by Anurag Agrawal
It’s unclear when humans became humans. Presumably it was a gradual growth of our consciousness over the eons. There are some things, however, that appear to distinguish us from most other animals. For example, our artistic depictions. From the deepest, darkest caves have emerged pictures of humanity from thousands of years ago. And in an Egyptian tomb, that of Nebamun, on a painting called “Fowling in the marshes” (from around 1350 BCE) comes one of the oldest human depictions of butterflies. It happens to be of the African Monarch, Danaus chrysippus, sometimes called the plain tiger, a close relative of our beloved North American Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
I stumbled on this lovely scrap of history when a friend and colleague, Harry Greene, gifted me a book: Nabokov’s Butterflies (2000), a collection of unpublished and uncollected writings. Some explanation is in order. Harry is an extraordinary naturalist and big thinker in ecology and evolution. Like many senior scholars, his predicament was the lack of shelf-space in his office. And so I was the beneficiary of Nabokov’s Butterflies. Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian-American author, and noted entomologist, was most famous for his writings, for example, Lolita, and his celebrated translation of Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. His ideas about biology were diverse, he was a passionate lepidopterist, and he often intermixed his literary writing and entomological excursions. Lolita is said to have been written primarily on butterfly collecting trips in the American west. Nonetheless, Nabokov also clung on to other ideas that held little merit in the scientific sphere. Most prominently, Nabokov rejected evolution by natural selection as a driver of certain organismal traits that he deemed ‘coincidental, miraculous, or too luxurious.’
Nabokov was a professor at my own Cornell University in the decade following WWII. Although he taught literature and had well-known students at Cornell (including U.S. supreme court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg), his entomological interests continued. In fact, after he retired from Cornell in the mid-1960s, Nabokov had sketched out an outline of a book: The Butterflies of Europe. And although the book never came to be, the outline was recapitulated in Nabokov’s Butterflies. Flipping through the book, I stumbled on his entry for Danaus in which he wrote, “This butterfly has the distinction of being the oldest known to have been represented by man. Seven specimens of it (with typical white-dotted Danaus body but somewhat Vanessa cardui like wingtips) are shown flitting over the papyrus swamp…” (page 603).
I later asked another friend, Harvard’s Lepidopterist, Naomi Pierce: did Nabokov have it right? On the money, she independently pointed to the similarity of Danaus chrysippus and the painted lady, Vanessa cardui, wondering if the butterflies on this three thousand year old tomb painting were Danaus or Vanessa. She concluded, as did Nabokov, that the African Monarch ruled. Detailed assessment of the color patterns on the wings were informative to both entomologists. The oldest human depiction of a butterfly? Perhaps not. Naomi mentioned some evidence of butterflies in Minoan artifacts from Crete, a thousand years earlier than Nebamun, and likely in Pyrenees cave paintings, some 10-30 thousand years earlier!
Of course, there is nothing special about being the oldest depiction of a butterfly by Homo sapiens. But suffice it to say, butterflies, metamorphosis, wing patterning, and the beauty of nature have been on our minds for a very long time. Thanks Harry and Naomi! And thanks Nabokov. Who knows what becomes of those side hobbies and obsessions we all hold.
Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He is the author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution.