A few lectures

The sound quality of this lecture is not completely optimal – there’s a recurring echo popping up now and then which I found slightly annoying – but this should not keep you from watching the lecture. It’s a quite good lecture, and very accessible – I don’t really think you even need to know anything about genetics to follow most of what he’s talking about here; as far as I can tell it’s a lecture intended for people who don’t really know much about population genetics. He introduces key concepts as they are needed and he does not go much into the technical details which might cause people trouble (this of course also makes the lecture somewhat superficial, but you can’t get everything). If you’re the sort of person who wants details not included in the lecture you’re probably already reading e.g. Razib Khan (who incidentally recently blogged/criticized a not too dissimilar paper from the one discussed in the lecture, dealing with South Asia)…

I must admit that I actually didn’t like this lecture very much, but I figured I might as well include it in this post anyway.

I found some questions included and some aspects of the coverage a bit ‘too basic’ for my taste, but other people interested in chess reading along here may like Anna’s approach better; like Krause’s lecture I think it’s an accessible lecture, despite the fact that it actually covers many lines in quite a bit of detail. It’s a long lecture but I don’t think you necessarily need to watch all of it in one go (…or at all?) – the analysis of the second game, the Kortschnoj-Gheorghiu game, starts around 45 minutes in so that might for example be a good place to include a break, if a break is required.

February 1, 2016 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, Chess, Computer science, genetics, history, Lectures | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Motte-and-bailey castle (‘good article’).

“A motte-and-bailey castle is a fortification with a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. Relatively easy to build with unskilled, often forced labour, but still militarily formidable, these castles were built across northern Europe from the 10th century onwards, spreading from Normandy and Anjou in France, into the Holy Roman Empire in the 11th century. The Normans introduced the design into England and Wales following their invasion in 1066. Motte-and-bailey castles were adopted in Scotland, Ireland, the Low Countries and Denmark in the 12th and 13th centuries. By the end of the 13th century, the design was largely superseded by alternative forms of fortification, but the earthworks remain a prominent feature in many countries. […]

Various methods were used to build mottes. Where a natural hill could be used, scarping could produce a motte without the need to create an artificial mound, but more commonly much of the motte would have to be constructed by hand.[19] Four methods existed for building a mound and a tower: the mound could either be built first, and a tower placed on top of it; the tower could alternatively be built on the original ground surface and then buried within the mound; the tower could potentially be built on the original ground surface and then partially buried within the mound, the buried part forming a cellar beneath; or the tower could be built first, and the mound added later.[25]

Regardless of the sequencing, artificial mottes had to be built by piling up earth; this work was undertaken by hand, using wooden shovels and hand-barrows, possibly with picks as well in the later periods.[26] Larger mottes took disproportionately more effort to build than their smaller equivalents, because of the volumes of earth involved.[26] The largest mottes in England, such as Thetford, are estimated to have required up to 24,000 man-days of work; smaller ones required perhaps as little as 1,000.[27] […] Taking into account estimates of the likely available manpower during the period, historians estimate that the larger mottes might have taken between four and nine months to build.[29] This contrasted favourably with stone keeps of the period, which typically took up to ten years to build.[30] Very little skilled labour was required to build motte and bailey castles, which made them very attractive propositions if forced peasant labour was available, as was the case after the Norman invasion of England.[19] […]

The type of soil would make a difference to the design of the motte, as clay soils could support a steeper motte, whilst sandier soils meant that a motte would need a more gentle incline.[14] Where available, layers of different sorts of earth, such as clay, gravel and chalk, would be used alternatively to build in strength to the design.[32] Layers of turf could also be added to stabilise the motte as it was built up, or a core of stones placed as the heart of the structure to provide strength.[33] Similar issues applied to the defensive ditches, where designers found that the wider the ditch was dug, the deeper and steeper the sides of the scarp could be, making it more defensive. […]

Although motte-and-bailey castles are the best known castle design, they were not always the most numerous in any given area.[36] A popular alternative was the ringwork castle, involving a palisade being built on top of a raised earth rampart, protected by a ditch. The choice of motte and bailey or ringwork was partially driven by terrain, as mottes were typically built on low ground, and on deeper clay and alluvial soils.[37] Another factor may have been speed, as ringworks were faster to build than mottes.[38] Some ringwork castles were later converted into motte-and-bailey designs, by filling in the centre of the ringwork to produce a flat-topped motte. […]

In England, William invaded from Normandy in 1066, resulting in three phases of castle building in England, around 80% of which were in the motte-and-bailey pattern. […] around 741 motte-and-bailey castles [were built] in England and Wales alone. […] Many motte-and-bailey castles were occupied relatively briefly and in England many were being abandoned by the 12th century, and others neglected and allowed to lapse into disrepair.[96] In the Low Countries and Germany, a similar transition occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries. […] One factor was the introduction of stone into castle building. The earliest stone castles had emerged in the 10th century […] Although wood was a more powerful defensive material than was once thought, stone became increasingly popular for military and symbolic reasons.”

ii. Battle of Midway (featured). Lots of good stuff in there. One aspect I had not been aware of beforehand was that Allied codebreakers also here (I was quite familiar with the works of Turing and others in Bletchley Park) played a key role:

“Admiral Nimitz had one priceless advantage: cryptanalysts had partially broken the Japanese Navy’s JN-25b code.[45] Since the early spring of 1942, the US had been decoding messages stating that there would soon be an operation at objective “AF”. It was not known where “AF” was, but Commander Joseph J. Rochefort and his team at Station HYPO were able to confirm that it was Midway; Captain Wilfred Holmes devised a ruse of telling the base at Midway (by secure undersea cable) to broadcast an uncoded radio message stating that Midway’s water purification system had broken down.[46] Within 24 hours, the code breakers picked up a Japanese message that “AF was short on water.”[47] HYPO was also able to determine the date of the attack as either 4 or 5 June, and to provide Nimitz with a complete IJN order of battle.[48] Japan had a new codebook, but its introduction had been delayed, enabling HYPO to read messages for several crucial days; the new code, which had not yet been cracked, came into use shortly before the attack began, but the important breaks had already been made.[49][nb 8]

As a result, the Americans entered the battle with a very good picture of where, when, and in what strength the Japanese would appear. Nimitz knew that the Japanese had negated their numerical advantage by dividing their ships into four separate task groups, all too widely separated to be able to support each other.[50][nb 9] […] The Japanese, by contrast, remained almost totally unaware of their opponent’s true strength and dispositions even after the battle began.[27] […] Four Japanese aircraft carriers — Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, all part of the six-carrier force that had attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier — and a heavy cruiser were sunk at a cost of the carrier Yorktown and a destroyer. After Midway and the exhausting attrition of the Solomon Islands campaign, Japan’s capacity to replace its losses in materiel (particularly aircraft carriers) and men (especially well-trained pilots) rapidly became insufficient to cope with mounting casualties, while the United States’ massive industrial capabilities made American losses far easier to bear. […] The Battle of Midway has often been called “the turning point of the Pacific”.[140] However, the Japanese continued to try to secure more strategic territory in the South Pacific, and the U.S. did not move from a state of naval parity to one of increasing supremacy until after several more months of hard combat.[141] Thus, although Midway was the Allies’ first major victory against the Japanese, it did not radically change the course of the war. Rather, it was the cumulative effects of the battles of Coral Sea and Midway that reduced Japan’s ability to undertake major offensives.[9]

One thing which really strikes you (well, struck me) when reading this stuff is how incredibly capital-intensive the war at sea really was; this was one of the most important sea battles of the Second World War, yet the total Japanese death toll at Midway was just 3,057. To put that number into perspective, it is significantly smaller than the average number of people killed each day in Stalingrad (according to one estimate, the Soviets alone suffered 478,741 killed or missing during those roughly 5 months (~150 days), which comes out at roughly 3000/day).

iii. History of time-keeping devices (featured). ‘Exactly what it says on the tin’, as they’d say on TV Tropes.

It took a long time to get from where we were to where we are today; the horologists of the past faced a lot of problems you’ve most likely never even thought about. What do you do for example do if your ingenious water clock has trouble keeping time because variation in water temperature causes issues? Well, you use mercury instead of water, of course! (“Since Yi Xing’s clock was a water clock, it was affected by temperature variations. That problem was solved in 976 by Zhang Sixun by replacing the water with mercury, which remains liquid down to −39 °C (−38 °F).”).

iv. Microbial metabolism.

