Paleofantasy: How we misunderstand the ancient world

New video is up!

We often see the past through the lens of popular media, who take great leaps with facts. Do you imagine cavemen going out to club a bear while cavewomen stayed home with the kids? Did you learn in school that the Greeks invented civilization? Do you believe that aliens built the pyramids? When you see the image of apes evolving into man, do you stop to question the idea that it represents a progression to the ultimate goal of contemporary Western civilization? These are all myths about the ancient world perpetuated by the media, uninformed pseudoscientists, and sometimes outright racists. The way we teach history tends to focus a model of humanity that’s reinforcing 1950s white gender roles and reproducing capitalist patriarchy. I’ll discuss a few ways in which a common conception of the past doesn’t add up, why we’ve come to think of history in this biased way, and how we can continue to question and correct these misunderstandings.

NOTE: Due to a copyright claim, the video clip shown at 30:07 has had to be removed. You can find it here.

This lecture was not closed-caption, but a transcript is available here.

I’m doing these lectures for free, and raising money for some local groups. They are:

Hackney Food Bank

Castle Food Service (where I’m starting volunteering this week!)


You can also pay me directly – I’m forwarding the cash to local artists and performers who are out of work right now.

Your local charity.

Live podcast on May 20!

On Wednesday I’m going to be speaking on The Arch & Anth Podcast‘s new live series hosted by Michael B.C. Rivera and featuring three other amazing researchers. Register here for the link.

Announcing The Arch and Anth Podcast Seminars (#TAAAPS)! 📢

To entertain, educate and maintain community, a series of previous guests have been invited back to give LIVE talks. 👥

On Wednesday 20th, Madeleine Mant, Arslan Zaidi, Abigail Diaz and Stacy Hackner talk about #COVID19, ancestry tests, #museums and #education#bioarchaeology#genetics and #scicomm🧬🏛🦴📚

To receive your Zoom link and password, register online (! 👈🏻

Please join us for some fun learning and interactive question-and-answer, and share widely! 🎧


I spoke with TAAPS last November – you can listen to that episode here.

Lecture on Monday, May 18!

I’m giving another live lecture this coming Monday! Check out the Facebook event here, or load up Zoom at 8pm GMT and dial in to the meeting here.

Paleo-fantasy: How we misunderstand the ancient world

We often see the past through the lens of popular media, who take great leaps with facts.

Do you imagine cavemen going out to club a bear while cavewomen stayed home with the kids? Did you learn in school that the Greeks invented civilization? Do you believe that aliens built the pyramids? When you see the image of apes evolving into man, do you stop to question the idea that it represents a progression to the ultimate goal of contemporary Western civilization?

These are all myths about the ancient world perpetuated by the media, uninformed pseudoscientists, and sometimes outright racists. The way we teach history tends to focus a model of humanity that’s reinforcing 1950s white gender roles and reproducing capitalist patriarchy.

I’ll discuss a few ways in which a common conception of the past doesn’t add up, why we’ve come to think of history in this biased way, and how we can continue to question and correct these misunderstandings.

This session will be a proper webinar, hosted by Krystian Jones of Splinter Faction Ltd.

Podcast with UCL Parkaeology

Charlotte Frearson of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology and I had a conversation about my work, hobbies, and lockdown.

Today we chat with UCL IoA Alumnus Dr Stacy Hackner from one North London flat to another! Stacy and I chat bones, gender, sourdough starters & recreating classic art!


Listen on Soundcloud here!

I told Charlotte that I was preparing to make la mian. Four hours of constant work later, I finished making enough noodles for seven people, topped with Szechuan aubergine, fried tofu, and sauteed greens.

That Margaret Mead quote

I frequently get emails from family friends with questions about archaeology. Because I’m unemployed, they get more than they bargained for, and I decided to turn today’s query into this post.

Leon H wrote in with a particular quote that I decided to comment on.

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.”

We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.

– Ira Byock.

I replied:

It’s interesting the quotes that are attributed to Margaret Mead – another is “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (And other variants of this sentiment with differing word choices.)

