75. Communism in Antarctica during the Triassic
Finally, Ryan tackles Communism in Antarctica during the Triassic. Find out what it takes to dig in the polar extremes and meet the bulldog-walrus-pig-lizard that lived there millions of years ago.
Well, comrade, in this long-anticipated episode, Ryan heads south, way south, down to the coldest, iciest, and most alien place on Planet Earth… Antarctica!
It doesn’t have an official name because it’s a continent, not a country, and it’s not claimed by any country either – so, it’s just commonly referred to as 'Antarctica', or the ‘Antarctic Continent’
If you look at a globe of the world, the white bit on top is the Arctic, and the white bit at the bottom is the Antarctic. It’s the home of the South Pole, which means that if you go to Antarctica and decide to go any further south, you’re going to actually start heading North.
Surrounded by the Southern Ocean, Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent in the world, covering an area of about 14 million square kilometres (5.4 million square miles) – 1.4 times the size of Europe – or roughly 26 Frances.
Unlike the North Pole, which is a floating pile of ice, Antarctica has land underneath an icy exterior. And there is a lot of ice – 98% of the entire landmass is ice in fact, and it’s thick, with average depths being about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) deep, but reaching up to 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) at it’s deepest – that’s a lot of ice – about the depth of 5,280 penguins all stacked on top of each other.
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth – so hostile to life that scientists consider it to be the closest thing to Mars on Earth. It is the largest desert in the world, with some areas (known as the Dry Valleys) not seeing rain for the last 2 million years
On a good day, the temp is around 10.4 degrees F (-12 degrees Celsius), but on bad days it can reach as low as -130 degrees F (-90 degrees Celsius) - which is said to be so cold that it will instantaneously give frostbite to any exposed skin - or - more dangerously, freeze a banana so solid you can use it as a hammer.
This Ice Continent isn’t barren though – in fact, it is the unlikely home to various wildlife – from penguins, to seals, to birds, whales and everyone’s favourite – algae!
In terms of humans though.. Antarctica isn’t considered home to anyone, it’s broadly governed by a treaty of around 54 countries – all working towards promoting scientific research and restricting military activity.
But it is often inhabited - scientists descend there to live in research stations during the summer months, where at its most active, you might find a total population of ~5,000 people.
It’s not going to surprise you to learn that there is no capital city, but if there were to be one, it would most likely be McMurdo Station.. an American base which is the largest scientific research facility on the continent.
English and Russian are the most commonly spoken languages and the flag is a blue background with a plain-white map of the continent.
Antarctica does not have a national animal, but it wouldn’t be hard to make a case for the Emperor Penguin, the tallest and heaviest of all penguin species – and a bird which can dive up to 500m underwater.
There is no national anthem either so instead Ryan composed one, and called it, ‘Hymn of the Southern Expanse’. In making it, he pulled together some sounds of nature as a symphony to capture the magical and mysterious spirit of the place.
The song included three Antarctic sounds.
1. Weddell Seals calling to each other as they swim underneath an ice sheet
2. Vocalisations of an Emperor Penguin colony as they look after their eggs
3. Chilling whistles of Katabatic winds which can howl across the landscape at up to 200mph
And it was quite a chilling sound.
Penguins projectile poop! When a penguin needs to poop, it will stand in place, raise its tail, and shoot its faeces out behind it, a behaviour scientists believe helps to keep their nests clean – but presumably not their neighbours. The force they use to eject the feces is strong enough to send it flying over a meter away, this is a rectal pressure roughly half a kilogram per square centimeter (about 6 psi) and if you can’t picture that - it’s roughly the equivalent to the pressure that’s built up in a shaken bottle of champagne. If a bit less celebratory.
Antarctica is the only continent without a time zone! There is no official time-zone in Antarctica. People that work there just tend to keep the time of the country they come from, or the time of the people who run the supply lines bringing them food.
And Finally.. there is no national dish, but if there was one it’d probably be Pemmican. Pemmican is the number one food on expeditions in the Antarctic – it is referred to as the “ultimate survival food”. It is lightweight, long-lasting, and served in a bar so it doesn’t need cooking. It’s made from dried meat, fruit and tallow (which is rendered animal fat) - it provides 2,500 calories a bar – and given that the average Antarctic explorer needs to consume about 5,000 calories a day.
