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July 27, 2014

New Details on Babylonian Version of Noah's Ark



the-ark-before-noah_BK2014-06-05.jpg

















Source of book image: http://britishmuseumblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/the-ark-before-noah_544.jpg



(p. C8) Mr. Finkel, a curator of cuneiform inscriptions at the British Museum, details his own long-standing fascination with the ark and that of his British Museum predecessors. First among these was George Smith, who in 1872, at age 32, deciphered a clay tablet that demonstrated that 1,000 years before the likely composition of the Book of Genesis, ancient Babylonians had been brooding over the same story of divine retribution that we find in the biblical account of Noah. So great was Smith's shock that, on confirmation, he began to run about the room tearing off his clothes.


. . .


The tablets containing what we now know as the Epic of Gilgamesh were unearthed in the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, who was an avid collector of texts. His famous library was torched in 612 B.C., but, as Mr. Finkel points out, "fire to a clay librarian" is not the disaster it is to one who studies works on paper. Fired clay tablets endure, and nothing, Mr. Finkel assures us, can equal the thrill of digging one out from the earth like a potato.

But the most important tablet of Mr. Finkel's career didn't come from the ground. It was delivered to him in 1985 by a man named Douglas Simmonds, who brought in a number of cuneiform tablets collected by his father, a member of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East at the end of World War II. One of these--an iPhone-shaped tablet--had what was recognizably the first lines of a Babylonian flood narrative, but the rest was illegible at a superficial glance, and Simmonds was reluctant to leave the tablet at the museum for analysis. It wasn't until 2009 that Mr. Finkel was able to borrow this treasure and undertake a meticulous study, which revealed an "instruction manual for building an ark" in the tablet's 60 lines.


. . .


So then what was the Ark Tablet for? It is puzzling that it contains no narrative, listing rather shape, size, materials and their quantities. Attractive though it may be to think it was a hand-held guide for the boat builder, Mr. Finkel suggests instead that it served as an aide-mémoire for an itinerant storyteller. The detail is explained by audience demand: No one wants to be put on the spot with difficult "how" questions when facing an audience who knew all about building coracles. Ancient audiences, it seems, were as intrigued--and as skeptical--about the ark as we are.



For the full review, see:

JANET SOSKICE. "Make Yourself an Ark; A newly deciphered tablet suggests the best shape for an ark: not a wooden box but a circular coracle made of reeds." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 17, 2014): C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 16, 2014, an has the title "Book Review: 'The Ark Before Noah' by Irving Finkel; A newly deciphered tablet suggests the best shape for an ark: not a wooden box but a circular coracle made of reeds.")


The book under review is:

Finkel, Irving. The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2014.






June 28, 2014

Global Warming Tipping Point Models Are "Overblown"



(p. C3) Climate models for north Africa often come to contradictory conclusions. Nonetheless, mainstream science holds that global warming will typically make wet places wetter and dry places drier--and at a rapid clip. That is because increased greenhouse gases trigger feedback mechanisms that push the climate system beyond various "tipping points." In north Africa, this view suggests an expanding Sahara, the potential displacement of millions of people on the great desert's borders and increased conflict over scarce resources.

One scientist, however, is challenging this dire view, with evidence chiefly drawn from the Sahara's prehistoric past. Stefan Kröpelin, a geologist at the University of Cologne, has collected samples of ancient pollen and other material that suggest that the earlier episode of natural climate change, which created the Sahara, happened gradually over millennia--not over a mere century or two, as the prevailing view holds. That is why, he says, the various "tipping point" scenarios for the future of the Sahara are overblown.

The 62-year-old Dr. Kröpelin, one of the pre-eminent explorers of the Sahara, has traveled into its forbidding interior for more than four decades. Along the way he has endured weeklong dust storms, a car chase by armed troops and a parasitic disease, bilharzia, that nearly killed him.


. . .


. . . Dr. Kröpelin's analysis of the Lake Yoa samples suggests that there was no tipping point and that the change was gradual. He says that his argument is also supported by archaeological evidence. Digs in the Sahara, conducted by various archaeologists over the years, indicate that the people of the region migrated south over millennia, not just in a few desperate decades. "Humans are very sensitive climate indicators because we can't live without water," he says. If the Sahara had turned to desert quickly, the human migration pattern "would have been completely different."



For the full commentary, see:

HENRY I. MILLER. "Organic Farming Is Not Sustainable; More labor with lower yields is a luxury only rich populations can afford." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., May 16, 2014): A13.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 15, 2014.)


One of the more recent Kröpelin papers arguing against the tipping point account is:

Francus, Pierre, Hans von Suchodoletz, Michael Dietze, Reik V. Donner, Frédéric Bouchard, Ann-Julie Roy, Maureen Fagot, Dirk Verschuren, Stefan Kröpelin, and Daniel Ariztegui. "Varved Sediments of Lake Yoa (Ounianga Kebir, Chad) Reveal Progressive Drying of the Sahara During the Last 6100 Years." Sedimentology 60, no. 4 (June 2013): 911-34.







May 30, 2014

Young Inca Woman Was Probably Murdered



MurderedIncanYoungWoman2014-04-28.jpg "The Incan mummy." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


Hobbes famously wrote that for most of human existence, life has been "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Further evidence:


(p. D4) Scientists who have examined the mummy of a young Inca say that her death was most likely a homicide and that it was not because of Chagas disease, the tropical parasitic infection that she had.


For the full story, see:

"Observatory; A Verdict of Murder." The New York Times (Tues., MARCH 4, 2014): D4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 3, 2014.)




The famous Hobbes quote can be found on p. 70 of:

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Dover Philosophical Classics. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006 [first published 1651].






August 4, 2013

Hunter-Gatherers Had High Child Mortality and Died Before Age 40



(p. 31) Child mortality in foraging tribes was severe. A survey of 25 hunter-gatherer tribes in historical times from various continents revealed that, on average, 25 percent of children died before they were 1, and 37 percent died before they were 15. In one traditional hunter-gatherer tribe, child mortality was found to be 60 percent. Most historical tribes had a population growth rate of approximately zero. This stagnation is evident, says Robert Kelly in his survey of hunting-gathering peoples, because "when formerly mobile people become sedentary, the rate of population growth increases." All things being equal, the constancy of farmed food breeds more people.

While many children died young, older hunter-gatherers did not have (p. 32) it much better. It was a tough life. Based on an analysis of bone stress and cuts, one archaeologist said the distribution of injuries on the bodies of Neanderthals was similar to that found on rodeo professionals--lots of head, trunk, and arm injuries like the ones you might get from close encounters with large, angry animals. There are no known remains of an early hominin who lived to be older than 40. Because extremely high child mortality rates depress average life expectancy, if the oldest outlier is only 40, the median age was almost certainly less than 20.



Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.






June 18, 2013

Heart Disease Affected Ancients Who Differed in Culture, Class and Diet



EgyptologistPreparesMummy2013-06-16.jpg "Egyptologist Dr. Gomaa Abd el-Maksoud prepares the mummy Hatiay (New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1550-1295 BCE) for scanning. Hatiay was found to have evidence of extensive vascular disease." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. A4) SAN FRANCISCO--It turns out there is nothing new about heart disease.

Researchers who examined 137 mummies from four cultures spanning 4,000 years said Sunday they found robust evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, challenging widely held assumptions that cardiovascular disease is largely a malady of current times.

An international research team of cardiologists, radiologists and archeologists used CT scanners to evaluate the mummies, hunting for deposits of calcium in arterial walls that are a telltale sign of hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. They found that 47, or 34%, of the mummies had such deposits, suggesting, they said, that cardiovascular disease was more common in historic times than many experts think.


. . .


The same researchers reported similar findings in 2009 from Egyptian mummies. Because those specimens were believed to have been from the upper echelons of society, the researchers surmised their calcified arteries could have developed from high-fat diets. But by expanding the research to other cultures, including Puebloans of what is now the U.S. Southwest, the researchers believe all levels of society were at risk, regardless of diet.



For the full story, see:

RON WINSLOW. "U.S. NEWS; Telltale Finding on Heart Disease." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., March 11, 2013): A6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 10, 2013.)






June 5, 2013

Early Societies Were Violent, Superstitious and Unfair



(p. 89) Human nature is malleable. We use our minds to change our values, expectations, and definition of ourselves. We have changed our nature since our hominin days, and once changed, we will continue to change ourselves even more. Our inventions, such as language, writing, law, and science, have ignited a level of progress that is so fundamental and embedded in the present that we now naively expect to see similar good things in the past as well. But much of what we consider "civil" or even "humane" was absent long ago. Early societies were not peaceful but rife with warfare. One of the most common causes of adult death in tribal societies was to be declared a witch or evil spirit. No rational evidence was needed for these superstitious accusations. Lethal atrocities for infractions within a clan were the norm; fairness, as we might think of it, did not extend outside the immediate tribe. Rampant inequality among genders and physical advantage for the strong guided a type of justice few modern people would want applied to them.


Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.






May 19, 2013

Cooking Allowed the Toothless to Live



ConsiderTheForkBK.jpg
















Source of book image: http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344733081l/13587130.jpg




(p. C12) . . . the narrative, ragtag though it may be, is a good one and it starts with the single greatest achievement in cookware--the cooking pot. Originally made of clay, this simple invention allowed previously inedible foods to be cooked in water, a process that removed toxins, made them digestible and reduced the need for serious chewing, a deadly problem for the toothless. (Archaeologists find adult skeletons without teeth only at sites dating from after the invention of the cooking pot.)


. . .


When "Consider the Fork" turns to cultural history, Ms. Wilson's points sometimes contradict one another. On one hand, she slyly condemns the rich throughout history and their use of cheap cooking labor. Yet she also relates how the Lebanese writer Anissa Helou remembers kibbé being made in Beirut by her mother and grandmother: They pounded the lamb in a mortar and pestle for an hour, a process described in loving terms. So is cooking labor a bedrock of family values or class exploitation?



For the full review, see:

CHRISTOPHER KIMBALL. "The World on a Plate." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 6, 2012): C12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 5, 2012.)



The book under review, is:

Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. New York: Basic Books, 2012.






April 10, 2013

At Least By 100,000 Years Ago, Humans Looked Just Like Us



(p. 22) The exact time . . . protohumans became fully modern humans is of course debated. Some say 200,000 years ago, but the undisputed latest date is 100,000 years ago. By 100,000 years ago, humans had crossed the threshold where they were outwardly indistinguishable from us. We would not notice anything amiss if one of them were to stroll alongside us on the beach. However, their tools and most of their behavior were indistinguishable from those of their relatives the Neanderthals in Europe and Erectus in Asia.


Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






February 5, 2013

"Rome's Rise Is a Story of Economic Growth, Not Divine Intervention or Native Virtue"



(p. C7) In chronicling the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon declared that "if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." Gibbon himself elegantly narrated how happiness and prosperity withered after this flowering between 96 and 180 A.D. But what about the near-millennium of Roman history that came before? "What was it," as Anthony Everitt asks in "The Rise of Rome," "that enabled a small Italian market town by a ford on the river Tiber to conquer the known world" and thereby made Gibbon's golden years possible?


. . .


Most of that economic activity, whether it developed autonomously as a result of lower costs or was driven by the coercive rule of the state, was catalyzed by the Mediterranean, with which even the sophisticated Roman road network could not compete. Yet in the period from the middle of the third century B.C. to the middle of the first, Mr. Everitt, following his literary sources, directs our attention to Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general; and to Hannibal, his hot-tempered son, leading elephants first across the Pyrenees and then the Alps. Both are important, and, had they not been defeated, Rome would have had a very short "rise" indeed. But the real action was on the Mediterranean. As the number of shipwrecks datable to these years attests, it was being crossed by trading vessels with a frequency never yet seen and never again matched--including the halcyon years hymned by Gibbon.

Sometimes the data can preserve an astonishingly precise record of a trade route. For example, storage containers--probably for wine--salvaged from the spectacular wrecks at Grand Congloué, off Marseilles, bear the stamp "SES." Archaeologists have confidently linked this mark with a certain Sestius, who must have manufactured the wares at the villa we know he owned in southwestern Tuscany, no mean distance away.

When the shipwreck data, which suggest increased economic activity, are considered alongside the population contraction that Rome suffered in its bloody military campaigns, a tentative but rich answer to Mr. Everitt's question begins to emerge: Rome's rise is a story of economic growth, not divine intervention or native virtue. And although even this account, like all our conclusions about the distant past, must be provisional, it is at least anchored in an empirical model of how income gains from trade and lowered transaction costs were not swallowed up by an ever-expanding population.



For the full review, see:

BRENDAN BOYLE. "BOOKSHELF; The Economy of Empire; The rise of the world's greatest empire is as much a story of shipping and markets as of divine providence and individual virtue." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 22, 2012): C7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated September 21, 2012.)






January 15, 2013

"Modern Cognitive Capacity Emerged at the Same Time as Modern Anatomy"



SpearTipsPinnaclePointSouthAfrica2012-01-11.jpg

"ARTIFACTS; The excavations have uncovered caches of advanced stone hunting tools, including spear tips and other small blades, or microliths, which suggest that modern Homo sapiens in Africa had a grasp of complex technologies. The research team's report challenges a Eurocentric theory of modern human development." [This photo shows spear tips; another photo included with the article showed three small blades (aka microliths).] Source of quoted part of caption and of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.





(p. D3) At a rock shelter on a coastal cliff in South Africa, scientists have found an abundance of advanced stone hunting tools with a tale to tell of the evolving mind of early modern humans at least 71,000 years ago.


. . .


"Ninety percent of scientists are comfortable that fully modern humans and human cognition developed in Africa," Dr. Marean said. "Now they have moved on. The questions are, how much earlier than 71,000 years did these behaviors emerge? Was it an accretionary process, or was it an abrupt event? Did these people have language by this time?"

Like many other archaeologists, Dr. Marean and his team have concentrated their investigations in the caves and rock shelters overlooking the Indian Ocean. In a global ice age beginning 72,000 years ago, many Africans fled the continent's arid interior, heading for the more benign southern shore. Access to seafood and more plentiful plant and animal resources may have increased populations and encouraged technological advances, Dr. Marean said.

The well-preserved artifacts at Pinnacle Point, collected over a recent 18-month period, led the researchers to conclude that the advanced technologies in Africa "were early and enduring." Other archaeologists who reached different conclusions may have been misled by the "small sample of excavated sites," they said.

Richard G. Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford University who has favored a more sudden and recent origin of modern behavior, about 50,000 years ago, questioned the reliability of the dating method for the tools, noting that "there is another team that has already argued for a much longer" time period for the toolmaking culture.


. . .


The hypothesis of earlier African origins of modern human behavior and cognition has been gaining strength over the last decade or two. Two archaeologists, Alison S. Brooks of George Washington University and Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut, led the charge with publications of their analysis of increasing evidence of African art and ornamentations expressing a modern cognitive capacity and symbolic thinking.

In a commentary accompanying the Nature report, Dr. McBrearty, who was not involved in the research, wrote that she believed that "modern cognitive capacity emerged at the same time as modern anatomy, and that various aspects of human culture arose gradually" over the course of subsequent millenniums.



For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Stone Tools Point to Creative Work by Early Humans in Africa." The New York Times (Tues., November 13, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 12, 2012.)



The research discussed in the passages quoted above, appeared in Nature:

Brown, Kyle S., Curtis W. Marean, Zenobia Jacobs, Benjamin J. Schoville, Simen Oestmo, Erich C. Fisher, Jocelyn Bernatchez, Panagiotis Karkanas, and Thalassa Matthews. "An Early and Enduring Advanced Technology Originating 71,000 Years Ago in South Africa." Nature 491, no. 7425 (22 November 2012): 590-93.






January 11, 2013

Humans Used Stone-Tipped Spears as Early as a Half Million Years Ago



StonePointForHuntingHalfMillionYearsAgo2012-01-10.jpg









"Views of a stone point used for hunting 500,000 years ago." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. D3) Human ancestors were using stone-tipped spears to hunt 500,000 years ago, 200,000 years earlier than previously thought.

A new study reports that the stone tips, found in South Africa, were probably once attached to wooden spears and then hurled at animals by hominins of the species Homo heidelbergensis.

Homo heidelbergensis was the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals, said Jayne Wilkins, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto and the study's first author. The spears "suggest that the behavioral complexity of these early humans was greater than expected," she said. Creating a stone-tipped spear would have required attaching stone to wood, handling multiple types of material at once, planning and goal-oriented behavior.



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; When Stone Met Stick to Ease Hunters' Work." The New York Times (Tues., November 20, 2012): D3.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 19, 2012.)



The original Science article is:

Wilkins,  Jayne,  Benjamin J. Schoville,  Kyle S. Brown, and  Michael Chazan. "Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology." Science 338, no. 6109 (16 November 2012): 942-46.






November 20, 2012

71,000 Years Ago "These People Were Like You & I"



PinnaclePointExcavation2012-11-16.jpg "Scientists at the Pinnacle Point excavation." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A3) A trove of sophisticated stone tools recently dug up from a South African cliff suggests early modern humans developed complex cognitive ability anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 years earlier than many scientists believe.

In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers said they had unearthed a large number of small stone blades going back some 71,000 years. The heat-treated blades appear to have been designed for tipping spears or arrows that could be used for hunting game.

Crucially, the discovery indicates that these ancestors had the cognitive ability to manipulate complex tools. In addition, they were able to pass on their inventions to future generations. That, in turn, suggests the use of sophisticated language.

"What it's showing us is that these people were like you and I," said Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., co-author of the study, and leader of the South Africa project. "They were smart people."


. . .


Dr. Marean and his colleagues unearthed the microliths at a site known as Pinnacle Point on the southern shore of South Africa. They began the dig in 2005.

Some 72,000 years ago, the earth was wrapped in a glacial chill that lasted about 12,000 years. The African interior was dry and many early modern humans would have moved to more hospitable locations, such as the southern coast.



For the full story, see:

GAUTAM NAIK. "U.S. NEWS (sic); Tool Clue to Early Man's Mind." The Wall Street Journal (Thur., November 8, 2012): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was updated August 22, 2012 and had the title "WORLD NEWS; Tools Hint at Earlier Start for Human Smarts.)



MicrolithBlades2012-11-16.jpg














"Microlith blades." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.







October 5, 2012

Modern Humans Created Flutes Over 42,000 Years Ago



BoneFluteHohleFelsCaveGermany2012-09-03.jpg "LOST AND FOUND; Scientists say that this bone flute, found at Hohle Fels Cave in Germany, is at least 42,000 years old." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. D4) In hillside caves of southwestern Germany, archaeologists in recent years have uncovered the beginnings of music and art by early modern humans migrating into Europe from Africa. New dating evidence shows that these oldest known musical instruments in the world, flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory, are even older than first thought.

Scientists led by Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford in England reported last week that improved radiocarbon tests determined that animal bones found with the flutes were 42,000 to 43,000 years old. This is close to the time when the first anatomically modern humans were spreading into Central Europe, presumably along the Danube River valley.

Earlier tests had yielded dates of 35,000 years ago for artifacts at several caves where flutes and also ivory statuettes of voluptuous women have been found near Ulm, Germany, and the Danube's headwaters. The best preserved bone flute, with five finger holes, was collected at Hohle Fels Cave. The new analysis was based on material from the nearby Geissenklösterle Cave.



For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Flute's Revised Age Dates the Sound of Music Earlier." The New York Times (Tues., May 29, 2012): D4.


Some of the new results summarized above are reported to the scientific community in:

Higham, Thomas, Laura Basell, Roger Jacobi, Rachel Wooda, Christopher Bronk Ramseya, and Nicholas J. Conardf. "Τesting Models for the Beginnings of the Aurignacian and the Advent of Figurative Art and Music: The Radiocarbon Chronology of Geißenklösterle." Journal of Human Evolution 62, no. 6 (June 2012): 664-76.






September 11, 2012

"Oldest" Pottery Now 2,000 Years Older



PotteryAncientKitchen2012-09-02.jpg "Pottery made by mobile foragers dates back 20,000 years." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



The evidence quoted below is somewhat esoteric, but it bears on an important issue: how long ago did our ancestors become our equals in terms of biological and intellectual abilities? (The longer that period, the longer is the handle in McCloskey's "Great Fact.")



(p. D3) Fragments of ancient pottery found in southern China turn out to date back 20,000 years, making them the world's oldest known pottery -- 2,000 to 3,000 years older than examples found in East Asia and elsewhere.


. . .


The crockery, found in Xianrendong Cave in Jiangxi Province, belonged to a group of mobile foragers, Dr. Bar-Yosef said. They were a hunting and gathering community; plant cultivation and agriculture probably did not arrive until about 10,000 years later.



For the full review, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; Remnants of an Ancient Kitchen Are Found in China." The New York Times (Sun., July 3, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 28, 2012.)


The full reference for the book under review, is:

Wu, Xiaohong, Chi Zhang, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, Yan Pan, Trina Arpin, and Ofer Bar-Yosef. "Report; Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China." Science 336, no. 6089 (June 29, 2012): 1696-700.






September 7, 2012

Behaviorally Modern Humans Emerged at Least by 44,000 Years Ago



CaveRelicsAfrica2012-08-21.jpg "CAVE RELICS; Clues to relatively modern behavior 44,000 years ago in Africa." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) In the widening search for the origins of modern human evolution, genes and fossils converge on Africa about 200,000 years ago as the where and when of the first skulls and bones that are strikingly similar to ours. So this appears to be the beginning of anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

But evidence for the emergence of behaviorally modern humans is murkier -- and controversial. Recent discoveries establish that the Homo sapiens groups who arrived in Europe some 45,000 years ago had already attained the self-awareness, creativity and technology of early modern people.


