A beguiling giraffe face — calm, sloe-eyed — gazes languidly from the cover of the March Smithsonian above a blurb asking, “Will the beloved giant disappear before scientists even begin to understand it?” Also offered are “Decoding the Fate of the Vikings” and “Uncovering the Holocaust’s Great Escape.”
Greenland Vikings, it has been known for decades, settled substantial communities that flourished for 400 years as indicated by letters written between 1409 and 1424. Then, they simply vanished with no hint of haste or disaster.
Giraffes, reports author Alex Shoumatoff, are the least-studied of the large African animals, lacking the cachet of majestic elephants or social chimpanzees. Their numbers are falling drastically, from 140,000 in 1998 to 97,600 today. They are being slaughtered by man for reasons ranging from HIV/AIDS cures to soup bones, while habitat loss erodes their grazing land. Less a mystery here than a question of when time will run out for the gentle, enigmatic creatures.
Starting in 1941 in today’s Lithuania, some 90,000 Jews were methodically shot to death and buried in mass graves in the town of Ponar’s surrounding forest. In 1944, deciding that “there must not be any trace,” a commander told prisoner Motke Zeidel the bodies would be exhumed and burned.
Zeidel, who lived to tell his story, and fellow prisoners were set to this dreadful task. They also started tunneling in February 1944 and escaped on April 15. An extraordinary feat, but without evidence, author Matthew Shaer notes that their 100-foot tunnel was a legend, easily denied.
But Richard Freund, a practitioner of what he calls “non-invasive archaeology,” approached the site in 2016 using ERT (electrical resistivity tomography) among other methods. Running data into laptops in the field, he located “a sliver of red against a backdrop of blue.” The tunnel. A legend made fact.
And the Viking mystery? A triple whammy, reports author Tim Folger. Recent evidence indicates their profitable walrus tusk ivory trade dwindled, supplanted by better quality elephant ivory; dramatic climate change (in 1257 an Indonesian volcano caused a global temperature dip); and the Black Death. Greenland was spared, but half the population of Norway, “Greenland’s lifeline to the civilized world,” perished.
Globalization issues, climate change, habitat loss, man’s savagery to man and beast — everyone is still vulnerable to these forces, and addressed or not, we survive at their whim.