January 27 Link Roundup

I was wondering where the Doomsday Clock had been – it’s just been set to 2 1/2 minutes to midnight. It hadn’t been reset since 2012. (The article is from 2015.)

While the Bulletin fretted over Ebola terrorism, the everyday scourges of tuberculosis, AIDS, malaria, and infant diarrhea were killing hundreds of times as many people. Doomsday theorizing gets infectious disease threats backwards: it’s not the genetically modified bugs hatching from high-tech labs that should worry us, but old-fashioned germs that thrive in poverty, underdevelopment, and failed states.

In a related blast from the past (seriously, no pun intended), the August 1946 issue of The New Yorker chronicles the entire day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in minute detail, told through interviews with a few civilians. Riveting and horrifying.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose work kept me studying linguistics longer than was necessary for my degree, has written a great post about conceptual metaphors used in contemporary politics, explaining how politics is always moral, the Strict Father vs  Nurturant Parent metaphors of government, and why we should argue from our own framework rather than negate the other side’s argument on their terms. Written in November, it has been followed up with an interview in Salon.

Columbia University has produced an extensive report detailing its connection to and profits from slavery. The NYT and Atlantic have coverage, and the full research project is available here. It includes the story of Joe, a slave owned by George Washington’s stepson as a student.

NASA has made all of their research available FREE.

Sports in the Ancient World

Originally published on Student Engagers on January 24, 2017.

I’ve written previously here about the antiquity of running, which was one of the original sports at the ancient Greek Olympics, along with javelin, archery, and jumping. These games started around 776 BC in the town of Olympia. What came before, though? What other evidence do we have of ancient sports?

Running is probably the most ancient sport; it requires no gear (no matter how much shoe companies make you think you need it) and the distances are easily set: to that tree and back, to that mountain and back. Research into the origins of human locomotion focus on changes to the foot, which needed to change from arboreal gripping to bipedal running and bearing the full weight of the body. A fossil foot of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominin which lived 4.4 million years ago, features a stiffened midfoot and flexible toes capable of being extended to help push off at the end of a stance, but has the short big toe typical of great apes. Australopithecus sediba, which lived only 2 million years ago, had an arched foot like modern humans (at least not the flat-footed ones) but an ankle that turned inwards like apes. Clearly our feet didn’t evolve all the features of bipedal running at once, but rather at various intervals over the past 4-5 millennia. Evidence of ancient humans’ distance running is equally ancient, as I wrote about previously. Researchers Bramble & Lieberman have posed the question “Why would early Homo run long distances when walking is easier, safer and less costly?” They posit that endurance running was key to obtaining the fatty tissue from meat, marrow, and brain necessary to fuel our absurdly large brains – thus linking long-distance running with improved cognition. In a similar vein, research into the neuroscience of running has found that it boosts mood, clarifies thinking, and decreases stress.

Feats of athleticism in ancient times were frequently dedicated to gods. Long before the Greek games, the Egyptians were running races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. A limestone wall block at the Petrie depicts King Senusret (1971 BCE) racing with an oar and hepet-tool. The Olympic Games, too, were originally dedicated to the gods of Olympus, but it appears that as time went on, they became corrupted by emphasizing the individual heroic athletes and even allowed commoners to compete. There were four races in the original Olympics: the stade (192m), 2 stades, 7-24 stades, and 2-4 stades in full hoplite armor. It should be mentioned that serious long-distance running, like the modern marathon, was not a part of the ancient games. The story of Pheidippides running from the battlefield at Marathon to announce the Greek victory in Athens is most likely fictional, although the first modern marathon in 1896 traced that 25-mile route. The modern distance of just over 26 miles was set at the 1908 London Olympics, when the route was lengthened to go past Buckingham Palace.

2

Limestone wall-block showing King Senusret I running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Wrestling might be equally ancient. It’s basically a form of play-fighting with rules (or without rules, depending on the type – compare judo to Greco-Roman to WWF), and play-fighting can be seen not only in human children but in a variety of mammal species. In Olympic wrestling, the goal was to get one’s opponent to the ground without biting or grabbing genitals, but breaking their fingers and dislocating bones were valid. Some archaeologists have tried to attribute Nubian bone shape – the basis of my thesis – on wrestling, for which they were famed. Another limestone relief in the Petrie shows two men wrestling in loincloths. Boxing is a similar fighting contest; original Olympic boxing required two men to fight until one was unconscious. Pankration brutally combined wrestling and boxing, but helpfully forbid eye-gouging. It may be possible to identify ancient boxers bioarchaeologically by examining patterns of nonlethal injuries. Some of these are depressions in the cranial vault (particularly towards the front and the left, presuming mostly right-handed opponents), facial fractures, nasal fractures, traumatic tooth loss, and fractures of the bones of the hand.