. . .


In their research, Dr. d'Errico and colleagues re-examined organic artifacts from Border Cave and their refined radiocarbon ages, concluding that "key elements of the San material culture" place "the emergence of modern hunter-gatherer adaptation, as we know it," to more or less 44,000 years ago.

Previous discoveries revealed that other cave dwellers in southern Africa were experimenting with pigment use, body adornment, and advanced stone and bone tools more than 75,000 years ago, but that many of these artifacts seemed to disappear by 60,000 years ago. Dr. d'Errico's group said this suggested that "modern behavior appeared in the past and was subsequently lost before becoming firmly established."


. . .


In an earlier paper written with Dr. Stringer, Dr. d'Errico said that in his view, present evidence "does not support a gradualist scenario nor a revolution scenario, but a nonlinear process during which key cultural innovations emerge, are lost and re-emerge in different forms before being finally adopted."

This process, he continued, "does not happen everywhere at the same time," and the material culture at Border Cave is "not necessarily valid elsewhere."



For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Artifacts Revive Debate on Transformation of Human Behavior." The New York Times (Tues., July 31, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 30, 2012.)


The 2012 academic publication by d'Errico et al can be found at:

d'Errico, Francesco, Lucinda Backwell, Paola Villa, Ilaria Degano, Jeannette J. Lucejko, Marion K. Bamford, Thomas F. G. Higham, Maria Perla Colombini, and Peter B. Beaumont. "Early Evidence of San Material Culture Represented by Organic Artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa." PNAS 109, no. 33 (2012): 13214-19.







September 3, 2012

Some Cultures Really Are Barbaric



IncaGirlMummy2012-08-20.jpg

"The mummy of a sacrificed Inca girl was found in Argentina in 1999." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. D3) Dr. Dávalos and Dr. Corthals and their colleagues report their findings in the journal PLoS One.

The researchers discovered the mummy, along with those of two other sacrificed children, in 1999.

"They were buried in a tomb, and the tomb was packed solid with volcanic ashes and covered in snow, so they did not desiccate," Dr. Corthals said. "Their entire bodies were sealed and perfectly preserved."

The sacrificed youths probably made a journey of as many as 1,500 miles from Cuzco, the capital of the Inca empire, to the summit, Dr. Corthals said. "The girl actually had gray hair, so I think they knew their fate," she said. "And the little girl and boy also had their teeth ground down."



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; Disease Diagnosed in a 500-Year-Old Mummy." The New York Times (Tues., July 31, 2012): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 30, 2012.)

(Note: the online version, quoted above, corrects the mistaken "3,000 miles" number in the print version. It also replaces "Argentine researchers" with "The researchers.")



The academic publication being summarized can be found at:

Corthals A, Koller A, Martin DW, Rieger R, Chen EI, Bernaski M, Recagno, G, Dávalos, LM . (2012) Detecting the Immune System Response of a 500 Year-Old Inca Mummy. PLoS ONE 7(7):e41244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041244






June 30, 2012

Dinosaur Belches and Farts Made More Global Warming Gas than All of Today's Sources



(p. A6) Gassy dinosaurs may have spewed so much methane into the air that it could have helped warm the climate tens of millions of years ago, when temperatures were much higher than today, a team of U.K. scientists reported Monday.

The stomach gas released each year by a group of long-necked, plant-eating dinosaurs, which included the world's largest known land animals, may have equaled the total amount of methane produced every year today from all natural, agricultural and industrial sources, the researchers said Monday in the journal Current Biology. Methane, a greenhouse gas, is 23 times as effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

The new scientific work highlights the importance of wildlife, livestock and other natural sources of greenhouse-gas emissions in shaping the global climate.

As with cows, sheep and buffalo today, these plant-eating dinosaurs, known as sauropods, likely digested their leafy greens with the help of methane-producing microbes in their stomachs that fermented the plant matter after it was chewed and swallowed. Generally, other plant eaters and creatures that eat meat, including people, don't digest their food this way and pass gas that is mostly nitrogen and carbon dioxide, with traces of methane and hydrogen.

Cattle belching and gas account for about 20% of U.S. methane emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.



For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Dinosaur Gas Emissions May Have Warmed Air." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 8, 2012): A6.

(Note: online version of the story is dated May 7, 2012.)


The academic article on sauropod methane emissions is:

Wilkinson, David M., Euan G. Nisbet, and Graeme D. Ruxton. "Could Methane Produced by Sauropod Dinosaurs Have Helped Drive Mesozoic Climate Warmth?" Current Biology 22, no. 9 (May 8, 2012): R292-R93.






February 7, 2012

The Tasmanian Technological Regress: "Slow Strangulation of the Mind"



(p. 78) The most striking case of technological regress is Tasmania. Isolated on an island at the end of the world, a population of less than 5,000 hunter-gatherers divided into nine tribes did not just stagnate, or fail to progress. They fell steadily and gradually back into a simpler toolkit and lifestyle, purely because they lacked the numbers to sustain their existing technology. Human beings reached Tasmania at least 35,000 years ago while it was still connected to Australia. It remained connected - on and off - until about 10,000 years ago, when the rising seas filled the Bass Strait. Thereafter the Tasmanians were isolated. By the time Europeans first encountered Tasmanian natives, they found them not only to lack many of the skills and tools of their mainland cousins, but to lack many technologies that their own ancestors had once possessed. They had no bone tools of any kind, such as needles and awls, no cold-weather clothing, no fish hooks, no hafted tools, no barbed spears, no fish traps, no spear throwers, no boomerangs. A few of these had been invented on the mainland after the Tasmanians had been isolated from it - the boomerang, for instance - but most had been made and used by the very first Tasmanians. Steadily and inexorably, so the archaeological history tells, these tools and tricks were abandoned. Bone tools, for example, grew simpler and simpler until they were dropped altogether about 3,800 years ago. Without bone tools it became impossible to sew skins into clothes, so even in the bitter winter, the Tasmanians went nearly naked but for seal-fat grease smeared on their skin and wallaby pelts over their shoulders. The first Tasmanians caught and ate plenty of fish, but by the time of Western contact they not only ate no fish (p. 79) and had eaten none for 3,000 years, but they were disgusted to be offered it (though they happily ate shellfish).

The story is not quite that simple, because the Tasmanians did invent a few new things during their isolation. Around 4,000 years ago they came up with a horribly unreliable form of canoe-raft, made of bundles of rushes and either paddled by men or pushed by swimming women (!), which enabled them to reach offshore islets to harvest birds and seals. The raft would become waterlogged and disintegrate or sink after a few hours, so it was no good for re-establishing contact with the mainland. As far as innovation goes, it was so unsatisfactory that it almost counts as an exception to prove the rule. The women also learnt to dive up to twelve feet below the water to prise clams off the rocks with wooden wedges and to grab lobsters. This was dangerous and exhausting work, which they were very skilled at: the men did not take part. So it was not that there was no innovation; it was that regress overwhelmed progress.

The archaeologist who first described the Tasmanian regress, Rhys Jones, called it a case of the 'slow strangulation of the mind', which perhaps understandably enraged some of his academic colleagues. There was nothing wrong with individual Tasmanian brains; there was something wrong with their collective brains. Isolation - self-sufficiency - caused the shrivelling of their technology. Earlier I wrote that division of labour was made possible by technology. But it is more interesting than that. Technology was made possible by division of labour: market exchange calls forth innovation.



Source:

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.





January 29, 2012

First Human Tools 1.76 Million Years Ago



ToolsOldestYet2012-01-21.jpg














"A study dates human tools like this ax to 1.76 million years ago."






(p. A8) A new geological study, being reported Thursday in the journal Nature, showed that tools from a site near Lake Turkana in Kenya were made about 1.76 million years ago, the earliest of their ilk found so far. Previous dates were estimates ranging from 1.4 million to 1.6 million years ago.

Although no erectus fossils were found with the Turkana tools, a skull of that species was excavated last year in the same sediment level across the lake. This suggests that Homo erectus was responsible for these particular tools, which were made with what scientists refer to as Acheulean technology. The term connotes the type of oval and pear-shaped hand axes and other implements that were a specialty of early humans.



For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Earliest Signs of Advanced Tools Found." The New York Times (Thurs., September 1, 2011): A8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated August 31, 2011.)





January 26, 2012

Paleolithic Homo Sapiens Engaged in Long Distance Trade



(p. 71) At Mezherich, in what is now Ukraine, 18,000 years ago, jewellery made of shells from the Black Sea and amber from the Baltic implied trade over hundreds of miles.

This is in striking contrast to the Neanderthals, whose stone tools were virtually always made from raw material available within an hour's walk of where the tool was used.



Source:

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.





January 22, 2012

Hunter-Gatherers Suffered Violence, Famine and Disease--No Idyllic Golden Age



(p. 44) The warfare death rate of 0.5 per cent of the population per year that was typical of many hunter-gatherer societies would equate to two billion people dying during the twentieth century (instead of 100 million). At a cemetery uncovered at Jebel Sahaba, in Egypt, dating from 14,000 years ago, twenty-four of the fifty-nine bodies had died from unhealed wounds caused by spears, darts and arrows. Forty of these bodies were women or children. Women and children generally do not take part in warfare - but they are (p. 45) frequently the object of the fighting. To be abducted as a sexual prize and see your children killed was almost certainly not a rare female fate in hunter-gatherer society. After Jebel Sahaba, forget the Garden of Eden; think Mad Max.

It was not just warfare that limited population growth. Hunter-gatherers are often vulnerable to famines. Even when food is abundant, it might take so much travelling and trouble to collect enough food that women would not maintain a sufficient surplus to keep themselves fully fertile for more than a few prime years. Infanticide was a common resort in bad times. Nor was disease ever far away: gangrene, tetanus and many kinds of parasite would have been big killers. Did I mention slavery? Common in the Pacific north-west. Wife beating? Routine in Tierra del Fuego. The lack of soap, hot water, bread, books, films, metal, paper, cloth? When you meet one of those people who go so far as to say they would rather have lived in some supposedly more delightful past age, just remind them of the toilet facilities of the Pleistocene, the transport options of Roman emperors or the lice of Versailles.



Source:

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.





January 21, 2012

"Just What Ailments Are Pylos Tablets Supposed to Alleviate?"



LinearBscript2012-01-14.jpg










"Professor Bennett's work opened a window to deciphering tablets written in Linear B, a Bronze Age Aegean script." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.



(p. 22) Deciphering an ancient script is like cracking a secret code from the past, and the unraveling of Linear B is widely considered one of the most challenging archaeological decipherments of all time, if not the most challenging.


