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Happy 20th Birthday, Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan!

Kristina Postnikova / Shutterstock.com

The largest country in Central Asia—it’s as big as all of Western Europe combined—turns 20 years old today, and to celebrate, here’s a list of ten random facts about everyone’s favorite Kazakh-speaking ‘Stan.

1. For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Borat, the fictional reporter invented by the English comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, hails from Kazakhstan. In Baron Cohen’s 2006 blockbuster movie, Borat describes his native land in less than flattering terms, as an impoverished region where prostitution and child marriage are rife, and people drink “horse urine” for fun. In response to such bad—if genuinely comedic—publicity, the Kazakhstan government bought full-page ads in The New York Times and the U.S. News and World Report, and commercials on CNN and the local ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., begging Americans to get to know the real Kazakhstan, too.

2. How You Like Them Apples?
Those Granny Smiths sitting in your fruit bowl right now? They’re the great- great- great- granddaughters of wild apples, Malus sieversii, which are originally from modern-day Kazakhstan. According to Christopher Robbins’ 2008 travel book, Apples Are From Kazakstan (required reading for any visitor of that wind-parched land), the wild apples were brought to the Middle East 2,300 years ago, where they were cultivated and eventually exported worldwide.

3. Tiptoe Through the…

Tulips are from the mountains within, and surrounding, modern-day Kazakhstan, too. They were also later cultivated in Turkey and then exported to Europe, causing what historians refer to as “Tulipmania” in the Netherlands. The 17th-century Dutch were reportedly so taken with the waxen flowers that a single bulb was sometimes sold for the price of an entire house in Amsterdam.

4. Horsing Around
Horses and cattle have been so vital to nomadic Kazakh culture for so long, a common greeting in the countryside asks not if you are OK, but “Are your cattle OK?” A 2009 archeological study found that people in modern day Kazakhstan are among the first in the world to tame horses, and to use them for riding, work, milk and meat. Besparmak, boiled hunks of horsemeat, is still on traditional Kazakh menus today.

5. King Arthur was a Kazakh?
According to Robbins’ book, the famous, supposedly Celtic, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table may have actually been Kazakh horsemen. While that’s hardly a point of historical certainty, Robbins describes the claim as “serious scholarly speculation.” And it kind of makes sense: If King Arthur lived at all, he would have lived around 1500 years ago—right around the time that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sent thousands of cavalrymen from modern-day Kazakhstan to defend the fringes of the Roman Empire in the modern British Isles. The commander of those Central Asian cavalrymen just happened to be named Lucius Artorius Castus, or “Artyr” in Welsh.

6. Stung
Despite its gorgeous, lunar countryside—not to mention its handful of historical claims to fame—Kazakhstan, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, remains a largely repressive, corrupt and undemocratic bastion for some pretty grim human rights abuses. In July this year, the famous English rocker, Sting, cancelled a concert the day before it was scheduled—on President Nazarbayev’s birthday, no less—in the Kazakh capital, citing human rights concerns.

7. The Naked Truth
In June this year, one of Kazakhstan’s most famous and fearless investigative journalists, Guljan Yergaliyeva, quit her job as editor of a major Kazakh newspaper and started her own news website. To publicize the new portal, Yergaliyeva released an advertisement on YouTube in she strips down to a pair of shiny stilettos, leaving viewers with nothing more than the site’s chirpy slogan: “Better the naked truth than a dandy lie.” We’d like to have seen Walter Cronkite perform stunt like that.

8. Big Buildings

kzww / Shutterstock.com

The World’s Biggest Tent, built by world-famous architect Norman Foster, is in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. But that’s not all: Astana, this futuristic, frigid blip upon the Kazakh steppe, was built by the sheer force of will of President Nazarbayev, who also commissioned a massive pyramid (also built by Foster), a shimmering concert hall (a nod to the Sydney Opera House), and a rather hideous tower, called the Bayterek (pictured), shaped like a Poplar tree crowed by a giant golden egg and decorated by—what else?—Nazarbayev’s gilded hand print.

9. Family Feud!
Politics in Kazakhstan are fifty percent ex-Soviet machinations and fifty percent afternoon soap opera. For example, for the last half-decade, President Nazarbayev has been locked in feisty, international power struggle—alternately described as a “war of attrition” and a “blood feud” by Western newspapers—with his former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev. Aliyev, who has publically criticized his father-in-law’s human rights abuses, has also been accused of torturing people. Both men's names bubble up in political gossip circles from D.C. to Beijing.

10. Dances With Horses
An equestrian-themed dance craze has been sweeping Kazakhstan for the last couple years, with flash mobs the size of small cities gathering in malls, streets and public parks to perform a galloping traditional dance, called Kara Zhorga. In September this year, nearly 60,000 people turned out on the streets of Oskemen, a city in eastern Kazakhstan, according to EurasiaNet. The year before, 15,000 turned out in the western city of Atyrau to shake, shimmy and gallop the night away. Giddy-up!

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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