Jared Diamond's account of the collapse of Easter Island society is well known by now — how the Islanders decimated their ecosystem and drove themselves to the brink of starvation by using up the island's natural resources at a furious rate. But that's not the only possible explanation for how Easter Island lost its tree cover and ended up with a much-reduced population. In fact, some anthropologists say there's not really any hard evidence that the Islanders were practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing the land with fire.
Instead, this other theory blames the little creature pictured above — the Polynesian rat, an invasive species that stowed away on canoes and chewed its way through the roots, sprouts, and seeds of Easter Island's trees. Instead of willfully destroying themselves, this scenario has the islanders desperately adapting to a quickly changing environment. It's not that the changes had nothing to do with people — the rats got there with human help, after all — but the angle of the story changes somewhat, becoming less about the destructive aspects of human nature and more about the lengths humans will go to in order to survive.
Image: Cliff from Arlington, via CC license Read the rest
As food goes globalized, UNESCO has started thinking about preserving cuisine as a cultural artifact
, the same way it might preserve an ancient city. Japanese food got the nod last week
. Read the rest
I'm really enjoying Jason Colavito's reviews of The History Channel's hilarious/infuriating hit show Ancient Aliens
. What makes them better than the average blog? Colavito is an author who has written extensively about the anthropology of pseudoscience, and the connections between pseudoscience, religion, and science fiction. So his recaps are less about debunking the claims made on Ancient Aliens
(because, really, that's just too damn easy) and more about exploring where those claims come from, pop-culturally, and what makes them so appealing, to begin with. Fascinating stuff. Read the rest
From beer to coffee, bitter flavors are things that most of us have to learn to enjoy over multiple tastings. Scientists have long assumed that our ability to even taste those flavors is rooted in self-defense — a way to root out and avoid potentially poisonous plants in the diet of our hunting and gathering ancestors. But new research suggests that the ability to taste bitter flavors isn't strongly tied to hunting and gathering
lifestyles, which leaves researchers at a loss for why the skill might have evolved. My hypothesis, based on experience with espresso and IPA lovers: Perhaps there's an evolutionary advantage to beverage pretentiousness. Read the rest
: The partially digested contents of a deer's stomach has "a consistency and a flavour that is not unlike cream cheese". It's a treat enjoyed by modern/recent hunter-gatherer cultures and, possibly, by Neanderthals. (Via Smithsonian Smart News) Read the rest
Schwa Fire is would-be magazine that hopes to publish long-form journalism about the science and sociology behind the way we talk to each other. It sounds like it has the potential to be totally awesome, melding great storytelling with a field — linguistics — that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. You can help fund the magazine through a Kickstarter
. Check it out! Read the rest
I'm utterly fascinated by the way culture affects the outcomes of mental illness — whether that's in terms of prevalence of specific disorders, how we interpret and treat those disorders, or even how seemingly innate symptoms express themselves in wildly different ways
. Case in point: The voices that schizophrenics hear. In the US, those voices seem to talk a lot about violence — what a person should to do themselves, or to others. In Chennai, India, on the other hand, schizophrenic patients report that voices most commonly command them to do household chores. The disturbing content comes in the form of sexual comments or directions to drink from the toilet. Read the rest
It's not too early to plan for next semester. John Hawks
, a fantastic science blogger and professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is offering a Coursera class on Human Evolution: Past and Future
. Seems like just the thing for curious Happy Mutants! Read the rest
I'm reading a ton of baby and pregnancy books right now, preparing both for the October birth of my daughter and an upcoming BoingBoing feature about evidence-based books for science-minded soon-to-be-parents. After reading this interview at The New Inquiry
, I really want to check out The Motherhood Archives
— a documentary about the ways culture shapes and reshapes how we understand the biology of birth and the growth of an infant. From the Marxist origins of Lamaze, to the early-20th-century feminists who pushed for pain-free birth, to the rise of the birth center, The Motherhood Archives
sounds like a fascinating exploration of how different generations think and rethink the same ideas and an anthropological assessment of what "the right way" to give birth and raise children really means. (Thanks, Emile Snyder!) Read the rest
Quora has a great thread
happening that encourages people to point out the contradictory, surprising, and downright strange tendencies within their own cultures. Naturally, one of the first posts by an American mentions that great disconnect wherein extreme violence is a-ok, but women's boobies are dirty. Read the rest
For years, Robin Nagle was anthropologist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. She's just published a book about trash and how we deal with it, or don't. It's titled Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City
, and Collector's Weekly
interviewed her about it.