. . .


Linear B recorded the administrative workings of Mycenaean palatial centers on Crete and the Greek mainland 3,000 years ago: accounts of crops harvested, flocks tended, goods manufactured (including furniture, chariots and perfume), preparations for religious feasts and preparations for war.

It was deciphered at last in 1952, not by a scholar but by an obsessed amateur, a young English architect named Michael Ventris. The decipherment made him world famous before his death in an automobile accident in 1956.

As Mr. Ventris had acknowledged, he was deeply guided by Professor Bennett's work, which helped impose much-needed order on the roiling mass of strange, ancient symbols.

In his seminal monograph "The Pylos Tablets" (1951), Professor Bennett published the first definitive list of the signs of Linear B. Compiling such a list is the essential first step in deciphering any unknown script, and it is no mean feat.


. . .


"We know how much Ventris admired Bennett, because he immediately adopted Bennett's sign list of Linear B for his own work before the decipherment," said Mr. Robinson, whose book "The Man Who Deciphered Linear B" (2002) is a biography of Mr. Ventris. "He openly said, 'This is a wonderful piece of work.' "


. . .


As meticulous as Professor Bennett's work was, it once engendered great confusion. In 1951, after he sent Mr. Ventris a copy of his monograph, a grateful Ventris went to the post office to pick it up. As Mr. Robinson's biography recounts, a suspicious official, eyeing the package, asked him: "I see the contents are listed as Pylos Tablets. Now, just what ailments are pylos tablets supposed to alleviate?"



For the full obituary, see:

MARGALIT FOX. "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Ancient Script Expert, Dies at 93." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., January 1, 2012,): 22.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary is dated December 31, 2011, and has the title: "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Expert on Ancient Script, Dies at 93.")


The book on the amateur, uncredentialed Ventris is:

Robinson, Andrew. The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris. London, UK: Thames & Hudson, 2002.



BennettEmmettJr2012-01-14.jpg













"Emmett L. Bennett Jr." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited above.







January 5, 2012

Newly Found Fossils Indicate Life Evolved Soon After the Late Heavy Bombardment



TubularMicrofossilsOldestLife2011-11-11.jpg






"A collection of tubular microfossils found in 3.4-billion-year-old sandstone from Western Australia." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. A1) A team of Australian and British geologists have discovered fossilized, single-cell organisms that are 3.4 billion years old and that the scientists say are the oldest known fossils on earth.

Their assertion, if sustained, confirms the view that life evolved on earth surprisingly soon after the Late Heavy Bombardment, a reign of destruction in which waves of asteroids slammed into the primitive planet, heating the surface to molten rock and boiling the oceans into an incandescent mist. The bombardment, which ended around 3.85 billion years ago, would have sterilized the earth's surface of any incipient life.

The claim is also a new volley in a long-running conflict over who has found the oldest fossil.

The new microfossils are described in Sunday's issue of Nature Geoscience by a team led by David Wacey of the University of Western Australia and Martin D. Brasier of the University of Oxford. The fossils were found in sandstone at the base of the Strelley Pool rock formation in Western Australia.

The sandstone, 3.4 billion years ago, was a beach on one of the few islands that had started to (p. A3) appear above the ocean's surface. Conditions were very different from those of today. The moon orbited far closer to earth, raising huge tides. The atmosphere was full of methane, since plants had not yet evolved to provide oxygen, and greenhouse warming from the methane had heated the oceans to the temperature of a hot bath.

It was in these conditions, the geologists believe, that organisms resembling today's bacteria lived in the crevices between the pebbles on the beach. Examining thin slices of rock under the microscope, they have found structures that look like living cells, some in clusters that seem to show cell division.

Cell-like structures in ancient rocks can be deceiving -- many have turned out to be artifacts formed by nonbiological processes. In this case, the geologists have gathered considerable circumstantial evidence that the structures they see are biological. With an advanced new technique, they have analyzed the composition of very small spots within the cell-like structures. "We can see carbon, sulfur, nitrogen and phosphorus, all within the cell walls," Dr. Brasier said.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Team Claims It Has Found Oldest Fossils." The New York Times (Mon., August 22, 2011): A1 & A3.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date August 21, 2011.)





January 3, 2012

In State of Nature 15% of People Died Violently



MurderDeclineGraph2011-11-11.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. C1) For centuries, social theorists like Hobbes and Rousseau speculated from their armchairs about what life was like in a "state of nature." Nowadays we can do better. Forensic archeology--a kind of "CSI: Paleolithic"--can estimate rates of violence from the proportion of skeletons in ancient sites with bashed-in skulls, decapitations or arrowheads embedded in bones. And ethnographers can tally the causes of death in tribal peoples that have recently lived outside of state control.

These investigations show that, on average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states. Tribal violence commonly subsides when a state or empire imposes control over a territory, leading to the various "paxes" (Romana, Islamica, Brittanica and so on) that are familiar to readers of history.

It's not that the first kings had a benevolent interest in the welfare of their citizens. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his livestock from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding. From his point of view, such squabbling is a dead loss--forgone opportunities to extract taxes, tributes, soldiers and slaves.


. . .


(p. C2) We see evidence of the pacifying effects of government in the way that rates of killing declined following the expansion and consolidation of states in tribal societies and in medieval Europe. And we can watch the movie in reverse when violence erupts in zones of anarchy, such as the Wild West, failed states and neighborhoods controlled by mafias and street gangs, who can't call 911 or file a lawsuit to resolve their disputes but have to administer their own rough justice.

Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism.

For example, though the relationship today between America and China is far from warm, we are unlikely to declare war on them or vice versa. Morality aside, they make too much of our stuff, and we owe them too much money.

A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism--the expansion of people's parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.



For the full essay, see:

STEVEN PINKER. "Violence Vanquished; We believe our world is riddled with terror and war, but we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence. Why brutality is declining and empathy is on the rise." The New York Times (Weds., SEPTEMBER 24, 2011): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The article quoted was adapted by Pinker from his book:

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking Press, 2011.



WaningWarGraph2011-11-11.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.





December 16, 2011

Evidence "of Complex Human Cognition" 100,000 Years Ago



ShellPaintHundredThousandYearOld2011-12-10.jpg "Deposits of 100,000-year-old ocher were found in a shell alongside tools for pounding and grinding paint materials." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. A12) Digging deeper in a South African cave that had already yielded surprises from the Middle Stone Age, archaeologists have uncovered a 100,000-year-old workshop holding the tools and ingredients with which early modern humans apparently mixed some of the first known paint.

These cave artisans had stones for pounding and grinding colorful dirt enriched with a kind of iron oxide to a powder, known as ocher. This was blended with the binding fat of mammal-bone marrow and a dash of charcoal. Traces of ocher were left on the tools, and samples of the reddish compound were collected in large abalone shells, where the paint was liquefied, stirred and scooped out with a bone spatula.

Archaeologists said that in the workshop remains they were seeing the earliest example yet of how emergent Homo sapiens processed ocher, one of the species' first pigments in wide use, its red color apparently rich in symbolic significance. The early humans may have applied the concoction to their skin for protection or simply decoration, experts suggested. Perhaps it was their way of making social and artistic statements on their bodies or their artifacts.

Of special importance to the scientists who made the discovery, the ocher workshop showed that early humans, whose anatomy was modern, had also begun thinking like us. In a report published online on Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers called this evidence of early conceptual abilities "a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition."

The discovery dials back the date when the modern Homo sapiens population was known to have started using paint. Previously, no workshop older than 60,000 years had come to light, and the earliest cave and rock art began appearing about 40,000 years ago. The exuberant flowering among the Cro-Magnon artists in the caves of Europe would come even later; the parade of animals on the walls of Lascaux in France, for example, was executed 17,000 years ago.


. . .


Alison S. Brooks, an archaeologist at George Washington University who studies the Middle Stone Age in Africa but was not involved in this research, said, "This is another spectacular discovery from Blombos."



For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "In African Cave, Ancient Paint Factory Pushes Human Symbolic Thought 'Far Back'." The New York Times (Fri., October 14, 2011): A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date October 13, 2011 and the title "In African Cave, Signs of an Ancient Paint Factory.")






November 16, 2011

Fossil Shows Placental Mammals 35 Million Years Earlier



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"The earliest known eutherian from the Jurassic of China." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.






(p. D3) The split between placental mammals and marsupials may have occurred 35 million years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.


. . .


The newly identified mammal was small, weighing less than a chipmunk. Based on its claws, it appears to have been an active climber. "This was a skinny little animal, eating insects," said Dr. Luo. "We imagine it was active in the night and capable of going up and down trees."

Its discovery helps reconcile fossil evidence and molecular analysis. Modern molecular studies, which use DNA to estimate dates of evolution, also put the emergence of placentals at about 160 million years ago.



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; A Small Mammal Fossil Tells a Jurassic Tale." The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 24 (sic), 2011.)





November 8, 2011

Modern Humans and Neanderthals Coexisted in Europe for at Least 10,000 Years



FossillBabyTooth2011-11-04.jpg"One of the infant teeth (a deciduous left upper first molar) whose age had been underestimated. The white bar is 1 centimeter in length." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A4) The fossils seemed hardly worth a second look. The one from England was only a piece of jawbone with three teeth, and the other, from southern Italy, was nothing more than two infant teeth. But scientists went ahead, re-examining them with refined techniques, and found that one specimen's age had previously been significantly underestimated and that the other's dating and identity had been misinterpreted.

They had in fact discovered the oldest known skeletal remains of anatomically modern humans in the whole of Europe, two international research teams reported Wednesday.

The scientists who made the discovery and others who study human origins say they expect the findings to reignite debate over the relative capabilities of the immigrant modern humans and the indigenous Neanderthals, their closest hominid relatives; the extent of their interactions; and perhaps the reasons behind the Neanderthal extinction. The findings have already prompted speculation that the Homo sapiens migrations into Europe may have come in at least two separate waves, rather than just one.

In tests conducted at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in England, the baby teeth from Italy were dated at 43,000 to 45,000 years old. Other analysis showed the teeth to be those of a modern human, not a Neanderthal, as previously thought when the fossil was unearthed in 1964 from the Grotta del Cavallo.



For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Fossil Teeth Put Humans in Europe Earlier Than Thought." The New York Times (Thur., November 3, 2011): A4.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated November 2, 2011.)





October 25, 2011

The Huge Value of Exposing Ourselves to Unexpected Evidence




Bill Bryson tells how much we learned from the remains of a man from the neolithic age, who has been called Ötzi:


(p. 377) His equipment employed eighteen different types of wood - a remarkable variety. The most surprising of all his tools was the axe. It was copper-bladed and of a type known as a Remedello axe, after a site in Italy where they were first found. But Ötzi's axe was hundreds of years older than the oldest Remedello axe. 'It was,' in the words of one observer, 'as if the tomb of a medieval warrior had yielded a modern rifle.' The axe changed the timeframe for the copper age in Europe by no less than a thousand years.

