(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘anthropology

“An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome.”*…

We’ve misunderstood an important part of the history of urbanism– jungle cities. Patrick Roberts suggests that they have much to teach us…

Visions of “lost cities” in the jungle have consumed western imaginations since Europeans first visited the tropics of Asia, Africa and the Americas. From the Lost City of Z to El Dorado, a thirst for finding ancient civilisations and their treasures in perilous tropical forest settings has driven innumerable ill-fated expeditions. This obsession has seeped into western societies’ popular ideas of tropical forest cities, with overgrown ruins acting as the backdrop for fear, discovery and life-threatening challenges in countless films, novels and video games.

Throughout these depictions runs the idea that all ancient cities and states in tropical forests were doomed to fail. That the most resilient occupants of tropical forests are small villages of poison dart-blowing hunter-gatherers. And that vicious vines and towering trees – or, in the case of The Jungle Book, a boisterous army of monkeys – will inevitably claw any significant human achievement back into the suffocating green whence it came. This idea has been boosted by books and films that focus on the collapse of particularly enigmatic societies such as the Classic Maya. The decaying stone walls, the empty grand structures and the deserted streets of these tropical urban leftovers act as a tragic warning that our own way of life is not as secure as we would like to assume.

For a long time, western scholars took a similar view of the potential of tropical forests to sustain ancient cities. On the one hand, intensive agriculture, seen as necessary to fuel the growth of cities and powerful social elites, has been considered impossible on the wet, acidic, nutrient-poor soils of tropical forests. On the other, where the rubble of cities cannot be denied, in the drier tropics of North and Central America, south Asia and south-east Asia, ecological catastrophe has been seen as inevitable. Deforestation to make way for massive buildings and growing populations, an expansion of agriculture across marginal soils, as well as natural disasters such as mudslides, flooding and drought, must have made tropical cities a big challenge at best, and a fool’s gambit at worst.

Overhauling these stereotypes has been difficult. For one thing, the kind of large, multiyear field explorations usually undertaken on the sites of ancient cities are especially hard in tropical forests. Dense vegetation, mosquito-borne disease, poisonous plants and animals and torrential rain have made it arduous to find and excavate past urban centres. Where organic materials, rather than stone, might have been used as a construction material, the task becomes even more taxing. As a result, research into past tropical urbanism has lagged behind similar research in Mesopotamia and Egypt and the sweeping river valleys of east Asia.

Yet many tropical forest societies found immensely successful methods of food production, in even the most challenging of circumstances, which could sustain impressively large populations and social structures. The past two decades of archaeological exploration, applying the latest science from the land and the air, have stripped away canopies to provide new, more favourable assessments.

Not only did societies such as the Classic Maya and the Khmer empire of Cambodia flourish, but pre-colonial tropical cities were actually some of the most extensive urban landscapes anywhere in the pre-industrial world – far outstripping ancient Rome, Constantinople/Istanbul and the ancient cities of China.

Ancient tropical cities could be remarkably resilient, sometimes surviving many centuries longer than colonial- and industrial-period urban networks in similar environments. Although they could face immense obstacles, and often had to reinvent themselves to beat changing climates and their own exploitation of the surrounding landscape, they also developed completely new forms of what a city could be, and perhaps should be.

Extensive, interspersed with nature and combining food production with social and political function, these ancient cities are now catching the eyes of 21st-century urban planners trying to come to grips with tropical forests as sites of some of the fastest-growing human populations around the world today…

They may be vine-smothered ruins today, but the lost cities of the ancient tropics still have a lot to teach us about how to live alongside nature. Dr. Roberts (@palaeotropics) explains: “The real urban jungle: how ancient societies reimagined what cities could be,” adapted from his new book, Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us.

* John Ruskin

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As we acclimate, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: a theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments.  (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism (in which role he was a mentor to George Soros).

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“Human decision-making is complex. On our own, our tendency to yield to short-term temptations, and even to addictions, may be too strong for our rational, long-term planning.”*…

Many of us acknowledge that long-term thinking is a difficult, but necessary investment in a safe and happy future– our obligation to those who come after us. But it turns out that long-term thinking has more immediate benefits as well…

In times of global crisis, focusing on the present is justified. Yet as we move into 2021, there is good reason to spend some time also reflecting on our place within the longer-term past and future. For one, there remain creeping problems that we cannot ignore, such as climate change, antibiotic resistance or biodiversity loss. But also because contemplating deeper time can help replenish our mental energies during adversity, and offer a meditative source of catharsis amid the frenzy of the now.

In my research and writing, I explore the worldviews of nuclear waste experts in Finland, who reckon with radioactive isotopes over extremely long-term planetary timeframes. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years, whereas uranium-235’s half-life is over seven hundred million years. Like many anthropologists doing fieldwork within other cultures, my mission has been to uncover insights that could widen people’s perspectives in my own or other societies.

While the experiences of a nuclear waste expert may seem an unusual source of inspiration for well-being, this research has taught me that there can be personal benefits to stretching the intellect across time. Here’s how you might integrate some of these principles into your own life as you step into next year.

