Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Red-haired Giants

A survey I read somewhere, some years ago, found that there are more red-haired people in Scotland than anywhere else. I believe it was 10% of the general population. Other countries in Northern Europe; countries like Norway, Holland, Ireland, also have a significant percentage of redheads.

So why is this? Like a lot of things on our planet it has do with the weather; a period of extremely hot weather in Africa and at the same time the end of a Northern Hemisphere Ice Age. It was a long time ago. Here's the basic story as told by:
Big Bang in the Laboratory - French/German TV arte.

Big Bang in the Laboratory is about the origin of the Universe and much of the programme's content was to do with the Large Hadron Collider and what the LHC may find or discover in the coming weeks and months. Another part of it was to do with astronomy and the latest discoveries in space. But the part of the programme I personally found most interesting was a report which boldly stated the following:

Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 years ago there were to be found two distinct species of humans living side by side in Europe.

That is, there were living in Europe the original first wave settlers out of Africa - the so-called Neanderthals. They moved northwards from Africa to seek a cooler climate. The men were large, for the period, and strong; 1m 75cm in height and built like weightlifters, weighing-in at a solid 90 kg. They buried their dead in narrow passageways deep inside caves and placed crystals alongside the dead. The crystal shown in the film may have been an amethyst. All well and good then; a spiritually inclined, prehistoric race.

But then came the cruncher; the genetic LHC equivalent: Only descendants of Neanderthals have genes for red hair.

Well, I'd heard about this before. But, until I saw Big Bang in the Laboratory I never dreamed that it was backed up with serious science.

After all, we're all from the same tribe who wandered out of Africa - the Homo Sapiens, we were always told. But not now. Now there's been a subtle shift. Almost unnoticed the DNA-door is being pushed open a little wider. It turns out that we're not all the same after all. Many of us are not 100% dyed in the wool Homo-Sapiens.

"Those fleet-of-foot Homo-Sapiens (Cro-Magnons) from Kenya," said the scientist pointing to the map of Africa to show me where Kenya was, "arrived in Europe a long time after the Neanderthals." They also come out of Africa. They were the second wave. They all had dark hair.

The two species, for what else shall we call them, lived side by side for 10,000 years but then the Neanderthals disappeared. It is not known how or why. But since I'm sitting here with my Neanderthal genes safe inside me, it must mean that the Neanderthals interbred with and, over a 10,000 year period, evolved into Cro-Magnon Homo-Sapiens.

"If you have red hair," said the scientist (confirming my thoughts) you must be in part Neanderthal."

And so, there you have it. There were giants in the Earth in those days. And they were my, and perhaps your, ancestors.

But, as a redheaded youngster I found that having a mop of red hair and the freckles to go with it caused me diverse problems: I was sometimes seen as being a bit different and singled out as a member of a strange and suspicious red-haired minority group; it was known that I must have a fiery temper, that I might be dangerous, that I might pose a threat to others - to the majority. Other normal boys, a few neighbours, and even a couple of teachers, appeared almost instinctively to know all these wierd things about me.

Perhaps Nestroy's Titus Feuerfuchs° is due for a rewrite.

°A play in which a red-haired man experiences discrimination simply because of his red hair. On the verge of despair he fortunately meets a red-haired woman ...
image: courtesy Wikipedia

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Bard on the Run's bad run

Pendle Hill, apart from being the home of the Pendle witches and the place where George Fox is reported to have had his vision that led to the founding of the Quakers, is also the home of a classic foot race.

I knew it was a mistake to enter the 'Full Tour of Pendle' fell-race having missed 6 weeks training due to a series of colds, coughs, sneezes, sore throats and not surprisingly a general feeling of lethargy. But I couldn't resist it.

Some 350 runners duly entered the fray, which involved running up the boggy mass of Pendle Hill 5 times in sweeping rain and swirling mist and visiting 11 checkpoints in various far-apart locations with only a compass-bearing for a guide. Route choice is your own problem.

And so it came to pass that as I ran off the Apronfull Hill* side of the Pendle hump down into Asshenden Clough I felt my first twinges of cramp in my thighs. And I was only halfway round the course. Halfway that is in terms of distance. But the serious climbing, the climb out of Asshenden Clough, the climb up the Big Dipper and the climb up the aptly named Big End were still ahead of me.

I would for safety-first reasons choose a longer route which I knew by heart rather than take any short-cuts in the poor visibility and the uncomfortable easterly wind; a nagging wind which reduced all but the hardiest fell-runners to little more than walking pace, and many to a shuffle, on the wide summit plateau where the terrain consists of millions of waterlogged ankle-spraining tussocks, some old stone walls and a maze of peat groughs.

Choose the wrong line in many places and you could soon find yourself up to your knees in watery peat, a soft black substance guaranteed to suck the very shoes from your feet even as your tired legs work laboriously to extricate themselves from the dark trap.

Having survived everything that Pendle Hill could throw at me, and having somehow negotiated the 20-odd miles of my route choice and ascended and descended the required 5,000' and visited all 11 checks in the right order I arrived back where I had started from; the village of Barley.

Yes, I was near the tail-end of the field and more than a little bit tired but I'd done it. Yes, I'd had a bad run. It was not up to my ridiculously unrealistic expectations. I had wanted to be a good hour faster than I finally was. But then I heard of the reported 15 runners who didn't manage to get round and what they must have felt like having to retire from the race. And then I thought to myself, yes I had quite a bad run but really, my foolish ambition aside, it was not really so bad.

*Apronfull Hill is so-called because it was here that the Devil armed himself with an apronfull of rocks and angrily hurled them at Clitheroe Castle 5 miles away in the west. A large hole in the castle wall testifies to a direct hit.