But the real revelation and excitement were the clothes. Before Ötzi we had no idea - or, to be more precise, nothing but ideas - of how stone age people dressed. Such materials as survived existed only as fragments. Here was a complete outfit and it was full of surprises. His clothes were made from the skins and furs of an impressive range of animals - red deer, bear, chamois, goat and cattle. He also had with him a woven grass rectangle that was three feet long. This might have been a kind of rain cape, but it might equally have been a sleeping mat. Again, nothing like it had ever been seen or imagined.

Ötzi wore fur leggings held up with leather strips attached to a waist strap that made them look uncannily - almost comically - like the kind of nylon stockings and garter sets that Hollywood pin-ups wore in the Second World War. Nobody had remotely foreseen such a get-up. He wore a loincloth of goatskin and a hat made from the fur of a brown bear - probably a kind of hunting trophy. It would have been very warm and covetably stylish. The rest of his outfit was mostly made from the skin and fur of red deer. Hardly any came from domesticated animals, the opposite of what was expected.



Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.





October 22, 2011

Easter Island Was Ravaged by Rats, Peruvian Slaving Parties and Nonnative Diseases, Not by Ecocide



Statues-That-WalkedBK.jpg















Source of book image: http://0.tqn.com/d/archaeology/1/0/g/L/1/Statues-That-Walked-sm.jpg





The natives call Easter Island "Rapa Nui."



(p. C5) With the forest gone, Rapa Nui's soil degraded; unable to feed themselves, Mr. Diamond argued in his best-selling "Collapse" (2005), Easter Islanders faced "starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism." The fall was abrupt and overwhelming; scores of giant statues were abandoned, half-finished. Roggeveen had discovered a ruin--and a powerful eco-parable.

Books and articles by the hundred have pointed to Rapa Nui as the inevitable result of uncontrolled population growth, squandered resources and human fecklessness. "The person who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree," wrote Paul G. Bahn and John Flenley in "Easter Island, Earth Island" (1992). "But he (or she) still felled it." "The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious," Mr. Diamond proclaimed. "The clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources," he said, Rapa Nui epitomizes "ecocide," presenting a stark image of "what may lie ahead of us in our own future."

No, it doesn't, write archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in "The Statues That Walked," a fascinating entry in the pop-science genre of Everything You Know Is Wrong. Messrs. Hunt and Lipo had no intention of challenging Mr. Diamond when they began research on Rapa Nui. But in their fourth year of field work, they obtained radiocarbon dates from Anakena Beach, thought to be the island's oldest settlement. The dates strongly indicated that the first settlers appeared around A.D. 1200--eight centuries later than Heyerdahl and other researchers had thought.

Wait a minute, the authors in effect said. Rapa Nui is so remote that researchers believe it must have been settled by a small group of adventurers--a few dozen people, brave or crazy, in boats. The new evidence suggested that their arrival had precipitated catastrophic deforestation "on the scale of decades, not centuries." The island then probably had only a few hundred inhabitants. Some ecologists estimate that the island originally had 16 million palm trees. How could so few people have cut down so much so fast?


. . .


The real culprit, according to "The Statues That Walked," was the Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans), which stowed away on the boats of the first Polynesian settlers. In laboratory settings, Polynesian rat populations can double in 47 days. Throw a breeding pair into an island with no predators and abundant food and arithmetic suggests the result: ratpocalypse. If the animals multiplied as they did in Hawaii, the authors calculate, Rapa Nui would quickly have housed between two and three million. Among the favorite food sources of R. exulans are tree seeds and tree sprouts. Humans surely cleared some of the forest, but the real damage would have come from the rats that prevented new growth.

"Rather than a case of abject failure," the authors argue, "Rapa Nui is an unlikely story of success." The islanders had migrated, perhaps accidentally, to a place with little water and "fundamentally unproductive" soil with "uniformly low" levels of phosphorus, an essential mineral for plant growth. To avoid the wind's dehydrating effects, the newcomers circled their gardens with stone walls known as manavai. Today, the researchers discovered, abandoned manavai occupy about 6.4 square miles, a tenth of the island's total surface.

More impressive still, about half of the island is covered by "lithic mulching," in which the islanders scattered broken stone over the fields. The uneven (p. C6) surface creates more turbulent airflow, reducing daytime surface temperatures and warming fields at night. And shattering the rocks exposes "fresh, unweathered surfaces, thus releasing mineral nutrients held within the rock." Only lithic mulching produced enough nutrients--just barely--to make Rapa Nui's terrible soil cultivable. Breaking and moving vast amounts of stone, the islanders had engineered an entirely new, more productive landscape.

Their success was short-lived. As Messrs. Hunt and Lipo point out, the 18th and 19th centuries were terrible times to reside in a small, almost defenseless Pacific nation. Rapa Nui was repeatedly ravaged by Peruvian slaving parties and nonnative diseases.


. . .


Easter Island's people did not destroy themselves, the authors say. They were destroyed.


. . .


Oral tradition said that the statues walked into their places. Oral tradition was correct, the authors say. By shaping the huge statues just right, the islanders were able to rock them from side to side, moving them forward in a style familiar to anyone who has had to move a refrigerator. Walking the statues, the authors show in experiments, needed only 15 or 20 people.

In a 2007 article in Science, Mr. Diamond estimated that hundreds of laborers were needed to move the statues, suggesting that the eastern settlements of the island alone had to have "a population of thousands"--which in turn was proof of the island's destructive overpopulation. By showing that the statues could have been moved by much fewer people, Messrs. Hunt and Lipo have removed one of the main supports of the ecocide theory and the parable about humankind it tells.



For the full review, see:

CHARLES C. MANN. "Don't Blame the Natives; It was a rat that caused the sudden collapse of Easter Island's civilization." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., JULY 30, 2011): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)


Source of book under review:

Hunt, Terry, and Carl Lipo. The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. New York: Free Press, 2011.





July 11, 2011

Warm Yourself Over a "Dung Fire, and You Will Know What Pollution Really Is"



(p. D4) To the Editor:

The idea that ancient man had fewer tumors because he lived in a less polluted atmosphere ("Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, and Debate," Dec. 28) can be held only by those who have limited experience living in a preindustrial way. Try cooking over an open fire burning half-rotten wood, or sitting in a cave warming yourself with a peat or dung fire, and you will know what pollution really is.

Carol Selinske

Rye Brook, N.Y.



Source of NYT letter to the Editor:

Carol Selinske. "LETTERS; Cancer, Then and Now." The New York Times (Tues., January 4, 2011): D4.

(Note: the online version of the letter is dated: January 3, 2011.)






July 2, 2011

Partage Provides Incentives to Recover Antiquities and the Means to Preserve Them



WhoOwnsAntiquityBK2011-06-05.gif
















Source of book image: http://press.princeton.edu/images/k8602.gif





(p. D1) In some cases, it makes aesthetic or archaeological sense to keep artifacts grouped together where they were found, but it can also be risky to leave everything in one place, particularly if the country is in turmoil or can't afford to excavate or guard all its treasures. After the Metropolitan Museum was pressured to hand over a collection called the Lydian Hoard, one of the most valuable (p. D2) pieces was stolen several years ago from its new home in Turkey.


. . .


(p. D2) In his book "Who Owns Antiquity?", James Cuno argues that scholars have betrayed their principles by acquiescing to politicians who have exploited antiquities to legitimize themselves and their governments. Saddam Hussein was the most blatant, turning Iraqi archeology museums into propaganda for himself as the modern Nebuchadnezzar, but other leaders have been just as cynical in using antiquities to bolster their claims of sovereignty.

Dr. Cuno advocates the revival of partage, the traditional system in which archeologists digging in foreign countries would give some of their discoveries to the host country and take others home. That way both sides benefit, and both sides have incentives to recover antiquities before looters beat them to it. . . .

As the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dr. Cuno has his own obvious motives for acquiring foreign antiquities, and he makes no apology for wanting to display Middle Eastern statues to Midwesterners.

"It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange," Dr. Cuno writes. "And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another."

Some of the most culturally protectionist nations today, like Egypt, Italy and Turkey, are trying to hoard treasures that couldn't have been created without the inspiration provided by imported works of art. (Imagine the Renaissance without the influence of "looted" Greek antiquities.) And the current political rulers of those countries often have little in common culturally with the creators of the artifacts they claim to own.



For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY. "FINDINGS; A Case in Antiquities for 'Finders Keepers'." The New York Times (Tues., November 17, 2009): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated November 16, 2009.)


The Cuno book discussed above, is:

Cuno, James. Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.






June 15, 2011

Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons Did Not Much Overlap: Evidence Against an Early Human Golden Age



In 2010 archeologist Brian Fagan published a book that used his read of the evidence to imagine the interactions between Cro-Magnon (us) and Neanderthal humans. He mostly portrayed the interaction as one of wary, but mainly benign mutual neglect. His broader portrayal of the lives of the hunter-gatherer Cro-Magnons did not completely place them in a Golden Age, but did much to praise many aspects of their lives.

Also in 2010, Matt Ridley published a book that discussed and dismissed the view that the hunter-gatherers were to be admired. He mainly pointed to the evidence of how common violent death was among hunter-gatherers, and hence how precarious and fearful their lives must have been.

Now there is additional relevant evidence. Apparently the period of overlap between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals was much briefer than had been previously believed. This implies (see below) that rather than benign mutual neglect, it is much more likely that the Cro-Magnons violently wiped out the Neanderthals.

Hobbes may not have been entirely wrong when he described early human life as "nasty, poor, brutish and short."


(p. D4) An improvement in the dating of fossils suggests that the Neanderthals, a heavily muscled, thick-boned human species adapted to living in ice age Europe, perished almost immediately on contact with the modern humans who started to enter Europe from the Near East about 44,000 years ago. Until now bones from several Neanderthal sites have been dated to as young as 29,000 years ago, suggesting there was extensive overlap between the two human species. This raised the question of whether there had been interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals, an issue that is still not resolved.


. . .


Reviewing . . . Neanderthal dates ascertained with the new ultrafiltration method, Dr. Higham sees an emerging pattern that no European Neanderthal site can reliably be dated to less than 39,000 years ago. "It's only with reliable techniques that we can interpret the archaeological past," he said.

He is re-dating Neanderthal sites across Europe and so far sees no evidence for any extensive overlap between Neanderthals and modern humans. "There was a degree of contemporaneity, but it may not have been very long," he said. A short period of contact would point to the extinction of the Neanderthals at the hands of modern humans.

"It's very unlikely for Neanderthals to go extinct without some agency from modern humans," Dr. Higham said.

Paul Mellars, an expert on Neanderthals at Cambridge University in England, said that the quality of the dates from Dr. Higham's laboratory was superb and that samples of bone re-dated by the lab's method were almost always found to be several thousand years older than previously measured. The picture supported by the new dates is that the interaction between modern humans and Neanderthals in Europe was brief in each region, lasting perhaps a few hundred years, Dr. Mellars said, until the modern humans overwhelmed their competitors through better technology and greater numbers.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Neanderthals and Early Humans May Not Have Mingled Much." The New York Times (Tues., May 10, 2011): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 9, 2011.)


The Fagan book is:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.


The Ridley book is:

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.





April 27, 2011

45% of Mummies Had Heart Disease



MummyCTscan2011-04-25.jpg
"A mummy enters the CT scanner at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. It was one of 52 mummies examined for signs of heart disease." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.



(p. 6A) Atherosclerosis -- hardening of the arteries -- was surpris­ingly widespread during an­cient times, at least among the Egyptian mummies examined by an international team of sci­entists and heart specialists.

Their research, whose re­sults were presented April 3 in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the American Col­lege of Cardiology, found that 45 percent of the mummies they put through CT scans had signs of atherosclerosis.

That raises questions about whether hardening of the arter­ies is the modern disease that many think it is.

"We found it so easily and frequently that it appears to have been common in this soci­ety," said Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke's Hospi­tal in Kansas City.



For the full story, see:

MC CLATCHY NEWSPAPERS. "Hardened Arteries Go Back Centuries." Omaha World-Herald (Mon., April 18, 2011): 6A.





April 2, 2011

Middle-Class Today Live Better than 99.4% of Humans Who Ever Lived



(p. 80) In his extraordinary book Mapping Human History, the science writer Steve Olson estimates that 80 billion "modern" humans--from the first beings recognizable as our forebears to the advent of Homo sapiens sapiens, our official name--have walked the earth down through the millennia. Supposing this number is correct, the men and women at middle-class standards or above in the United States and the European Union now live better than 99.4 percent of the human beings who have ever existed.


Source:

Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.


The Olson book mentioned is:

Olson, Steve. Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through Our Genes. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

(Note: italics in original.)






March 4, 2011

The "Golden Age" When Enemy Blood Was Sipped from Skull-Cups



SkullCupPaleolithicEngland2011-02-27.jpg "Skull-cups found in Somerset, England, were worked with flint tools 14,700 years ago." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



If you are one of those who longs nostalgically for the "Golden Age" of our hunter-gatherer paleolithic past, read on:



(p. D3) The three human braincases, two from adults and one from a child, were carefully skinned and cleaned with flint tools. The soft tissue was removed and probably consumed, leaving a well-shaped cup, perhaps made for use in some sort of ritual.

This is not a scene from a horror film. British paleoanthropologists report the discovery of these 14,700-year-old skull-cups in the journal PLoS One. They were found in Gough's Cave in Somerset, England, and are the oldest directly dated skull-cups known, based on radiocarbon analysis.


. . .


Historical accounts hold that other human societies, like the Scythians, nomadic Indo-European warriors, used skull-cups to sip the blood of enemies. And as late as the 19th century, skull-cups were reportedly used in Fiji and other islands in Oceania.



For the full story, see:

Bhanoo, Sindya N. "Observatory; Skull-Cups in British Cave Conjure an Ancient Rite." The New York Times (Tues., February 22, 2011): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated February 16 (sic), 2011.)


The scholarly article summarized is:

Bello, Silvia M., Simon A. Parfitt, and Chris B. Stringer. "Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups." PLoS ONE 6, no. 2 e17026 (Feb. 2011).






November 26, 2010

First Writing Grew from Commerce



CunneiformSumerianClayTablet3200BC.jpg













"A Sumerian clay tablet from around 3200 B.C. is inscribed in wedgelike cuneiform with a list of professions." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. C5) CHICAGO -- One of the stars of the Oriental Institute's new show, "Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond," is a clay tablet that dates from around 3200 B.C. On it, written in cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia, is a list of professions, described in small, repetitive impressed characters that look more like wedge-shape footprints than what we recognize as writing.

In fact "it is among the earliest examples of writings that we know of so far," according to the institute's director, Gil J. Stein, and it provides insights into the life of one of the world's oldest cultures.

The new exhibition by the institute, part of the University of Chicago, is the first in the United States in 26 years to focus on comparative writing. It relies on advances in archaeologists' knowledge to shed new light on the invention of scripted language and its subsequent evolution.

The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations -- the Chinese and Mayans -- also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500.


. . .


The Oriental Institute, which opened in 1919, was heavily financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had been greatly influenced by James Henry Breasted, a passionate archaeologist.


. . .


Experts are still struggling to understand just how writing evolved, but one theory, laid out at the Oriental Institute's exhibition, places the final prewriting stage at 3400 B.C., when the Sumerians first began using small clay envelopes like the ones in the show. Some of the envelopes had tiny clay balls sealed within. Archaeologists theorize that they were sent along with goods being delivered; recipients would open them and ensure that the number of receivables matched the number of clay tokens. The tokens, examples of which are also are in the show , transmitted information, a key function of writing.



For the full story, see:

GERALDINE FABRIKANT. "Hunting for the Dawn of Writing, When Prehistory Became History." The New York Times (Weds., October 20, 2010): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 19, 2010.)





November 3, 2010

Paleolithic Humans Ate Carbohydrates



(p. D4) LONDON (Reuters) -- Starch grains found on 30,000-year-old grinding stones suggest that prehistoric humans may have dined on an early form of flatbread, contrary to their popular image as primarily meat eaters.

The findings, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on Monday, indicate that Paleolithic Europeans ground down plant roots similar to potatoes to make flour, which was later whisked into dough.

"It's like a flatbread, like a pancake with just water and flour," said Laura Longo, a researcher on the team, from the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History.


. . .


The findings may . . . upset fans of the so-called Paleolithic diet, which follows earlier research that assumes early humans ate a meat-centered diet.



For the full story, see:

REUTERS. "Paleolithic Humans Had Bread Along With Their Meat." The New York Times (Tues., October 19, 2010): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 18, 2010.)





September 30, 2010

Experts Ridiculed Amateur Who Died Before His Vindication



(p. 236) The Altamira cave, near Santander, near the Biscay coast, is 961 feet (263 meters) long, a cavern of chambers and passages, ending in a narrow defile known as the Horse's Tail. A local landowner, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, noticed some black marks at the back of the cave in 1876, but thought nothing of them until his eight-year-old daughter Maria, bored with his excavations, wandered with a candle into a side chamber. "Toros! Toros!" she cried, in one classic, and seemingly authentic, tale of archaeological discovery. Father and daughter gazed in amazement at the colorful bison on the ceiling of the low chamber.

Sautuola noticed close similarities between the art and pictures of animals he had seen on antler and bone fragments from French rock shelters at an exhibition in Paris. He claimed that the Altamira bison were the work of Stone Age artists but was ridiculed by scholars for his pains. The unfortunate landowner was vindicated after his death by paintings and engravings discovered at La Mouthe and Les Combarelles caves in 1895 and 1901.



Source:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





September 26, 2010

Cultures that Excel at the Practical Often Also Excel at the Sublime



According to the reasoning of the following passages, the same Cro-Magnons who created the wonderful cave paintings at Lascaux, were also the ones who created the highly effective laurel leaf projectile points.

It is often believed that the practical is in conflict with the sublime. The Solutreans may be one more example, in addition to that of entrepreneurial capitalism, that cultures that excel at the practical also excel at the sublime.

[The passages I quote are somewhat disjointed, so let me sketch how they fit together. The first sentence asserts that the Lascaux cave paintings are the prehistoric equal of the Sistine Chapel. The second passage describes the Salutreans' highly practical laurel leaf projectile points. The final sentence asserts that the same Salutrean culture that invented the practical points, also painted the sublime cave at Lascaux.]


(p. 219) Lascaux had been sealed since the late Ice Age, so what the Abbe Henri Breuil soon called "the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory" was intact.


. . .


(p. 221) . . . The seasonal killing at Solutre resumed, but now the prey was reindeer rather than horses. This time, too, the hunters used not only bone-pointed spears hut also weapons bearing what French archaeologists rather elegantly call feuilles de laurier, "laurel leaves" . . . . These beautifully made stone projectile points do indeed look like idealized laurel leaves and stand out as exotic in otherwise unchanging tool kits of bone artifacts, burins, and scrapers. Those skilled enough to fabricate them had mastered a new (p. 122) stoneworking technology, which involved using an antler billet to squeeze off shallow flakes by applying sharp pressure along the edges of a blade. This technique--pressure flaking--produced thin, beautifully shaped yet functional spear points that were both lethal and lovely to look upon. Sometimes, the stoneworkers made what one might call rudimentary versions of the points using pressure flaking on but one side of the tool. On occasion, too, they made spearheads with a shoulder that served as the mount for the shaft. But the ultimate was the classic laurel leaf, flaked on both sides, beautifully regular and thin. Feuilles de laurier were never common, and indeed, some researchers wonder if they were, in fact, ceremonial tools and never used in the field. This seems unlikely, for they would have made tough, effective weapons for killing prey like reindeer.


. . .


If the Lascaux chronology is to be believed--and remember that the radiocarbon dates come from artifacts in the cave, not actual paintings--then Solutreans were the artists who painted there, . . .




Source:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)





September 22, 2010

Neanderthal "Innovation Was Rare"



(p. 42) Judging from slowly changing styles of stone axes, innovation was rare and technological change almost imperceptible. The rhythm of daily life varied little from one generation to the next, just as the lives of animals followed predictable and familiar paths of migration and dispersal, life and death. Humans were collaborative predators among predators, both hunters and the hunted, effective at survival thanks to their expertise with wooden spears, their stalking ability, and their painfully acquired knowledge of animals and plants. And, over two hundred millennia, they gradually evolved into the Neanderthals, the primordial Europeans encountered by the Cro-Magnons.


Source:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.





September 18, 2010

Compared to the Neanderthals, the Cro-Magnons Had "an Ongoing Culture of Innovation"



In an earlier entry Fagan discusses the eyed needle as key technological advantage of the Cro-Magnons over the Neanderthals. In the passage quoted below, he discusses some other key differences between the two human species.


(p. 14) We know from their art that they looked at their world with more than practical eyes, through a lens of the intangible that changed constantly over the generations. It was this symbolism, these beliefs, as much as their technological innovations and layered clothing, that gave them the decisive advantage over their neighbors in the seesawlike climatic world of the late Ice Age. There were more of them living in larger groups than there were Neanderthals, too, so there were more intense social interactions, much greater food gathering activity from an early age, and an ongoing culture of innovation that came (p. 15) from a growing sophistication of language, advances in technology, and a greater life expectancy. In a world where all knowledge passed orally from one generation to the next, this enhanced cultural buffer between the moderns and the harsh climate provided an extra, albeit sometimes fragile, layer of protection during the intense cold of the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, from 21,500 to 18,000 years ago.