Antarctica as we know it today, i.e. down south and covered in lots of ice, began forming around 34 million years ago. During this time, a drop in carbon dioxide levels meant that global temperatures cooled and an ice sheet started to form over the land.
Over time, glaciation increased, and the ice sheet got wider and thicker, until around 14 million years ago when it had finally expanded to the form we recognise now.
It’s unclear when Early Man first made themselves known, in fact, the presence of humanity in Antarctica is vague up until much more recently.
Some people believe that ancient civilizations living 10,000’s years ago might have been capable of reaching the continent during the last ice age when the continent was warmer than it is today. They suggest that some early humans may have lived there in small coastal settlements, or used the landmass as a stepping stone to migrate from Asia to South America.
But, so far, there is no evidence to support this theory. So we look to records instead.
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, he spent time observing symmetry and balance in nature, and during his musings, he hypothesized that there must be a large landmass in the southern hemisphere to balance out the large Arctic landmass in the north.
So, other Greek scholars, such as Ptolemy, started to refer to this proposed southern landmass as "Terra Australis" or "Terra Australis Incognita" (the unknown Southern land).
This name stuck around for centuries, with maps of the world being created that showed Terra Australis located somewhere at the bottom.
Mysteriously, a small number of maps created in the 1500s appear to show a detailed coastline around Terra Australis, the most notable of these maps being the Piri Reis map of 1513.
Created by an Ottoman admiral and cartographer called Piri Reis, it has notes on it which shows that it was compiled from 30 much older maps – something that was common in the past with mapmakers.
But what causes some controversy about the Piri Reis map is that the detailed coastline of Terra Australis would only have been visible when the ice wasn’t there, and that must mean some early mapmakers were present there sometime around 26,500 years ago - during the last ice age – and somehow their ancient maps found their way to Piri Reis to include on his own.
To be clear, this idea is not generally accepted by mainstream historians, but it’s fun to think about.
The first somewhat reliable source of an actual human presence in Antarctica comes from oral Polynesian tales, specifically from Māori groups, who claim that 1,400 years ago a Polynesian explorer called Hui Te Rangiora and his crew voyaged into Antarctic waters aboard a vessel named Te Ivi o Atea
After that, we have to look much closer to our time period to find humans there, with some claiming that American seal-hunter, John Davis, was the first to step onto the ice in 1821.
But in terms of official records, the man attributed with being the first guy there is James Weddell who reached Terra Australis on February 2, 1823.
Following Weddle’s visit, a number of other nations sent expeditions to explore the south, and it’s in 1890 when the first map appears with the name Antarctica.
Believed to have been created by Scottish cartographer George Bartholomew, the name "Antarctica" comes from the Greek word "antark-tikos," meaning "opposite to the Arctic" or "opposite to the north".
Between 1895 and 1917, we enter the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration". This is a period of various bold adventures to the southern ice cap, with explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott leading dramatic expeditions to the South Pole.
In 1956, the British built the Halley Research Station, the first permanent human settlement.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, first by 12 countries (and now over 50) and this means that today, Antarctica is a place of scientific research – serving up notable discoveries, including the detection of neutrinos, a test-bed for future space exploration, and as a frozen store of evidence for past climate change.
In fact, in a world today impacted by climate disaster, Antarctica plays a crucial role in scientific efforts to help reverse these effects - or at least in avoiding catastrophe.
So, while Antarctica may appear a barren landscape, with zero cultural richness, or human history – it is in fact an untouched beauty with a scientific importance that makes sure that it will remain a fascinating and crucial part of our planets future for a long time to come.
What is Communism?
Well.. It starts in the 1800s, during an intense period of global expansion, industrialization and urbanization at a level not seen before . A large number of governments, institutions and corporations are engaged in a system of politics that puts property rights and the interests of business owners first.
Laws, regulations, and policies were being created which encouraged a growing divide between the wealthy and the working class.
This system – known as the capitalist system – caused a lot of people to feel like they were cogs in a machine unjustly designed to make other people super wealthy.
Inevitably, this dissatisfaction leads to social unrest and even violence.
People were seeking an alternative, fairer system – and that’s where Communism emerged - in the form of a manifesto written in 1848 by two visionary thinkers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
In this manifesto they describe the creation of a society where class is eliminated, where private property is abolished, where resources, wealth and power are shared among the population equally.
A bold and controversial theory, and the manifesto resonates with a huge number of people who see Communism as a political movement that could make their lives better.
So, debates were held, revolutions took place, and the course of the 20th century changed shape as the politics of a growing number of nations (particularly in the East) started to embrace the Communist ideology.
Unfortunately, the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft agley, and nation leaders saw this as an opportunity to use state ownership as a means of controlling the people and the economy – and many nations became authoritarian regimes, suppressing individual freedoms, stifling dissent, concentrating power in the hands of a few, and undermining the rule of law.
Most notably, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Josef Stalin, and the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong, both nations isolating themselves from the rest of the world and inflicting horrendous human rights abuses on their people.
In the West, where countries like the United States continued to embrace capitalism, they start to see communism as an existential threat – the poster-child for anti-freedom and anti-democratic thought.
And so, throughout the 20th century, tensions increased to a point where full-scale warfare became a distinct possibility.
Fortunately, this never materialised, and instead a Cold War raged between the United States and the Soviet Union for 46 years, stopping only in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union - and a desire from both sides for tensions to ease.
Today, only a few countries remain officially communist, such as, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos.
But, even whilst they claim to be communist, they have had to modify the ideology to incorporate some capitalistic elements – after all, the practicalities of living a purely Communist ideal in a modern world has just proven too difficult.
That being said, the socialist tenets of Communism have never really disappeared, particularly those that aspire to equality and social justice.
In a world where 2,000 billionaires control much of the global wealth, and inequality and exploitation remain common complaints among people living in a constant state of either economic survival or poverty – the ideals behind Communism remain alluring.
The Triassic was a 50-million-year period of time between 252 and 201 million years ago – sandwiched between the end of the Permian and the start of the Jurassic periods.
It was a time when the map of the world looked very different, with all of Earth's landmasses huddled together in one supercontinent called Pangaea.
It was hot and dry and there were a lot of deserts - and the reason for that, was because The Triassic begins immediately after a catastrophic extinction event which marked the end of the Permian.
This event, known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or ‘the Great Dying’, was so bad that it is widely considered to be the most severe extinction event in all of Earth’s history, with the elimination of around 96% of marine species, 70% of land animals, and many families of insects disappearing entirely.
So, the first 10 million years of the Triassic was really a time of recovery, with new and remaining ecosystems trying to start afresh after almost total devastation.
We see new creatures emerge, evolve and diversify. On land, the first true mammals and dinosaurs appear, and in the oceans, the first modern-looking fish. Pterosaurs flap their wings and take to the air. Conifers start to grow, and forests appear.
Then, suddenly, just as it started, so it ended.. 50 million years after the Triassic began, yet another extinction event hits, and the slate is wiped clean again, making way for the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs went on to rule the Earth.
Professor Roger Smith
To help with this episode, Ryan recruited the help of a paleobiologist and palaeontologist who has conducted field research on three separate occasions in Antarctica to study the fossil record of the Permian and Triassic Professor Roger Smith, from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa.
He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and the Paleontological Society of London, and he’s a member of the Antarctic Scientific Committee and has undertaken three summer expeditions to Antarctica.
He’s made several important discoveries and is now considered a leading expert on the fossil record of early tetrapods and the evolution of archosauromorphs – the ancestors of mammals, reptiles, and birds.
Professor Smith pointed out, following the most severe extinction event in Earth's history, the most common land animal on Earth was the Lystrosaurus.
These were a creature so common that it was estimated to account for roughly 90% of all vertebrates on land. If cows were to make up the same proportion of land vertebrates today, we would be talking about 270 billion cows (there’s currently a billion).
But what did Lystrosaurus look like? Well, as Professor Smith said, Lystrosaurus means ‘shovel-nosed lizard’ or ‘shovel-nosed reptile’ – and that’s pretty accurate, because Lystrosaurus is best described as a creature that looks like a cross between something like a bulldog, a pig, a walrus and a lizard.
On average, it was roughly the same size as a domestic dog at around 0.5 metre (2 feet) in length, but fossils have been found which show that it could grow up to somewhere about 2.5 meters (8 feet) in length – the same size as an American alligator or an African lion.
It had a stout, bulky, barrel-shaped body, with a stubby tail, and legs which spread out slightly to the side to help carry the weight of its body which hung down low against the ground, like a crocodile.
