The Natural History of King Kong

The other night I watched a movie about Megaprimatus kong, better known by his non-scientific sobriquet, King Kong. And I thought he was just a rather large representative of the species Gorilla gorilla. Did you know that Kong was the last surviving member of his species? Did you even know he had a scientific name? He wasn’t alone. The nasty, toothy worms that ate some of the film crew were Carnictis and the dinosaur gang of three that battled M. kong were Vastatosaurus rex. At least that’s what the gang who made the 2005 version of King Kong tell us in their mockumentary about the natural history of Skull Island. The extra film footage is included in the DVD version of the movie.

While I cannot recommend the main feature, the mockumentary makes a fine addition to the geomovie oeuvre discussed earlier this year at Magma Cum Laude and Geotripper. Skull Island: A Natural History includes “historic footage” of expeditions to the island, talking heads, and material from King Kong. We learn that the island is a “perversion of evolution,” where dinosaurs survived because underground vents kept the island temperate during the prolonged cooling following the asteroid that hit 65  million years ago. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the geologic instability that led to the survival of the dinosaurs ultimate doomed Skull Island, as a 9.2 magnitude earthquake led to the island’s disappearance into the sea, coincidentally just after the original King Kong movie crew finished shooting in the 1930s.
I have to hand it to the movie makers because much of what they discuss is based on plausible science, even if applied to a made up world.  This does not necessarily mean that the movie is believable and it’s too bad that none of this science comes across in King Kong but at least the mockumentarians did take the time to research the facts. Another plus for the mockumentary is its length, an easy-to-watch 17 minutes versus the butt numbing three hours of the film. 

Of Bees and Building Stone

Our modern pollinator crisis may have unseen consequences. For example, few people will now be born surrounded by bees. This may not seem to be a bad thing but consider the birth of Ethiopian king Lalibela in the 12th century. Legend holds that at his birth bees swarmed the child, which many regarded as a propitious omen. His older brother Habray, like a few notorious older brothers, was not pleased, and figured that the best way to deal with his chosen brother was to kill him.  Unfortunately for Habray, Lalibela didn’t die but ascended to Heaven, where God told Lalibela that his destiny was to build 11 great churches as a “New Jerusalem.”

I learned of Lalibela and his churches at the Lucy’s Legacy exhibit at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. In addition to showcasing perhaps the second most famous female in early human history, the show provides a fascinating account of Ethiopia and its importance to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Lalibela was part of the Zagwe dynasty, which promoted a reemergence of Christianity.
King Lalibela carved the churches in a red tuff, which interbeds with thick basalts produced by the east Africa rift system.  This rift setting is similar to other areas of plate breakup, which produced stone such as the diabase of Gettysburg and the brownstones of New York. In each of these rift valleys, volcanics also erupted, though no one on North America had the inspiration to carve churches in the rock.
According to the Lucy exhibit, to accomplish the task of hewing the buildings, human masons worked during the day with angels taking over the night shift. Archaeologists, however, say it took at least 150  years and not 24 years, as tradition claims. Starting at the top on arches, vaults, and ceilings and continuing without scaffolding down to the floor and doors, masons worked with picks and levers to remove the soft, porous rock.
The eleven buildings are found in the town of Lalibela, about 600 kilometers north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. They form two groups divided by the River Jordan, though the most remarkable structure, Bete Giyorgis (the House of St. George), sits a few hundred yards away from the northern group. Shaped like a Greek cross, it is freestanding in the center of a square shaft measuring 22 by 23 meters. South of the river, Bete Amannuel is also a single monolith, 18 meters tall and 12 meters wide on each side. Inside many of the churches were elaborate paintings of geometrical patterns, animals, and Bibilical scenes.
Despite having been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, the buildings and paintings have suffered in the harsh climate and unfavorable geologic conditions (easily weathered clay minerals and weak layers in the tuff). To slow the deterioration, temporary shelters have been built, though they are neither handsome nor completely protective. Perhaps we need another swarm of bees to inspire new shelters.