Doing Safety Case-inspired deep time exercises can not only help us imagine local landscapes over decades, centuries, and millennia. It can also help us take a step back from our everyday lives – transporting our minds to different places and times, and feeling rejuvenated when we return.

There are several benefits to this. Cognitive scientists have shown how creativity can be sparked by perceiving “something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there).” Corporate coaches have recommended taking breaks from our familiar thinking patterns to experience the world in new ways and overcome mental blocks. Contemplating deep time can cultivate a thoughtful appreciation of our species’ and planet’s longer-term histories and futures.

Yet it can also help us refresh during frazzled moments of unrest. Setting aside a few minutes each day for deep time contemplation can enrich us by evoking a momentary sense of awe. A Stanford University study has shown how awe can expand our sense of time and promote well-being. Anthropologist Barbara King has shown how awe can be “mind- and heart-expanding.”

Our challenge, then, is to discover, in ourselves, techniques for always bringing an awe-inspired awareness of deep time with us – wherever our futures may lead.

Taking inspiration from a far-sighted Finnish nuclear waste project, anthropologist Vincent Ialenti (@vincent_ialenti) explains why embracing Earth’s radical long-term can be good for well-being today: the benefits of embracing ‘deep time’ in a year like this.

* Peter Singer

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As we find perspective and peace in being good ancestors, we might say alles Gute zum Geburtstag to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg; he was born on this date in 1742. Lichtenberg held the first professorship in Germany explicitly dedicated to experimental physics; he is remembered for his posthumously published notebooks, which he himself called sudelbücher, a description modelled on the English bookkeeping term “waste books” or “scrapbooks”, and for his discovery of tree-like electrical discharge patterns now called Lichtenberg figures.

One of the first scientists to introduce experiments with apparatus in their lectures, Lichtenberg was a popular and respected figure in contemporary European intellectual circles. He was one of the first to introduce Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod to Germany by installing such devices in his house and garden sheds. He maintained relations with most of the great figures of that era, including Goethe and Kant. Ans was sought out by other leading scientists: Alessandro Volta visited Göttingen especially to see him and his experiments; mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss sat in on his lectures.

But Lichtenberg was also an accomplished satirist, whose works put him in the highest ranks of German writers of the 18th century. And he proposed the standardized paper size system used globally today (except in Canada and the U.S.) defined by ISO 216, which has A4 as the most commonly used size.

Perhaps in time, the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own…

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

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“The Earth is what we all have in common”*…

Ancient Gateway, Angkor, Cambodia

There’s a pervasive notion in our society that nature is something outside, over there, other, from what we are as humans. From religious texts teaching that God provided humans with dominion over Earth, to futuristic literature pitching nature as our past and human ingenuity and technology as our future, the narrative that humans are beyond – or even superior to – nature is deeply entrenched.

This separation, this othering of nature, has arguably enabled our rampant destruction of the rest of the living world, and even led some to claim that our human nature is incompatible with nature itself.

Now a huge international study involving geography, archeology, ecology, and conservation adds to the wealth of sciences that exposes this idea as the lie it is.

Researchers found that for most of our history, humanity has lived in equilibrium with our world, despite us having altered most of Earth’s terrestrial surface far sooner than we realized. “Societies used their landscapes in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience,” said University of Maryland environmental systems scientist Erle Ellis.

Analyzing reconstructions of historic global land use by humans and comparing this to global patterns of biodiversity, the researchers found that by 10000 BCE humans had transformed nearly three-quarters of Earth’s land surface – you can view an interactive map of their findings here.

This upends previous models that suggested most land was still uninhabited as recently as 1500 CE. “Lands now characterized as ‘natural’, ‘intact’, and ‘wild’ generally exhibit long histories of human use,” University of Queensland conservation scientist James Watson explained.

“There’s a paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists, and policymakers that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive,” said Watson.

In recent times, it’s certainly appeared that way, but clearly this hasn’t always been the case – humanity’s presence hasn’t always caused the life around us to wither away. The researchers note that in many areas, mosaics of diverse landscapes managed by people were sustained for millennia.

They used strategies like planting, animal domestication, and managing the ecosystems in a way that made the landscape not just more productive for us, but helping to support high species richness too. “Our study found a close correlation between areas of high biodiversity and areas long occupied by Indigenous and traditional peoples,” said Max Planck Institute archeologist Nicole Boivin.

“The problem is not human use per se, the problem is the kind of land use we see in industrialized societies – characterized by unsustainable agricultural practices and unmitigated extraction and appropriation.”

“We need to recognize that some types of human activity – particularly more traditional land management practices that we see in the archaeological record or practiced today by many Indigenous peoples – are actually really supportive of biodiversity. We need to promote and empower that,” said Bovin.

University of Maine anthropologist Darren Ranco noted that while indigenous people manage around 5 percent of the world’s lands that currently contain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, they have been excluded from management and access in protected areas like the US National Parks.

These findings make it clear that we need to empower Indigenous, traditional, and local peoples who know their lands in ways science is only just beginning to understand, explained Ellis. While no one is suggesting we revert to technology-less societies of our past, the idea is to learn from different ways of living that have proven track records of longevity.