It probably had a rough and scaly hide, like a lizard, but it’s most notable feature was its head, which, as its name suggests, was big and blocky, with two tusks that curved downwards, like a walrus, but with a short snout, and a beak-like mouth that it used to bite at low-lying vegetation – things like plants and roots.
It had a small brain too and that implies a limited range of behaviour. And THAT is where we find our link with Communism.
Communism has a handful of basic principles showing how society should be organised - and Lystrosaurus did too - with it’s need to eat, sleep, reproduce and survive.
Both are also characterized by a lack of hierarchy, with Lystrosaurus flourishing likely due to communal burrowing, shared grazing grounds, and a general lack of competition.
Lystrosaurus was able to demonstrate an incredible ability to survive in harsh environments, just like Communism did, enduring through the worst forms of adversity and repression - such as a brutal civil war in 1923, the devastation of the second world war, and later, the long and draining impacts of the Cold War.
Lystrosaurus, like Communism, forged a home for themselves, adapting to their environments and becoming the dominant force in their environment.
And if you needed even more of a similarity between the two, the walrus-like face of Lystrosaurus looks an awful lot like the face of communist leader, Joseph Stalin.
The Red Star
As Professor Smith also described, some fascinating fossils that have been found in Antarctica belonging to species that found a way of enduring three months of darkness.
Of course, it wasn't entirely pitch black during those months, the night sky would have provided some light.
But what would a creature living in the darkness of an Antarctic winter 250 million years ago have seen, if it looked up into the sky?
On the face of it, it would look pretty similar.. moon, stars, comets, shooting stars, alien spaceships.. pretty much the stuff we’re familiar with seeing today.
But look a little closer, and you’ll see that some things were a little bit different.
First off, the Moon was closer to the Earth, not dramatically close, but enough that it would have appeared a little larger.
The Milky Way was visible, but it had a different arrangement of stars – and that’s because the position and distance of stars relative to Earth has changed significantly over 250 million years – and that’s not including the fact that many of the stars we see today just didn't exist then.
But there were some stars which would have been present in the night sky then and can still be seen today, stars which can shine for trillions of years, known as ‘lower-mass red dwarfs’ – or.. a Red Star.
And there’s your link!
Now, the Red Star also happens to be the symbol of revolutionary and socialist movements, since it was first adopted by Communists in 1917.
To them, the red represented the blood of workers struggling against oppression and the five points of the star depicted the fingers of a workers' hand.
The red star was used everywhere, from posters, to flags and even on uniforms, it was a widespread symbol of communism.
The Dutch beer company Heineken even changed its red star logo to white after World War II because they didn’t want it plastered with a communist symbol – only returning it to red when the USSR collapsed in 1991.
And so, yes, the red star is still used today, but is more generally used to signify leftist principles rather than pure communism itself, but it is that historical link with authoritarian regimes which means that the red star still remains powerfully emotive, with several Eastern European countries seeing it as so controversial that they’ve banned it entirely.
Either way, the red star remains an iconic symbol and it has journeyed through time and politics, from the age of Lystrosaurus to the age of socialism.
Working in Antarctica
Connecting Professor Smith's archaeological work in Antarctica with communist ideology might seem like a stretch, but there are some thematic elements.
Communism is grounded in Karl Marx's theory that material things shape the development of a society – what that basically means is that societies are not changed by thoughts and ideas but by real-life things, things like money, tools and resources.
And so, Marx turned to history to study how people in the past had organized their material things, their work, their resources . In looking at the past, Marx thought that he could better understand how societies develop and why significant changes have happened.
They encouraged collaboration between archaeologists, geologists, biologists and others – because they understood that by working together, these researchers could develop comprehensive insights into the historical past.
And that’s where we find some parallels between the values of communism and the collaborative nature of Antarctica expeditions.
Researchers like Professor Smith work interdependently, sharing resources, information, expertise - and relying on one another to survive the harsh climate.
There is no class distinction or hierarchy - in the context of their expedition, every member of the team contributes equally, regardless of their status or position back home.
Theirs is a collective search seeking to further humanity's knowledge, not serve private interests – and that’s something that Karl Marx would have approved of.
Side note... It is worth noting that not all historical or archaeological research was encouraged or accepted by Communist leaders in fact, there have been instances where historical findings contradicted or challenged the official ideology - and were therefore suppressed, with the scholars involved finding them censored or persecuted.
