It’s honey  

▪️ It's honey ▪️ Watched by an octopus ▪️ Monkey business

We tend to think of the names of places as fixed, but is it really the case?  Throughout history, there have been countless cities and countries that have changed their names for a variety of reasons, sometimes more than once.

Earlier this year, some Māori petitioned to rename New Zealand Aotearoa, literally “long white cloud” in Māori.  You can’t blame them if they consider the current one as a vivid reminder of colonialism.  The first to change the original name was the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who discovered the island and called it Staten Land. Later, the country became Nora Zeelandia, after the Dutch province of the same name (Zeelandliterally means “sea land” in Dutch). James Cook subsequently anglicised the name.

Last year, Turkey officially became Türkiye. The name change occurred because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was said to dislike his country’s association with the bird by the same name. In 2018, the African nation of Swaziland celebrated 50 years of independence from Britain by changing its name to Eswatini, or “land of the Swazi people” in the Swazi language.

When it comes to name changes, India has been the busiest. Over the past few decades, it has replaced colonial and Muslim names with Hindu ones: Madras became Chennai; Calcutta, Kolkata; Bangalore, Bengaluru; and Allahabad, Prayagraj. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently hinted the entire country might soon go by a new name: Bharat, the Sanskrit and Hindi name for India.

Sometimes, names are changed for political reasons.  In 2018, Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia. It might seem like a small, almost innocuous change, but it is not. The modification ended a decades-long dispute with Greece, which has a region by the same name, and paved the way for North Macedonia to join NATO.  But few Macedonians use the new name.  In fact, when some friends of mine and I had a vacation there, our superb guide gently but firmly asked us not to refer to it as North Macedonia. 

Photo: Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg

Naturally, many of these changes can be disquieting, if not outright abhorrent. After all, place names invoke what the Germans call Heimatsgefühl, a sense of belonging and attachment to one’s native land.  Any threat to those bonds alarms us.

Place names are, for better or worse, in symbiosis with history. Take Malta. When the Apostle St Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Rome, he is said to have found refuge in a country called Malta.  We have the Acts of the Apostles as testament to that.  Let no one ever question that.  We seem to be defined by certain singular occurrences, like we are defined by the Knights of Malta – you know, those Knights of Jerusalem and Rhodes who suffered a great shock when they were given the island by Emperor Charles V. 

But was the island really named Malta nineteen centuries ago?  No way. The Phoenicians, who settled here around the year 750 B.C. called it Maleth, which means “shelter”.  When Homer wrote The Odyssey around 700 B.C., he referred to it as Melitē.  The Romans called it Melita.  What the temple-builders called it is unknown.

So, I’m not going to be the one to invite the opprobrium of the people of Malta, if not Imperium of Normal Lowell, by suggesting we change our country’s name.  That would be like proposing to remove the George Cross from the Maltese flag or to ditch Dun Karm’s Innu Malti for Tema ’79 of the rock opera Ġensna, and inviting a lynching.  It matters little if we ruin the whole island and bury it under concrete, dirt, or multi-lane highways.  What is important is that, when post-history is written, the name Malta will still be there to recall that the Greeks called it Melitē or ‘the island of honey’.

Watched by an octopus

One of my favourite dishes when eating out is octopus stew, being something I rarely cook at home.  Whether fried golden and crispy on the outside but tender and meaty inside, or draped over pasta alla luciana, its savoury tentacles have squirmed their way onto dinner plates around the world.

Now it seems that I may have to forego it; it’s another example of not being able to eat something I enjoy. Why, you might ask?

Well, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher at the University of Sydney, has authored a book – Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness – in which he reveals that octopuses can recognise individual human faces staring back at them through aquarium glass, apart from opening jars, using tools, and solving puzzles.  Indeed, they were apparenty the first to rise to the challenge of coming out of an Escape Room!

“They have a kind of exploratory, inquisitive, interesting way of being in the world that I think is unexpected,” says Godfrey-Smith. Indeed, now that I come to think of it, I have occasionally had the sensation that the octopuses I saw when I went to Azzopardi’s Fisheries in St Paul’s Bay were waving their tentacles at me. But it never entered my mind that they were admonishing me not to buy them for cooking.