Microbial metabolism is the means by which a microbe obtains the energy and nutrients (e.g. carbon) it needs to live and reproduce. Microbes use many different types of metabolic strategies and species can often be differentiated from each other based on metabolic characteristics. The specific metabolic properties of a microbe are the major factors in determining that microbe’s ecological niche, and often allow for that microbe to be useful in industrial processes or responsible for biogeochemical cycles. […]

All microbial metabolisms can be arranged according to three principles:

1. How the organism obtains carbon for synthesising cell mass:

2. How the organism obtains reducing equivalents used either in energy conservation or in biosynthetic reactions:

3. How the organism obtains energy for living and growing:

In practice, these terms are almost freely combined. […] Most microbes are heterotrophic (more precisely chemoorganoheterotrophic), using organic compounds as both carbon and energy sources. […] Heterotrophic microbes are extremely abundant in nature and are responsible for the breakdown of large organic polymers such as cellulose, chitin or lignin which are generally indigestible to larger animals. Generally, the breakdown of large polymers to carbon dioxide (mineralization) requires several different organisms, with one breaking down the polymer into its constituent monomers, one able to use the monomers and excreting simpler waste compounds as by-products, and one able to use the excreted wastes. There are many variations on this theme, as different organisms are able to degrade different polymers and secrete different waste products. […]

Biochemically, prokaryotic heterotrophic metabolism is much more versatile than that of eukaryotic organisms, although many prokaryotes share the most basic metabolic models with eukaryotes, e. g. using glycolysis (also called EMP pathway) for sugar metabolism and the citric acid cycle to degrade acetate, producing energy in the form of ATP and reducing power in the form of NADH or quinols. These basic pathways are well conserved because they are also involved in biosynthesis of many conserved building blocks needed for cell growth (sometimes in reverse direction). However, many bacteria and archaea utilize alternative metabolic pathways other than glycolysis and the citric acid cycle. […] The metabolic diversity and ability of prokaryotes to use a large variety of organic compounds arises from the much deeper evolutionary history and diversity of prokaryotes, as compared to eukaryotes. […]

Many microbes (phototrophs) are capable of using light as a source of energy to produce ATP and organic compounds such as carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. Of these, algae are particularly significant because they are oxygenic, using water as an electron donor for electron transfer during photosynthesis.[11] Phototrophic bacteria are found in the phyla Cyanobacteria, Chlorobi, Proteobacteria, Chloroflexi, and Firmicutes.[12] Along with plants these microbes are responsible for all biological generation of oxygen gas on Earth. […] As befits the large diversity of photosynthetic bacteria, there are many different mechanisms by which light is converted into energy for metabolism. All photosynthetic organisms locate their photosynthetic reaction centers within a membrane, which may be invaginations of the cytoplasmic membrane (Proteobacteria), thylakoid membranes (Cyanobacteria), specialized antenna structures called chlorosomes (Green sulfur and non-sulfur bacteria), or the cytoplasmic membrane itself (heliobacteria). Different photosynthetic bacteria also contain different photosynthetic pigments, such as chlorophylls and carotenoids, allowing them to take advantage of different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and thereby inhabit different niches. Some groups of organisms contain more specialized light-harvesting structures (e.g. phycobilisomes in Cyanobacteria and chlorosomes in Green sulfur and non-sulfur bacteria), allowing for increased efficiency in light utilization. […]

Most photosynthetic microbes are autotrophic, fixing carbon dioxide via the Calvin cycle. Some photosynthetic bacteria (e.g. Chloroflexus) are photoheterotrophs, meaning that they use organic carbon compounds as a carbon source for growth. Some photosynthetic organisms also fix nitrogen […] Nitrogen is an element required for growth by all biological systems. While extremely common (80% by volume) in the atmosphere, dinitrogen gas (N2) is generally biologically inaccessible due to its high activation energy. Throughout all of nature, only specialized bacteria and Archaea are capable of nitrogen fixation, converting dinitrogen gas into ammonia (NH3), which is easily assimilated by all organisms.[14] These prokaryotes, therefore, are very important ecologically and are often essential for the survival of entire ecosystems. This is especially true in the ocean, where nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria are often the only sources of fixed nitrogen, and in soils, where specialized symbioses exist between legumes and their nitrogen-fixing partners to provide the nitrogen needed by these plants for growth.

Nitrogen fixation can be found distributed throughout nearly all bacterial lineages and physiological classes but is not a universal property. Because the enzyme nitrogenase, responsible for nitrogen fixation, is very sensitive to oxygen which will inhibit it irreversibly, all nitrogen-fixing organisms must possess some mechanism to keep the concentration of oxygen low. […] The production and activity of nitrogenases is very highly regulated, both because nitrogen fixation is an extremely energetically expensive process (16–24 ATP are used per N2 fixed) and due to the extreme sensitivity of the nitrogenase to oxygen.” (A lot of the stuff above was of course for me either review or closely related to stuff I’ve already read in the coverage provided in Beer et al., a book I’ve talked about before here on the blog).

v. Uranium (featured). It’s hard to know what to include here as the article has a lot of stuff, but I found this part in particular, well, interesting:

“During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, huge stockpiles of uranium were amassed and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were created using enriched uranium and plutonium made from uranium. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, an estimated 600 short tons (540 metric tons) of highly enriched weapons grade uranium (enough to make 40,000 nuclear warheads) have been stored in often inadequately guarded facilities in the Russian Federation and several other former Soviet states.[12] Police in Asia, Europe, and South America on at least 16 occasions from 1993 to 2005 have intercepted shipments of smuggled bomb-grade uranium or plutonium, most of which was from ex-Soviet sources.[12] From 1993 to 2005 the Material Protection, Control, and Accounting Program, operated by the federal government of the United States, spent approximately US $550 million to help safeguard uranium and plutonium stockpiles in Russia.[12] This money was used for improvements and security enhancements at research and storage facilities. Scientific American reported in February 2006 that in some of the facilities security consisted of chain link fences which were in severe states of disrepair. According to an interview from the article, one facility had been storing samples of enriched (weapons grade) uranium in a broom closet before the improvement project; another had been keeping track of its stock of nuclear warheads using index cards kept in a shoe box.[45]

Some other observations from the article below:

“Uranium is a naturally occurring element that can be found in low levels within all rock, soil, and water. Uranium is the 51st element in order of abundance in the Earth’s crust. Uranium is also the highest-numbered element to be found naturally in significant quantities on Earth and is almost always found combined with other elements.[10] Along with all elements having atomic weights higher than that of iron, it is only naturally formed in supernovae.[46] The decay of uranium, thorium, and potassium-40 in the Earth’s mantle is thought to be the main source of heat[47][48] that keeps the outer core liquid and drives mantle convection, which in turn drives plate tectonics. […]

Natural uranium consists of three major isotopes: uranium-238 (99.28% natural abundance), uranium-235 (0.71%), and uranium-234 (0.0054%). […] Uranium-238 is the most stable isotope of uranium, with a half-life of about 4.468×109 years, roughly the age of the Earth. Uranium-235 has a half-life of about 7.13×108 years, and uranium-234 has a half-life of about 2.48×105 years.[82] For natural uranium, about 49% of its alpha rays are emitted by each of 238U atom, and also 49% by 234U (since the latter is formed from the former) and about 2.0% of them by the 235U. When the Earth was young, probably about one-fifth of its uranium was uranium-235, but the percentage of 234U was probably much lower than this. […]

Worldwide production of U3O8 (yellowcake) in 2013 amounted to 70,015 tonnes, of which 22,451 t (32%) was mined in Kazakhstan. Other important uranium mining countries are Canada (9,331 t), Australia (6,350 t), Niger (4,518 t), Namibia (4,323 t) and Russia (3,135 t).[55] […] Australia has 31% of the world’s known uranium ore reserves[61] and the world’s largest single uranium deposit, located at the Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia.[62] There is a significant reserve of uranium in Bakouma a sub-prefecture in the prefecture of Mbomou in Central African Republic. […] Uranium deposits seem to be log-normal distributed. There is a 300-fold increase in the amount of uranium recoverable for each tenfold decrease in ore grade.[75] In other words, there is little high grade ore and proportionately much more low grade ore available.”

vi. Radiocarbon dating (featured).

Radiocarbon dating (also referred to as carbon dating or carbon-14 dating) is a method of determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon (14C), a radioactive isotope of carbon. The method was invented by Willard Libby in the late 1940s and soon became a standard tool for archaeologists. Libby received the Nobel Prize for his work in 1960. The radiocarbon dating method is based on the fact that radiocarbon is constantly being created in the atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen. The resulting radiocarbon combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis; animals then acquire 14C by eating the plants. When the animal or plant dies, it stops exchanging carbon with its environment, and from that point onwards the amount of 14C it contains begins to reduce as the 14C undergoes radioactive decay. Measuring the amount of 14C in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died. The older a sample is, the less 14C there is to be detected, and because the half-life of 14C (the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed) is about 5,730 years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by radiocarbon dating are around 50,000 years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally permit dating of older samples.

The idea behind radiocarbon dating is straightforward, but years of work were required to develop the technique to the point where accurate dates could be obtained. […]

The development of radiocarbon dating has had a profound impact on archaeology. In addition to permitting more accurate dating within archaeological sites than did previous methods, it allows comparison of dates of events across great distances. Histories of archaeology often refer to its impact as the “radiocarbon revolution”.”

I’ve read about these topics before in a textbook setting (e.g. here), but/and I should note that the article provides quite detailed coverage and I think most people will encounter some new information by having a look at it even if they’re superficially familiar with this topic. The article has a lot of stuff about e.g. ‘what you need to correct for’, which some of you might find interesting.

vii. Raccoon (featured). One interesting observation from the article:

“One aspect of raccoon behavior is so well known that it gives the animal part of its scientific name, Procyon lotor; “lotor” is neo-Latin for “washer”. In the wild, raccoons often dabble for underwater food near the shore-line. They then often pick up the food item with their front paws to examine it and rub the item, sometimes to remove unwanted parts. This gives the appearance of the raccoon “washing” the food. The tactile sensitivity of raccoons’ paws is increased if this rubbing action is performed underwater, since the water softens the hard layer covering the paws.[126] However, the behavior observed in captive raccoons in which they carry their food to water to “wash” or douse it before eating has not been observed in the wild.[127] Naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, believed that raccoons do not have adequate saliva production to moisten food thereby necessitating dousing, but this hypothesis is now considered to be incorrect.[128] Captive raccoons douse their food more frequently when a watering hole with a layout similar to a stream is not farther away than 3 m (10 ft).[129] The widely accepted theory is that dousing in captive raccoons is a fixed action pattern from the dabbling behavior performed when foraging at shores for aquatic foods.[130] This is supported by the observation that aquatic foods are doused more frequently. Cleaning dirty food does not seem to be a reason for “washing”.[129] Experts have cast doubt on the veracity of observations of wild raccoons dousing food.[131]

And here’s another interesting set of observations:

“In Germany—where the racoon is called the Waschbär (literally, “wash-bear” or “washing bear”) due to its habit of “dousing” food in water—two pairs of pet raccoons were released into the German countryside at the Edersee reservoir in the north of Hesse in April 1934 by a forester upon request of their owner, a poultry farmer.[186] He released them two weeks before receiving permission from the Prussian hunting office to “enrich the fauna.” [187] Several prior attempts to introduce raccoons in Germany were not successful.[188] A second population was established in eastern Germany in 1945 when 25 raccoons escaped from a fur farm at Wolfshagen, east of Berlin, after an air strike. The two populations are parasitologically distinguishable: 70% of the raccoons of the Hessian population are infected with the roundworm Baylisascaris procyonis, but none of the Brandenburgian population has the parasite.[189] The estimated number of raccoons was 285 animals in the Hessian region in 1956, over 20,000 animals in the Hessian region in 1970 and between 200,000 and 400,000 animals in the whole of Germany in 2008.[158][190] By 2012 it was estimated that Germany now had more than a million raccoons.[191]

June 14, 2015 Posted by | archaeology, biology, Geology, history, Physics, wikipedia, Zoology | Leave a comment

The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (IV)

The first half of the book was not easy to read due to the technical nature of the coverage, and so I decided to put it away for a while. However I did pick it up again, and I’m really glad I did as there’s simply no way around the fact that this book is awesome. Some of the chapters in this book are chapters you need to read.

Highly recommended. Probably the best book I’ve read this year.”

I’ve finished the book – the above is my review of it on goodreads. I gave the book five stars.

The last part of it had (at least) two of those must-read chapters which I when I read them feel like I really ought to blog, and they both had a lot of stuff. The first of these chapters was an awesome chapter on agriculture. I wrote some stuff of my own about that stuff in my last post about the book (I’ve incidentally corrected a few minor inaccuracies in that post since it was posted – I thought I should mention this here), but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done this if I’d known what was in that chapter; they cover this topic in a lot of detail and they do it really well. Many of the aspects they cover incidentally do not overlap with what I wrote though some of course do; you’ll surely get a lot out of reading this post despite having read my earlier comments on the topic (at least if you’re interested in these sorts of things). In my archaeology textbook, which is only a few years old, the idea that the dramatic climate change which took place around the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary was a crucial factor in the development of agriculture is taken for granted, but Boyd and Richerson’s coverage reminds us that archaeologists were not always so eager to accept this hypothesis (and it should be noted that other, weaker, hypotheses are mentioned/covered in the archaeology text as well – I was skeptical about some of these while reading the book (I wrote a couple of pretty harsh remarks in the margin) because they seemed implausible to me; Boyd and Richerson illustrates in the chapter e.g. through application of models of population dynamics that I had reason to be skeptical). I forgot to talk about climate in my last post on the topic probably because I assumed people knew this part, but it gets its fair share of the attention in this post anyway so I guess no harm is done.

The other chapter I consider to be best categorized as a ‘must-read’ chapter is chapter 19, on ‘Simple Models of Complex Phenomena’, which relates a little bit – but only a little – to a blog post of mine which has recently got some attention. When reading that chapter I was never in any doubt I’d cover that stuff here – this stuff is pure gold. The ‘Microevolutionary processes give rise to history’-chapter was also really interesting and the last chapter on memes there are probably more than a few people who’d benefit from reading, but I’ll not cover that stuff here; I don’t think I’d have problems writing 4 or 5 posts about the remaining parts of the book, and this is simply too much. I’ll talk about agriculture in this post and then I’ll probably cover the model chapter in a later post. It’s possible that the agriculture coverage in the book is less interesting to people with very limited knowledge of archaeology and human prehistory than it is to me (not that I’d say I know much about this stuff – actually on second thought I probably belong in the group of people with ‘very limited knowledge’ as well…), because a lot of things which relate closely to what they write about are perhaps hard to conceptualize without knowing anything about these things, but anyway I write about what I find interesting, so here we are.

Let’s move on to the book chapter coverage:

“Numerous subsequent investigations [after the Braidwood team] now provide a reasonably detailed picture of the origins of agriculture in several independent centers and its subsequent diffusion to almost all of the earth suitable for cultivation. These investigations have discovered no region in which agriculture developed earlier or faster than in the Near East, though a North Chinese center of domestication of millet may prove almost as early. Other centers seem to have developed later, or more slowly, or with a different sequence of stages, or all three. The spread of agriculture from centers of origin to more remote areas is well documented for Europe and North America [a major problem in relation to East Asia/China is incidentally the lack of ‘transitional sites’ dated around 8.000 to 6.000 years BC; we have very early sites and then we have “abundant and widespread evidence for sedentary Neolithic villages” by 6000 BC (Scarre et al.) – but we miss some evidence as to what happened in between – US]. Ethnography also gives us cases where hunters and gatherers persisted to recent times in areas seemingly highly suitable for agriculture, most notably much of western North America and Australia. Attempts to account for this rather complex pattern are a major focus of archaeology.”

“The processes involved in such a complex phenomenon as the origin of agriculture are many and densely entangled. Many authors have given climate change a key explanatory role […] The coevolution of human subsistence strategies and plant and animal domesticates must also play an important role […] Hunting-and-gathering subsistence may normally be a superior strategy to incipient agriculture […], and, if so, some local factor may be necessary to provide the initial impetus to heavier use of relatively low-quality, high-processing-effort plant resources that eventually result in plant domestication. Population pressure is perhaps the most popular candidate […] Quite plausibly, the complex details of local history entirely determine the evolutionary sequence leading to the origin and spread of agriculture in every region. Indeed, important advances in our understanding of the origins of agriculture have resulted from pursuit of the historical details of particular cases […] Nonetheless, we propose that much about the origin of agriculture can be understood in terms of two propositions:
Agriculture was impossible during the last glacial age. During the last glacial age, climates were variable and very dry over large areas. Atmospheric levels of CO2 were low. Probably most important, last-glacial climates were characterized by high-amplitude fluctuations on timescales of a decade or less to a millennium. Because agricultural subsistence systems are vulnerable to weather extremes, and because the cultural evolution of subsistence systems making heavy, specialized use of plant resources occurs relatively slowly, agriculture could not evolve.
In the long run, agriculture is compulsory in the holocene epoch. In contrast to the Pleistocene climates, stable Holocene climates allowed the evolution of agriculture in vast areas with relatively warm, wet climates, or access to irrigation. Prehistoric populations tended to grow rapidly to the carrying capacity set by the environment and the efficiency of the prevailing subsistence system. Local communities that discover or acquire more intensive subsistence strategies will increase in number and exert competitive pressure on smaller populations with less intensive strategies. Thus, in the Holocene epoch, such intergroup competition generated a competitive ratchet favoring the origin and diffusion of agriculture.”

This is the basic idea. But the chapter has a lot more:

“For the last 400,000 years, very high-resolution climate proxy data are available from ice cores taken from the deep ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Resolution of events lasting little more than a decade is possible in Greenland ice 80,000 years old, improving to monthly resolution 3,000 years ago. During the last glacial, the ice core data show that the climate was highly variable on time scales of centuries to millennia […] The last glacial period was arid and extremely variable compared to the Holocene. Sharp millennial-scale excursions occur in estimated temperatures, atmospheric dust, and greenhouse gases. The intense variability of the last glacial carries right down to the limits of the nearly 10-year resolution of the ice core data. […] Even though diffusion and thinning within the ice core progressively erases high-frequency variation in the core […] the shift from full glacial conditions about 18,000 years ago to the Holocene interglacial is accompanied by a dramatic reduction in variation on timescales shorter than 150 years. The Holocene (the last relatively warm, ice-free 11,600 years) has been a period of very stable climate, at least by the standards of the last glacial age.[2] The climate fluctuations recorded in high-latitude ice cores are also recorded at latitudes where agriculture occurs today. Sediments overlain by anoxic water that inhibits sediment mixing by burrowing organisms are a source of low- and mid-latitude data with a resolution rivaling ice cores. Events recorded in North Atlantic sediment cores are closely coupled to those recorded in Greenland ice […], but so are records distant from Greenland. Hendy and Kennett (2000) report on water temperature proxies from sediment cores from the often-anoxic Santa Barbara Basin just offshore of central California. This data shows millennial- and submillennial-scale temperature fluctuations from 60–18 thousand years ago with an amplitude of about 8°C, compared to fluctuations of about 2°C in the Holocene epoch. As in the Greenland cores, the millennial-scale events often show very abrupt onsets and terminations and are often punctuated by brief spikes of warmth and cold.”

“We expect that opportunism was the most important strategy for managing the risks associated with plant foods during the last glacial age. Annual plants have dormant seed that spreads their risk of failure over many years, and perennials vary seed output or storage organ size substantially between years as weather dictates. In a highly variable climate, the specialization of exploitation on one or a few especially promising species would be highly unlikely, because ‘‘promise’’ in one year or even for a decade or two would turn to runs of years with little or no success. However, most years would likely be favorable for some species or another, so generalized plant-exploitation systems are compatible with highly variable climates. […] Plant food-rich diets take considerable time to develop. Plant foods are generally low in protein and often high in toxins. Some time is required to work out a balanced diet rich in plant foods, for example, by incorporating legumes to replace part of the meat in diets. Whether intensification and agriculture always lead to health declines due to nutritional inadequacy is debatable, but the potential for them to do so absent sometimes-subtle adaptations is clear […] The seasonal round of activities has to be much modified, and women’s customary activities have to be given more prominence relative to men’s hunting. Changes in social organization either by evolution in situ or by borrowing tend to be slow […] We doubt that even sophisticated last-glacial hunter-gatherers would have been able to solve the complex nutritional and scheduling problems associated with a plant-rich diet while coping with unpredictable high-amplitude change on timescales shorter than the equilibration time of plant migrations and shorter than actual Holocene trajectories of intensification.”

“Low mean productivity, along with greater variance in productivity, would have greatly decreased the attractiveness of plant resources during the last glacial age. Lower average rainfall and carbon dioxide during the last glacial age reduced the area of the earth’s surface suitable for agriculture […] On present evidence we cannot determine whether aridity, low CO2 levels, millennial-scale climate variability, or submillennial-scale weather variation was the main culprit in preventing the evolution of agriculture. Low CO2 and climate variation would handicap the evolution of dependence on plant foods everywhere and were surely more significant than behavioral or technological obstacles. Hominids evolved as plant-using omnivores (Milton, 2000), and the basic technology for plant exploitation existed at least 10 thousand years before the Holocene […] At least in favorable localities, appreciable use seems to have been made of plant foods, including large-seeded grasses, well back into the Pleistocene […] Significantly, we believe, the use of such technology over spans of last-glacial time that were sufficient for successive waves of intensification of subsistence in the Holocene led to only minor subsistence intensification, compared to the Mesolithic, Neolithic, and their ever-more-intensive successors. […] After 11,600 B.P., the Holocene period of relatively warm, wet, stable, CO2-rich environments began. Subsistence intensification and eventually agriculture followed. Thus, while not perfectly instantaneous, the shift from glacial to Holocene climates was a very large change and took place much more rapidly than cultural evolution could track.”

“Might we not expect agriculture to have emerged in the last interglacial 130,000 years ago or even during one of the even older interglacials? No archaeological evidence has come to light suggesting the presence of technologies that might be expected to accompany forays into intensive plant collecting or agriculture at this time. Anatomically modern humans may have appeared in Africa as early as 130,000 years ago […], but they were not behaviorally modern. Humans of the last interglacial were uniformly archaic in behavior. Very likely, then, the humans of the last interglacial were neither cognitively nor culturally capable of evolving agricultural subsistence. However, climate might also explain the lack of marked subsistence intensification during previous interglacials. Ice cores from the thick Antarctic ice cap at Vostok show that each of the last four interglacials over the last 420,000 years was characterized by a short, sharp peak of warmth, rather than the 11,600-year-long stable plateau of the Holocene (Petit et al., 1999).”

“Once a more productive subsistence system is possible, it will, over the long run, replace the less-productive subsistence system that preceded it. The reason is simple: all else being equal, any group that can use a tract of land more efficiently will be able to evict residents that use it less efficiently […] More productive uses support higher population densities, or more wealth per capita, or both. An agricultural frontier will tend to expand at the expense of hunter-gatherers as rising population densities on the farming side of the frontier motivate pioneers to invest in acquiring land from less-efficient users. […] Thus, subsistence improvement generates a competitive ratchet as successively more land-efficient subsistence systems lead to population growth and labor intensification. Locally, huntergatherers may win some battles (e.g., in the Great Basin; Madsen, 1994), but in the long run the more intensive strategies will win wherever environments are suitable for their deployment. The archaeology supports this argument […] Societies in all regions of the world undergo a very similar pattern of subsistence efficiency increase and population increase in the Holocene, albeit at very different rates. Holocene hunter-gatherers developed local equilibria that, while sometimes lasting for thousands of years, were almost always replaced by more intensive equilibria.”