1

Crude limestone group depicting two men wrestling. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Spear or javelin throwing has also been attested in antiquity. Although we have evidence of predynastic flint points and dynastic iron spear tips, it’s unclear whether these were used for sport (how far one can throw) or for hunting. Actually, it’s unclear how the two became separate. Hunting was (and continues to be) a major sport – although not one with a clear winner as in racing or wrestling – and the only difference is that in javelin the target isn’t moving (or alive). In the past few years, research has been conducted into the antiquity of spear throwing. One study argues that Neanderthals had asymmetrical upper arm bones – the right was larger due to the muscular activity involved in repeatedly throwing a spear. Another study used electromyography of various activities to reject the spear-thrusting hypothesis, arguing that that the right arm was larger in the specific dimensions more associated with scraping hides. Spear throwing is attested bioarchaeologically in much later periods. A particular pathological pattern called “atlatl elbow”: use of a tool to increase spear velocity caused osteoarthritic degeneration of the elbow, but protected the shoulder.

3

Fragment of a Roman-period copper alloy spearhead. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

A final Olympic sport is chariot racing and riding. Horses were probably only domesticated around 5500 years ago in Eurasia, so horse sports are really quite new compared to running and throwing! It’s likely that horses were originally captured and domesticated for meat at least 1000 years before humans realized they could use them for transportation. The Olympic races were 4.5 miles around the track (without saddles or stirrups, as these developments had not yet reached Greece), and the chariot races were 9 miles with either 2 or 4 horses. Bioarchaeologists have noted signs of horseback riding around the ancient world – signs include degenerative changes to the vertebrae and pelvis from bouncing as well as enlargement of the hip socket (acetabulum) and increased contact area between the femur and pelvis from when they rub together. In all cases, more males than females had these changes, indicating that it was more common for men to ride horses.

Of course, there are many more sports that existed in the ancient world – other fighting games including gladiatorial combat, ritualized warfare, and games with balls and sticks (including the Mayan basketball-esque game purportedly played with human skulls). Often games were dedicated to gods, or resulted in the death of the loser(s). However, many of these, explored bioarchaeologically, would result in similar musculoskeletal changes and injury patterns discussed above. Many games have probably been lost to history. Considering the vast span of human activity, it’s likely sports of some kind have always existed, from the earliest foot races to the modern Olympic spectacle.

ball

Limestone ball from a game. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Sources

Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432(7015), pp. 345–352.

Carroll, S.C. 1988. Wrestling in Ancient Nubia. Journal of sport history 15(2), pp. 121–137. Available at:

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature 483, pp. 550–551.

Martin, D.L. and Frayer, D.W. eds. 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. illustrated. Psychology Press.

Perrottet, T. 2004. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. Random House Publishing Group.

 

 

January 13 Link Roundup

Artificial arrangements of stalagmites in Bruniquel cave in France were known to be of Neanderthal origin. However, recent uranium dating has pushed the date of their construction to 176,500 years before present (BP). This is yet more evidence that Neanderthals had culture similar to humans. In an appropriately-timed piece, Jon Mooallem writes about the research going on in Gibraltar at the Neanderthal cave sites alongside his own realizations about our idea of human (sapiens) superiority. This may be the first NYT mention of some of the Victorian and Edwardian scientists I cite in my thesis; their ideas on the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon (European early modern human) tibias echoed into the next century, perpetuating race-based theories of anatomy.

“This is like putting together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle where you only have five pieces,” Finlayson said. He somehow made this analogy sound exciting instead of hopeless… But it was like looking for needles in a haystack, and the entire haystack was merely the one needle they had managed to find in an astronomically larger haystack. And most of that haystack was now inaccessible forever.

In a hopefully more scientific rehash of the Easter Sunday experiment, researchers at Johns Hopkins are giving psilocybin to religious leaders to investigate mystical experiences. The PI, Anthony Bossis, has also led trials testing how psilocybin trips ease existential pain in terminally ill cancer patients (more here).

In this week’s “so adorable it hurts,” Sam Barsky knits sweaters featuring popular landmarks and then takes pictures in front of them.