Source:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.





September 14, 2010

The Crucial Invention that Cro-Magnon's Had and Neanderthals Lacked: the Eyed Needle



(p. 13) Both Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons coped effortlessly with abrupt climatic changes from near-temperate to extremely frigid conditions. How well, however, the Neanderthals were able to deal with deep snow cover and long months of subzero temperatures is a matter of ongoing debate. They lacked what was, perhaps, one of the most revolutionary inventions in history, and an inconspicuous one at that: the eyed needle, fashioned from a sliver of antler, bone, or ivory. If their expertise with antler is any guide, the Cro-Magnons must have been adept woodworkers in the more temperate environments of southwestern Asia. When they moved north, they settled oil a continent where antler and hone were potential replacements for wood, and where mammoth and other large animal hones had to be used as fuel in more treeless environments. With brilliant opportunism, they used small stone chisels to remove fine splinters from antler and bone, which they then ground and polished into slender needles. Carefully fashioned stone awls served as drills to make the holes for the thongs that served as thread, substitutes for the vegetable fibers used with wooden needles in their ancestral homes.

Every Cro-Magnon, man, woman, and child, must have been aware that protection from clothing came in layers, that warmth escaped from the head and extremities. As we will see, an indirect source of information on the garments they wore is the traditional clothing used by Eskimo and lntuit in very cold environments--the argument being that there are only a limited number of ways in which layered, cold-weather clothing can be fashioned from hides and skins. The needle allowed women to tailor garments from the fur and skin of different animals, such as wolves, reindeer, and arctic foxes, taking full advantage of each hide or pelt's unique qualities to reduce the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia in environments of rapidly changing extremes.



Source:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.





September 10, 2010

By at Least 50,000 Years Ago Homo Sapiens "Developed the Full Battery of Cognitive Skills that We Ourselves Possess"



Before the passage quoted below, Fagan briefly discusses the two probable waves of humans spreading out from Africa, the first of which is believed to have occurred about 100,000 years ago.


(p. 10) A second, even less well-documented push seems to have taken place later, around fifty thousand years ago. This time, moderns settled throughout Near East Asia and stayed there, apparently living alongside a sparse Neanderthal population. This widely accepted theory assumes that by this rime the newcomers had all the intellectual capabilities of Homo sapiens. Just when and how they acquired them remains a major unsolved problem. All we can say is that at some point between one hundred thousand and fifty thousand years (p. 11) ago, at a seminal yet still little known moment in history Homo sapiens developed the full battery of cognitive skills that we ourselves possess.


Source:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





September 6, 2010

"Modern" Humans Have Existed for at Least 100,000--and Maybe 200,000--Years



(p. 9) A group of geneticists headed by Rebecca Cann and Alan Wilson, using mtDNA and a sophisticated "molecular clock," traced modern-human ancestry back to isolated African populations dating to between two hundred thousand and one hundred thousand years ago. Inevitably there was talk of an "African Eve," a first modern woman, the hypothetical ancestor of all modern humankind. Most archaeologists gulped and took a deep breath. Cairn and her colleagues had taken Homo sapiens into new and uncharted historical territory.


. . .


(p. 10) The genetic case for an African origin for Homo sapiens seems overwhelming. The archaeologists have also stepped forward with new fossil discoveries, including a robust 195,000-year-old modern human from Omo Kibish, in Ethiopia, and three 160,000-year-old Homo sapiens skulls from Herto, also in Ethiopia. Few anthropologists now doubt that Africa was the cradle of Homo sapiens and home to the remotest ancestors of the first modern Europeans--the Cro-Magnons. The seemingly outrageous chronology of two decades ago is now accepted as historical reality.



Source:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)





June 12, 2010

Finding the Neanderthal in Us



VindijaCaveCroatiaNeanderthalBones2010-05-19.jpg"The Vindija cave in Croatia where three small Neanderthal bones were found." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article cited below.


(p. A3) The burly Ice Age hunters known as Neanderthals, a long-extinct species, survive today in the genes of almost everyone outside Africa, according to an international research team who offer the first molecular evidence that early humans mated and produced children in liaisons with Neanderthals.

In a significant advance, the researchers mapped most of the Neanderthal genome--the first time that the heredity of such an ancient human species has been reliably reconstructed. The researchers, able for the first time to compare the relatively complete genetic coding of modern and prehistoric human species, found the Neanderthal legacy accounts for up to 4% of the human genome among people in much of the world today.

By comparing the Neanderthal genetic information to the modern human genome, the scientists were able to home in on hints of subtle differences between the ancient and modern DNA affecting skin, stature, fertility and brain power that may have given Homo sapiens an edge over their predecessors.

"It is tantalizing to think that the Neanderthal is not totally extinct," said geneticist Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who pioneered the $3.8 million research project. "A bit of them lives on in us today."


. . .


For their analysis, Dr. Pääbo and his colleagues extracted DNA mostly from the fossil remains of three Neanderthal women who lived and died in Croatia between 38,000 and 45,000 years ago. From thimblefuls of powdered bone, the researchers pieced together about three billion base pairs of DNA, covering about two-thirds of the Neanderthal genome. The researchers checked those samples against fragments of genetic code extracted from three other Neanderthal specimens.

"It is a tour de force to get a genome's worth," said genetic database expert Ewan Birney at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, England.

In research published Thursday in Science, the researchers compared the Neanderthal DNA to the genomes drawn from five people from around the world: a San tribesman from South Africa; a Yoruba from West Africa; a Han Chinese; a West European; and a Pacific islander from Papua, New Guinea. They also checked it against the recently published genome of bio-entrepreneur Craig Venter. Traces of Neanderthal heredity turned up in all but the two African representatives.



For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Most People Carry Neanderthal Genes; Team Finds up to 4% of Human Genome Comes From Extinct Species, the First Evidence It Mated With Homo Sapiens." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., MAY 7, 2010): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated MAY 6, 2010.)



A related article, the online version of which is the source for the caption and photo above, is:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Analysis of Neanderthal Genome Points to Interbreeding with Modern Humans." The New York Times (Fri., May 7, 2010): A9.

(Note: the online version of the review is dated May 6, 2010 and has the title "Signs of Neanderthals Mating With Humans.")


VindijaCaveBone2010-05-19.jpg"A close-up of the bone Vindija 33.16 from Vindija cave, Croatia." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.





June 8, 2010

"Climate Change Was One of the Forces that Led to the Triumph of Homo Sapiens"



Handprint30000YearsOld2010-05-19.jpg








"The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins in Washington includes this 30,000-year-old handprint from France." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. C32) The exhibition's theme is "What Does It Mean to Be Human?" And the new image of the human it creates is different from the one from a century ago. It isn't that nature has suddenly become a pastoral paradise. Some of the most unusual objects here are fossilized human bones bearing scars of animal attacks: a 3-year-old's skull from about 2.3 million years ago is marked by eagle talons in the eye sockets; an early human's foot shows the bite marks of a crocodile. In one of the exhibition's interactive video stations, in which you are cleverly shown how excavated remains are interpreted, you learn that the teeth of a leopard's lower jaw found in a cave at the Swartkrans site in South Africa match the puncture marks in a nearby early-human skull: evidence of a 1.8 million-year-old killing.


. . .


During the brief 200,000-year life of Homo sapiens, at least three other human species also existed. And while this might seem to diminish any remnants of pride left to the human animal in the wake of Darwin's theory, the exhibition actually does the opposite. It puts the human at the center, tracing how through these varied species, central characteristics developed, and we became the sole survivors. The show humanizes evolution. It is, in part, a story of human triumph.


. . .


. . . at recent excavations in China, at Majuangou, stone tools were found in four layers of rock dating from 1.66 million to 1.32 million years ago; fossil pollen proved that each of these four time periods was also associated with a different habitat. "The toolmaker, Homo erectus," we read, "was able to survive in all of these habitats."

That ability was crucial. The hall emphasizes that enormous changes in the planet's climate accompanied hominin development, suggesting that the ability to adapt to such differing circumstances was the human's strength. Climate change was one of the forces that led to the triumph of Homo sapiens.



For the full review, see:

EDWARD ROTHSTEIN. "Exhibition Review; Hall of Human Origins; Searching the Bones of Our Shared Past." The New York Times (Fri., March 19, 2010): C25 & C32.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated March 18, 2010.)





May 21, 2010

"The Evolutionary Concomitant of Incessant Climate Change Was Human Resilience"



CreativeObjectsEarlyMan2010-05-14.jpg"Early Homo sapiens created these symbolic objects between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago. Using natural materials and creativity, they combined animal and human features into fantastical creatures and fashioned instruments for making music. "Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


The sort of artifacts displayed above have been used to argue that homo sapiens had essentially reached their modern capabilities at least by 40,000 years ago.

The handaxes below are fascinating, in that they clearly display progress, and they clearly display how slow that progress was.


(p. D13) The mysterious Ice Age extinction of the Neanderthals, losers in the competition against modern humans, still fires the popular imagination. So it's startling to learn that as recently as 70,000 years ago, at least four human species coexisted, including tenacious, long-lived Homo erectus and diminutive, hobbit-like Homo floresiensis, found in Indonesia in 2003.

The sensational 1974 discovery in Ethiopia of "Lucy," resembling an ape but walking upright, located human origins 3.2 million years in the past. Those same fossil deposits have recently yielded even more-ancient ancestors, who stood on their own two feet as far back as six million years ago.

Paleoanthropology is thriving, and human fossil finds--more than 6,000 and counting--regularly force revisions of old timelines and theories. Our species, Homo sapiens, turns out to have had an abundance of long-lost cousins, though scientists are still arguing about the closeness of those relationships. The new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, whose opening marked the museum's centennial, provides a formidable overview of this still-developing story.


. . .


It's long been accepted that different human species were adapted to thrive in specific climatic niches. Neanderthals had short, compact bodies to conserve heat and large nasal passages to warm frigid air, while some of our African forebears had long, skinny frames suited to hotter climes. But this exhibition contends that the evolutionary concomitant of incessant climate change was human resilience--the flexibility to make it almost anywhere, thanks to large, sophisticated brains and social networks.

Versatility apparently characterized even our oldest relatives. The ability to walk upright through the drier, more open grasslands did not immediately divest them of their penchant for climbing trees in the shrinking woodlands. A diorama of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) depicts her with one foot on the ground and another on a tree limb, symbolizing her straddling of two environments.



For the full review, see:

JULIA M. KLEIN. "Natural History; Our Species Rediscovers Its Cousins." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 11, 2010): D13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


HandaxesSlowlyEvolved2010-05-13.jpg"Handaxes -- multipurpose tools used to chop wood, butcher animals, and make other tools -- dominated early human technology for more than a million years. Left to right: Africa (1.6 million years old), Asia (1.1 million years old), and Europe (250,000 years old)." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.