“Cohen’s (1977) influential book argued that slowly accumulating global-scale population pressure was responsible for the eventual origins of agriculture beginning at the 11,600 B.P. time horizon. He imagines, quite plausibly, that subsistence innovation is driven by increases in population density, but, implausibly we believe, that a long, slow buildup of population gradually drove people to intensify subsistence systems to relieve shortages caused by population growth, eventually triggering a move to domesticates. Looked at one way, population pressure is just the population growth part of the competitive ratchet. However, this argument fails to explain why pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer intensification and the transition to agriculture began in numerous locations after 11,600 years ago […] Assuming that humans were essentially modern by the Upper Paleolithic, they would have had 30,000 years to build up a population necessary to generate pressures for intensification. Given any reasonable estimate of the human intrinsic rate of natural increase under hunting-and-gathering conditions (somewhat less than 1% yr-1 to 3% yr-1, populations substantially below carrying capacity will double in a century or less […] If agricultural technologies were quick and easy to develop, the population pressure argument would lead us to expect Pleistocene populations to shift in and out of agriculture and other intensive strategies as they find themselves in subsistence crises due to environmental deterioration or in periods of plenty due to amelioration. Most likely, minor intensifications and de-intensifications were standard operating procedure in the Pleistocene. However, the time needed to progress much toward plant-rich strategies was greater than the fluctuating climate allowed, especially given CO2- and aridity-limited plant production.”

This part is really important to understand, and I know I’ve talked about this before but I’ll say it again: Humans living, say, 25.000 years ago were not stupid. They weren’t monkeys walking around looking for berries in the woods. They probably tried and tried repeatedly to make this kind of stuff work, explore all kinds of creative ways to obtain enough/more food, always slightly adjusting their strategies in order to stay alive and keep having kids – but the climate wouldn’t allow them to ever achieve ‘take off’. As they put it towards the end of the chapter: “ If climate variation did not limit intensification during the last glacial age to vanishingly slow rates compared to the Holocene epoch, the failure of intensive systems to evolve during the tens of millennia anatomically and culturally modern humans lived as sophisticated hunter-gatherers before the Holocene is a considerable mystery.” It seems climate is a big part of the explanation why we never got to where we are now before we did. Environmental constraints limit the activities of all lifeforms in all kinds of ways, and it would serve us well every once in a while to recall that we are in fact no different, even if we like to think we are, and that such effects may have played a crucial role in the history of our species.

I’ve added a bit more from the book. Some of the stuff below I talked about in the last post as well (do recall that I wrote that post before I read this chapter), but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to include it here anyway:

“The timing of initiation of agriculture varies quite widely […] The exact sequence of events also varies quite widely. For example, in the Near East, sedentism preceded agriculture, at least in the Levantine Natufian sequence, but in Mesoamerica crops seem to have been added to a hunting-and-gathering system that was dispersed and long remained rather mobile […] For example, squash seems to have been cultivated around 10,000 B.P. in Mesoamerica, some 4,000 years before corn and bean domestication began to lead to the origin of a fully agricultural subsistence system […] Some mainly hunting-and-gathering societies seem to have incorporated small amounts of domesticated plant foods into their subsistence system without this leading to full-scale agriculture for a very long time. […] the path forward through the whole intensification sequence varied considerably from case to case.”

“In all known cases, the independent centers of domestication show a late sequence of intensification beginning with a shift from a hunter-gatherer subsistence system based upon low-cost resources using minimal technological aids to a system based upon the procurement and processing of high-cost resources, including small game and especially plant seeds or other labor-intensive plant resources, using an increasing range of chipped and ground stone tools […] The reasons for this shift are the subject of much work among archaeologists […] The shifts at least accelerate and become widespread only in the latest Pleistocene or Holocene. However, a distinct tendency toward intensification is often suggested for the Upper Paleolithic more generally. […] Upper Paleolithic peoples often made considerable use of small mammals and birds in contrast to earlier populations. These species have much lower body fat than large animals, and excessive consumption causes ammonia buildup in the body due to limitations on the rate of urea synthesis […] Consequently, any significant reliance on low-fat small animals implies corresponding compensation with plant calories, and at least a few Upper Paleolithic sites, such as the Ohalo II settlement on the Sea of Galilee […], show considerable use of plant materials in Pleistocene diets. Large-seeded annual species like wild barley were no doubt attractive resources in the Pleistocene when present in abundance and would have been used opportunistically during the last glacial age. If our hypothesis is correct, in the last glacial age no one attractive species like wild barley would have been consistently abundant (or perhaps productive enough) for a long enough span of time in the same location to have been successfully targeted by an evolving strategy of intensification, even if their less intensive exploitation was common. The broad spectrum of species, including small game and plants, reflected in these cases is not per se evidence of intensification (specialized use of more costly but more productive resources using more labor and dedicated technology), as is sometimes argued […] In most hunter-gatherer systems, marginal diet cost and diet richness (number of species used) are essentially independent […], and prey size is far less important in determining prey cost than either mode or context of capture […] For all these reasons, quantitative features of subsistence technology are a better index of Pleistocene resource intensification than species used. We believe that the dramatic increase in the quantity and range of small chipped stone and groundstone tools only after 15,000 B.P. signals the beginning of the pattern of intensification that led to agriculture.”

“Early intensification of plant resource use would have tended to generate the same competitive ratchet as the later forms of intensification. Hunter-gatherers who subsidize hunting with plant-derived calories can maintain higher population densities and thus will tend to deplete big game to levels that cannot sustain hunting specialists […] Once the climate ameliorated, the rate of intensification accelerated immediately in the case of the Near East. In other regions changes right at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition were modest to invisible […] The full working out of agrarian subsistence systems took thousands of years. […] Fully agricultural subsistence systems in the sense of a dominance of domesticated species in the diet typically postdate the origin of agriculture [which they define as “dependence upon domesticated crops and animals for subsistence” – US] by a millennium or more. […] Zvelebil (1996) emphasizes the complexity and durability of frontiers between farmers and hunter-gatherers and the likelihood that in many places the diffusion of both genes and ideas about cultivation was a prolonged process of exchange across a comparatively stable ethnic and economic frontier.”


June 5, 2014 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, culture | Leave a comment

The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (III)

I have read almost three-fourths of the book by now. In this post I have quoted extensively from chapter 14 because this chapter is somewhat different from most of the other chapters in the book; it has no math, but it has a lot of observations which relate to the work they’ve covered in previous chapters, and it’s much easier to blog than most of the stuff in this book.

I don’t always agree with the authors about the details and about the conclusions they draw, but this book is consistently interesting and provides high-quality coverage of the topic in question. Unless things go seriously downhill during the last part of the book, I’ll give it five stars on goodreads.

I wrote some comments and personal observations along the way when I wrote this post, many of which are not closely related to the book coverage. I have posted them below the quotes from the book, in the second half of the post proper. I actually did earlier on make the decision not to include the stuff I’d written in this post at all because I didn’t like what I’d written, but after making a few revisions I changed my mind. I may change it again. Either way writing about these things, rather than just reading about them, is a great way to force yourself to think more carefully about them.

“Evolutionary explanations are recursive. Individual behavior results from an interaction of inherited attributes and environmental contingencies. In most species, genes are the main inherited attributes, but inherited cultural information is also important for humans. Individuals with different inherited attributes may develop different behaviors in the same environment. Every generation, evolutionary processes — natural selection is the prototype — impose environmental effects on individuals as they live their lives. Cumulated over the whole population, these effects change the pool of inherited information, so that the inherited attributes of individuals in the next generation differ, usually subtly, from the attributes in the previous generation. Over evolutionary time, a lineage cycles through the recursive pattern of causal processes once per generation […] Note that in a recursive model, we explain individual behavior and population-level processes in the same model. Individual behavior depends, in any given generation, on the gene pool from which inherited attributes are sampled. The pool of inherited attributes depends in turn upon what happens to a population of individuals as they express those attributes. Evolutionary biologists have a long list of processes that change the gene frequencies, including natural selection, mutation, and genetic drift. However, no organism experiences natural selection. Organisms either live or die, or reproduce or fail to reproduce, for concrete reasons particular to the local environment and the organism’s own particular attributes. If, in a particular environment, some types of individuals do better than others, and if this variation has a heritable basis, then we label as “natural selection” the resulting changes in gene frequencies of populations. We use abstract categories like selection to describe such concrete events because we wish to build up — concrete case by concrete case — some useful generalizations about evolutionary process. Few would argue that evolutionary biology is the poorer for investing effort in this generalizing project. Although some of the processes that lead to cultural change are very different than those that lead to genetic change, the logic of the two evolutionary problems is very similar.”

“Evolutionary theory is always multi-level […] evolutionary theories are systemic, integrating every part of biology. In principle, everything that goes into causing change through time plays its proper part in the theory. […] In theorizing about human evolution, we must include processes affecting culture in our list of evolutionary processes along side those that affect genes. Culture is a system of inheritance. We acquire behavior by imitating other individuals much as we get our genes from our parents. A fancy capacity for high-fidelity imitation is one of the most important derived characters distinguishing us from our primate relatives […] We are also an unusually docile animal (Simon 1990) and unusually sensitive to expressions of approval and disapproval by parents and others (Baum 1994). Thus parents, teachers, and peers can rapidly, easily, and accurately shape our behavior compared to training other animals using more expensive material rewards and punishments. […] once children acquire language, parents and others can communicate new ideas quite economically. Our own contribution to the study of human behavior is a series of mathematical models in the Darwinian style of what we take to be the fundamental processes of cultural evolution”

“We make [the] claim that a dual gene-culture theory of some kind will be necessary to account for the evolution of human cooperative institutions. Understanding the evolution of contemporary human cooperation requires attention to two different time scales: First, a long period of evolution in the Pleistocene shaped the innate “social instincts” that underpin modern human behavior. During this period, much genetic change occurred as a result of humans living in groups with social institutions heavily influenced by culture, including cultural group selection […] On this timescale genes and culture coevolve, and cultural evolution is plausibly a leading rather than lagging partner in this process. We sometimes refer to the process as “culture-gene coevolution.” Then, only about 10,000 years ago, the origins of agricultural subsistence systems laid the economic basis for revolutionary changes in the scale of social systems. The evidence suggests that genetic changes in the social instincts over the last 10,000 years are insignificant. […] Our hypothesis is premised on the idea that selection between groups plays a much more important role in shaping culturally transmitted variation than it does in shaping genetic variation. As a result, humans have lived in social environments characterized by high levels of cooperation for as long as culture has played an im portant role in human development. […] We believe that the human capacity to live in larger scale forms of tribal social organization evolved through a coevolutionary ratchet generated by the interaction of genes and culture. Rudimentary cooperative institutions favored genotypes that were better able to live in more cooperative groups. Those individuals best able to avoid punishment and acquire the locally-relevant norms were more likely to survive. At first, such populations would have been only slightly more cooperative than typical nonhuman primates. However, genetic changes, leading to moral emotions like shame, and a capacity to learn and internalize local practices, would allow the cultural evolution of more sophisticated institutions that in turn enlarged the scale of cooperation. These successive rounds of coevolutionary change continued until eventually people were equipped with capacities for cooperation with distantly related people, emotional attachments to symbolically marked groups, and a willingness to punish others for transgression of group rules.”

“Upper Paleolithic societies were the culmination of a long period of coevolutionary increases in a tendency toward tribal social life. We suppose that the resulting “tribal instincts” are something like principles in the Chomskian linguists’ “principles and parameters” view of language […] The innate principles furnish people with basic predispositions, emotional capacities, and social dispositions that are implemented in practice through highly variable cultural institutions, the parameters. People are innately prepared to act as members of tribes, but culture tells us how to recognize who belongs to our tribes, what schedules of aid, praise, and punishment are due to tribal fellows, and how the tribe is to deal with other tribes — allies, enemies, and clients. […] Contemporary human societies differ drastically from the societies in which our social instincts evolved. Pleistocene hunter-gatherer societies were likely comparatively small, egalitarian, and lacking in powerful institutionalized leadership. […] To evolve largescale, complex social systems, cultural evolutionary processes, driven by cultural group selection, takes advantage of whatever support these instincts offer. […] cultural evolution must cope with a psychology evolved for life in quite different sorts of societies. Appropriate larger scale institutions must regulate the constant pressure from smaller-groups (coalitions, cabals, cliques), to subvert the large-group favoring rules. To do this cultural evolution often makes use of “work arounds” — mobilizing tribal instincts for new purposes. For example, large national and international (e.g. great religions) institutions develop ideologies of symbolically marked inclusion that often fairly successfully engage the tribal instincts on a much larger scale. Military and religious organizations (e.g., Catholic Church), for example, dress recruits in identical clothing (and haircuts) loaded with symbolic markings, and then subdivide them into small groups with whom they eat and engage in long-term repeated interaction. Such work-arounds are often awkward compromises […] In military and religious organizations, for example, excessive within-group loyalty often subverts higher-level goals […] Complex societies are, in effect, grand natural social-psychological experiments that stringently test the limits of our innate dispositions to cooperate.”

“Elements of coercive dominance are no doubt necessary to make complex societies work. Tribally legitimated self-help violence is a limited and expensive means of altruistic coercion. Complex human societies have to supplement the moralistic solidarity of tribal societies with formal police institutions. […] A common method of deepening and strengthening the hierarchy of command and control in complex societies is to construct a nested hierarchy of offices, using various mixtures of ascription and achievement principles to staff the offices. Each level of the hierarchy replicates the structure of a hunting and gathering band. A leader at any level interacts mainly with a few near-equals at the next level down in the system […] The hierarchical nesting of social units in complex societies gives rise to appreciable inefficiencies […] Leaders in complex societies must convey orders downward, not just seek consensus among their comrades. Devolving substantial leadership responsibility to sub-leaders far down the chain of command is necessary to create small-scale leaders with face-to-face legitimacy. However, it potentially generates great friction if lower-level leaders either come to have different objectives than the upper leader ship or are seen by followers as equally helpless pawns of remote leaders. Stratification often creates rigid boundaries so that natural leaders are denied promotion above a certain level, resulting in inefficient use of human resources and a fertile source of resentment to fuel social discontent. On the other hand, failure to properly articulate tribal scale units with more inclusive institutions is often highly pathological. Tribal societies often must live with chronic insecurity due to intertribal conflicts.”

“The high population density, division of labor, and improved communication made possible by the innovations of complex societies increased the scope for elaborating symbolic systems. The development of monumental architecture to serve mass ritual performances is one of the oldest archaeological markers of emerging complexity. Usually an established church or less formal ideological umbrella supports a complex society’s institutions. At the same time, complex societies extensively exploit the symbolic ingroup instinct to delimit a quite diverse array of culturally defined subgroups, within which a good deal of cooperation is routinely achieved. […] Many problems and conflicts revolve around symbolically marked groups in complex societies. Official dogmas often stultify desirable innovations and lead to bitter conflicts with heretics. Marked subgroups often have enough tribal cohesion to organize at the expense of the larger social system. […] Wherever groups of people interact routinely, they are liable to develop a tribal ethos. In stratified societies, powerful groups readily evolve self-justifying ideologies that buttress treatment of subordinate groups ranging from neglectful to atrocious.”

“Many individuals in modern societies feel themselves part of culturally labeled tribal-scale groups, such as local political party organizations, that have influence on the remotest leaders. In older complex societies, village councils, local notables, tribal chieftains, or religious leaders often hold courts open to humble petitioners. These local leaders in turn represent their communities to higher authorities. To obtain low-cost compliance with management decisions, ruling elites have to convince citizens that these decisions are in the interests of the larger community. As long as most individuals trust that existing institutions are reasonably legitimate and that any felt needs for reform are achievable by means of ordinary political activities, there is considerable scope for large scale collective social action. However, legitimate institutions, and trust of them, are the result of an evolutionary history and are neither easy to manage nor engineer. […] Without trust in institutions, conflict replaces cooperation along fault lines where trust breaks down. Empirically, the limits of the trusting community define the universe of easy cooperation […] At worst, trust does not extend outside family […] and potential for cooperation on a larger scale is almost entirely foregone.”

If I were the kind of person who were interested in political stuff, I might have decided to talk a bit about how the above remarks may relate to how to set up optimal policies aimed at maintaining cooperation and trust (perhaps subject to a few relevant constraints). Some ideas spring to mind, perhaps in relation to immigration policy in particular. But I’m not that kind of person, so I won’t talk about that here.

I figured it might be a good idea to cover some ‘related’ topics here, as I can’t be sure how much the people reading along here has read about this kind of stuff and what kind of background people have. Many of the remarks below are only tangentially related to the coverage above, but they’re arguably important if you want ‘a bigger picture’.

One thing to note is that in the context of this part:

“only about 10,000 years ago, the origins of agricultural subsistence systems laid the economic basis for revolutionary changes in the scale of social systems. The evidence suggests that genetic changes in the social instincts over the last 10,000 years are insignificant.”

…there are at least two important points to mention. One is that the 10.000 years number is ‘just a number’, and that there is no ‘one true number’ here – that number depends on geography and a lot of other stuff. The origins of agriculture are still somewhat murky, though we do know a lot. There are lots of problems archaeologists need to deal with when analyzing these sorts of things, like for instance the issue that locally the date for first observed/established case of agricultural adoption may not correlate well with the first actual adoption date, because we have this tendency to overlook the sort of evidence that has already evaded attention for thousands of years. Another problem is that the switch was often gradual and took a lot of time, and involved some trial and error. A related point is that switches in food procurement strategies likely happened at local levels in the far past – in some areas of the world it would seem likely that a strategy of mostly relying on a few select crops (‘agriculture’) in ‘good periods’ (perhaps lasting hundreds of years) and then relying more on a more diversified set of different crops as well as other complementary food sources (‘hunter-gathering’) in ‘bad periods’ may have been superior to a strategy of relying exclusively on one or the other, especially around the ‘border areas’ where people almost couldn’t make agriculture work at all due to climatic factors. It’s incidentally worth noting that “no single plant can provide the mix of amino acids that primates need for growth, so primates must either eat a variety of different plants to achieve an adequate amino-acid balance, or have a regular supplement of animal foods in their diet”, so the ‘rely-on-only-one-plant agricultural model and nothing else’ is not workable in practice and never was (quote from Sponheimer et al., p.361. Less extreme versions of dependence on a single crop is feasible if you can get the other stuff elsewhere, but it’s highly risky – ask e.g. the Irish. Despite how far we’ve come in other areas, we humans incidentally rely on quite few crops to supply a substantial part of the calories we need, making us somewhat vulnerable; for example more than one-fifth of all calories consumed by humans are derived from rice). Yet another problem is that ‘agriculture’ isn’t just ‘agriculture’ – people got better at this stuff over time and things like intensification and yield improvements were important, yet often difficult or frankly impossible to estimate, especially at the intensive margin. This means that ‘we think agriculture started here in 8900 BC’ may in some contexts not mean quite what you could be tempted to think it means.

But the above, and many related, issues aside, of course the main problem with a statement including words like ‘about 10,000 years ago’ is that the variation in when different people living different places ‘adopted agriculture’ (whatever that may mean) is astonishingly huge. Here are two illustrative passages from Scarre et al. – exhibit 1: “The site of Ohalo II in northern Israel, dated around 20,000 BC, provides a remarkable snapshot of lifeways in the Levant during the Last Glacial Maximum […] At Ohalo II […] we have evidence for the exploitation of a broad spectrum of plants and animals, the extensive use of storable plant foods, and the year-round occupation of a settlement. The starch traces found on the surfaces of grinding stones confirm that they were indeed used in the preparation of hard-seeded plant foods.” The site is a hunter-gatherer site, but these guys belonged to a sedentary hunter-gatherer settlement inhabited by people who were doing many, though not all, of the things we usually only associate with traditional farmers, illustrating how these sorts of categorizations sometimes get slightly complicated if you’re not very careful when you define your terms (and sometimes even if you do) – and perhaps illustrating that it makes sense to be cautious about which mental models of our hunter-gatherer forebears we apply. Either way more ‘proper’ farming communities, such as these, which started to pop up during the early Neolithic were themselves likely at least in part ‘the result’ of gradual changes that humans which came before them had had on their surrounding environments (especially local flora and fauna – in terms of the latter probably especially our impact on local megafauna) – the processes which eventually lead us to agriculture probably took a lot of time, though just how long into the past you need to look to get the full picture is an open question, and probably will remain so as the amount of evidence available to us is sparse (which impact had human activities taking place during the late Pleistocene had on the range and distribution of potential domesticables at the beginning of the Holocene? Such questions do not to me seem easy to answer, and they’re part of the story). Although agriculture in some areas of the world by now has a ‘shelf life’ of 10.000 years or more, in other areas of the world that ‘shelf life’ is much, much shorter – exhibit 2: “no agricultural colonization of Australia, the last completely hunter-gatherer continent to survive until European contact, ever occurred.”

Agriculture provided the economic foundation for achieving the scale of social complexity which humans have achieved. This is true, but an important point/caveat here is that the evolution of ‘(relatively) advanced cultural and societal complexity’ in prehistoric times was not always contingent upon agriculture; agriculture often did lead to societal complexity, but humans could rise in societal complexity and experience significant cultural evolution without it – there were sedentary populations of some size and organizational complexity living in communities without what we usually conceptualize as agriculture (viz farming or pastoralism), e.g. in areas well-endowed with natural resources such as those near major lakes or coasts full of fish. To take one example (again from Scarre et al.), “agriculture was not a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of chiefdoms in the Southeast [North America]” – another example would be the “longstanding “Maritime Hypothesis” […] which proposes […] that maritime resources sustained population growth and the rise of sedentary earthwork-building communities” along the Pacific coast of South America during prehistoric times. There were mound builders in pre-agricultural North America as well, see e.g. this and this.

It’s worth remembering when thinking about human societies which existed especially during transitional phases – which may include many different time periods, depending on which part of the world you’re looking at – where people were starting to use agriculture but perhaps hadn’t really gotten the hang of it yet, that hunter-gatherer groups occasionally simply outcompeted farmers at the local level because some places just plain aren’t very good places to engage in agriculture, meaning that the ‘cultural victory’ of agriculturalists was by no means universal or a given at the local level, even if it’s very easy to convince yourself otherwise if you don’t know very much about these aspects of human development. Sometimes new (‘cultural’) inventions, like irrigation systems, could turn the tide in situations and geographic localities where agricultural food procurement strategies were at a disadvantage, but occasionally even that wasn’t enough.

Food production practices are/were key to societal complexity, because in order to get complexity you need to produce enough ‘excess food’ for some people to be free to engage themselves in non-food-production/procuring-activities, but another related point is that how to actually categorize and delineate various prehistoric food production practices is not always completely obvious. Food production undertaken by humans can take on multiple forms, and sometimes an ‘agriculture’ vs ‘hunter-gatherers’ dichotomic conceptualization of the issues may make you overlook important details due to ‘misclassification’ or similar problems; to take a couple of examples, some prehistoric sedentary societies based on fishing were as mentioned more or less stable food producing societies, and on a different note the cultural practices of (mobile) pastoralist societies often shared some social dimensions with hunter-gatherer societies that e.g. sedentary rice farming societies did not. Worth keeping in mind in this context is also that present-day hunter-gatherer societies still in existence often do not well reflect the cultural aspects of hunter-gatherer societies which existed in the far past, meaning that you need to be very careful about which inferences you make and what you base them on.

An aspect really important to keep in mind in general when thinking about the Holocene ‘post-agricultural period’ of human development is that the cultural development which took place in agricultural societies did not take place in a vacuum. Agriculturalists interacted with hunter-gatherers, farmers interacted with pastoralists, different e.g. geographic (mountains, seas) and biological constraints (malaria, horses) shaped human development in all kinds of ways. Boyd and Richerson do talk about this in the book, but I figured I should as well in this post. One thing to note is that in some areas agricultural practices spread much faster than in others for reasons having nothing to do with ‘the type’ of people who were doing these things, for example due to reasons of physical geography or other environmental constraints or the lack of such, and both the speed and manner of adoption likely had important (and varied) cultural ramifications. These things had genetic ramifications as well; areas where agricultural spread was particularly easy saw population growth other areas did not. Climate and climatic variation post-adoption incidentally naturally had important cultural ramifications as well – for example looking over the (pre)history of pre-colonial South America, it’s obvious that climate here was a key parameter with a huge impact on ‘the rise and fall of civilizations’.