The island of St. Helena, famous for being the location of Napoleon’s exile, is the burial place of 8,000 skeletons of Africans who were liberated from slavery. The island is at the center of the Middle Passage, the route across the Atlantic that carried millions of captured Africans to lives of slavery in the Americas. (Further note: I recently had the opportunity to visit the Slave Lodge museum in Cape Town. While the museums there are generally underfunded and little run down, the content was well-presented and devastating.)

Apparently Mengele’s skeleton has been used in a teaching collection in Brazil for decades.

Museum Review: Cape Town

I recently visited Cape Town and, as is my responsibility as a museum enthusiast, tried to visit as many museums and historical sites as possible. This was slightly difficult as it was the December holiday period, and many museums were closed. They all listed dates of closure on their websites, but in actuality they were closed for more days than listed: the excuse given by locals was that because Christmas was on a Sunday, everybody took the next two days off instead of just one day. (OK, sure.)

First, Kirstenbosch Gardens. The last time I was there I was less than ten years old, barely as tall as the agapanthus. It’s a really wonderful botanic garden showing the extensive variety of plants from the Table Mountain fynbos region and further north – the Namibian desert plants were quite spectacular. The fynbos is a unique ecosystem of tremendous biodiversity adapted to an arid environment. I hiked up Table Mountain four times, and each route had remarkably different vegetation specifically adapted for local shade, wind, and rain runoff. Kirstenbosch has a “boomslang”, or canopy walk, for visitors to admire the treetop flora and fauna; if we’d actually seen some fauna it would have been awesome, but it was not to be.

Next I visited the South African Museum. Most of the museums in Cape Town are part of an organization called Iziko, which sets standard prices and presumably consolidates direction and curation. All the Iziko museums were 30 rand; student entry was 15, but only if one has an ISIC card. I decided the difference in price, which worked out to just over a dollar, was not enough to buy an international student card, and I’d rather the meager (for me) entry go to funding the museum. The SA Museum is your average natural history museum – not particularly impressive compared to the NHM or AMNH, but similar in scope, with halls of taxidermy and a multi-story gallery of whale skeletons. They really shone in the exhibit on rock art, though: it had some of the most culturally-aware interpretation I’ve seen, and really thoughtful placards featuring quotes from interviews about traditional San medicine and rock art meaning. Additionally, the introduction to the ethnographic gallery should be used in every museum that still has displays of (non-white) traditional practices, although they could have used more explanation on the collection of body casts (but perhaps I’m still on a rant from Museum of the Normal). Sadly, the museums suffer from a severe lack of funding. In many rooms, the lights were out, the walls had leaks and mold, and one case contained a dead lizard that was definitely not meant to be there.

Across the Company’s Garden, originally planted by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to feed their merchants when Cape Town was a re-supply point on the route to the Far East, is the Slave Lodge, which was the original prison for slaves working for the VOC or the city. The temporary exhibit in the entry was about Tweede Nuwe Jaar, Cape Town’s carnival celebrated on January 2nd. The permanent exhibit about slavery, including a long video (most of the museums had a 15+ minute introductory video), a reproduction slave ship segment, and a hall of remembrance, were devastating. Interestingly, most of the slaves brought to Cape Town were Malay and Indonesian rather than West African, the latter being brought to the Americas rather than further south. Many of them were given names based on the month they arrived, and a photographic exhibit featured 12 interviewees whose surnames are months, making a calendar of sorts. Local Khoekhoe individuals were not enslaved, but were pressed into indentured servitude. The first half of the first floor of the museum was very informative. The second half was about the struggle to end apartheid, with another video and large placards. However, I felt that these seemed to be more evocative than informative, and the focus on oral history without artifacts (or with replica artifacts and a prison cell) was not very effective for me as basically a tourist with little knowledge of events like the Sharpeville massacre. The second floor was an odd mix of ancient Egyptian artifacts and 20th-century African and European domestic objects (silverware, pottery, jewellery) with little to link it to the history on the first floor. There was a marvellous temporary exhibit of ishishweshwe, an African fabric traditionally printed in blue. I realized that the first skirt I ever sewed was with ishishweshwe from Durban.

The Bo-Kaap Museum celebrates Cape Malay history in a house in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, where all the houses are painted different colors as a sign of independence. Once again, it began with a rather long video interviewing local residents about their relationship to the area, which – as an area close to the city center – is gentrifying. The museum is only four rooms, one of which had the video and one of which was a historic kitchen with no placards. There were also tours of the neighborhood, which we didn’t take as they felt a bit poverty-tourism.

img_5299

The Bo-Kaap neighborhood

I really enjoyed the Maritime Centre. This museum doesn’t have very many objects, and despite being smack in the middle of the waterfront, it seems to not get much foot traffic; my mom and I were the only visitors then. It’s about Cape Town’s history as a port, first for trade and then for transport. My parents told me about riding passenger lines around the coast, and the museum even had a scale model of the ship they took! There’s also a maritime library, which seems like an invaluable resource. I’m rather obsessed with ships and trains, so I’m pleased I found out about this one.

Finally, we went to the Castle of Good Hope. Constructed in 1666, this was the second fort built to guard the harbor, and as far as I know it has never been attacked. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of information. I probably found out more about the castle’s history from the website than from the actual site visit. Many areas were closed for restoration, but we did go into the second-in-command’s house, stocked with original Dutch-imported furniture, and the prison, which had amazing historic graffiti. It was a nice day to walk along the castle walls and pretend to guard the city (though not the harbor, because there’s been significant land reclamation in the last 350 years), but it probably would have been more informative to take the tour.

Scattered around the Cape, particularly the shore and places of natural beauty, are placards with information about geology or history. I was pleased to learn about the stratigraphy of the rock beaches and the rock dassies and warnings about baboon behavior, but was left distressed after learning that Jan van Riebeeck parked his ships in the middle of a Khoekhoe grazing route, forever disrupting their herding strategies and forcing them into lives of servitude. Very much “we put a flag on it.

img_5351

View from near Judas Peak

January 6 Link Roundup

Amputee Kristi Loyall was able to keep her leg after it was removed. She now takes it on vacation. I admire her doggedness – I was not allowed to keep my wisdom teeth, nor my dad his lipoma, despite arguing (in both cases) that they are our body parts and therefore our property. I do have my best friend’s baby teeth, which I use for teaching.

Here are 7 bad science and health ideas that need to die. Read through them, consider the facts, then share with friends and relatives who continue to believe them. This weekend I corrected someone who thought you shouldn’t eat fruit after dinner because “the acidity will stop digestion”.

On the empathy front, here are two articles presenting empathy as a tool for changing opinions. The nonprofit Narrative 4 invited individuals who are pro-gun or anti-gun and had them meet and share their stories, and then tell each other’s stories in the first person. It was emotional and tragic and triggering, but was it ultimately meaningful? Does radical empathy make a difference? On the other hand, it looks like simple human connection and understanding changed Derek Black from a white nationalist to a critic of the movement. Kudos for the students who took a risk with their emotional well-being and invited him to Shabbat dinner.

Derek had been working to put distance between himself and his past. He was still living across the country after finishing his master’s degree, and he was starting to learn Arabic to be able to study the history of early Islam. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in white nationalism since his defection, aside from occasional calls home to his parents. Instead, he’d spent his time catching up on aspects of pop culture he’d once been taught to discredit: liberal newspaper columns, rap music and Hollywood movies. He’d come to admire President Obama. He decided to trust the U.S. government. He started drinking tap water. He had taken budget trips to Barcelona, Paris, Dublin, Nicaragua and Morocco, immersing himself in as many cultures as he could.

Further, white nationalists love genetics.

85-year-old marathon runner Ed Whitlock, considered the best athlete of his age, doesn’t really like running – he just likes to win. He doesn’t record his training and doesn’t go in for fancy gear.

He does not experience a runner’s high, he said, and does not run for his health. He finds training to be drudgery and even racing brings as much apprehension as joy. “The real feeling of enjoyment,” he said, “is getting across the finish line and finding out that you’ve done O.K.”

China has gamified good citizenship (as defined by the ruling party). The program, called Sesame Credit, gives points for buying farm equipment and deducts points for buying anime. It will become mandatory in 2020. I wonder how it will work in areas with intermittent or nonexistent internet.

December 30 Link Roundup

Here’s a great list of “The Sixty Best Books by Women Every Man Should Read (But Could Always Ignore and Stick to Philip Roth)”. I’m looking forward to reading these!

Scientists with the WHO have developed a safe and effective vaccine for ebola virus disease! Slightly pales in comparison to the accomplishment of Donald Henderson, who led the WHO to eliminate smallpox by 1979 and died this August, but small steps!

