Dead as a Dodo and The End of the World

Painting "The Dodo & Given", by G. Edwards (1759)

Painting “The Dodo & Given”, by G. Edwards (1759)

Today is said to be the end of world according to some interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar. That we will be facing Armageddon today has become such a cliche that it now comes with a complete commercialized package from a Hollywood flick to various survivalist guidebooks. What form this end for humanity would take, be it in the apocalyptic sense of the New Testament or some transcendent New Age spiritual renewal, is anybody’s guess.

Nonetheless, this occasion should serve as the perfect time to reflect on another ending that also captured the imagination of many. Around 400 years ago, before the present brouhaha about Mayan prophecies of doom, the people of Europe precipitated the end of the world for the Dodo, that big, weighty, flightless bird of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The adage “dead as a Dodo” has also become a cliche. But it carries more weight than today’s sensationalized non-event.

Before the coming of the first human explorers in the sixteenth century, the Dodo lived a peaceful existence in Mauritius for centuries. Without any predators in the island, the Dodo did not develop fear nor did it need any form of self-defense. With powerful beaks that cracked open nuts for food, the Dodo sat on top of the island’s food chain.

This seemingly idle life came to an abrupt end with the arrival of wave upon wave of European Conquistadores as the newcomers hunted down the hapless, defenseless bird by the hundreds. They also brought along animals like rats, dogs, pigs, and monkeys that destroyed the environment, attacked the poor bird, stole their eggs, and competed for limited natural resources.

The Dodo became extinct less than a century after its “discovery” by the European colonizers. However, it also left an indelible mark on the European imagination. It is this tale of how the Dodo came to occupy such a prominent space in Western culture that takes up Clara Pinto-Correia’s attention in Return of the Crazy Bird: The Sad, Strange Tale of the Dodo.

Pinto-Correia begins the book by looking at the widespread fascination with strange creatures as found in the maps, myths, and histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans up to literary works like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travels, a fascination which set the stage for the attention that the Dodo would later on attract from its 16th Century Euroepan discoverers.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot on Mauritius. They called the fat clumsy bird that did not run away from men “Doudo,” which means crazy in the archaic Portuguese of the sixteenth century. The Dutch, when they arrived in the island, called it “Walckvogel” or disgusting bird because its flesh was tough when cooked and eaten.

Perhaps one of the events that secured the Dodo’s place in human history is its having been brought into the ports and royal courts of Europe before its extinction. This way, the Dodo became the topic of various 16th century paintings. It aroused the curiosity of Kings and Emperors, and its remains made their way in museums.

The Dodo later on became the center of debates by taxonomists and naturalists who argued about its classification and characteristics. Carolus Linnaeus gave the Dodo the scientific name of Didus ineptus, meaning “clumsy dodo.” The German Paul Heinrich Gerhard Moehring meanwhile gave it the name Raphus cucullatus, which meant “cuckoo-like bird with far rump.”

In the 19th Century, the Dodo also starred in the scholarly debates surrounding the notions of evolution and extinction. Of course by this time there was no Dodo left to be examined live. In the end, Pinto-Correia concludes that while the biological Dodo lived and died in Mauritius it is nonetheless “literally the most amazing bird ever to have been born in Europe.”

The Europeans were the dodo’s first known visitors. It was christened by Europeans. It was described in words and printed in woodcuts by Europeans. It was even brought live to Europe, so that more Europeans could see it and immortalize it in paintings. It was hunted and eaten by Europeans, and it was in Europe that its swift extinction first raised eyebrows.

Cultural critic Frederic Jameson once observed how today it is easier to imagine the end of the world through alien invasions and natural cataclysms than to envision the collapse of the dominant ruling system. The curious case of the Dodo can help us reflect on the untenability of the dominant social order which is based on insatiable consumption, plunder, and exploitation. The Dodo’s extinction was after all very much a result of colonial expansion and primitive accumulation that laid the foundation for the present world capitalist system.

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