Saturday, December 25, 2021

Searching for Our Ancestresses: A Travel to the Origin of Time


Emma Ardinghi, my great-grandmother, animated by deep-fake technologies. She was born in the 1860s and died in the 1930s. Not many of us have images of their ancestors of more than a century ago. But what if some ultra-advanced technology could show your ancestors all the way to back to the creation of the world? (image created on this site. To know more about Emma, see here.)

Let's imagine a magic trick, or maybe a time machine, or a DNA-reconstructing technology, or some unknown laws of physics. Something, anyway, that shows you your ancestresses, all of them, one by one in a long, long string of mothers that leads you far, far back in time, all the way to the beginning of life on Earth. You are looking maybe into a screen, maybe into a crystal ball, or maybe into the clear waters of a stream in the light of the Moon. Just imagine. 

Ten Generations (250 years). This stream of ten generations lasts ten minutes, one minute for each ancestress. The first face is our mother, of course. You know her well. You see her as a young woman, as you saw her in many old photos. Then, there appears your Grandmother, again as a young woman. Maybe you met her, maybe you remember her only from some faded pictures. She looks a little like you, same skin color and same eyes.  As new images appear you see faces you had never seen and the parade stops with the face of a woman who is your ancestor of 10 generations ago. She was born around 250 years before you, in a century when almost everyone was a peasant and there existed no such things as electricity, cars, or radio and tv. She has the same skin color as you, the same shape of eyes and nose, and probably a similar hair color. Let's assume that she is from Europe or North America and, in this case, she is most likely white.  She wears a long cotton skirt and a shirt under a wool corset. She also wears a head cap and wooden sandals, no makeup on her face, her only ornament is a hairpin that she uses to keep her hair in a bun. She looks strong, in good physical shape, not a trace of fat on her body. Her husband appears behind her, a peasant wearing simple clothes and wooden sandals. In the background, you see the brick walls of the house. The windows are small and have wooden shutters. In a corner, a large fireplace. Although she is linked to you by a series of ten generations, her genetic imprint on you has been so diluted that she doesn't look very much like you. Still, if you look into her eyes, you feel a certain kindness, a certain sensation of familiarity. From wherever the image comes from, she locks her eyes into yours and smiles before fading. 

100 Generations (2000 years). Now the images change on the screen every six seconds. In ten minutes you see a hundred ancestresses, one after the other, separated by about 20 years from each other. Tall and not so tall, with long hair, short hair, sturdy, thin, lean, smiling, or maybe sad. There is a certain continuity with these images, the skin color remains about the same as yours: if you are black, they are black, and if you are white, they are white. And if you have slant eyes, they have slant eyes, too. But if you are blond, or you have clear-colored eyes, you'll see this feature disappearing: the eyes of your ancestresses gradually becoming brown, and their hair turns dark brown or black. When you arrive at the end of the sequence, you see someone who lived around 2000 years ago, at the time of the Roman Empire in its highest glory. She looks sturdy, but a little worn out by work and fatigue. She may wear a linen tunic under a heavy woolen cape. She may be a citizen of a large city, or someone inhabiting a small village.  Behind her, her husband shows up. He is wearing similar clothes, a tunic, and a woolen mantle. Behind them, a brick wall with no windows, a fireplace in a corner. You perceive a simple wooden bed and a door. She doesn't look very much like you but, as you look into her face, you note a certain fire in her dark eyes. She is proud to be a citizen of the city or of the village where she lives. She smiles with an air of satisfaction at seeing that remote descendant of hers. For a moment, you are lost in those black eyes of her, then she fades away, and the parade restarts.

1000 generations (15 thousand years). Now the faces flash even faster, less than one second after each other. You see flickering faces, giving you just a quick glance of a few details: a hairpin, earrings, and an especially bright smile. These women maintain the same skin color you have and the same eye shape. But they look robust and sturdy, in good physical shape. The flickering stops with a woman appearing in front of you, looking straight at you. Let's assume that she is white. She wears a jacket and a gown in tanned skin. Around her neck, a leather necklace with hanging ivory teeth, maybe of a shark. Her hair is black, kept together by a leather lace at the back. Around her, you perceive a hut made of animal skin, mammoth tusks planted vertically in the soil are holding the skins together and a fire is burning at the center. Behind her, you see her husband. He wears the same kind of leather clothes and you see a stone-tipped lance leaning against the leather wall. You can almost smell the burned fat of the animals in the hut. You look at her face. She doesn't look like you, not at all. But she has a certain air of pride that you recognize as universal among humans. She smiles at you, she seems to be happy to see this descendant of hers that she sees for such a short time. Then, she fades away.