Both are things she could have said, given her personality, but neither is fully attributed – the first instance of the story above is in Dr. Ira Byock’s 2012 book on palliative care, and the above quote only attributed to her four years after her death by the author of a fairly hippie-ish book on paths to world peace.
This quote has been going around Facebook since mid-March, probably encouraged by this Twitter threadthis FB post, and this article in Forbes, none of which are by archaeologists/anthropologists.
The quote has a bit of “truthiness” to it. The general idea of the quote – other versions have her saying “in the law of the jungle, if you can’t hunt, you die” – is that all animals but humans live in a tooth-and-claw Darwinian world where literally only the fit survive. This is not so. Animals are adapted to living within their environment, and the most fit to their environment survive. Femoral fractures in wild animals can be survivable if they happen to juveniles who heal fully in few weeks (and are taken care of as a matter of course, at least in primates). A review of such fractures in primates was conducted by Bulstrode et al (1986). The authors examined wild animal skeletons in natural history collections, finding the healed fracture rate higher than expected.
Another reason we see few femoral breaks in wild animals is that they probably happen rarely. Animals suited to their environment don’t tend to be risky, and those femoral fractures we see are often from falls. Animals don’t tend to hang around other animals that will hurt them, unlike humans who spend time with cows (a frequent source of injury in agricultural societies). Animals also don’t go looking for danger, no matter what the Lion King suggests. Whereas a human will climb a tree to get a beehive for honey and risk a great fall, other land mammals tend to leave that alone. Humans also have high buildings we can fall out of and cars to injure ourselves in and around. Humans have a much wider range of places we’ve not fully adapted to, and thus a higher rate of injury.
Humans also have a thing called war where we purposefully try to injury one another. I wonder if the “15000 years ago” part of the quote refers to Jebel Sahaba, the oldest evidence of warfare, from Sudan. (It’s been re-dated to 13,000 years ago, but was believed to be 15kya when excavated in 1968.) I actually worked on re-analysis of skeletons from this site in 2011. The people buried there show evidence of repeated healed injury, as if they were attacked and then left in peace, then attacked again. The injuries were slices into the bone, injuries from pointed stone tools and arrows, some of which remained embedded in the bones.
Another key point about the quote is that only humans have the tools to actually fix a broken limb. (I mean, only humans have the tools, period. We invented tools.*) If a wild animal has a broken limb, it can heal, but it will heal improperly. The bones keep the muscles nice and stretched out, and if the bone is broken enough that the entire shaft is snapped, the muscles will contract and pull the bone overlapping itself, like a stretched rubber band returning to its original position. With immobilisation, care, and the hope that infection doesn’t follow (as antibiotics didn’t exist until penicillin in 1928), the bone can heal in that position.
An example of this is the photo below – the skeleton of an individual I excavated at site H29 in Sudan in 2012. In the first photo, at the uppermost end of the striped stick, is a bulbous enlargement, which is actually the two overlapped broken ends of the femur. (All the sharp breaks are post-mortem and unrelated to the injury.) This person did not receive fracture reduction (or if they did, it was not effective), so the bone healed overlapped. This resulted in the right leg becoming about 6 centimeters shorter than the left. Interestingly, the feet were at a slightly higher elevation so I excavated them first, and found that the right foot was in an extremely flexed position, as if they’d been walking on their toes. You can see this on the far left of the second photo. When I excavated the body and legs, it became clear – the bone had healed, and this person was walking around quite a bit for many years afterward, so much so that their foot became permanently flexed. Bonesetting is an ancient practice, still common in some regions (1) (2), and I wonder if this community, active around 3000 years ago, was too small or too remote to have access to a bonesetter.
H29(A) gr405,sk476_1127

A broken femur from site H29A. Photo courtesy Derek Welsby.

H29(A) gr405,sk476_1122

The same skeleton from H29A. The flexed foot is on the far left of the image. The skull has already been removed, but the rest of the skeleton is intact; you can also see a stone palette at the top of the image and a decorative clothespin between the top arm and the ribs. Photo courtesy Derek Welsby.

I often use this skeleton to discuss care in the ancient world. We tend to think of people before us as cruel and barbaric, a fallacy I continue to address in my teaching. But they’re only as cruel as people today, and also as compassionate. There’s a whole field exploring archaeology of disability, including the social treatment of people with injuries and conditions that affected their mobility.
If anyone can find a reputable source for the Margaret Mead quote, please do reach out!
If you’d like to hear more, please tune in to my lecture tomorrow night! (Weds at 2000 GMT). I might include some of this, as I’ve enjoyed writing it down 🙂

*Some biologists argue that birds and chimpanzees also use tools, but that’s really beside the point here.

What we do with bodies: anthropology of burial

My latest lecture on anthropology of burial. Watch the Zoom recording here to see the whole thing with comments, or on youtube here.

I’d also appreciate any feedback here.

Update: it’s been pointed out that I misspoke right at the start – organ donation has been made opt-out in the UK, not body donation! From next month (May 2020), all adults will be considered to be organ donors. Research has shown this is a nudge towards getting hundreds (or thousands) more donors per year because it removes an administrative hurdle. Body donation, on the other hand, still faces challenges.

Additionally, I got to speak with journalist Hussein Kesvani for an article on changed burial customs and Zoom funerals.



Link Roundup

Buckle up, I haven’t done a link roundup in ages and it’ll be a doozy.

First, I’ve just been interviewed on the Arch & Anth Podcast, and I’m very excited!


An article investigates why people hate vegans. As a former vegan (and current vegetarian), I got a lot of hate from meat-eaters, often without my even saying anything; often my menu selection would be enough to tip people into a frenzy of “Are you some kind of vegan? What if I smear meat on your plate, huh? Smell the tasty meat!” It’s bullying, and remarkably socially acceptable, in a category with fat-shaming, picky eaters in general, and mocking people for trying hard in school. Can we stop, please?  Also, here’s another article on how popular media (marketing) ignores vegans of color, many of whom have been eating plant-centered diets since the 19th century.


We need to abolish prisons already. I am relatively new to this subject, so I don’t have many answers. But: disproportionate numbers of people of color and impoverished people are incarcerated. People of color are more likely to be arrested than white people, and more likely to be imprisoned long-term for less serious crimes. Crimes related to poverty could be prevented through various forms of wealth redistribution. Most people don’t commit crimes because they’re bad; they commit crimes because society hasn’t provided the things they need, institutionally and systemically, and deprived them of opportunities. In May, I was talking to a friend about abolition. I asked my friend what about actually bad people, like murderers. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers now, but we need to recognise that prisons are not the answer.” Is the point of prison punishment or reform? In the current system, nobody knows, but it’s not working. I recommend reading this article about the trauma experienced by incarcerated people and listening to this podcast. I started with the episode on knitting in prisons.

Cultural appropriation and style 

It’s easy to see why most objects that are called out as appropriative shouldn’t be removed from their cultural context or worn/used by people who aren’t members of that community (war bonnets worn as costumes being the key example — which is racism, and we should use that word). The solution is to recognise the white/European  hegemony that has resulted in someone’s culture being commodified, not wear the thing, give your trophy skulls back, and pay reparations. (At the very least, don’t buy cheap costumes of other cultures.) Sometimes it’s more difficult to figure out to what extent your use of another culture’s material is harmful, particularly when it’s an activity rather than a physical object. I find yoga brought up quite frequently in this debate; saying no Westerner should ever practice it again is unlikely to be met with mass approval, considering its health benefits. Gandhi & Wolff examine the history of yoga’s import to the West (it was spread by Indian practitioners, but adapted to be palatable to Westerners and convince them India wasn’t a backwards land requiring colonial governance) and its marketing today (featuring lithe white cis women) shows that it is far from its origins as a Hindu spiritual practice. Beck examines the recent history of yoga as a physical practice and takes an approach similar to that of cultural sharing through food: cultures meet and change each other, and the end result can be appropriative if practiced disrespectfully. There’s no such thing as a cultural silo. We need to work with and rectify the effects of colonialism and point out racism when we see it. But I argue we must distinguish between harmful acts, microaggressions, and processes of cultural change that – while affected by colonial racism – are a separate issue.