From there, we can find new and better ways forward with the help of our advanced technologies, and a big part of this is recognizing that we are part of nature just as nature is a part of us.

Learning from our ancestors: “Humans Shaped Life on Earth For 12,000 Years, And It Wasn’t All Doom And Destruction.” Read the research in full at PNAS.

By way of an illustration of the issue, “Climate crisis has shifted the Earth’s axis, study shows“:

In the past, only natural factors such as ocean currents and the convection of hot rock in the deep Earth contributed to the drifting position of the poles. But the new research shows that since the 1990s, the loss of hundreds of billions of tonnes of ice a year into the oceans resulting from the climate crisis has caused the poles to move in new directions.

Indeed, we’ve moved the poles 4 meters since 1980…

And for a look at just how much the earth has changed, “Google Earth Now Shows You The Consequences of Climate Change For The Past 37 Years.”

[TotH to the ever-illuminating “Nothing Here“]

* Wendell Berry

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As we find balance, we might spare a thought for Jean Nicot de Villemain; he died on this date in 1604. A diplomat and scholar, he introduced tobacco to the French court (and thus, into wide usage in Europe). In 1560, while serving as ambassador in Portugal, he was shown a tobacco plant in the garden of Lisbon botanist Damião de Goes, who claimed it had healing properties. Nicot applied it to his nose and forehead and found it relieved his headaches.

Nicot sent home seeds and leaves of tobacco, recommending its marvelous therapeutic value. He then sent snuff to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France to treat her migraine headaches. She was impressed with its results, and became an advocate.

The tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, and its active substance, nicotine, derive their names from his.

Nicot also compiled one of the first French dictionaries, Thresor de la langue françoyse (1606).

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“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking”*…

A century ago, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, our workweek would be only 15 hours long. What happened? We’ve crossed all the technological thresholds Keynes identified, so why aren’t we living in the economic promised land? Well, if Keynes were here today, he’d probably blame our unshakeable instinct to work. He believed that human beings are cursed, that we have infinite desires, but there aren’t enough resources to satisfy them. As a result, everything is, by definition, scarce. Today, economists refer to this paradox as the “fundamental economic problem,” and they believe it explains our constant will to work. We make and trade resources as a way to bridge the gap between our infinite desires and our limited means.

That may sound like a reasonable theory, but there’s a problem: It doesn’t square with what we now understand about our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Until the 1960s, anthropologists believed hunter-gatherers led short, difficult lives. Only through incremental advancements in technology, the thinking went, were our ancestors able to secure greater wealth, tranquility, and free time. But when anthropologists began studying the world’s remaining hunter-gatherer societies, they came to a striking conclusion: Hunter-gatherer life wasn’t nearly as bad as everybody thought. One anthropologist, for instance, found a tribe that only spent 30 hours a week hunting and doing chores. The rest of the time, they made music, socialized, gossiped, and relaxed. They didn’t spend all their time working to satisfy their infinite desires. In fact, their desires weren’t infinite at all; they were limited, and easy to satisfy. This revelation suggests that the “fundamental economic problem” is not, as Keynes believed, the eternal struggle of the human race. It’s just an unfortunate recent development…

One of five take-aways from Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, by James Suzman (@anthrowittering), a social anthropologist based in Cambridge, England, where he directs a think tank called Anthropos that uses anthropological tools to solve economic problems. His first book, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, draws on the three decades he’s spent living with the Ju/’hoansi, one of the oldest hunter-gatherer societies in the world.

More at Next Big Idea Club (@NextBigIdeaClub): “Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.”

* John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

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As we rethink the rat race, we might send exquisitely-constructed birthday greetings to a man whose work continues to inspire and amaze, Johann Sebastian Bach; he was born on this date in 1685. Known both for instrumental compositions such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations, and for vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor, he sits at the apex of the Baroque period, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 21, 2021 at 1:01 am

“When angry, count four. When very angry, swear”*…

Annibale Carracci – The Cyclops Polyphemus (detail)

Anger, like other emotions, has a history.

It is not merely that the causes of anger may change, or attitudes toward its expression. The nature of the emotion itself may alter from one society to another. In classical antiquity, for example, anger was variously viewed as proper to a free citizen (an incapacity to feel anger was regarded as slavish); as an irrational, savage passion that should be extirpated entirely, and especially dangerous when joined to power; as justifiable in a ruler, on the model of God’s righteous anger in the Bible; and as blasphemously ascribed to God, who is beyond all human emotions.

Profound social and cultural changes—the transition from small city-states to the vast reach of the Roman Empire, the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome—lay behind these shifting views, but all the positions had their defenders and were fiercely debated. This rich heritage offers a wealth of insights into the nature of anger, as well as evidence of its social nature; it is not just a matter of biology….

The history of anger– indeed, the very fact that it has a history– sheds light on the elevated emotional climate of today: “Repertoires of Rage.”

* Mark Twain

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As we wrestle with wrath, we might recall that in 1752 in Britain and throughout the British Empire (which included the American colonies) yesterday was September 2. The “jump” was occasioned by a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as a product of which almost all of “western civilization” was then on Pope Gregory’s time; Sweden (and Finland) switched the following year.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

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