Iceman Oetzi’s last meal was ‘Stone Age bacon’

VIENNA (AFP): Oetzi the famous “iceman” mummy of the Alps appears to have enjoyed a fine slice or two of Stone Age bacon before he was killed by an arrow some 5,300 years ago. His last meal was most likely dried goat meat, according to scientists who recently managed to dissect the contents of Oetzi’s stomach. “We’ve analysed the meat’s nanostructure and it looks like he ate very fatty, dried meat, most likely bacon,” German mummy expert Albert Zink said at a talk in Vienna late Wednesday. More specifically, the tasty snack is thought to have come from a wild goat in South Tyrol, the northern Italian region where Oetzi roamed around and where his remains were found in September 1991.

Mummified in ice, he was discovered by two German hikers in the Oetztal Alps, 3,210 metres (10,500 feet) above sea level.

Scientists have used hi-tech, non-invasive diagnostics and genomic sequencing to penetrate his mysterious past.

These efforts have determined Oetzi died around the age of 45, was about 1.60 metres (five foot, three inches) tall and weighed 50 kilos (110 pounds).

He suffered a violent death, with an arrow severing a major blood vessel between the rib cage and the left shoulder blade, as well as a laceration on the hand.

As part of their latest discoveries, Zink’s team also found that Oetzi had an ulcer-inducing bacteria and may have suffered from stomach aches.

But for all his parasites, worn ligaments and bad teeth, he was in “pretty good shape”, Zink wrote in the renowned US magazine Science earlier this month.

Activists slam giant Indonesian mill for environmental damage

JAKARTA (AFP) - Green groups said Thursday that one of the world’s biggest pulp mills which started production on Indonesia’s Sumatra island last month was causing enormous environmental damage. The groups said the $3 billion mill belonging to industry giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) was sourcing raw materials mostly from trees grown on drained peatlands, where haze-belching fires occur every year. The mill produces a raw material which can later be made into paper.

Woro Supartinah, whose NGO was among the groups protesting the mill, called on the Indonesian government to “promote a broader set of interests” than just helping major companies reap profits.

“Restoring peatlands will generate economic growth and environmental security over the long term,” she said.

The groups who protested the mill included Wetlands International, Eyes on the Forest and Rainforest Action Network.

APP said it was aiming to responsibly increase its production capacity.

It said in a statement that its pulpwood suppliers were bound by its conservation policies, which include committing to “no new development on peatland since February 2013 as well as the implementation of responsible, peatland best management practice”.

Vast areas of peatland, which store carbon, have been drained in recent years using networks of canals to convert them into plantations for trees to produce pulp and palm oil.

The drained peatlands emit greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and also create arid tracts of land that are vulnerable to going up in flames.

Huge fires erupt on and around plantation land every year on Sumatra, much of it in peat.

The fires in 2015 were among the worst on record and cloaked Southeast Asia in toxic haze for weeks, causing many to fall ill, schools to close and flights to be cancelled.

About three-quarters of the plantations supplying APP’s mill - 6,000 square kilometres (2,300 square miles) - are on peatlands, the groups said.

Indonesia’s government has in recent years stepped up efforts to protect peatlands, especially after the fires in 2015, which according to the World Bank caused $16 billion in losses to the archipelago’s economy.

Russians plunge into freezing water for Epiphany

MOSCOW (AFP): Hundreds of thousands of Russians braved freezing temperatures to plunge into lakes and rivers on Thursday, a wintry tradition observed during the Orthodox celebration of Epiphany. With emergency vehicles on standby, Muscovites plunged into ice holes across the city starting from midnight to commemorate the baptism of Jesus. “I’ve been taking the dip since childhood. Even when the Soviet Union still existed, I was already taking the dip and going to the banya (hammam),” said bather Alexei Winns after going into the Ivankovskoye lake in a green area of northwestern Moscow.

“It’s an ancient tradition for me,” said Winns, a Moscow-based filmmaker, shivering in temperatures of about minus nine degrees Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit).

“When you’re in a bad mood or when somebody falls ill, you take this water, wash your face with it, or drink it, and you become happier,” said Irina, a municipal official in a fur hat.

Moscow’s emergency officials said more than 93,000 people participated in Epiphany bathing in the capital alone. Authorities had dispatched over 700 rescue workers to the organised bathing spots where people could drink tea to warm up.

An estimated 1.8 million people took part in the ritual throughout the country, authorities said.

According to Russian tradition, Epiphany concludes a holy period called Svyatki, or “holy days”, which starts on Orthodox Christmas on January 7.

The 12 days are filled with various celebrations and rituals in Russia and several other countries in eastern Europe, many of them of pagan and mystical origin, including singing, carolling, and fortune-telling.

Modi refuses to step in

over bull-wrestling ban

CHENNAI (AFP): Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused Thursday to overturn a Supreme Court ban on a festival featuring young men wrestling with bulls that has brought thousands onto the streets of southern India in protest. Residents of the southern state of Tamil Nadu say the Jallikattu festival is a crucial part of their culture and are demanding the ban be lifted. Critics say the festival is cruel and that organisers lace the bulls’ feed with liquor to make them less steady on their feet and throw chilli powder into their faces to send them into a sudden frenzy as they are released from a holding pen.

India’s Supreme Court outlawed Jallikattu last year after a plea by animal rights groups, which have long argued that the event - held every year in different parts of Tamil Nadu - abuses the animals.

Tensions have been escalating for the last week after hundreds of people were detained by police for allegedly organising local Jallikattu contests in defiance of the court ban.

Thousands of protesters have gathered in state capital Chennai and other cities, prompting Tamil Nadu’s chief minister to travel to Delhi to ask Modi to overturn the ban.

“The ban imposed on Jallikattu by the Supreme Court came up for discussion,” Modi’s office said on Twitter after the two men met.

“While appreciating the cultural significance of Jallikattu, the prime minister observed that the matter is presently sub judice” or prohibited from public discussion because it is still under judicial consideration.

Scores of students from Tamil Nadu held protests in New Delhi in support of Jallikattu.

“This is an attack on our culture,” said Manikanda Venkatesh, a student from Tamil Nadu.

“People who have never been to Tamil Nadu are telling us about about culture and calling it barbaric. The farmers treat these bulls like their children and no parent can be cruel to their child.

“This is not a festival for Tamils but also for the bulls, which show their prowess. Through Jallikattu the farmers are able to find the best bulls, which helps in breeding of native species.”

Pangaj Easwaa, a student from Tamil Nadu, said that while he respected the supreme court, he would not tolerate attempts “to amend our cultural practices”.

“What is the harm is Jallikattu? No bulls are killed in the festival.”

Unlike in traditional Spanish bullfighting, the animals are let loose into open fields and young men then compete to subdue them bare-handed.

Organisers insist the animals suffer no harm and Jallikattu is an established part of Tamil culture.

A legal expert said the prime minister could in theory issue an ordinance overturning the Supreme Court ruling, although such a move would be rare.

Police say the protests have remained peaceful so far but have spread to large parts of Tamil Nadu.

India’s leading spin bowler Ravichandran Ashwin and several popular Tamil film stars have voiced their support for the demonstrators.

Climate science bedeviled

by ‘tipping points’

PARIS (AFP): Of the many things that keep climate scientists awake at night, tipping points may be the scariest. To start with, these thresholds for deep, sometimes catastrophic change in the complex web of Earth’s natural forces, caused by man-made global warming, are largely invisible. You can’t see them on the horizon, and could easily cross one without noticing. Also, there is no turning back - at least not on a human timescale.

Ice sheets with enough frozen water to lift sea levels more than a dozen metres.

; powerful ocean currents that keep bone-chilling winters at bay on both sides of the Atlantic; monsoon rains upon which hundreds of millions in Asia depend for food - all are at risk of irretrievable disruption.

“There are points-of-no-return where, for example, a certain amount of warming triggers unstoppable collapse of glaciers off of Antarctica, even if the planet cools again,” explained Ben Strauss, vice president of the US research group Climate Central.

Think of someone leaning back on two legs of a chair, suggests Sybren Drijfhout, a professor at the University of Southampton.

“The tipping point is when you’re exactly in between two states,” he said. “A tiny perturbation” - a gentle shove - “will make the system tip over.”

In the case of ice sheets, how this might happen is well understood.

Thick ice shelves astride land and sea in Greenland and Antarctica act as giant bulkheads, preventing even larger inland ice masses from sliding into the ocean.

West Antarctica’s would lift the global watermark by at least six metres.

Were these ice dams - eroded by warming water (below) and air (above) - to fall away, “the blocking features may not be able to re-form even after hundreds of years of cooling,” Strauss told AFP.

As if by way of illustration, an ice block nearly 100 times the size of Manhattan is poised to break off West Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf within months, scientists said earlier this year.

But if experts agree on the mechanics, they sharply disagree on how much a region would need to warm up to trigger collapse, or how long it would take.

“We don’t know exactly when we might pass these points - or whether we already have crossed some of them,” Strauss added.

James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has argued that West Antarctica could disintegrate rapidly, adding up to a couple of metres to ocean levels this century.

But most experts say humanity is still within a “safe operating space” for the ice sheets, even if the margin for error has become uncomfortably thin.

Other tipping points could trigger the natural release, on a massive scale, of the same greenhouse gases that humans have spewed into the atmosphere, further destabilising the delicate balance that has made our planet so liveable over the last 11,000 years.

Methane and CO2 locked in the increasingly misnamed permafrost of Russia, Canada and northern Europe is equivalent to roughly 15 years worth of global emissions from fossil fuels at today’s levels.

The release of these gases - negligible so far - would, in turn, aggravate the problem in a vicious circle of warming, what scientists call a positive feedback loop.

Likewise, rock-like formations in shallow ocean waters called methane hydrates, prime suspects for episodes of rapid global warming millions of years ago. Little is known about what it would take to trigger their disintegration today.

“Even if global warming is limited to below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)” - the red line drawn in the 196-nation Paris climate pact - “some important tipping elements may already be harmed or transformed,” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, commented recently in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Even so, the promise of holding global warming “well below 2 C” is a reasonable guarantee that such scenarios can be avoided, he said.

But scientists also admit their tools are better at measuring steady, linear progressions than sudden shifts.

“In general, climate models are too stable,” said Drijfhout. “They are calibrated to the present climate, have difficulty simulating the abrupt changes we have witnessed in the geological past.”

Looking for lessons from the past also has limits, notes Didier Swingedouw of the University of Bordeaux.

“The problem is that there is no perfect analogue to what we will experience in the near future.”

Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere today are higher than any time in the last three million years, and are increasing more rapidly than at any point in the last 66 million years.