Tag Archives | Anthropology

Could Humankind Ever Transcend War?

Nov3WomanBurqaNorthAllOn the Last Word On Nothing, a debate on whether or not war is an innate part of the human makeup. Scientist John Horgan says no:

There is no evidence of hominid or human group violence (as opposed to isolated acts of violence) dating back millions or even tens of thousands of years. The oldest evidence of deadly group violence by humans — a mass grave in the Nile Valley — is about 13,000 years old, and the vast bulk of evidence dates from 10,000 years ago or less, leading scholars such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Doug Fry, and Erik Trinhaus to conclude that war is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon, associated often with agriculture and permanent settlements.

In response, some skeptics say, Well, we don’t have good evidence of any human behaviors more than 10,000 years ago. Actually, we have evidence of many complex cultural behaviors — tool-making, hunting, cooking, art, music, religion — emerging far back in the Paleolithic era, but not war.

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Science Overturns View Of Humans As Naturally Barbaric

herzog-boys-wrestling-1969-timeAFP on the mounting body of evidence that people and other advanced animals are, on a biological level, driven largely by empathy and caring — undermining the classic view of man possessing a nasty, violent nature tenuously kept in check by the thin veneer of civilization:

Biological research increasingly debunks the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish, a leading specialist in primate behavior told a major science conference.

“Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies,” Frans de Waal, a biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. New research on higher animals from primates and elephants to mice shows there is a biological basis for behavior such as cooperation, said de Waal.

Until just 12 years ago, the common view among scientists was that humans were “nasty” at the core but had developed a veneer of morality — albeit a thin one, de Waal told scientists and journalists from some 50 countries.

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How Social Darwinism Really Works

File:Brazilian_indians_000

Author: Lecen (CC)

Via ScienceDaily:

Changes in social structure and cultural practices can also contribute to human evolution, according to a study that has recently been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), contributed to by the lecturer Mireia Esparza and assistant Neus Martínez-Abadías, from the Anthropology Unit of the UB’s Department of Animal Biology.

The study, coordinated by the expert Rolando González-José from the Patagonian National Research Center (CENPAT-CONICET, Argentina), examines physical, genetic, geographical and climatic patterns affecting over 1,200 people from the Baniwa, Ticuna, Yanomami, Kaingang, Xavánte and Kayapó indigenous groups of the Brazilian Amazon and Central Plateau.

According to the experts behind the study, one of the most interesting results is the rapid rate of morphological change in the Xavánte, which is up to 3.8 times faster than in the other groups studied. The changes observed in the Xavánte — who have larger heads, narrower faces and broader noses — follow an integration pattern of human skull shape recently described in the literature.

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Oldest Known “Beds” Had Insect Repellent

No MosquitosInsects have bugged human beings for a long time. Via Discover:

In a South African cave, researchers have uncovered traces of the oldest known human bedding, 77,000-year-old mats made of grasses, leaves, and other plant material. While it’s not especially surprising that early humans would have found a way to improve the cold, generally unpleasant experience of sleeping on a cave floor, archaeologists know little about our ancestors’ sleeping habits and habitats.

Using scanning electron microscopy, the researchers identified several species of local rushes and grasses that made up the bulk of the mattress, as well as leaves of the Cryptocarya woodii tree. These leaves contain chemical compounds that repel mosquitoes, lice, and other insects, suggesting that the cave’s ancient residents protected their bedding with natural insecticide.

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Meet the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street

David GraeberDrake Bennett writes in Bloomberg Business:

David Graeber likes to say that he had three goals for the year: promote his book, learn to drive, and launch a worldwide revolution. The first is going well, the second has proven challenging, and the third is looking up.

Graeber is a 50-year-old anthropologist — among the brightest, some argue, of his generation — who made his name with innovative theories on exchange and value, exploring phenomena such as Iroquois wampum and the Kwakiutl potlatch. An American, he teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. He’s also an anarchist and radical organizer, a veteran of many of the major left-wing demonstrations of the past decade: Quebec City and Genoa, the Republican National Convention protests in Philadelphia and New York, the World Economic Forum in New York in 2002, the London tuition protests earlier this year. This summer, Graeber was a key member of a small band of activists who quietly planned, then noisily carried out, the occupation of Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, providing the focal point for what has grown into an amorphous global movement known as Occupy Wall Street.