The possibility that eating octopus might one day come to an end first arose when sympathies for the squishy sea creature were expressed by a lot of people who watched the 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher on Netflix during the coronavirus pandemic.  In it, diver Craig Foster showed how he forged a bond with a wild octopus, winning an Academy Award for best documentary feature

An increasing number of scientists are recognising the cognitive capabilities of octopuses and other cephalopods and questioning the idea of eating these problem-solving sea creatures.  As a result, mankind’s relationship with octopuses is reaching an inflection point.  The US government is considering whether to require ethical reviews of scientific experiments on octopuses, just as happens for monkeys and mice.

Considering that around 750 million years of evolution separate us from the eight-armed creatures, it seems that the octopus evolved its mode of cognition all on its own.  But, as Robyn Crook, a San Francisco State University neurobiologist, says: “When we think about evolutionary questions, there’s this bias in neuroscience to think about everything leading to a human.  Cephalopods are really the only other animal that have a complex brain but don’t share our evolutionary lineage.”

One might say that considering octopuses as intelligent creatures, it is almost natural given that they don’t have just one brain but nine: a doughnut-shaped main brain plus another eight for each arm, controlling limb movement. The arms are able to communicate with one another, though it has been found that a lot of information that’s received in the arms never makes it to the brain.

Octopuses present something of a puzzle. As Canadian investigative journalist Erin Anderssen has pointed out, “the octopus has already challenged our theories on evolution, intelligence, and consciousness.” People who work with octopuses in aquaria point out that the creatures routinely leave their tanks to seek company, food, and sex.  On the other hand, the octopus is about as far from a social being as a smart animal can be. Confine two together, and one of them will likely get eaten by the other. The parents don’t hang around either: the male dies shortly after mating, and the female lays her eggs and dies around the time her babies hatch.

In any case, the point is that, if octopuses are “intelligent”, should they serve as menu items?  Once our sense of relatedness to an animal includes emotional and historical factors, I might well have a problem with eating octopus ever again.

Monkey business

Now that I’m at it and knowing that the subject of this opinion piece – like the octopus in the first one – is unlikely to contradict me, I’d like to share a story that appeared on Newsbook.  It concerns a green monkey that was recently confiscated from a Mellieħa man because he neither had a permit for it nor was he keeping it in a proper place.

The green monkey, also known as the sabaeus monkey, is native to West Africa – ranging over one million square kilometres across 11 countries from southern Mauritiana in the north, down the coast to Sierra Leone, and as far west as Ghana and Burkina-Faso.  The habitat of these monkeys includes riverine gallery woodland, different types of savannas, mangrove forest, and lowland tropical moist forest.  Those habitats are far-removed from the conditions in a cage in Mellieħa. 

Green monkeys are omnivores and their diet includes a wide range of food, including fruits, leaves, seeds, gum, insects, birds, eggs, lizards, and more. Acacia trees also provide a large part of their diet.  The news report did not say what the monkey keeper was feeding the poor creature, but I doubt that its diet was as rich as that in Africa.

These monkeys may live up to 27 years in the wild.  Social bonds are important for them.  These bonds are strengthened by social grooming, which the monkeys often engage in when they have time to rest.  So, apart from being deprived of its natural habitat, the monkey in Mellieha was also psychologically stressed.

Nowadays many people already have a problem with wild animals being accommodated in a huge zoo, let alone with an animal being imprisoned in a cage.  The Court was right in throwing out all the arguments brought up by the Mellieħa man and concurring with the plan of the Veterinary Services to place the monkey abroad.

Oh, I almost forgot that the director of the Veterinary Service, Paul Joseph Portelli, pointed out that the monkey in question could spread a certain disease.  In fact, the green monkey is associated with an outbreak of Marburg virus in Germany. The patients were workers of Behringwerke, a producer of sera and vaccines, and the Paul Ehrlich Institute, a control institute for sera and vaccines. All the patients had one thing in common:  having direct contact with blood, organs, and cell cultures of African green monkeys.

Main image: M. Rasmussen Maps, Prints & Books

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