Freshwater otter perches on a log

This week I learned: the Babylonian swindler and the juggling otters

Just a short one this week, because once again one of my topics of choice has ballooned out into an entire post of its own (tune in next week). For now: this week I learned about the oldest recorded dodgy businessman, and the baffling hobby of certain otters.

Ea-Nasir, the Babylonian dodgy dealer

The oldest known examples of human writings go back – depending on what you define as writing – as far as 3200 BC or even 7200 BC. But coming in at the still impressive date of 1750 BC we find a very specific first: the oldest known example of a customer complaint.

This Babylonian clay tablet, currently in the collection of the British Museum, extensively details the grievances of one Nanni against a copper merchant named Ea-Nasir – and I mean extensively. The tablet is 11.6cm high by 5cm wide (or almost exactly the dimensions of an iPhone 4) and Nanni – or at least the scribe Nanni was paying, since most Babylonians could not read or write – covered both sides of it in carved cuneiform writing. If scribes charged by the word, then Nanni was willing to spend a fair bit to make his outrage known.

Ea-Nasir, Nanni alleges, first tried to give Nanni a poorer grade of copper than he had been promised, then refused to return Nanni’s money, and on top of all that was rude to the couriers Nanni sent to collect on these debts. Nanni’s protestations are impassioned:

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt!

On its own, Nanni’s misery would be an interesting historical side-note. But it turns out that this is just the first in a series of complaints unearthed (literally) about Ea-Nasir, who has gained a certain level of modern notoriety for his 4,000-year-old chicanery.

You see, in the early 20th Century, archaeologists excavated the remains of a house believed to have belonged to Ea-Nasir. And in that house, apparently retained by the merchant himself even after his retirement, were more complaint tablets, both from Nanni and other unhappy customers. One individual named, improbably, Nigga-Nanna had several friends or business representatives write to Ea-Nasir on his behalf; people named Arbituram, Appa, and Imgur-San all remonstrated with the merchant, in the latter case to [g]ive good copper under seal to Nigga-Nanna … In order that your heart shall not be troubled, give good copper to him. Do you not know how tired I am?”

Even a business partner appears to have grown tired of Ea-Nasir’s shenanigans, imploring him in writing: “thus says Ilsu-ellatsu, with regard to the copper of Idin-Sin … Show him 15 ingots so that he may select 6 good ingots, and give him these. Act in such a way that Idin-Sin will not become angry.”

Ea-Nasir’s dodgy dealings, and the all-too-familiar frustration expressed by those around him, has clearly struck a chord (or a nerve) with modern readers. So much so that he and Nanni have become the subject of Tumblr jokes, have a dedicated meme page on Facebook… and are even the subjects of fan-fiction.

More info: The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf, pp. 276-280

Balls skills: the secrets of juggling otters

This never came up in Tarka: it turns out that otters are proficient jugglers, though no one’s quite sure why.

The internet, it turns out, is absolutely rife with videos of freshwater otters lying on their backs and performing something like contact juggling with one, two, and even three rocks. And some of them have got some *cough* otterly incredible moves.

Beyond the fact that they do this, though, it’s hard to find any concrete information on the phenomenon of juggling otters. Although several commentators claim the behaviour is exhibited by wild as well as captive otters, and that otters are more likely to juggle when they’re hungry, I haven’t been able to find any studies or other established sources to back up either of these claims (if you know something I don’t, let me know and I’ll update this post!).

As for why they do it? A lot of online commenters suggest it as skills-training, citing the fact that otters use stones to crack open shellfish – but that behaviour is observed in sea otters, which aren’t the species being captured juggling (as far as I can tell these are Asian Small-clawed Otters, but again, there’s not a lot of concrete info out there). Fish-eating freshwater otters, on the other hand, don’t generally seem to be big on tool use, although Smooth-coated Otters can teach each other how to open Tupperware.

Confusing species-ism aside, the best anyone seems to have come up with is, “because it’s fun”. And if that’s the reason, then I’m 100% with the otters on this.

Original source: The Dodo

Image source: Milesl on Pixabay
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