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Wall Street and the Psychology of Power

AtlasJames Curcio writes on Modern Mythology:

The Occupy Wall Street movement has taken aim at “the 1%,” but so far there has not been a great deal of consideration given to the culture or psychology of power.

Countering the charged, idealistic cry of the protesters comes the more cynical stance that “there will always be a 1%.” That, perhaps, it is human nature to claw our way to the “top of the pile,” to slay the sitting King and take the throne. Certainly, that is a model we see mirrored in the heroic myths of antiquity.

As a result of our nature, are we forever cursed to live out a narrative of master / slave, of fascist dictator, of oppressor and oppressed? Should we resign ourselves to the “grim meathook future” that seems the inevitable outcome of the myth of the Leviathan, supposing no agents of chaos destabilize the true obsession of fascism?… Read the rest

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Where Does Debt Come From?

Debt300dpiVia Naked Capitalism, a fascinating interview with economic anthropologist David Graeber about the history of debt over the last 5,000 years (and the oft-intertwined history of slavery):

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.

Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.

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Fossils Reveal A New Ancestor On The Family Tree

Photo: Lee Berger of University of Witwatersrand

Photo: University of Witwatersrand

We may have some relatives we didn’t know about. Jeffrey Kluger writes onTIME:

One August day in 2008, a pair of nine-year-old boys crossed paths at a cave in South Africa. The boys didn’t play, didn’t speak, didn’t even smile at each other. One of them was Matthew Berger, the young son of paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, accompanying his dad into the field for an expedition. The other boy was known only as Australopithecus sediba, a pre-human child who died 1.977 million years ago, leaving only his fossilized bones behind.

The site, 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg, had been visited before and other bones had been found, but the remains Matthew stumbled across, along with those of an adult female, are the subject of no fewer than five papers in this week’s issue of the journal Science — and with good reason.

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Sex With Neanderthals Boosted Human Immunity

Reconstruction of Neanderthal man. Hermann Schaaffhausen (1888).

So that’s how they justified it … Matt McGrath reports for BBC News:

Sexual relations between ancient humans and their evolutionary cousins are critical for our modern immune systems, researchers report in Science journal.

Mating with Neanderthals and another ancient group called Denisovans introduced genes that help us cope with viruses to this day, they conclude.

Previous research had indicated that prehistoric interbreeding led to up to 4% of the modern human genome.

The new work identifies stretches of DNA derived from our distant relatives.

In the human immune system, the HLA (human leucocyte antigen) family of genes plays an important role in defending against foreign invaders such as viruses.

The authors say that the origins of some HLA class 1 genes are proof that our ancient relatives interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans for a period.

At least one variety of HLA gene occurs frequently in present day populations from West Asia, but is rare in Africans.

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Early Humans Likely Practiced Ritualistic Cannibalism

CannibalsTo be fair, 30,000 years ago, there were few other recreational activities to occupy one’s spare time. The Archaeology News Network writes:

Archaeologists have found 32,000-year-old human remains in southeastern Europe, which suggest that the earliest humans practiced “mortuary” or “ritual” cannibalism.

The excavated human remains, the oldest known in Europe, were found at a shelter-cave site called Buran-Kaya III in Ukraine and exhibit post-mortem cut marks, the MSNBC reports. “Our observations show a post-mortem treatment of human corpses including the selection of the skull,” said the paleozoologist and archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Stephane Pean.

However, Pean said that the treatment of the human bodies, which came with ornaments, did not follow nutritional purposes, rejecting the possibility of dietary cannibalism.

“Observed treatment of the human body, together with the presence of body ornaments, indicates rather a mortuary ritual: either a ritual cannibalism or a specific mortuary practice for secondary disposal,” he described.

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