10,000 generations (150,000 years). It is a whirl of faces that you see dancing on the screen. What you notice most is how the skin of your ancestresses is becoming darker and darker. As the movement stops, you are looking into the face of a black woman. She has curly brown hair, black eyes looking straight into yours. She is tall, she looks athletic. She wears a necklace made with seashells and she wears only a leather belt around her waist as she stands in the bright sun. You know that she is living somewhere in Africa and, behind her, you see the blue of the Ocean. In the distance, the savannah extends all the way to the horizon. Around her, you see stones arranged in circles, traces of a campground where she lives, together with her group. You see her man standing behind her. Like her, he is tall and athletic, wearing only a leather belt around his waist. He holds a stone-tipped spear in his hands. An abyss of time separates you from her, and yet, somehow you recognize each other. You look into her eyes, she looks into yours. She smiles, although she looks a little perplexed at seeing this weird descendant of hers, so remote from her. But she seems to know that her descendants will cross that vast desert, spreading in the Northern forests and everywhere on Earth. She smiles at you as she says something that you don't understand, but that may be a charm of good luck. You smile back as she fades away.

100,000 generations. (one million years). What you see now is a continuous transformation, a morphing. The faces of your ancestresses change, shrink, their bones shift, they develop a pronounced brow ridge. Their skin remains dark, and when the sequence stops, you are in front of the face of this remote ancestress of yours, separated from you by one million years.  You see her standing in the open, among rocks and animal bones. She is completely naked, her skin mostly hairless. She is not tall, but not so much shorter than you. Behind her, a flat savannah's landscape with shrubs and isolated trees. She is different, alien, with her broad nose, her flat skull under her black, long hair. You know that she is a member of the species called "homo erectus," not the same species you belong to, and you are tempted to call her "female," rather than "woman."  And yet, she partakes something of the human nature, you can't miss that. She has round breasts, and rounded buttocks, a human trait that other primates do not share. Nearby, you see her man, holding a hand axe in his hands. She is linked to you by an incredibly long series of motherhoods, each one an improbable event, and yet that chain led exactly to you.  You think for a moment at how a hundred thousand times a man and a woman, your ancestors, mated to generate the unlikely series of creatures that led to what you are. You look at each other in the eyes. Across a huge chasm of millennia, she nods at you, smiling, a gesture unchanged over such a long time. Then, she fades away

One million generations (10 million years). Now you are rushing to the remote origins of the creatures we call "hominina." As the face morphs in front of you, gradually it becomes something not fully human. The sequence stops as you are in front of a face. Still a face, yes, but not the face of a sapiens. You are looking at a female of a different species. She is hairy, small, and sitting in a forested area together with other members of her group. The male is bigger than her, and he looks suspiciously in your direction. You know that these creatures are common ancestors not just to you, but also to chimpanzees and gorillas. She looks at you, tilting her head a little as if she were surprised. You smile at her, she does not respond in kind, but she smacks her lips in your direction. A kiss from an ancestress of you who lived 10 million years ago. Then, the image fades away.

Ten million generations (100 million years). Now the creatures you see morphing on the screen rapidly cease having a face, they now have a snout. You see furry creatures quivering on the screen. The sequence stops to give you a glimpse of a four-footed creature that looks at you, puzzled, for a moment, before scuttling away, disappearing among the vegetation. Was that your ancestress? Yes, she was.  

A hundred million generations (400 million years). Creatures smaller and smaller appear on the screen, they rapidly lose their fur, they become flat, lizard-like animals. Smaller and smaller, until they disappear and you are facing the seashore from an empty beach in the sun. You know that somewhere, under the surface, a female creature is swimming. An extremely remote ancestress of yours. 

