Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ur Mouth

One of the things we sell at work are those big letter stickers you use on your house or on signs or what have you. Every so often, some customer will come along and rearrange these stickers so as to form words or phrases, their own little unique take on the world and all its foibles.

Last night, one such person used these letters to announce to the world an earth-shattering hypothesis, something that could, if true, very well change everything we know about our civilization. According to this person, this prodigy, and I must take the utmost care in transcribing this theory to the letter, "BALLSACKINURMOUTH."

Now, for those unaware, 'ur' is a German prefix meaning original or primitive. Knowing that, what this theory clearly states is that not only did the first known mouth evolve after the invention of ball-related sports, but that a container for those balls could fit entirely inside this original, proto-mouth.

But like any potentially game-changing hypothesis, we should probably test it before we start throwing the Nobel Prize Minting Machine into overdrive so that we may shower this genius with the accolades befitting of a revelation on the scale of BALLSACKINURMOUTH.

So let's first figure out, when was this Ur Mouth conceived?

As it turns out, the origin of the mouth is caught up in a bit of a chicken-or-egg-type debate in evolutionary circles alongside the origin of the anus. Essentially, the debate is whether the anus came first and, as the gut evolved, it eventually reached the other side of the body to become a mouth; or whether the mouth evolved first and the gut eventually became an anus on the other side.

I'm not the best as deciphering the particulars here, but the focus centers around a certain part of the animal kingdom family tree. First comes bilaterians, which branch off to flatworms on one side of the tree, and protostomes and deuterostomes on the other. If none of these sound familiar except 'flatworm', that's because these aren't species. We're much higher up the classification scale, into the realm of subkingdoms and superphyla. (You were taught that it was just kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, right? Not quite. Biologists have intermediate categories too. Also, there's another category, 'domain', that sits above kingdom as of 1990.)

We're not, however, interested in which came first. What we need is when the mouth showed up. That answer seems to be just as vexing as which came first. The answer is probably somewhere in a 2008 paper in the journal Nature called "Acoel development indicates the independent evolution of the bilaterian mouth and anus", by Andreas Hejnol and Mark Q. Martindale at the University of Hawaii, but the article costs $32 to read. Just in case you have $32 for this, here you go. It, by the way, appears to put together a weird third theory: that the gut came first in two parts- one for the mouth, one for the anus- and the whole mouth-or-anus question is simply a matter of which side the gut, which would of course connect into a single whole, busted through first. What I was able to coax out of the paper without having to hand over $32- which consists of three of the tables- seems to indicate that the paper centers around an acoel flatworm, Convolutriloba longfissura.

Outside of that paper, though, the focus on learning about it appears to center around how we can more effectively murder it (PDF), as it's seen as a pest in larger saltwater aquariums. As a result, we'll need to back up to the larger class, acoela, and go from there. Acoels, as it happens, date back to primitive times. We'll take that rough figure of 'primitive times', which in this context generally means hundreds of millions, potentially billions of years ago, and move to the other end of the equation, ball-based sports.

The question is, did ball-based sports come into existence billions of years ago? If so, we'll have to try and narrow things down further somehow. If not, though, eye-opening as it may seem, the BALLSACKINURMOUTH theory will have to go by the wayside.

Figuring out the ball's invention is murky as well; its creation can't be pinpointed to any one culture in particular. (Lot of definitive answers we're getting today, aren't there?) However, like the mouth, we can pin down a range. While documentation of the usage of balls dates to the Mayan culture, China's Ts'in Dynasty, and the ancient Romans and Greeks, the earliest of the known references to a ball used for sport comes out of ancient Egypt, at around 2500 BCE. Some in the Chinese camp claim as early as 5000 BCE.

The Ts'in Dynasty game vaguely resembles soccer. Two bamboo poles were set up, and a net was strung between them, with a hole cut in the net. In order to score, the ball- made of leather and stuffed with animal fur- had to be kicked through the hole in the net. Players could not use their hands.

The ancient Egyptian game, brought up by Robert W. Henderson at the University of Illinois to dispel myths about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball, maintains that balls were used in a fertility ritual, replacing human heads. Several different makes of ball have been figured upon, including cloth balls filled with seeds, catgut wrapped in leather or deerskin, and one ball made out of linen found in a tomb, visible here. The bocce ball crowd, in an attempt to re-one-up the Chinese, pegs a stone ball as being used in ancient Egypt as early as 5200 BCE, according to hieroglyphics. Naturally, the game resembles bocce ball.

However- tragically as it is- all of these dates are nearly hundreds of millions of years more recent than 'hundreds of millions of years ago', and almost billions of years more recent than 'billions of years ago'. This is to say nothing of the sack the balls need to have been in, or the size of Ur Mouth, which considering the size of acoels is many, many times smaller than these earliest balls, much less their sack.

In fact, the year difference is so far off that it's almost a perversion of intelligence to make claims about BALLSACKINURMOUTH. It's really rather disgusting.

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