I read this article questioning lumberjack chic and its place in Vancouver, bringing up what it means to idealise the past by dressing like it. I see this as somewhat connected to the trend of colonial chic restaurants (and occasional hotels), and wrote the following as a facebook comment: “I don’t think this style is unique to Vancouver. Styled beards, suspenders, and tailoring can be seen in hipsters the world over. In this article, it’s difficult to disambiguate the sartorial fashion from the restaurants/shops mentioned (there are a couple of restaurants that capitalise on colonial chic). It also doesn’t address who’s making and who’s wearing. Assuming that the lumberjack chic dudes aren’t making their own clothes, some corporation has to be getting their style inspiration from somewhere – what’s their motive? And is the problem the setting – that it’s in Vancouver – or the aesthetic of dressing like the past in general? If the latter (and I need to go ad absurdum here), then we shouldn’t wear anything inspired by the 20s because that was really influenced by Paul Poiret and he was an Orientalist (and also glorifying Prohibition and gang violence). We shouldn’t wear corsets as costumes because the 1800s saw worldwide colonial exploitation, slavery, oppression of women and working classes. We shouldn’t wear anything from the 80s because of Reaganomics and corporate greed.
I don’t think wearing historically-inspired clothes automatically sends one back into past notions of social roles. It’s something to keep in mind, certainly if one is attempting to live an 1890s-inspired life, and questioning the desire to dress like this is useful, but is the author recommending that people shouldn’t do it, or that it’s dangerous to do so? (Is it a critique of the wearers or the producers?)
I think I’m miffed because yes, the lumberjack hipster trend picks up on a kind of outdated idea of masculinity. But what era doesn’t?

(Dandies. We should all dress as dandies.)

(Wait, nevermind — the dandy sensibility was based on a sense of superiority to the middle classes and a return to feudalism.)”

If you’re not an academic deeply enmeshed in how cultural appropriation has happened (or, how white people take valuable culture from vulnerable/oppressed groups and then market it), you might be confused and think that a lot of young people are snowflakes waiting to be offended. This article shows how an essay for a journalism class examining the Oberlin cafeteria’s poor food labeling jumped the shark when media outlets reported it as a much bigger deal (and one that didn’t have an easy resolution). Watch what you read, and don’t buy into stereotypes. (Also, don’t buy stereotypes.) There are much greater concerns that are receiving much less media attention because the issues go deep. This one wasn’t about students not liking the food; it was about having their culture sold back to them in unpalatable form, and the university saying “we don’t understand you well enough to cater to your needs”. It’s a microaggression that was corrected when (rightfully) brought to the attention of administrators, but the media narrative took it in a different direction.

The problem with sex work is work

If you’re unfamiliar with arguments for decriminalising sex work, I’d highly recommend starting with Revolting Prostitutes, a fantastically informative manifesto that I’m currently lending to my students. Basically, the argument for decrim rather than legalisation is “why would you want the government in your bedroom” – and that it’s safer for the workers. I attended the SWARM conference earlier this year and came out of it a full Marxist – the problem with sex work is that we’re trapped in a capitalist system that makes people engage in work of any kind. For a shorter-than-a-book length article summarising the arguments, read this fantastic essay about a range of issues including FOSTA/SESTA.

Misconceptions of the past

To end on a lighter note, medieval historian Eleanor Janega argues that medieval people did, in fact, bathe.

For more article recommendations, follow my Pocket.




Self-driving cars and the trolley-car problem

I used to write a lot about the ethics of self-driving cars, particularly with regard to the trolley-car problem (would a self-driving car protect its passengers over pedestrians? would their age make a difference? who would be at fault?). This was when I believed that the people designing, producing, programming, and testing self-driving cars were operating under the same ethical framework as me and a bunch of moral philosophers.

This is apparently not the case. The questions we were asking were not the right ones and were in fact far too advanced. I should have known capitalism would beat ethics.