A billion generations (one billion years ago). You are still looking at the sea. An ocean of time goes by and nothing happens. You only know that, down there, there is something alive, quivering, changing. Microscopic unicellular creatures are busy reproducing themselves by mitosis, splitting themselves in two. They are no more males and females, yet they are the origin of what you are, there, below the surface of that remote ocean. 

10 billion generations (5 billion years ago). Now the view moves underwater. In the darkness, you dimly perceive submarine mountains spewing gas bubbles everywhere. You know that those mounds are the factories where organic life is being created. It is strange to think that your so-remote ancestor is not anymore a living creature, but an organic molecule. As you watch, the sea boils in a great turmoil as you enter the Hadean, the age of hell. Then, everything fades into darkness. Before the scene goes away you have a glimpse of large, bright eyes looking at you. The Goddess herself is there, dancing in the emptiness of space while she creates the world. Gaia, the mother of us all. 


Some images. None of them refers to a specific description in the text of this post, but they can give us some idea of what our ancestresses may have been looking like. 

This woman lived in Tuscany probably during the 2nd century BC, more than 2000 years ago. We know her name, "Larthia Seianti." She was Etruscan, a rich woman (note the armilla bracelet on her arm) who could afford an elaborate sculpture over her sarcophagus. It is a realistic portrait, at least in part. And, curiously, she looks a lot like a Tuscan friend of mine, living in Tuscany nowadays. She is likely one of her ancestress, just as an ancestress of mine. 

The reconstruction of the face of a Neolithic woman who lived about 7,500 years ago in the area that is now called Gibraltar. She has been nicknamed "Calpeia" from the ancient name of the Gibraltar mountain, "Mons Calpe." DNA analysis shows that she, or her immediate ancestors, came to the Iberian peninsula most likely from Anatolia by boat. (source)

The "Venus of Brassenpouy," discovered in 1894 in Southern France. It is a  portrait of someone who lived more than 20,000 years ago. We cannot say whether it is realistic or not, just as we cannot be completely sure that it is a woman's face. But it is perhaps the earliest recongizabòe portrait ever made in human history.  

An impression of how a Paleolithic woman could have looked like, living maybe 20,000-50,000 years ago in Europe. Note her dark skin: it is a remnant of her African ancestry. (source)


A reconstruction of the face of a Neanderthal woman (from Earth Archives). She might have lived a few hundred thousand years ago. Several things in this image are uncertain, but note her heavy brow ridges, a typical Neanderthal characteristic. Note her eyes and her skin: the light color is a characteristic of people living in Northern regions. Is she an ancestor of some of us? It is not completely certain but, yes, many of us have Neanderthal genes in their DNA.

The reconstruction of a female Australopithecus who could have been living in Africa some 2 million years ago. If she had the typical human metabolism, she must have been capable of cooling by sweating. It is a feature incompatible with a thick body hair. And, indeed, she is shown with sparse hair, although she may well have had none. Note also her human-like round breasts. It is a likely secondary sexual characteristics of hominins which tend to stand upright most of the time. An ancestress of ours? Maybe. (source)



Sunday, December 12, 2021

Anastassia Makarieva: Biotic Regulation in Florence


Anastassia Makarieva  (center) receives a gift of appreciation for her talk in Florence, on Dec 11th, 2021, from Nicola and Anna in the form of a jewel made by Nicola, jeweler in Florence.

We had the pleasure of a visit to Florence of Anastassia Makarieva, one of the world's most creative and brilliant scientists in the field of ecosystems. Anastassia, together with Viktor Gorshkov, is the originator of the concepts of "biotic regulation" and "biotic pump" -- both fundamental in our understanding of the functioning of the ecosphere. Together, they mean that the current climate change is only in part the direct consequence of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but in significant part the result of the human perturbation of the ecosystem, and in particular the destruction of the old-growth forests. 