Like archaeologist Vasily Ravdonikas, who had his research into ancient Scythian civilizations banned because it contradicted the Marxist view of a unified historical progression. He was exiled to a labour camp where he spent 12 years in horrendous conditions, before returning to work as an archaeologist after Stalin’s death in 1953.
And he wasn’t alone, in fact, any archaeologist who focused on prehistory rather than confirming Marxist social evolution, faced censorship or loss of their academic position.
And that’s where the similarities end with Professor Smith’s work in Antarctica and Communism, because as far as we know, he hasn’t spent any time in a Siberian gulag.
Professor Smith also describes his first fossil discovery - a mongoose-sized insectivore that migrated from parts of Pangaea to Antarctica during the Triassic.
This migration reminded Ryan, still desperately in search of links, of the expansion of communism across various regions in the 20th century.
Communism's origins trace back to the 1848 Communist Manifesto, but it was the radical, revolutionary faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, known as the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, who successfully overthrew the Russian Government in 1917.
They seized power, and under Lenin's leadership became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, establishing themselves as the world’s first socialist state.
Even in a time without social media and 24/7 news, word got around about the success of the Bolsheviks pretty quickly, and the Russian ‘proof of concept’ became an inspiration to communist revolutionaries all over the world.
There was now a new model for how to structure their own society.
And the communist leadership in the USSR actively supported the adoption of other nation’s taking up the communist cause. In the early years after the Russian Revolution, Lenin saw the benefit in supporting the spread of communism worldwide.
Revolutionary movements around the world received funding, weapons, advisors and training. One estimate puts the amount spent by the USSR between 1917-1922 at over 900 million gold rubles, and by the end of the Cold War, somewhere between $10 to $20 billion or more trying to spread communism through various forms of aid and support.
The point is that the migration of Communism was a key policy and priority.
And it worked.. The Soviet Union was the catalyst for the spread of communism around the globe, from multiple countries in Eastern Europe, to China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, even parts of Africa adopted socialist principles.
And the similarities between the migration of communism and Professor Smith's Trirachodon don’t end there, because just like the Triassic creature, communism also migrated to Antarctica with the USSR’s arrival in 1950 when they laid claim to the continent.
Unlike Trirachodon though, they were not quite so successful, with Russia today serving as something of a consulting party member of the Antarctica treaty.
Professor Smith also talked about the discovery of a juvenile Sauropodomorph (picture a golden-retriever size Brontosaurus) – and, as he said, it’s on display in the Antarctic Dinosaurs exhibition in The Field Museum in Chicago.
He also mentioned that until his new find receives an official scientific name, the nickname it was given is the ‘Jolly Roger’ – named after him. And also providing yet another handy if tenuous link to communism.
‘The Jolly Roger’ is the name given to the infamous flag used by pirates - a black background with a white skull and crossbones in the centre.
Some people believe that the origin of the name ‘the Jolly Roger’ originates from an English corruption of the French words "le joli rouge", meaning “lovely red” – because French privateers used red flags - and red of course is the colour of Communism.
But the Jolly Roger is a symbol of Piracy – a type of revolutionary rebellion that opposes the established system and rejects the established hierarchy, just like some aspects of Communism.
In fact, Pirates and Marxists share a history of establishing stateless, classless societies where the means of production are collectively owned and controlled by the people.
It’s not a direct correlation, I admit, but there are some clear parallels – most notably the rejection of traditional capitalist economics in favour of an alternative system.
Pirates did, and I guess still do, create their own rules, their own codes of conduct, and certainly in the past they worked towards an idea of shared ownership and decision-making.
In the early 18th century for example, during the "Golden Age of Piracy", one of the most successful pirates was Bartholomew Roberts, also known as "Black Bart", and he was well known for equally dividing plunder among the crew based on role and responsibilities.
This has echoes of the Communist principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs".
In both Communism and Piracy, decisions were made democratically, with everyone having an equal say in the governance of their society.
If you want to hear more about Professor Smith, pop into an IMAX cinema – make sure to check out ‘Dinosaurs of Antarctica’, and I’ll pop a link to the trailer in the episode notes. It looks truly awesome.
But other than that, there you go, you asked and you received… Communism in Antarctica during the Triassic!