(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘anthropology

“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”*…

 

Art work by Banksy (title unknown). Source: Flickr

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications…

An important essay from David Graeber and David Wengrow: “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened).”

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

###

As we rethink our roots, we might spare a thought for W. Lloyd Warner; he died on this date in 1970.  A sociologist and anthropologist, he is remembered for his studies of social class structure, in which he was a pioneer in applying anthropology research methods to the study of contemporary urban social communities.  Probably best-remebered for his (5 volume) study Yankee City, he was the first sociologist to use a six-fold classification scheme in attributing social class: Warner recognized three distinct groups – upper, middle and lower classes – each sub-divided into upper and lower sections… a rubric still very much in use.

An empiricist in a time when the social disciplines were increasingly theoretical, fascinated with economic and social inequality in a time when Americans were eager to deny its significance, and implicitly skeptical of the possibilities of legislating social change at a time when many social scientists were eager to be policymakers, Warner’s work was unfashionable in its time.  His interest in communities — when the social science mainstream was stressing the importance of urbanization — and religion — when the fields’ leaders were aggressively secularist — also helped to marginalize him.  But recently, more positive assessments of his work have emerged (e.g., Grant McCracken‘s, here).

 source

 

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice”*…

 

A crescent-shaped, wooden neck ornament from Easter Island made some time in the first half of the nineteenth century. The artifact, decorated with two bearded male heads on either end, contains a line of rongorongo glyphs along its bottom edge. Courtesy: British Museum

Of all the literatures in the world, the smallest and most enigmatic belongs without question to the people of Easter Island. It is written in a script—rongorongo—that no one can decipher. Experts cannot even agree whether it is an alphabet, a syllabary, a mnemonic, or a rebus. Its entire corpus consists of two dozen texts. The longest, consisting of a few thousand signs, winds its way around a magnificent ceremonial staff. The shortest texts—if they can even be called that—consist of barely more than a single sign. One took the form of a tattoo on a man’s back. Another was carved onto a human skull…

Rongorongo is the only script native to the Pacific. Like so much else, it makes Easter Island unique….  Where did the rongorongo script come from? What do its texts communicate?…

The full, fascinating story at “Language at the End of the World.”

* T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

###

As we dedicate ourselves to de-cyphering, we might spare a thought for Edward Sapir; he died on this date in 1939.  One of the foremost anthropologists and linguists of his time, Sapir was a founder of ethnolinguistics– the consideration of  the relationship of culture to language– and he was a principal developer of the American (descriptive) school of structural linguistics.  Even more than the specifics of the cultures he studied, Sapir was interested in the more abstract connections between personality, linguistic expression, and socially-determined behavior.

 source

 

“The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”*…

 

Complex nature

Albert Einstein said that the “most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.” He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It’s surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the ‘commonsense’, everyday world in which we evolved.

But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there’s no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we’ll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren’t aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence…

Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity, spanning tens of millennia at most, will probably be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the post-human era – evolved not by Darwinian selection but via ‘intelligent design’. Whether the long-range future lies with organic post-humans or with electronic super-intelligent machines is a matter for debate. But we would be unduly anthropocentric to believe that a full understanding of physical reality is within humanity’s grasp, and that no enigmas will remain to challenge our remote descendants…

Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow), cosmologist and astrophysicist, Astronomer Royal since 1995, past Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former President of the Royal Society, on the limits of human understanding (and how we might transcend them): “Black holes are simpler than forests and science has its limits.”

For a “companionable” take on the character of the knowledge that we do (seem to) have, see “Is Quantum Theory About Reality or What We Know?“; and for an argument that we should stop worrying about the limits of human knowledge, and start worrying about wasting the knowledge we already have, see here.

* J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927)

###

As we prepare to call (an artificially-intelligent) friend, we might send acutely observant birthday greetings to an astute student of the human animal, anthropologist Margaret Mead; she was born on this date in 1901.  Best-known for her studies of the nonliterate peoples of Oceania, she was 23 when she first traveled to the South Pacific, to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation. The book that resulted, Coming of Age in Samoa, was– and remains– a best-seller.

 source

 

 

Written by LW

December 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Food is culture, habit, craving, and identity”*…

 

Brian Fagan is an archaeologist, a profession that we associate with dust and soil and stone, but here he attempts to capture the history of fishing in ancient civilization. It is not just fish that elude the historian: fisherfolk have always lived on the margins — of land and in recorded history (and still do). ‘To a scholar,’ writes Fagan, ‘the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues.’ So assembling a history of fishing means, well, fishing among archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography and paleoclimatology — ‘to mention only a few’.