So, Anastassia carries a message: it is vital for the planet to keep forests alive and in their pristine state. And that means just what the word says: forests, not just trees. Those politicians who compete for who plants more trees are just doing greenwashing. They may be harming the planetary ecosystem more than helping it. A tree, alone or as part of a plantation, does not have the same balancing effect and water carrying system that a forest has. A message that's not easy to understand for the current generation of decision-makers, used to the concept that a tree is worth only what profit it can provide once it is cut and sold on the market. Nevertheless, we must try to pass this message. 

For Anastassia's talk in Florence, we experimented with a new format of presentation. To have Anastassia give an "official" talk, I should have gone through I don't even know what mass of paperwork, and then her talk would have been attended only by the few academics who still have some interest in creative research. All that in a super-safe, soulless room. The university, nowadays, has become something like Dracula's castle, with the difference that it is a scary place even in the daytime. 

To say that these official seminars can be disappointing is an understatement. A few years ago I organized a talk by a Russian scientist on the question of the supply of gas from Russia to Europe. You would think it is an interesting subject. Well, the attendees were exactly zero, besides me, the sponsor of the talk, and the Russian scientist herself. And at that time there was no Covid yet to make people afraid even of their shadows.   

So, this time we decided to play it differently: a colleague of mine kindly offered her living room to host Anastassia's seminar and we announced it on the social channels in addition to the regular university channels. We also offered drinks and snacks. We didn't know what to expect and we had no idea of how many people would bother taking a trip to the hills near Florence to listen to a Russian researcher speaking in English about her research. 

It was a remarkable success. Not a big crowd, but we collected about 25 persons, of whom only 3 were professional scientists (I think they were those who would have shown up had we organized the talk in the university). And they all listened with extreme interest to Anastassia's talk, fascinated by the story of how the ecosphere stabilizes climate and how the forest's biotic pump creates wind and rain. When it was the time of telling the story of how Anastassia and Viktor survived for months in the boreal forests in a tent, with bears strolling nearby, the audience was completely captivated. The informal party after the seminar was an occasion to build up friendship among people who share the same views of the world, even though they are not necessarily scientists.  

There is something to learn, here. Science is not a Moloch to worship, nor a dictator to be obeyed. And it is not even a conventicle of hyperspecialists who know so much about so little that they can be said to know everything about nothing. Science is one of the several possible embodiments of the concept of "philosophy," the love of knowledge. It is something that does not belong to anybody, it belongs to everybody. And that was clear at Anastassia's talk. 

h/t Benedetta Treves and all those who helped organize this seminar. To know more about the biotic pump and biotic regulation, see the site

Friday, November 26, 2021

Anastassia Makarieva on the role of forests in Earth's climate


If you can, do spend half an hour to watch the talk that Anastassia Makarieva gave at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) on 24.11.2021.

It is not easy stuff if you are not familiar with the field of atmospheric water circulation, but it is worth making the effort. Anastassia and her colleagues are doing nothing less than revolutionizing the way we understand the role of forests in the ecosystem. Rather than being a passive entity for humans to make chairs and cricket bats, forests may actually be what makes life on Earth possible, they are part of the great planetary holobiont that uses forests to regulate itself. 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Secret of the Long Life of a Good Holobiont

Liliana Lippi, my mother in law, died last week at 101. You see her  in a picture taken for her 101th birthday, last July. with her two daughters and her son (on the left, my wife, Grazia). She also had four grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. What was the secret of her long life? Probably not a single factor, but perhaps the main one was that she managed to attain a certain harmony with the people and the things that surrounded her, as a good holobiont should do. 

I already wrote about Liliana's Longevity in a previous post published for her 100th birthday. Here is a longer and updated version.

Liliana Lippi was born in Florence, Italy, in 1920. She arrived into a completely different world from the one she left. When she came of age, in the 1930s, there were no TVs, no refrigerators, no supermarkets, no fast food, few homes had phones, very few people had cars. And her home had no central heating system: in winter she would sometimes wake up in the morning seeing that the water in the washbasin near her bed had frozen solid at the top. 

Her life as a young woman was typical of that age, when middle-class women, as she was, were supposed to be housewives and no more. She could cook, sew, clean, and perform other household skills. She never learned how to drive a car -- she couldn't even ride a bicycle. As most Florentines at that time, she couldn't swim and she was always a little afraid of the sea. No one remembers having ever seen her in a swimsuit. 

