, for example, was undertaken to pre-empt Brazil’s steel industry from German and Japanese interests. Similarly, other credits helped to circumscribe Axis influence.



A brief history of the causes and methods of U.S. intervention in Latin America from the Spanish American War to the era of the Good Neighbor Policy.



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Marcus Crassus finds death in Syria

Marcus Crassus

Without the consent of the Senate, the wealthy and politically powerful Marcus Crassus decided to embark on a war of choice against the little known Parthian Empire (modern day Syria/Iraq/ Iran).  There was nothing the Roman masses loved better than small wars of conquest.  Roman legions had easily crushed armies of other eastern kingdoms such as Pontus and Armenia and Crassus expected a similar result against the Parthians.

Crassus arrived in Syria in late 55 B.C.  He had under his command thirty five thousand heavy infantry (seven Roman legions), four thousand light infantry and four thousand cavalry.  This force was augmented by six thousand cavalry from the king of Armenia, a Roman ally. 

Like many other Roman commanders, Crassus combined over aggressiveness with a penchant for poor reconnaissance. Crassus marched into the desert, guided by an Arab chieftain named Ariamnes who had previously served the Romans.  Ariamnes, however, was now playing a double game.  He was in the pay of the Parthians and led the Roman army on tiring marches far from water.  Ultimately he led the Romans into the trap set by the Parthian general Surena.  The thirsty and exhausted Romans encountered the Parthians near the town of Carrhae (in modern Syria in the year 53 B.C).

Well aware of the strengths of his own troops, but woefully ignorant of the capabilities of the enemy, Crasssus ordered the Roman infantry to form a square to repel a cavalry charge.  The Parthians did not charge.  The Parthian horse archers surrounded the Roman square and began to shower the Roman legionaries with arrows from a safe distance.

Unable to come to grips with the enemy, Crassus now hoped that the Parthians would simply run out of arrows.  The Parthian general Surena had, however, not neglected logistics when laying his trap.  Thousands of camels were resupplying the horse archers with fresh ammunition.  The mathematics of the battle suggested that Crassus would run out of Romans before Surena ran out of arrows. 

The next day Surena offered to negotiate a truce with Crassus.  Crassus was reluctant, but his troops were in a near state of mutiny.  At the meeting Crassus and his accompanying generals were murdered.  The remaining Romans at Carrhae attempted to flee to the relative safety of the Armenian hills where the Parthian cavalry could not operate as easily.  Most were killed or captured.  Of the initial force, some five thousand returned alive, ten thousand were captured and the rest died. 

The head of Crassus was presented to the Parthian king, who is said to have ordered that molten gold be poured into its gaping mouth, in disdain for Crassus’ greed for the possessions of others.



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Sunday, June 09, 2013

"Civil War Northern Virginia 1861"



In the mid-nineteenth century, Arlington was an eleven-hundred-acre estate managed by U.S. Colonel and Mrs. Robert E. Lee; Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun Counties consisted of rolling farmland and tiny villages. This peaceful region was thrown into chaos as South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860 and other slave states followed until Virginia finally joined the Confederacy in April and May 1861. The "invasion" of Northern Virginia on May 24, 1861, created a no-man's land between Yankee and Rebel armies. Some citizens joined Confederate forces, while others stayed to face uncertainty. William S. Connery offers new insights into this most important time in American history.




Author William S. Connery gives a fascinating account of his book The Civil War in Northern Virginia in this Virginia Time Travel interview.




 

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Historical Swordsmanship



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