Fagan has to fish deeply sometimes and into unexpected places. He investigates the ears of several-thousand-year-old men buried in what is now Israel, which show damage consistent with diving in cold, deep water. He uncovers the giant middens of mollusc shells that appear all over the planet, because though molluscs yield a tiny amount of protein — they are ‘small meat packages sealed in heavy inedible shells’ — they are easy to catch. ‘To knock a limpet from a rock,’ wrote Darwin, ‘does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind.’ Darwin was wrong: the ability to subsist on shellfish allowed humans to live through the lean seasons. It enabled survival.

Fishing, writes Fagan, “has created the modern world”…

The ways in which fishing– more than agriculture and husbandry– were central to the rise of civilization, from social organization to technology: “Holy mackerel! Civilization begins with fishing.”

* Jonathan Safran Foer

###

As we spread our nets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

 source

 

 

Written by LW

December 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The thought of two thousand people crunching celery at the same time horrified me”*…

 

Though it’s the crucial third component of a mirepoix, cooked celery is one of the most universally hated vegetables. Most notable for its role as the log in ants on a log—or the garnish in a Bloody Mary—raw celery is the baby’s breath of crudités, the ligneous filler in the veggie tray, always stubbornly there, never really wanted.

But celery was once a great luxury—one of the most fashionable foods to grace the table. The wealthy served it as the centerpiece of every dinner, while the average middle-class family reserved it for the conclusion of holiday meals. No Victorian household was complete without a glass celery vase—a tall, tulip-shaped bowl atop a pedestal—to prominently display the vegetable. Love it or loathe it, celery was once as fashionable as today’s dry-aged rib eye or avocado toast…

Stored in fancy vases. Cooked with care and finesse. Served in the Titanic’s first-class cabin. There were days when celery was not just boring crudité, but a luxury: “Celery Was the Avocado Toast of the Victorian Era.”

* George Bernard Shaw

###

As we take a bite, we might send well-chilled birthday greetings to Frederic Tudor; he was born on this date in 1783.  Known as Boston’s “Ice King,” he was the founder of the Tudor Ice Company and a pioneer of the international ice trade in the early 19th century. He made a fortune shipping ice cut from New England ponds (in insulated cargo holds) to insulated warehouses in the Caribbean, Europe, and as far away as India.

 source

 

Written by LW

September 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

“What’s it mean; are you determined / To make modern all mankind?”*…

 

Over the past century, there have been numerous expeditions to find a mythical lost city in the Mosquitia rainforest. La Ciudad Blanca keeps being discovered, over and over again; practically any time anyone finds the remains of any settlement, they call it that. I know of half a dozen large sites that have each been deemed ‘the White City’; there must be others. In all cases, the ‘discoverers’ are outsiders, and their find is presented as a heroic accomplishment. They want us to believe that they are intrepid explorers – achieving what others couldn’t because of their guts, money, technology, business acumen and grit.

Nothing in their description is accurate. The cities aren’t lost; the people living in these areas know all about them. And the original legends do not even reference cities; rather, they refer to locations that, for whatever reason, represent a golden age for indigenous communities. Even the landscape is not particularly dangerous; children grow up there, after all…

Archaeologist Christopher Begley asks: “Ancient ruins keep being ‘discovered’: were they ever lost?

* Charles Conrad Abbott

###

As we dig, we might send acquisitive birthday greetings to Baron Nils Erland Herbert Nordenskiöld; he was born on this date in 1877.  A Swedish archeologist and anthropologist, he was a foremost scholar of South American Indian culture in his time.  From 1913, he built an extensive collection of “discovered and recovered” South American native artifacts at the Gotebörg Ethnographic Museum, which he headed.  His work was influential in the study of archaeology and anthropology throughout Scandinavia.

 source

 

 

Written by LW

July 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I said to a bartender, ‘Make me a zombie.’ He said ‘God beat me to it.'”*…

 

Wharram Percy, aerial view

Archaeologists investigating human bones excavated from the deserted mediaeval village of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire have suggested that the villagers burned and mutilated corpses to prevent the dead from rising from their graves to terrorise the living.

Although starvation cannibalism often accounts for the mutilation of corpses during the Middle Ages, when famines were common, researchers from Historic England and the University of Southampton have found that the ways in which the Wharram Perry remains had been dismembered suggested actions more significant of folk beliefs about preventing the dead from going walkabout.

Their paper, titled “A multidisciplinary study of a burnt and mutilated assemblage of human remains from a deserted mediaeval village in England,” is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science

Dig in at “Mediaeval Yorkshirefolk mutilated, burned t’dead to prevent reanimation.”

* Rodney Dangerfield

###

As we anticipate the apocalypse, we might recall that it was on this date (as tradition would have it) in 1387 that 30 pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to embark together the next day on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.  They agreed to a story-telling contest to be held along the way on their journey, the prize being a free meal on their return.

The pilgrims were, of course, fictional, the product of the glorious imagination of Geoffrey Chaucer.  But their stores– The Canterbury Tales— delight to this day.

A woodcut from William Caxton‘s second edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in 1483

 source

 

Written by LW

April 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: