Did the average Neanderthal know she had a brother-in-law?

In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin hits on an interesting point that I don't think we (the media and laypeople) consider enough when we talk about our closest ancient relatives. Although we have an increasingly deep picture of Neanderthal anatomy and genetics, that doesn't necessarily tell us a great deal about their biology.

Truth is, for how little we understand the wiring and functioning of our own brains, we understand even less about the Neanderthal mind. It's quite possible that they could mate with us, but couldn't think the same way we do. And it's those unseen, unstudied differences that could really account for the vast disparities that we see between how humans lived and how their Neanderthal neighbors lived.

The picture we have so far is that the Neanderthals are sort of opportunistic, good at hunting middle- to large-sized mammals. They have a territory in which they probably go through a cycle of habitation in different places, basically when one place is exhausted they move to another one. What we don't see with Neanderthals is long-distance exchanges with other groups. What we see with modern humans in the same areas is different. For example, we find shells in Germany coming from the Mediterranean or from the French Atlantic Coast. It means there was a network of people. So, the question is, what kind of relationship did a Neanderthal have with his brother-in-law? Humans did not just live with their families and their neighbors, but they knew they had a brother-in-law in another village, and that beyond the mountain there is the family of their mother, or uncle, or something like that.

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The dead rise in Georgetown

Authorities think that an area of Washington D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood — on Q Street north of Volta Park — might once have been part of a cemetery. Several sets of human remains have been found there over the years, including, last month, the skeletons of five people. All five were found in the driveway and backyard of one house, where the owners were doing some repaving work and building a new garage. (Via Leah Thayer) Read the rest

This Friday, procrastinate with history!

Perhaps you will enjoy this in-depth analysis of the history of Roman charioteers, their sport, and their role in ancient Roman society. I haven't had a chance to read through this whole thing yet (because, you know, I have to work) but what I have read is fascinating. Be sure to check out the Appendix, which has a translation of a Roman account of a chariot race — so, basically, ancient ESPN play-by-play. (Via Dr. Hypercube) Read the rest

Black American sign language and American sign language are different languages

I've been fascinated by the history and development of sign language for a while now. Highly linked to local Deaf cultures, individual sign languages have deep roots in the home-made systems people came up with in order to communicate with one another and with their families at times when Deaf people were often a lot more socially isolated than they are today. That means that each sign language is unique — even British and American sign language aren't at all the same thing. English is spoken in both countries, but the cultural history that gave birth to sign was sufficiently different to produce two completely different languages that are unintelligible to one another. (Meanwhile, American sign language is much closer to French, because it also has roots in a system imported from France in the 19th century.)

In that case, it was a physical distance that lead to the development of two different sign languages. But, within the United States, the same thing happened because of social distance. Turns out, there is a Black American sign language that is distinctly different, as a language, from ASL. Its roots lie in segregation, and especially in separate-and-not-at-all-equal school systems. Ironically, though, that meant sign language had a more prominent place in black schools for much of the 20th century. At white schools, up until the 1970s and 1980s, students were heavily pressured to speak and lip-read, rather than sign — because it was thought to be better. Meanwhile, at black schools, sign language continued to be heavily used, growing and changing. Read the rest

How old is post-traumatic stress disorder?

It is very hard, and very weird to try to get a handle on how human health has changed between the 19th century and today. Obviously, the way we live has changed dramatically. But understanding how that impacts health (or doesn't) is complicated by the fact that healthcare, science, and public health research changed dramatically during those years, as well.

And all that science hasn't happened in a vacuum. The names we give various disorders change. Whether or not we consider something to be a disorder, at all, might change. And our cultural understanding changes, too—especially when it comes to mental illness.

At the Mind Hacks blog, Vaughn Bell has an excellent breakdown of two recent studies that try to put the modern diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into a cultural and historical context. Many people assume that PTSD is just a new name for something that has always existed—look at shell shock, which made it onto Downton Abbey last season. But these new papers suggest that the distinction between what soldiers experienced in the past and what they experience today might go deeper than naming conventions.

The diagnosis of PTSD involves having a traumatic experience and then being affected by a month of symptoms of three main groups: intrusive memories, hyper-arousal, and avoidance of reminders or emotional numbing ... there has been a popular belief that PTSD has been experienced throughout history but simply wasn’t properly recognised. Previous labels, it is claimed, like ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’, were just early descriptions of the same universal reaction.

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Forensic psychologist says mass killing is about culture, not mental illness

The story is familiar to us today: Somebody, usually a young man, walks into a public place, kills a bunch of people seemingly at random, and (usually) ends the murder spree with a suicide-by-cop.

But this story—at least, in Western culture—is startlingly new, relatively speaking. In fact, Paul Mullen, a forensic psychologist, says we can pin a date and place on the first time it happened. On September 4, 1913, in the German towns of Degerloch and Mühlhausen an der Enz, Ernst August Wagner killed his wife, his children, and at least nine strangers. He shot more than 20 people and set several fires during his killing spree. He ended up spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum.

But when we try to pin killings like these on mental illness, Mullen says, we're not quite hitting the right point. The people who go on killing sprees are mad, sure. But that's not the same thing as diagnosable, objective, physical mental illness. Only about 10% of the people ever arrested for crimes like this had actual mental illnesses. In fact, Mullen thinks these killings have more to do with culture than brain chemistry. His argument is interesting. And it might sound a little similar to the old "angry music made him do it!" trope. But what Mullen is talking about is different than that. Science journalist David Dobbs tries to explain the distinction:

I’m not saying the movies made Holmes crazy or psychopathic or some such. But the movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution.

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An annual shooting spree in North Carolina

In certain parts of the United States (including Birmingham, Alabama) shooting guns into the air is one way that some locals celebrate major holidays, like the 4th of July.

For those of us who didn't grow up with celebratory gunfire, this cultural practice can be difficult to understand—especially given the fact that it is dangerous. Bullets that go up come back down, and they can injure and kill people. It's unclear exactly how risky the practice is. If you're hit by a falling bullet, your chances of death are significantly higher compared to a normal gunshot wound. And a study of celebratory gunfire injuries in Los Angeles turned up 118 victims, including 38 deaths, between 1985 and 1992. But I wasn't able to find a good analysis that put deaths into perspective with shots fired. (So, for instance, for every x shots fired into the air, x number of people are injured. Without that, it's hard to tell whether celebratory gunfire is really, really dangerous or only kind of dangerous sometimes. But either way, when you do it, especially in urban areas, you're taking a risk of killing someone.)

Usually, though, when we talk about celebratory gunfire, we're talking about unorganized huzzahs fired off with impromptu vigor in backyards and at family gatherings. In Cherryville, North Carolina, however, the whole thing is a lot more official ... and safer. Starting at midnight on New Year's Eve, the Cherryville New Year's Shooters go door to door throughout a three-county area singing traditional New Year's shooting songs, and calling residents out to shoot with them. Read the rest

Bones of Turkana: Meave and Richard Leakey on human ancestors and the Leakey legacy

The Leakey family is like the Kennedys, but for paleoanthropology instead of politics. Think about any hominin fossil or artifact you can name. Chances are, there was a Leakey involved in its discovery. Louis Leakey was one of the first scientists to champion the idea that humans had their origins in Africa. For three generations now, his family has carried out active paleo excavations in eastern Africa, especially the countries of Tanzania and Kenya.

The first generation—Louis Leakey and his wife Mary—were most associated with Tanzania's Oldupai Gorge. But their son Richard, his wife Meave, and their daughter Louise have all spent their careers focused on Lake Turkana, on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia. The site is the world's largest, permanent desert lake. Undisturbed by modern development, in a spot where millions of years of flowing water have washed deposits and fossils down from the rift valley—Lake Turkana is an excellent place to search for human ancestors and our ancient relatives.

On Wednesday, PBS will air an hour-long documentary on the Leakeys' work at Lake Turkana. Part biography of Richard Leakey and part exploration of human history—Bones of Turkana will air May 16th at 9:00 pm central and again on May 21st at the same time. Yesterday, I got the opportunity to speak with Richard and Meave Leakey. We talked about human evolution, the scientific promise of Lake Turkana, the process of paleo fieldwork, and the lasting impression of the Leakey legacy. Read the rest

Why Debt is creeping into so many science fiction discussions

On Tor.com, author and reviewer Jo Walton has an insightful look at why so many science fiction readers and writers are discussing David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a book that is already a darling of the Occupy movement:

One of the problems with writing science fiction and fantasy is creating truly different societies. We tend to change things but keep other things at societal defaults. It’s really easy to see this in older SF, where we have moved on from those societal defaults and can thus laugh at seeing people in the future behaving like people in the fifties. But it’s very difficult to create genuinely innovative societies, and in genuinely different directions. As a British reader coming to SF there were a lot of things I thought were people’s amazing imagination that turned out to be normal American things and cultural defaults. And no matter how much research you do, it’s always easier in the anglosphere to find books and primary sources in English and about our own history and the history of people who have interacted with us. And both history and anthropology tend to be focused on one period, one place, so it’s possible to research a specific society you know you want to know about, but hard to find things that are about the range of options different societies have chosen.