What happens when you build a new home on the spot your family was murdered? (See also: my link a few weeks ago on how individuals killed in the Bosnian genocide are still being identified.)

Robert Jensen is a specialist in mass casualty situations where body parts and personal belongings need to be identified and returned to family members. CN: every graphic death you’re anxious about.

Anja Shortland explores the economics of kidnapping and ransom insurance; on the flip side, Eugene Soltes investigates the psychology of white-collar criminals. Apparently when you have lots of money, things get weird.

It’s possible in Japan to just disappear, usually out of shame. There are even companies that will help you do it.

pie has made it into space to celebrate the small British town of Wigan’s World Pie Eating Championship.

Finally, the best yearly roundup is out: Deadspin’s What Did We Get Stuck in Our Rectums Last Year? Please, friends, stay safe next year and don’t end up as some ER doc’s cocktail party tale of woe.

December 16 Link Roundup

This post explores the ubiquitous BRAAAM sound heard on soundtracks everywhere since Inception. I particularly like that the author asks my favorite question about the change in movie soundtracks from the classical model to the Hans Zimmer model – “Is it a good thing or a bad thing?” – realizing that there isn’t really an answer, at least not a nostalgia-filled pretentious one.

Kennewick Man/the Ancient One is going to be returned to the Washington State Dept of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, which has plans to return him to the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Colville tribes for reburial. The case of who has the right to use Kennewick Man’s bones has been going on since 1996.

Nike has launched a project to get top athletes to run a sub-2 hour marathon. Currently the world record (for men) is 2:02:57 (it’s 2:15:25 for women, FYI). My record is 4:29:15. I’m rather jealous of the author’s time at his first half-marathon attempt (1:41). As my best after three is 1:58, I completely blame it on height; I need to move my tiny legs much faster than the author at 6’5.

Last week, Digging For Britain Series 5 (featuring Alice Roberts) aired on BBC4. I was the osteology consultant, responsible for laying out the skeletons brought in by archaeologists from around the country. Here are some screenshots of my work with a skeleton from the Merlin’s Cave site, Wye Valley, Herefordshire:

December Holiday Stuff

I don’t celebrate the December holidays. I have all the things I need, and I’m going to be hanging out with my family while we all pointedly ignore jingles and gifts and stuff. However, there are many, many people who do not have all the things they need. In fact, many lack basic amenities like water and food. If you’re interested in making life a little bit less difficult for those people, consider donating to one of the following organizations.

Comment with organizations you’d like to support.

December 9 Link Roundup

Pantone has picked my favorite color as Color of the Year 2017. I’ve been prepared for this day for years.

Here’s a list of dystopian novels focusing on reproductive rights! Prepare to enter pregnancy body horror city.

Sexual fluidity is real, argues researcher Lisa Diamond. It is possible for one’s sexual orientation to change. I’ll write about this sometime. In the famous words of author Chuck Tingle, “all love is real for those who kiss”. He also said we should kiss planes because they are handsome, which – while an appropriate expression of object-based sexuality – might get one in trouble with airport authorities.

Here are 52 facts.

Four new elements have been named! They’re Nihonium (113), Moscovium (115), Tennesine (117), and Oganessen (118).

This adorable bird named Obi wore tiny goggles and flew through a laser so researchers could learn more about the airflow around wings.

My college friend Sarah, now a lawyer, has started a podcast exploring legal situations in fiction. The first episode is about Minority Report, which really violates the 4th Amendment.

The project to excavate and identify the dead from Bosnia’s war continues. Most are from mass graves.

The Philippines has seen 3500 homicides since July 1 of this year, many of which are extrajudicial executions in response to President Duterte’s war on drugs. One photojournalist captured 41 murder scenes. (Content note: graphic photos of murders)

Here’s a fascinating article about a dating sites for Truthers, people who believe conspiracy theories about 9/11, Sandy Hook, and vaccines. Turns out they want love just like the sheeple. It also has a handy link to a site proving that yes, planes do leave behind harmless contrails, although Truthers aren’t likely to be any more convinced by that than they were by Obama’s birth certificate.

Once again, more research shows that giving poor people money is more effective than giving them goods and services: it allows them to make their own choices, and those choices are usually good. (Speaking of which: if you’re in the UK, you can now download an app to help St Mungo’s find people sleeping rough and provide assistance.)

Anthropologist Barbara King considers the evidence for Neanderthal religion.