By Matt Kaplan
November 23, 2015
IDEAS
Matt Kaplan is the author of Science of the Magical and a science correspondent with the Economist. He has also contributed to National Geographic, New Scientist, Nature and the New York Times. In 2014 Kaplan was awarded a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship, which he used to study the sciences at MIT and folklore at Harvard.

Yoda’s words are easy to dismiss as bizarre alien babblings. But look closer and history begins to emerge. Science too.

Yoda did not appear out of thin air. While we are terrible at creating entirely new ideas, we are excellent at building upon and adapting past ideas. This is why cars, clothing and even toasters continue to evolve through the years. Such is the same for Yoda. While the oracles of the ancient world were neither green nor speaking in object/subject/verb sentences, people believed that they could see the future and, in some cases, they were right.

A great many oracles, like those of Zeus who dwelled at his sacred site Dodona, determined the will of the gods by monitoring the migrations of birds. For decades, classicists have disregarded this activity as total nonsense. After all, how could the movements of birds say anything of what the future might hold?

It is on this front where ecologists and climatologists can provide Jedi-like guidance. Migrating birds are lazy. They glide on thermals, warm air rising off of hot ground to reduce the number of times that they must flap their wings. Yet thermal pathways move as major climate systems, like El Niño and shifts in the North Atlantic Oscillation System, make areas that are typically hot and dry, cold and wet. These changes drive birds to migrate in different directions. With this information, oracles could, in turn, make predictions about the coming harvest. Even so, there is even more to it than that.

In 2013, epidemiologists Mark Lipsitch at Harvard University and Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia University noted that the four most recent influenza pandemics in human history were all directly preceded by La Niña conditions in the Pacific. They speculated that the unusual weather led birds in Asia to spend more time in very wet regions where pigs were common. Both birds and pigs are natural carriers of the influenza virus, and the geographic overlap created by La Niña allowed for strains to mix, mutate and grow more deadly. So it is even possible that the most expert oracles were able to use migrations to predict that many people would die in the coming year of disease.

And bird monitoring was only part of what ancient seers were up to. Many oracles also consulted the livers of animals to predict the will of the gods. While studying such organs might not have been of much use when trying to determine if a family member would survive a coming battle, this is not where the practice started. Early on in 2000 BC, livers were taken from wild animals living on land where people were thinking about settling and then used to divine whether the land would experience drought or pestilence in the years ahead.

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As with bird oracles, science suggests that the hepatomancers (liver oracles) were on to something. Livers function a bit like tree rings and store information about the trials and tribulations that an animal endured during its life. Colour, texture and the features of specific veins in the organ are all used extensively by veterinary pathologists today to better understand the lives of the animals that end up in their laboratories. As such, it seems logical that if our ancestors found the markings of past severe droughts in the liver of a goat grazing where they were thinking of building a farm, they would take this as a sign from the gods that they ought not build there.

As for Yoda’s claim that the force will allow visions of “old friends long gone,” even this is rooted in history, but that of the Vikings and the Maya rather than the Greeks.

As a sacrifice to their gods, the Maya regularly threw mortally wounded prisoners into sacred pools called cenotes. Interestingly, they also occasionally threw in their own children. While the children were not injured beforehand, they were thrown in at dawn and not allowed to exit. Most drowned within a few hours but if, by some miracle, a child survived until noon, he was rescued. The child would then appear before priests to share what their gods and ancestors had said to him during his ordeal in the cenote. The Vikings believed, somewhat similarly, that Odin spoke to men who were slowly strangled on the end of a rope.

Dark as they are, both practices have their basis in biology. Forcing children to have near-drowning experiences and slowly strangling Viking men on nooses would create conditions of such extreme oxygen deprivation and disrupt brain activity so severely that it is entirely likely that hallucinations of visits from gods and ancestors took place. There was nothing paranormal about what was happening but it was real nonetheless.

As to where this leaves Yoda, while he does not directly hail from the natural world, the enormous body of mythology and rituals that gave birth to him, did. Of course, the big question is whether he will turn up as an “old friend long gone” in The Force Awakens next month and it seems unlikely that either birds or livers will be of much help on that matter.

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