Even the dead kept watch. They sat upright in their graves, men and women, and faced the river, waiting, it seemed, for the waters to roil again with massive, steel-grey fish. The sturgeon, barbeled giants with rows of bony scutes down their backs, appeared each spring in Serbia’s Danube Gorge, after battling the current all the way from the Black Sea. The largest of these fish weighed more than a dozen men. The oldest of these Beluga sturgeon survived more than a century.
Category Archives: Anthropology
On the Feasibility of Cloning a Neandertal
Scientific American has just posted a very cool interactive feature online today that’s entitled “Twelve Events that Will Change Everything.” One of these game-changing events, suggests the magazine, will be human cloning.
The section on human cloning is relatively short, but it includes several points of interest. As regular readers here know, I take a strong interest in scientific research on Neandertals, particularly on developments that could lead to the cloning of this extinct hominin. Read more…
Fear and Loathing in the Caribbean
I think there are few more fascinating reads around than the early 16th century narratives of European adventurers in the Americas. Most of these travelers had sized up their financial prospects at home and found them grimly wanting as younger sons of nobility or aspiring merchants. So they signed up for long dangerous sea voyages in small sailing ships to lands few of their friends or family had ever heard of and fewer still could really imagine.
My overall impression is that these early travelers spent a good deal of their time in the Americas quaking in their boots. Yes, they had their swords and arquebuses and Spanish mastiffs, but in the early decades of contact, before smallpox and European diseases swept across the land and turned thriving villages into ghost towns, these would-be colonists were hugely outnumbered. In Jamaica alone, for example, the early Spanish sailors encountered some 60,000 Taino. Read more…
Clothes Make the (Ancient) Man
“Good clothes,” wrote Thomas Fuller in 1732 in his book of proverbs, Gnomologia, “open all doors.” The British physician was almost certainly thinking of the importance of a spiffy tailcoat and breeches and a dressy lace shirt when trying to make friends among the wealthy and titled in 18th century England. But Fuller’s proverb could apply to early hominins as well: with the right clothing, our ancestors could survive winter cold and colonize increasingly hostile environments in Eurasia.
All this of course begs a question, or rather two. Who were the first clothes horses? And when did our mania for fashion begin? Archaeologists have never had much clear evidence to go on, for pieces of hide clothing or textiles tend to rot rapidly in the ground. But new research presented last week at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists sheds new light on the matter, by looking at an unlikely source of information: the human body louse. Read more…
Reclaiming the Lost DNA of Ancient Languages
Imagine for a moment that you are 80 years old (easier for some of us, I admit, than others.) Now imagine that you are the last person left on earth who can speak English. No one can sit down and chat companionably with you in your mother tongue. No one can laugh at your jokes or puns or understand what it means to “grin like a Cheshire cat.” You are alone, and all the cultural knowledge embedded in the English language will be lost when you die.
That, of course, is the predicament of many elderly speakers of aboriginal languages around the world. The Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, calculates, for example, that in the United States alone, 42 percent of the 300 or languages once spoken by aboriginal people are now extinct. And it’s not just words, grammar and syntax that are being lost: it’s “the DNA of a culture,” as Bruce Cole, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the U.S., once put it so aptly . Read more…
Francisco Pizarro’s Forgotten Army?
Who really conquered the Inca Empire? I found myself mulling over that question for the first time today, after reading a really fascinating new paper published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology by a team of American and Peruvian scientists. Led by Melissa Murphy, a physical anthropologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, the team has just pored over the skeletal remains of 258 Inca men and women, who perished from extreme violence sometime between 1470 and 1540.
First, let me very briefly summarize the conventional view of the Conquest of Peru. According to the Spanish chronicles (the only surviving written source of the invasion), Francisco Pizarro set sail from Panama in January 1531 with 3 ships and 180 men. Landing near the port of Tumbes in the midst of a civil war in the Inca realm known as Tawantinsuyu, Pizarro and his men journeyed inland. At the Inca provincial town of Cajamarca, they laid an ambush and captured the Inca king Atawallpa, whom they subsequently executed. In November 1533, Pizarro’s force occupied the Inca capital of Cuzco, bringing the empire to its knees.
I personally don’t recall hearing or reading much about indigenous Andean peoples fighting on the side of the Spanish invaders. But as the new paper by Murphy and her team points out, aboriginal people certainly seem to have played a part in the Conquest of Peru, and perhaps quite a large part.