What Debt does is to focus on a question of morality, first by framing the question, and then by examining how a really large number of human societies over a huge geographical and historical range have dealt with this issue, and how they have interacted with other people who have very different ideas about it.

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The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Daniel Everett

Daniel L. Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University. He is the author of Language: The Cultural Tool and the subject of the documentary A Grammar of Happiness.

Avi Solomon: Were there any formative experiences in your childhood that shaped your career?

Dan Everett: Well, by far the most important experience in my childhood was the death of my mother when I was eleven. She was twenty-nine. That changed my life, and it taught me that life is extremely fragile. And I knew from that point on that I was going to die and never feared dying. Because I felt that if my mother had died, I certainly didn't have any fear of dying. Read the rest

Tales of a great Pacific Coast earthquake passed down in legend

Last year, the Eastern coast of Japan was struck by a massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Since that happened, you've heard researchers talk about how it was not the first time that region had experienced an earthquake that large. Although the 2011 Tohoku earthquake has been called the biggest earthquake in Japan's recorded history, that's really only describing the relatively short history of scientifically measured earthquakes. The Japanese have kept written records, describing earthquakes that sound as though they could have been every bit as destructive. And those records date back 1600 years.

But written records aren't the only way of preserving local memories, or warning future generations about the destructive power of the Earth.

Geologic evidence shows that North America's Pacific Coast has experienced earthquakes on the scale of the Tohoku earthquake. (In fact, the Pacific Northwest is probably due for one of these large quakes. It's not an "if", but a "when".) The last time it happened, nobody in the area was keeping written documents. Instead, the story of a massive earthquake and a devastating tsunami—which probably occurred around the year 1700—have become a part of oral storytelling traditions. Ruth Ludwin, a seismologist at the University of Washington, has been collecting these stories since the early 1990s.

"There was a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters."

So says an ancient tale told to generations of Quilleute and Hoh Indians. Variations of this saga of an epic battle between the Thunderbird and the Whale are found among Pacific Northwest Tribes from Vancouver Island to Oregon's Tillamook tribe.

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Taxonomy and history of rage-faces

On Ars Technica, Tom Connor does a great job producing a taxonomy and history of rage-faces, showing how they evolved from a set of proscribed, orthodox uses on 4chan to a wider set of uses and meanings in several online communities.

Rage faces slowly migrated from 4chan into other communities. There, they gained popularity and expanded their numbers as artists introduced new faces, and particularly humorous comics went viral in their communities. Though the faces were no longer exclusive to any single forum, they stayed true to the originals in style.

More people got involved, the cartoons mutated and evolved, and like any successful species, they adapted to fit into a wide variety of habitats. "You can trace back the origins to 4chan so you can say [the faces are 4chan's] baby, but it's evolved on such a wide scale that it's gone beyond anyone's single ownership," Swanson said. "Mostly the original faces are from 4chan, but a lot of the newer faces have come out of F7U12, or other places like FunnyJunk."

Fffuuuuuuuu: The Internet anthropologist's field guide to "rage faces" Read the rest

Interview with a cyborg anthropologist

Jon Lebkowsky sez, "Former bOING!bOING! 'cyborganic jivemeister' interviews 21st century cyborg anthropologist Amber Case. A discussion of cyborganic mind and memory and the new world of digital tribes. In the SXSW Interactive issue of the Austin Chronicle."

Case spends a lot of time studying and thinking about how digital extension affects our brains and behaviors. "The brain doesn't really need that much stimulus in order to create a virtual reality," she says. In early computing, "we thought it would take much more to incite people into these realities," but text and good two-dimensional interfaces are enough to absorb us totally in virtual worlds. "It's mixed reality, where you can be anywhere and you have different virtual realities going on around you – the different tabs in a browser window, text messages you get, Facebook messages, Twitter messages. All of those are different realities in simultaneous time zones that people are living in all the time, and we switch rapidly between these contexts all the time. People are living multiple virtual realities while existing in one reality at a time."