(The department) was created as the Department of Street Cleaning in 1881, and renamed the Department of Sanitation in 1929. But it was actually made effective for the first time in 1895, in that the people who worked for the department actually collected garbage and swept the streets.
In its early days, the department didn’t really function at all. There are some photographs taken for Harper’s Weekly (above), before and after photos of street corners in New York in 1893 and then in 1895. And the before pictures are pretty astonishing, people were literally shin-high or knee-high in this muck that was a combination of street gunk, horse urine and manure, dead animals, food waste, and furniture crap.
Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (Amazon)
"A Filthy History: When New Yorkers Lived Knee-Deep in Trash" (Collector's Weekly) Read the rest
During the brief moment that I majored in anthropology in college, I was fascinated by the work of Napoleon A. Chagnon and his seminal 1968 text Yanomamo: The Fierce People
. Chagnon's time as a field scientist in the Amazon had a profound impact on the field of anthropology even as his methods (and misunderstandings of his methods) resulted in an academic war on his research and his character. To further explore Chagnon's legacy, and what he really found in the rainforest, BB pal John Brockman of EDGE convened a meeting
between Chagnon and big thinkers Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, Daniel C. Dennett, and David Haig. The result is 30,00 words of conversation and hours of video that John says is "one of the most significant events in (Edge's) sixteen year history." From an intro to the materials by Richard Dawkins:
Chagnon committed the unforgivable sin, cardinal heresy in the eyes of a certain kind of social scientist: he took Darwin seriously. Along with a few friends and colleagues, Chagnon studied the up-to-date literature on natural selection theory, and with brilliant success he applied the ideas of Fisher, Hamilton, Trivers and other heirs of Darwin to a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world. It is sobering to reflect on how unconventional a step this was: science bursting into the quasi-literary world of the anthropology in which the young Chagnon was trained. Still today, in many American departments of social science, for a young researcher to announce a serious interest in Darwin's dangerous idea--even an inclination towards scientific thinking at all--can come close to career suicide. Read the rest
Short answer: We don't know
. What makes this story by Erin Wayman interesting is the way it carefully breaks down an almost Hollywood-ready narrative and finds the fascinating uncertainty lurking underneath. The truth is, uncertainty is cool. Because it means there's more stuff left to discover. Read the rest
At the Brainwaves blog, Ferris Jabr writes about a fascinating project. Anthropologist Andrew Irving talked random strangers on the streets of New York City into putting on a headset and speaking their inner monologue out loud as he followed behind them with a camera. The result is something that approximates what it might be like to be able to hear someone else's thoughts.
A woman worries about where she can find a Staples and contemplates her relationship with a friend who has cancer. A man deals with his emotions over two close friends (or, possibly, roommates, or lovers) having a baby together. Another man flits between internal discussions of totalitarianism, speculation about other people on the street, and his own attempts to figure out which direction he's heading. In general, it's all a mixture of engaging and mundane, swirled together.
There are other videos in the series, as well. You can watch them at Brainwaves. Read the rest
Atherosclerosis is what happens when your arteries fill up with layers of fat and white blood cells. It's a disease of chronic inflammation that increases your risk of stroke and heart attack. It's also a disease we tend to associate with the modern era — commonly cited risk factors include cigarette smoking, obesity, and stress. But there are some signs that we may not have a great handle on what actually causes atherosclerosis. That's because ancient mummies, from all over the world, have shown signs of the disease
. It's unclear what this means at this point — for instance, just because ancient people didn't light up a Marlboro from time to time doesn't mean they weren't exposed to smoke and particulate matter from indoor cooking fires. But it's fascinating to see a disease of modernity affecting the past. Read the rest
The University of Oregon's Mapping History site could easily suck up all your productivity for a day or two
. Filled with interactive graphs, charts, and timelines, it allows you to explore history in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. The US section is particularly robust, allowing you to trace everything from the development of railroads, to connections between the growth of the cotton and slavery industries, to changes in life expectancy. Fascinating and fantastic. Read the rest
I promised to not speak of Schmapocalypse Miffy Melve
on BoingBoing anymore, and I am standing by that. However, I do think that I would be remiss not to point you toward this nifty, interactive version of the Maya's long count calendar system
. It does a great job of helping explain the Mayan number system and how those numbers come together to mark important dates. If you're interested in Mayan hieroglyphics, I'd also recommend reading the book A Forest of Kings
, which explains how the ancient Maya wrote and what their writing really tells us about their history. Read the rest