Tag 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…

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.


ER, Ancient Egypt Style

I’ve  spent many hours over the past week on a cardiac ward in a large urban hospital, visiting my father who is suffering from heart trouble.  Over the last few days, as he and I have taken to strolling the corridors–he leaning on his walker,  and I beside him–I have begun to notice all the many gifts and tributes that grateful heart patients and their families have left behind  for nurses and doctors on the ward.

I’ve never seen so many tokens of gratitude–large engraved plaques;  framed homemade quilts;  original etchings and paintings;  an inscribed and signed moose antler; and a framed eagle feather. All are intended as permanent testaments,  and seem to bear the same phrase, “with heartfelt thanks,”  a mantra,  it seems,  from those who have survived a near-death experience and whose hearts have been healed.

As I walk these corridors,  my thoughts occasionally wander and I am reminded of similar places in the ancient world.  In the Nile Valley,  ancient Egyptians searched for relief from their ailments in sanatoriums in two major temples.   The first of these was in Dendera.   There, according to Bruno Halioua and Bernard Ziskind’s wonderful book, Medicine in the Days of the Pharoahs,  the ill took medicinal waters in a temple dedicated to Hathor, bathing in a series of stone tanks in hopes of  a cure–an approach favored even today by those visiting traditional spas.

And if the waters at Dendera offered little relief,   Egyptian patients had a second recourse.   They could journey to the great temple in Deir el-Bahri,   dedicated to Imhotep and Amenhotep.  There priests conducted the sick into a dark chapel:  as they waited hopefully,  a god-like voice suddenly boomed,  reassuring them that they would be cured.  In other chambers,  priests induced dream states in their patients,  allowing them to talk directly to the gods and plead their cases.

Did any of this succeed in curing the hopefuls?  Well,  the ancient Egyptians,  too, left permanent tokens of their gratitude.   Along the walls of one shrine, Egyptologists have found inscribed testimonials.  One reads:  “Andromachus, a Macedonian, a laborer, came to the good god Amenhotep; he was sick and the god cured him the same day.”

The nurses and doctors on Ward 2a,  where my father now is,  would recognize the sentiment immediately.

Today’s photo shows the Hathor capitals in the First Hypostyle Hall of Dendera temple. The photo was taken by Jaakko Anttila in  January 2005.

Another Step Closer to Waking the Dead

This has been quite a week for ancient DNA stories.  First, the feature article in Archaeology magazine about the possibility of Neanderthal cloning.  And yesterday,  a research paper in Nature reporting the success of an international team in reconstructing the ancient genome of a 4000-year-old man from northwestern Greenland.

The latter project clearly takes us one step closer towards the ability to clone a Neanderthal,  the subject of my last two posts.   But today,  I’d to focus on the new research from Greenland and what I think is important about it.

The team, led by Eske Willerslev,  a very, very  media-savvy researcher at the University of Copenhagen (whose work I have posted on before), obtained its ancient DNA from a tuft of human hair  excavated by an archaeological team in 1986 from a site in northwestern Greenland.  Willerslev and his colleagues make a strong claim that they have ruled out modern contamination.

The archaeologist who excavated the hair has gone on record stating in the 87 pages of supplementary material posted by  Nature that none of the ethnic Greenlanders on his team touched the sample.   He also affirms that no one who was likely of Asian descent handled the hair later during its storage in the museum.

So the team does indeed seem to be working with an uncontaminated ancient sample.  And Willerslev–an expert on ancient DNA–and his Ph.D. student Morten Rasmussen report that the team has reconstructed 80 percent of the nuclear genome.  Based on this,  the team has learned a number of things.

Number one,  the hair belonged to a man who descended from northern-eastern Siberians who migrated to the New World as early as 6400 years ago.  Number two,  the individual in question had blood type A+, brown eyes,  dark skin,  a predisposition to baldness, a genetic adaptation to polar cold,  and other identifiable traits.

Archaeologists already knew, however,  from decades of painstaking study of artifacts that the early Greenlanders descended from northern Asian migrants.   No surprises there.  What is new,  and I think very exciting,  are all the  details of appearance and physiology that have come to light about this particular  individual– gleaned from just a few hairs.

Archaeology has never been very good at getting down to the level of the individual, particularly in that vast expanse of time we call prehistory.   Excavations of  house floors,  middens,  and shell mounds supply a lot of information on families,  communities and populations.   But they rarely say much if anything about individuals.  And in places like North America,  archaeologists try very hard now to avoid digging human remains–a major source of information about individuals–out of respect for Native American beliefs.

So this new ability to glean a lot of information about an individual from a human hair is bound to come in extremely handy,  and I applaud the Danish team for their success.   But its clear to me that such techniques are yet another worrying step along the road to cloning an ancient human or an ancient hominin.

The Danish led team is trying to calm our fears.  “The genome we’ve reconstructed is no Frankstein’s monster,”  team member Rasmussen told EurekAlert!.  “It’s more like we’ve got the blueprints for a house, but we don’t know how to build it.”

For how long,  I wonder.  How long.

Reconstruction/drawing of Inuk by Nuka Godfredtsen.

Politics, Science and the Cloning of Neanderthals

As some of you will know,  I posted yesterday on the ethics of cloning a Neanderthal,  a subject I have been thinking about after reading an article Zach Zorich wrote for Archaeology magazine. Today Zach left a thoughtful response in the comments section of that post,  raising a number of key points.  I’d like to reply.