That doesn't mean her life wasn't rich in emotions and satisfactions. She had several suitors and the one who finally could touch her heart was a young Sicilian student who was studying at the Art Institute of Florence, close to where she lived. You may wonder how courting could take place in an age without telephones and social media: Liliana told me that the boy she eventually married would walk up and down along the street where she lived until she noticed him! You can find the same technique to get the attention of girls in Boccaccio's Decameron, written six centuries earlier! Probably, Sumerian boys would do exactly the same thousands of years ago. 

Liliana's sentimental life was adventurous. One reason was that, at the time, it wasn't so usual for a Florentine girl to have a Sicilian fiancĂ©. Southerners were often shunned in Florence, just like Africans are, nowadays. Consider that the family of the boy (Giovanni) was not rich, and you have a recipe for contrasts in the family. Liliana's father, Mario, was never happy about this prospective marriage, but one of the characteristics of Liliana's personality was that she was stubborn about her choices. She wanted that boy and she had him, despite all that happened, including the war starting, Giovanni being drafted and sent to fight in Africa, then coming back to Florence and being wounded at a leg in a gunfight among the factions battling in the civil war. 

Eventually, Giovanni and Liliana did manage to get married in 1946. Then, they both moved to Sicily over a slow steam train that took two days to travel from Firenze to the city of Messina, where Giovanni's parents lived. Liliana remembers Sicily as an exotic place: a sort of wonderland. She and Giovanni were met at the train station by Giovanni's relatives who had arranged their transportation using a traditional, brightly colored Sicilian cart pulled by a donkey. And the Sicilians, in turn, were awed by this Florentine girl whom they considered a princess, of a sort. 

It seems that Liliana had a good time in Sicily, the problem was that there was no job there for Giovanni and that the home where they were living hosted the whole family, Giovanni's parents, and his sisters and brothers. When Liliana got pregnant of her first child, they came back to Florence where they settled in the house that her grandfather had bought for the whole family. Giovanni worked as a woodcarver, a skill he had learned at the Art School, while Liliana was a housewife. She had children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Giovanni died in 2003 at 89, Liliana survived him for almost two decades, dying at 101 in peace at her home, in her bed, surrounded by her children. She had been living in that same home since 1929. 

Despite some problems typical of old age (mainly arthritis), Liliana lived a reasonably healthy life up to her last 2-3 weeks. Remarkably, up to the last moments, she showed no signs of dementia, so common with old people nowadays. Of course, she would forget things and sometimes lose track of the conversation, but 15 days before dying, she was still sewing without needing glasses. Up to the very last day, she recognized her children and she was obviously happy to have them close to her. 

So, what was Liliana's secret for such a long life? Diet, exercise, medicines? Or what?

Let's start with food. Among the things she never ate there was junk food: pizza, hamburgers, Chinese food (she didn't even know what Chinese food was), or soft drinks. She didn't drink alcohol, not even wine. About what she ate, hers was a relatively high-protein diet in the form of eggs, chicken and rabbit meat, and also the boiled meat used to prepare the soup, a habit reported to have scandalized the British travelers who visited Florence at the time of the "Grand Tour. She also loved the fat part of the meat, including the fat coming with prosciutto (ham). She also drank milk every day, in the morning and before going to bed. About carbohydrates, she ate bread, very rarely sweets, and she was also fond of the kind of Italian soup we call "minestra in brodo." Personally, I hate it but maybe should reconsider after seeing how well it worked with her! In terms of vegetables, Finally, she was not especially fond of vegetables, which always appeared cooked at her table-- she seemed to be somewhat suspicious of salads. In short, not a ketogenic diet, but surely not vegetarian.

What else? She didn't smoke, she drank a little coffee, but that was her only recreational drug. She had an active life, but she wouldn't even dream of "exercising" in a gym or running along the street. She did watch TV, a little, when she was free of the various chores at home. But she never was interested in the news or in politics. Not an intellectual, she was nevertheless a voracious reader of all kinds of books, newspapers, and magazines.  