December 16, 2009

Chocolate Evidence of Early Indian Trade



CacaoJarsInRuins2009-11-11.JPG"Tests of jars found in the ruins of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico confirmed the presence of theobromine, a cacao marker." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A14) ALBUQUERQUE -- For years Patricia Crown puzzled over the cylindrical clay jars found in the ruins at Chaco Canyon, the great complex of multistory masonry dwellings set amid the arid mesas of northwestern New Mexico. They were utterly unlike other pots and pitchers she had seen.

Some scholars believed that Chaco's inhabitants, ancestors of the modern Pueblo people of the Southwest, had stretched skins across the cylinders and used them for drums, while others thought they held sacred objects.

But the answer is simpler, though no less intriguing, Ms. Crown asserts in a paper published Tuesday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: the jars were used for drinking liquid chocolate. Her findings offer the first proof of chocolate use in North America north of the Mexican border.

How did the ancient Pueblos come to have cacao beans in the desert, more than 1,200 miles from the nearest cacao trees? Ms. Crown, a University of New Mexico anthropologist, noted that maize, beans and corn spread to the Southwest after being domesticated in southern Mexico. Earlier excavations at Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure in the Chaco complex, had found scarlet macaws and other imported items.




For the full story, see:

MICHAEL HAEDERLE. "Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars Is Solved." The New York Times (Weds., February 4, 2009): A14.

(Note: the online version is dated Tues., Feb. 3rd.)


CacaoJar2009-11-11.jpg











"Researchers believe ancient Pueblos used the jars to drink chocolate." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





May 9, 2009

Stagnation Caused by "Depriving Creative Individuals of Financial Power"



(p. 164) The key to growth is quite simple: creative men with money. The cause of stagnation is similarly clear: depriving creative individuals of financial power. To revive the slumping nations of social democracy, the prime need is to reverse the policies of entrepreneurial euthanasia. Individuals must be allowed to accumulate disposable savings and wield them in the economies of the West. The crux is individual, not corporate or collective, wealth.


Source:

Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992.





February 7, 2008

Early Humans Resiliently Innovated to Survive During Climate Cooling

 SouthAfricaMap.jpg

Source of map:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. A6)  Previous research had indicated that human ancestors had for ages depended solely on terrestrial plants and animals. Both fossil and genetic data show that modern humans evolved 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, but archaeological evidence for the emergence of modern behavior in technology, creativity, symbolic thinking and lifestyles is sparse.

But six years ago, at Blombos Cave, near Pinnacle Point, archaeologists uncovered 77,000-year-old tools along with pigments and engraved stones suggesting symbolic behavior, a sign of early creativity. Now, at the Pinnacle Point cave site, the shellfish remains reveal another important innovation.

. . .

Forced to seek new sources of food, some of the people migrated to the shore in search of "famine food." At Pinnacle Point, the discovery team reported, they feasted on a variety of marine life, brown mussels, giant periwinkles and whelks.

So on the southern shore of Africa, Dr. Marean said in a statement issued by Arizona State, a small population of cave-dwelling modern humans struggled and survived through the prevailing cold, eating shellfish and developing somewhat advanced technologies.

 

For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD.  "Key Human Traits Tied to Shellfish Remains."  The New York Times  (Thurs., October 18, 2007):  A6.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




June 20, 2007

Chichen Itza May Have Lasted Longer than Other Mayan City-States Because of Its Free Trade

 

  The guide told us that this area of pillars at Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan of Mexico, is thought to have been a market area.  (Photo taken by me on April 8, 2007, at the excursion to Chichen Itza arranged for the Association of Private Enterprise Education.)

 

Usually we think of the Catholic Church's great damage to knowledge being its persecution of Galileo and attempted suppression of heliocentricism.  But the suppression quickly failed and nothing permanent was lost.

A greater harm to knowledge may have been done when, in the name of the inquisition, countless Mayan manuscripts were burned by the Spanish conquistadors.

Evidence was destroyed that likely would have helped us understand how the Mayan society worked.

For example, we were told on our visit to Chichen Itza that one hypothesis has it that Chichen Itza lasted 300 years longer than all other Mayan city-states because it was the only city-state dominated by cosmopolitan merchant and entrepreneur culture--an hypothesis that I find highly congenial.

Unfortunately, much of the evidence that might have confirmed, elaborated, or refuted this hypothesis, was destroyed forever.

 




June 13, 2007

A Public Choice Theory of the Absence of Evidence of the Exodus of the Israelites

 

   The excavation of a fort from roughly the time and place of the biblical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

The economic theory of public choice is often viewed as having begun with Buchanan and Tullock's The Calculus of Consent.  The theory seeks to explain the behavior of government, and government officials, as arising from the same self-interested motives as are used by economists to explain the behavior of free markets, firms, and consumers.

 

It didn’t look like much — some ancient buried walls of a military fort and a few pieces of volcanic lava. The archaeologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass, often promotes mummies and tombs and pharaonic antiquities that command international attention and high ticket prices. But this bleak landscape, broken only by electric pylons, excited him because it provided physical evidence of stories told in hieroglyphics. It was proof of accounts from antiquity.

That prompted a reporter to ask about the Exodus, and if the new evidence was linked in any way to the story of Passover. The archaeological discoveries roughly coincided with the timing of the Israelites’ biblical flight from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land.

“Really, it’s a myth,” Dr. Hawass said of the story of the Exodus, as he stood at the foot of a wall built during what is called the New Kingdom. 

. . .  

Recently, diggers found evidence of lava from a volcano in the Mediterranean Sea that erupted in 1500 B.C. and is believed to have killed 35,000 people and wiped out villages in Egypt, Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula, officials here said. The same diggers found evidence of a military fort with four rectangular towers, now considered the oldest fort on the Horus military road.

But nothing was showing up that might help prove the Old Testament story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing Egypt, or wandering in the desert. Dr. Hawass said he was not surprised, given the lack of archaeological evidence to date. But even scientists can find room to hold on to beliefs.

Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, the head of the excavation, seemed to sense that such a conclusion might disappoint some. People always have doubts until something is discovered to confirm it, he noted.

Then he offered another theory, one that he said he drew from modern Egypt.

“A pharaoh drowned and a whole army was killed,” he said recounting the portion of the story that holds that God parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape, then closed the waters on the pursuing army.

“This is a crisis for Egypt, and Egyptians do not document their crises.”

 

For the full story, see: 

MICHAEL SLACKMAN.  "North Sinai Journal Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say."   The New York Times  (Tues., April 3, 2007):  A4.

(Note:  ellipsis added.) 

 

 A female skelaton buried near the fort (above).  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




July 18, 2006

Entrepreneurial Archaeology

In the "Dig for a Day" program, participants pay $25.00 to spend three hours helping to excavate a Tel Maresha cave.  Source of the image:  the online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

While most archaeological excavations require hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mr. Alpert said, this one is unusual because it is self-supporting.  “We have the people working and paying for the work, which has proven itself archaeologically and from a tourism standpoint,” he said.  “That’s why we are able to dig for so long.”  The Maresha excavation is licensed by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, and reports are submitted each year to evaluate its scientific contribution.

“This is the ultimate chutzpah,” said Ian Stern, another of the company’s three owners, who has a doctorate in archaeology and emigrated to Israel from New Jersey (the third owner is Asher Afriat, a historian and native Israeli).  “We are providing the public with an active educational experience, while they do the work.  Their money underwrites the excavation and is used for all the follow-up of putting the pottery together, registering and photographing the finds, and writing the scientific reports.” 

 

For the full story, see:

CAREN OSTEN GERSZBERG.  "Family Journeys; Israel; Amateur Archaeologists Get the Dirt on the Past."  The New York Times, Section 5 (Sun., July 16, 2006):   11.

 

  Amateur archaeologists excavate a cave.  Source of the image:  the online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




June 27, 2006

Free Market Wealth Funds Archaeology

ReinhartLeonBanker.jpg SaturnoBillArcheologist.jpg Upper left is retired banker Leon Reinhart.  Lower right is Bill Saturno, who's archeology dig is being funded by Reinhart.  Source of photos:  online version of WSJ article cited below.

 

(p. P1)  NORTHERN GUATEMALA -- Aboard a small helicopter crossing a seemingly endless rainforest, Leon Reinhart is describing our destination, the San Bartolo archaeological site.  "We are uncovering the oldest-known Maya murals and the oldest writing anyone has ever found in the Americas," he says.

Mr. Reinhart isn't an archaeologist.  He isn't an academic.  He is a retired banker.

In providing funding for the excavation at San Bartolo, Mr. Reinhart is one of a growing number of bankers, entrepreneurs and philanthropists who are playing a crucial role in archaeology.  They are providing millions of dollars to study and preserve the relics of ancient civilizations from Latin America to Italy and Turkey, giving life to projects that would otherwise die.

. . .

(p. P4)  Among the other members of the new generation of benefactors is Charles Williams II, himself an archaeologist.  He directed the enormous excavation project in Corinth and has supported projects in Sicily and at Gordia in Turkey, where Alexander cut the Gordian knot.  Through his foundation, David Packard, son of the Hewlett-Packard founder, financed the work at Zeugma in southwest Turkey that rescued a large number of mosaics just before they were submerged by a new dam.  And a foundation created by Artemis Joukowsky, the former chancellor of Brown University, is funding conservation work at the Great Temple of Petra in Jordan.

Mr. Reinhart learned about San Bartolo thanks to the efforts of an investment banker, Lewis S. Ranieri, who pioneered the mortgage-securities market at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s and now is chairman of CA, the information-technology concern formerly known as Computer Associates.  Mr. Ranieri created the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, or Famsi, devoted to archaeology.

On Famsi's Web site, Mr. Reinhart read an article about San Bartolo written by Bill Saturno, the young archaeologist who literally stumbled across the ruin in 2001.  Entering a tunnel cut by looters, he immediately understood that the paintings were much older than previously discovered Mayan murals with such complicated iconography.

Fascinated by Mr. Saturno's article, Mr. Reinhart sent him an email.  Because the project had received grants from Famsi and the National Geographic Society, Mr. Reinhart assumed it was fully funded; he soon learned that wasn't the case.  Mr. Saturno was borrowing on his personal credit card to keep the work going. Mr. Reinhart agreed to cover most of the needed funds -- a sum that has now crossed the $1 million mark.  (Among this year's expenses: $65,000 for stabilizing the murals and $18,700 in food.)

 

For the full story, see:

G. BRUCE KNECHT.  "Culture; The Rich Dig Deep: Archaeology's New Players; As traditional funds for excavations fall short, wealthy benefactors are bolstering the hunt for antiquities."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., May 13, 2006):  P1 & P4.

 

(Note: ellipses added.)





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