Murphy and her colleagues examined human remains excavated from two large Inca cemeteries in the archaeological zone of Puruchuco-Huaquerones, 7 miles from the center of Lima. Many of these individuals likely died during the ill-fated siege of Lima, when Inca forces tried to expel the Spaniards in 1536. As expected, Murphy and her colleagues found ample evidence of severe injuries caused by medieval European weaponry–the top spike of a polearm, the beak of a war hammer, and possible gunshot wounds. (Intriguingly, evidence of slashing injuries from swords is missing from these victims.)
But what I found especially intriguing in this study was the evidence that team-members found for wounds inflicted by indigenous weapons, such as clubs and maces. Indeed, as the authors note, “the majority of perimortem injuries to the cranium were likely due to blunt force trauma, probably from native weaponry like maces or clubs, with only a few of the injuries caused by Spanish weapons.”
Now of course, Spanish soldiers might well have picked up native weapons and used them expediently. But some Spanish chroniclers do refer on occasion to indigenous allies and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that they were under-representing the numbers in order to make themselves look especially courageous to readers back home.
Moreover, we know that the Incas had made a host of enemies during their own conquests, particularly on the northern coast of Peru. And these dissidents might have seen Pizarro and his men initially as liberators, before they truly understood the rapacity of the Spanish forces. Certainly, this is what happened in Mexico, when aboriginal people rallied to the banner of Hernando Cortez, eager to rise up against their oppressors, the Aztecs.
This new research by Murphy and her colleagues is the first forensic-style study of the Inca victims who fell during the Conquest of Peru. I really look forward to reading more.
Women, The Earliest Brewmasters?
Until last night, I had never given much thought to the gender of the world’s ancient brewmasters. But while surfing the net in the wee hours, I came across a British newspaper article with an irresistible headline: “Men Owe Women for ‘Creating Beer’ Claims Academic.” According to the Telegraph, British author Jane Peyton now proposes that Bud Lite, Tsingtao and Victoria Bitter drinkers around the world owe their favorite suds to women brewmasters.
Peyton furnishes several examples in this article. Only women, she noted, were permitted to brew beer in Mesopotamia. Much later, among the Vikings, women owned all the equipment for beer making and controlled the entire process. And until the beginning of the 18th century, most of Britain’s ale came from ale-wives who worked out of their homes for extra income. But the mass production of beer during the Industrial Revolution apparently put a end to all these female microbreweries.
The Telegraph article made no mention, however, of who Jane Peyton is. So I googled her and stumbled upon a whole unsuspected world of beer pedagogy in Britain. Peyton is a tutor at the Beer Academy in London. She is also the principal of the School of Booze, an outfit whose model is “Think While You Drink,” (a splendid oxymoron) and which offers tutored beer tastings. Clearly there are a lot of beer connoisseurs out there who want parity with wine snobs.
I don’t know where Peyton is getting her info from or whether she has a book on the way on feminist beermakers. Her website offers few clues. And because of this, I might have dismissed the article entirely, but for one thing. Peyton mentioned that before the Industrial Revolution, people thought of beer as a food: as a result, many cultures deemed beer-making women’s work.
Although my knowledge of early brewing is very limited, I recently read a wonderful paper by Justin Jennings, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, on the Andean art of making chicha, or corn beer. According to Jennings, Andean families have long brewed two types of this beer–one thin, the other quite thick. They reserve the thicker and more filling chicha for daily consumption as a food. But they prepare a thinner corn beer for festivals, so that celebrants can drink more and get pleasantly high faster.
As Jennings points out, “gender roles are often fluid in the Andes,” but “chicha brewing is primarily a female activity. ” He then goes on to note that “the preparation and serving of chicha, like all food, is central to women’s identity, and for women who sell chicha [today] the drink offers considerable social power and autonomy that they aggressively defend.”
I think Jane Peyton is on to something here.
When Did We Begin Supersizing Dinner?
Every time I venture into the produce departments of large supermarkets, I am stunned by what I see on the shelves. Arranged to perfection on trays and lit by soft lighting are foods I scarcely recognize anymore: grapes the size of a squash ball, naval oranges as big as a child’s head, and pineapples larger than a football. How did we ever get to this, I ask myself, pumping our crops so full of chemicals until they reach Brobdingnagian dimensions? Gulliver would have felt right at home.
All this came to mind this morning, as I read a very clever new historical study that Brian Wansink, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think, and his theologian brother Craig Wansink, just published in the International Journal of Obesity. The two researchers examined 52 images of the Last Supper painted between A.D. 1000 and 1900, and measured the size of the portrayed portions. (They did the later by scanning the food items and plates with computer-aided design technology, then calculating the relative food to human head ratio.)