In terms of medicines, she avoided them as much as possible. When she was in her 70s she was found to have very high blood pressure and her doctor had her taking the full spectrum of pressure-lowering drugs: beta-blockers, diuretics, and other stuff that I can't exactly classify. I don't know how effective these drugs were. In any case, she never took statins to reduce her cholesterol level which was supposed to be in the normal range. Or maybe not, I have no idea of when she last checked that, possibly 10 years ago or more. 

During the Covid period, her physician insisted to vaccinate her with the Pfizer thing, last spring. I don't think it had any effect, good or bad, we never had her tested for the coronavirus since she showed no symptoms of it. What I can tell you is that we never isolated her, never had her wear a mask, her relatives newer wore a mask when staying with her, and we never prevented her from seeing her great-granddaughters. She enjoyed their company a lot, nearly up to the last moments of her life.

In the end, I don't want to stretch too much the analogy with holobionts, but there is something in living a good and long life that has to do with attaining that kind of harmonious equilibrium that is the characteristic of holobionts. They are creatures living in symbiosis with each other in a non-hierarchical network. We humans can do that if we are well connected with the other humans surrounding us. Of course, there does not exist a perfect set of interactions but, on the whole, is the way we are built to live: part of the human social holobiont. 

Liliana surely was a good social holobiont. I told you that she was stubborn, but that was when it was about herself. With the others, she was very flexible, never trying to impose anything on anyone, accepting things as they came.  And she had a rich social life: her home was always open to relatives and friends coming for lunch -- she was the hub of a remarkable network of interactions among people. No one seems to remember her going mad at something or someone. Maybe this is the secret of a long life, maybe not. And so it goes. 

Here is Liliana for her 100th birthday. You see with her daughter (Grazia) granddaughter (Donata), and great-granddaughter (Aurora). All of them are daughters of the Goddess Gaia, connected over nearly one century of life, a snapshot of the great chain of beings that keeps turning and turning, and has been doing that for billions of years, and will keep doing that for many more years. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Meeting the Goddess Gaia in a Supermarket!

Maybe this image is not so impressive as you would expect the Goddess of Earth, Gaia, to be. Still, it is remarkable that nowadays you can walk into a supermarket and then, suddenly, be exposed to an epiphany of the Goddess herself. 

No doubt, it is her. Gaia, sometimes compassionate and merciful, and sometimes cruel and ruthless. She who rules the ecosystem, she who embodies the ecosystem, she who is the ecosystem. Gaia, the supreme holobiont, the ultimate living being, the apex of the great ecosystemic fractal, the product of billions of years of evolution. 

And there she is, smiling and at ease among the aisles of a suburban supermarket. Perhaps just the place where she should be as the Goddess of abundant life. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Anastassia Makarieva Speaks About the role of Forests in Protecting Earth's Climate


Anastassia Makarieva in a recent talk recommendsed the preservation of the natural forest holobiont:

International climate discourse mentions forests in two contexts: as carbon deposits and as renewable sources of materials and energy.

If implemented in global policies, this narrow view on forests can, contrary to expectations, worsen climate destabilization. Two crucial aspects are undervalued and understudied.

The first is the major role of forests as regulators of the various aspects of the water cycle, including cloud cover (a major source of climate uncertainties) and ocean-to-land and transcontinental transport of atmospheric moisture.

The second is the difference in the environmental functions of primary forests, largely unperturbed by anthropogenic activities, versus exploited tree stands. While the former have evolved to maximize environmental homeostasis, the latter were selected to maximize economic productivity. The two cannot be maximized simultaneously.

Successful strategies of climate change mitigation should prioritize preservation of still extant self-sustainable natural forests for humanity to continue benefiting from their climate stabilization potential.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

How Will our Descendants Remember us?


You see, there is a succession process for forest recovery. We first have shrub grasses after some disturbance like fire, then it takes time for that to be replaced by trees. So if we are lucky our grand grandchildren will be walking in such forest, so this dimension should also be stressed. We are working for the future we are not just securing for ourselves some two dozens years of better comfort. Rather, we send a message through centuries such that people will remember us and walking into this forest along the brookes and rivers they will remember us with gratitude for our consciousness and dedication.

Anastassia Makarieva 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)