But first let me briefly summarize  Zach’s remarks. He notes that all the researchers he interviewed for the piece are well aware of the ethical dilemmas of such cloning and that each had given serious thought to these matters–even though such clones are clearly somewhere off in the future.

Then Zach took exception to the comparison I made between the science of creating a Neanderthal clone and Stalin’s desire to fabricate an army of “humanzees”,  human-chimpanzee hybrids.   As Zach points out, “this isn’t some mad scientist’s scenario for world domination.”  Cloning research, he points out, is part and parcel of a larger picture of legitimate medical research,  and any heavy-handed legislation to prevent Neanderthal cloning could wreak havoc with projects designed to extend and protect human life.

I see Zach’s points here, and I share his concerns about heavy-handed legislation.  I’d hate to see a law block an entire line of desperately needed medical research.  But having said that,  I still can’t shake off my anxiety about what could happen further down the road if and when science is indeed capable of cloning a Neanderthal.

Even well-meaning scientists, after all,  are unable to foresee all the consequences of their research,  as some have discovered to their rue.   In the 1960s,  for example, Norwegian researchers developed a new and very lucrative technology for ocean net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon.  So great were the profit margins that a bedazzled Canadian government agreed to permit the same technology–with the same fish–on the British Columbia coast.  Large corporations began farming Atlantic salmon in pens off the British Columbia coast in 1984, leading to the escape of tens of thousands of these alien fish into the  Pacific Ocean.  Today Atlantic salmon gobble up wild food and threaten native salmon species.

So even when guided by the best of all possible intentions,  scientists can create futures they never envisioned.  And it seems to me that when the stakes include the creation of another of our close human relatives that we need to exercise extra special care.  I think that means taking  into account worse -case scenarios, even one as dire as the intentional creation of Neanderthal clones by a malevolent political regime for the purpose of slave labor.

As Zach notes in his comments (and  I should mention in the interests of full disclosure that I know Zach and that he is my editor at Archaeology), my worst-case scenarios do indeed draw on the research I did for my book on Hitler’s archaeologists.  In fact, one of the things that struck me most forcibly during my four years of research and writing on the book was how terribly susceptible science is to political influence.

Most scientists need laboratories,  expensive research equipment,  and academic appointments  in order to pursue their research.  Corrupt regimes know this and they reward pliable scientists with prestigious jobs and ample research funds.  Conversely, they weed out their opponents from universities and cut off their research funding.  In Nazi Germany,  these simple strategies convinced many scientists to pursue lines of state-approved racial research that they would probably have never considered otherwise.   It could certainly happen again.

All this is to say I’m very uneasy with where this cloning research might lead us in the years to come.  I’d like to see legislators at the UN draw a line in the sand.  Cloning research for medical purposes is an important pursuit.  I’m all in favor of it.   But we should never allow cloning experiments to create Neanderthals.


Why We Should Worry about Neanderthal Clones

Should we clone Neanderthals?  That’s the provocative question that science writer and editor Zach Zorich poses in the forthcoming issue of Archaeology,  hitting the news stand on February 15th.  I received an advance copy late last week and read Zorich’s article this weekend. I’ve been thinking about this question ever since, and already I have arrived at my own  answer.  No.  No.  NO.

First of all,  I should point out that this is not a pie-in-the-sky question.  Zorich interviewed an impressive A-list of researchers–including geneticists who are sequencing the Neanderthal genome and leading paleoanthropologists who study ancient hominins–and some clearly believe that a cloned Neanderthal awaits us somewhere down the line.

So it’s not too early to begin thinking and debating about the ethics of cloning one of our hominin kin.  While some researchers champion the idea out of pure scientific curiosity and the desire to learn more about an extinct hominin,  I think it’s a terrible idea.  I simply don’t trust my fellow Homo sapiens sapiens to treat another hominin with kindness and respect.  Our track record with other primates, for example,  is appalling–using chimpanzees for circus shows and laboratory experimentation, hunting gorillas for meat,  and killing orangutan mothers  in order to sell their babies as pets.

And here’s something else that worries me about a Neanderthal clone.  In the 1920s, the Soviet leader  Josef  Stalin ordered the researcher who perfected the technique of artificial insemination,  Ilya Ivanov,  to create a “living war machine. ”  Ivanov’s brief, as American writer Charles Siebert reports  in his remarkable book, The Wachula Woods Accord,  was to artificially inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm to create a new hybrid.

Stalin dreamed of a large,  invincible Red Army and a vast slave workforce to carry out his Five Year Plans.  He thought a chimp-human hybrid would serve admirably. According to Russian newspapers,  Stalin told Ivanov “I want a new invincible human being insensitive to pain,  resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.”

Ivanov failed miserably to produce such chimp-human hybrid, though he certainly tried.   In 1930s,  the biologist fell from political grace and was exiled to Kazakhstan in one of the many purges of the time.

All this strikes me as an important cautionary tale.   What if one of the world’s dictators  got it into his head to clone Neanderthals as slave laborers or a new kind of soldier, one physically stronger than modern humans?   It sounds far fetched,  I know.  But I don’t think we can blithely ignore the lessons of history.