What they found was a strong trend over time towards supersizing. The entrees grew by a whopping 69%, while the plates themselves expanded by 66%. Even bread loaves swelled by 25%. Could religious practices account for this trend? Craig Wansink, the theologian on the team, says no. “There is no religious reason why the meal got bigger,” Wansink told a BBC reporter. “It may be that meals really did grow, or that people just became more interested in food.”
Brian Wansink’s earlier research strongly suggests that the monster-sized portions we see today in restaurants, fast food joints, and on our own dining room tables have a lot to do with the current obesity epidemic. And there are some simple things we can do to cut the calories. Just switching from a 12-inch to a 10-inch plate, for example, will result in a 22% decrease in the amount of food we eat at dinner.
Above: The Last Supper by Jacopo da Ponte, ca 1546
Below: The Last Supper by Alonso Vazquez n.d.
Signs of Respect
As regular readers will know, I recently fumed here over the poor conservation of a petroglyph-covered boulder at the Vancouver Museum, after reading a troubling post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology. I questioned the wisdom of removing such boulders and slabs from the places where they were created and installing them in museums. I then suggested that the Vancouver Museum repatriate the damaged boulder in question.
Since then, Northwest Coast has posted more on this disturbing state of affairs, and recently I received a great email on these issues from George Nicholas, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University and the director of Intellectual Property issues in Cultural Heritage. George is kindly guest-blogging on this today. -HP
I think the notion that rock art is about more than the images is something that has been largely ignored, certainly by the public, but also by many archaeologists and anthropologists. People often tend to focus on the details of the images, rather than on the context of the rock art. But one doesn’t work without the other.
In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger notes that before photography, before the age of reproductive technology, one could only see a particular image (such as the Last Supper fresco) in the church in which it was painted. The same obviously holds true for Lascaux and all other rock art.
Taken out of their geographic context, the images are divorced not only from the place itself (which may be imbued with meaning of its own), but also from the emotional landscape and viewscape. I’m sure you’ve been to petroglyph sites where there’s sort of a mystical feel to the place. I find that at the Three Sister’s Rockshelter in British Columbia’s Marble Canyon. The silence of the moss-filled forest that surrounds the blue-grey rock face adds an important dimension to the rock art.
And of course, we approach rock art from the perspective of the western world. Our worldview is based on a set of dichotomies: the distinctions between the natural and supernatural realms; between people and nature; between past, present, and future; between genders, and all the rest. Such distinctions may be absent, however, in many indigenous societies; they may live in a world in which ancestral spirits are part of this existence (owing to lack of separation between past and present; between natural and supernatural realms).
So all of this, then, begs several questions. What does rock “art” really represent? How are we supposed to view it? What should we do with it, from a heritage preservation perspective? Indeed, is rock art something that should be preserved?
Most western archaeologists would say yes to the latter question. But in Australia, contemporary Aboriginal persons sometimes paint over ancient images as a way of continually replenishing the world; it is the act of painting that is important (like the creation of Navajo sand paintings used in healing ceremonies, and later destroyed, much to the consternation of western observers).
The Zuni people have a similar tradition. They carve wooden figurines of their war gods, the Ayahu:ta, and place them in outdoor shrines. After a period of time, the figurines are replaced with new ones. Zuni tribal member and archaeologist Edmund Ladd notes in his writings that “When a new image of the Ahayu:ta is installed in a shrine, the ‘old’ one is removed to ‘the pile,’ which is where all the previous gods have been lain. This act of removal specifically does NOT have the same connotations as ‘throwing away’ or ‘discarding.’ The image of the god that has been replaced must remain at the site to which it was removed and be allowed to disintegrate there.” So, from a Zuni perspective, proper stewardship is letting the ahayu:ta decay.
Rock art raises many fundamental issues, as well as conflicting claims that certain items of heritage belong to a specific group or are part of the heritage of human kind. In recent decades, archaeologists have been very much part of this debate.
My own position is that I see merit in both positions, but also that the tension between the two positions is important because it forces us (as archaeologists, as heritage managers, as member of descendant communities, etc) to think about the nature of heritage in new ways.
Above: The rock art of Bohuslan, Sweden. Photo by Julius Agrippa. Below: Contemporary Aboriginal artist Mundara Koorang. Photo by Novyaradnum.