I asked about the overhead for all the virtual switching we do as we bounce from one to another reality, referring to it as "virtual jet lag." "To be fully aware of an environment and take something in that is not fragmented is important for learning and embodying knowledge," she says. "But the problem on the Internet is, say you learn something on Wikipedia; you're not embodied in that knowledge. Rather than learning in a lab, you're reading something about biochemistry on Wikipedia, learning it there.

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Killed by something that doesn't exist

Placebos have no repeatable physical effect that can be broadly demonstrated to exist. But, if people believe the placebo can help them, it often does—especially for inherently subjective issues like pain relief.

Nocebos are what happens when a placebo (again, something that technically has no physical effect on the body) causes a negative side-effect, simply because the person believes that such side-effects are likely to happen to them.

There is a lot we don't understand about both of these effects. After all, running really detailed tests would inherently involve unethical behavior—intentionally not treating patients or intentionally trying to induce a negative reaction in them. But that doesn't mean you can ignore these phenomena.

A great example comes in a recent column by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic. You're probably familiar with the idea of sleep paralysis—the experience of waking up, being mentally awake, but still physically paralyzed. This happens to people all over the world. And, all over the world, it's long been explained in folklore as the work of demons and evil spirits. (The fact that sleep paralysis is often accompanied by feelings of terror, and the sensation of something sitting on your chest doesn't hurt in that regard.) Normally, sleep paralysis brings a few minutes of terror, but no lasting harm. In the mid-1980s, however, it suddenly became capable of killing. The catch, the men it killed were all recent Hmong immigrants, living in the United States. Researcher Shelley Adler thinks it was actually a nocebo effect that killed these men—they believed themselves into an early grave. Read the rest

Sex is Fun podcast: How sexism affects your sex life

I've been doing periodic appearances on Sex is Fun, a sex-positive podcast aimed at providing fun, informative sex ed. for grown-ups. Last time I was on the show, we talked about some funny animal sex studies and what they can and can't teach you about human sexual behavior. This time around, we talked about a couple of recent studies focusing on sociology and sex.

In particular, we focused on a study from last fall that surveyed students at the University of Kansas to find out how men's and women's internalized sexism affect their relationships with each other. If you've ever watched one of those shows about so-called "pick up artists" and wondered, "Who the hell are the women falling for this crap!?", then this is the show to listen to.

Check out the podcast at the Sex is Fun site!

Image: IMG_9459, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jon_knox's photostream.

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"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Recreating an exhibit that no longer exists

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

Not every museum exhibit will survive untouched from your childhood to your grandchildrens'. Over time, historic and scientific accuracy, changing mores and aesthetics, and improvements in design will force some exhibits off the main stage and into the dusty storage room of memory.

But you can still love them from afar.

On this, the last day of "My Favorite Museum Exhibit" week, I'd like to include one man's tribute to a long-dismantled museum exhibit. Tom Luthman writes:

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I'd go to the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio (COSI). COSI opened in 1964, in the old Franklin County Memorial Hall, built in 1906. It closed in 1999, or rather, it moved to a new location, and most of the old exhibits didn't make the move.

One of the exhibits was THE TRIUMPH OF MAN, a leftover exhibit from the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, built by the Travelers Insurance Companies. You'd walk down a darkened corridor, and off in alcoves were 14 paper-mache scenes depicting the history of humanity. All accompanied by a recorded narration from the World's Fair.

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The last thing I will post about apocalypse in 2012

Seriously. If you haven't figured out by now that the world is not ending and that any Mayan predictions claiming otherwise are largely fabricated pseudoarchaeology, then I'm not sure that I can help you. One last try, though. Please read this excellent FAQ, written by actual archaeologist (and my former professor) John Hoopes. I did an interview with Dr. Hoopes last year about the 2012 as a phenomenon, but the new FAQ covers, in detail, why a 2012 apocalypse is bunk, and what sources you can check out to find further accurate information about the confluence of ancient Mayan mythology and modern Western mythology. And that is all I have to say about this for the rest of the year. Coming in 2013, though: Lots of stories about Mayan archaeology. Just to mess with you. Read the rest

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