There were multiple ways for agriculture to spread, from pure displacement to pure local adoption, as well as any combination in between, and how it proceeded varied with geography and probably a lot of other stuff as well. Some places and times the optimal type of agriculture was variable over time; which didn’t just mean that it made sense for farming societies to diversify and rely on more than one crop with different responses to e.g. drought, but also that climate change sometimes caused people to switch away from farming and towards pastoralism in bad periods – a good example of the latter is Peru during the Late Intermediate Period, where it is clear that “intensification of pastoralism was an important respone to drought” (see Moseley, p.246). Aspects such as climate have certainly had various important cultural as well as genetic impacts around the globe, e.g. on cultural transmission patterns at the regional level even during the ‘post-agricultural’ period. I mentioned interaction patterns – themselves a result of cultural dynamics, but also a driver of them – between sedentary farming societies and more mobile hunter-gatherers or pastoralists above, and perhaps I should say a little more about this kind of stuff because people may not be clear on precisely what I’m getting at there. It seems clear that in some areas division of labour dynamics played an important role in explaining and shaping cultural evolution; for a great account of these aspects of cultural dynamics and evolution in mountainous terrains and their surrounding areas, I again refer to Moseley’s account here. Inhabitants of sedentary farming societies didn’t move around very much, so things which were far away from them were things they’d often be willing to trade with more mobile human groupings. From one point of view you have a type of (modified) core-periphery model where the people from the core produced ‘excess’ food, and/or things which the people living in the core area who did not have to work on food procurement could come up with, which they then traded for other stuff, e.g. various natural resources located elsewhere (metals and wood are classic examples), with people who lived on the periphery. People looking at these things today without knowing anything about how such interaction patterns looked like may, I think, have a tendency to think of mobile hunter-gatherer groups as the morons who were left behind in this story and the pastoralists as more ‘primitive’ than the farmers, but I don’t really think that’s necessarily how it was – sometimes quite neat systems of exchange benefited both groups and were arguably by themselves important drivers of ‘cultural progress’, in the sense that they enabled and facilitated increased social complexity in the societies engaged in such systems. Of course peaceful interaction patterns were not the only ones which were explored.

May 28, 2014 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, culture, religion | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Great Fire of London (featured).


“The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration that swept through the central parts of the English city of London, from Sunday, 2 September to Wednesday, 5 September 1666.[1] The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster, Charles II‘s Palace of Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums.[2] It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants.”

Do note that even though this fire was a really big deal the ‘70,000 out of 80,000’ number can be misleading as many Londoners didn’t actually live in the City proper:

“By the late 17th century, the City proper—the area bounded by the City wall and the River Thames—was only a part of London, covering some 700.0 acres (2.833 km2; 1.0938 sq mi),[7] and home to about 80,000 people, or one sixth of London’s inhabitants. The City was surrounded by a ring of inner suburbs, where most Londoners lived.”

I thought I should include a few observations related to how well people behaved in this terrible situation – humans are really wonderful sometimes, and of course the people affected by the fire did everything they could to stick together and help each other out:

“Order in the streets broke down as rumours arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England‘s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War; these substantial immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence.” […] [no, wait…]

“Suspicion soon arose in the threatened city that the fire was no accident. The swirling winds carried sparks and burning flakes long distances to lodge on thatched roofs and in wooden gutters, causing seemingly unrelated house fires to break out far from their source and giving rise to rumours that fresh fires were being set on purpose. Foreigners were immediately suspects because of the current Second Anglo-Dutch War. As fear and suspicion hardened into certainty on the Monday, reports circulated of imminent invasion, and of foreign undercover agents seen casting “fireballs” into houses, or caught with hand grenades or matches.[37] There was a wave of street violence.[38] William Taswell saw a mob loot the shop of a French painter and level it to the ground, and watched in horror as a blacksmith walked up to a Frenchman in the street and hit him over the head with an iron bar.

The fears of terrorism received an extra boost from the disruption of communications and news as facilities were devoured by the fire. The General Letter Office in Threadneedle Street, through which post for the entire country passed, burned down early on Monday morning. The London Gazette just managed to put out its Monday issue before the printer’s premises went up in flames (this issue contained mainly society gossip, with a small note about a fire that had broken out on Sunday morning and “which continues still with great violence”). The whole nation depended on these communications, and the void they left filled up with rumours. There were also religious alarms of renewed Gunpowder Plots. As suspicions rose to panic and collective paranoia on the Monday, both the Trained Bands and the Coldstream Guards focused less on fire fighting and more on rounding up foreigners, Catholics, and any odd-looking people, and arresting them or rescuing them from mobs, or both together.”

I didn’t really know what to think about this part:

“An example of the urge to identify scapegoats for the fire is the acceptance of the confession of a simple-minded French watchmaker, Robert Hubert, who claimed he was an agent of the Pope and had started the Great Fire in Westminster.[55] He later changed his story to say that he had started the fire at the bakery in Pudding Lane. Hubert was convicted, despite some misgivings about his fitness to plead, and hanged at Tyburn on 28 September 1666. After his death, it became apparent that he had not arrived in London until two days after the fire started.”

Just one year before the fire, London had incidentally been hit by a plague outbreak which “is believed to have killed a sixth of London’s inhabitants, or 80,000 people”. Being a Londoner during the 1660s probably wasn’t a great deal of fun. On the other hand this disaster was actually not that big of a deal when compared to e.g. the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake.

ii. Sea (featured). I was considering reading an oceanography textbook a while back, but I decided against it and I read this article ‘instead’. Some interesting stuff in there. A few observations from the article:

“About 97.2 percent of the Earth’s water is found in the sea, some 1,360,000,000 cubic kilometres (330,000,000 cu mi) of salty water.[12] Of the rest, 2.15 percent is accounted for by ice in glaciers, surface deposits and sea ice, and 0.65 percent by vapour and liquid fresh water in lakes, rivers, the ground and the air.[12]

“The water in the sea was once thought to come from the Earth’s volcanoes, starting 4 billion years ago, released by degassing from molten rock.[3](pp24–25) More recent work suggests that much of the Earth’s water may have come from comets.[16]” (This stuff covers 70 percent of the planet and we still are not completely sure how it got to be here. I’m often amazed at how much stuff we know about the world, but very occasionally I also get amazed at the things we don’t know. This seems like the sort of thing we somehow ‘ought to know’..)

“An important characteristic of seawater is that it is salty. Salinity is usually measured in parts per thousand (expressed with the ‰ sign or “per mil”), and the open ocean has about 35 grams (1.2 oz) of solids per litre, a salinity of 35‰ (about 90% of the water in the ocean has between 34‰ and 35‰ salinity[17]). […] The constituents of table salt, sodium and chloride, make up about 85 percent of the solids in solution. […] The salinity of a body of water varies with evaporation from its surface (increased by high temperatures, wind and wave motion), precipitation, the freezing or melting of sea ice, the melting of glaciers, the influx of fresh river water, and the mixing of bodies of water of different salinities.”

“Sea temperature depends on the amount of solar radiation falling on its surface. In the tropics, with the sun nearly overhead, the temperature of the surface layers can rise to over 30 °C (86 °F) while near the poles the temperature in equilibrium with the sea ice is about −2 °C (28 °F). There is a continuous circulation of water in the oceans. Warm surface currents cool as they move away from the tropics, and the water becomes denser and sinks. The cold water moves back towards the equator as a deep sea current, driven by changes in the temperature and density of the water, before eventually welling up again towards the surface. Deep seawater has a temperature between −2 °C (28 °F) and 5 °C (41 °F) in all parts of the globe.[23]

“The amount of light that penetrates the sea depends on the angle of the sun, the weather conditions and the turbidity of the water. Much light gets reflected at the surface, and red light gets absorbed in the top few metres. […] There is insufficient light for photosynthesis and plant growth beyond a depth of about 200 metres (660 ft).[27]

“Over most of geologic time, the sea level has been higher than it is today.[3](p74) The main factor affecting sea level over time is the result of changes in the oceanic crust, with a downward trend expected to continue in the very long term.[73] At the last glacial maximum, some 20,000 years ago, the sea level was 120 metres (390 ft) below its present-day level.” (this of course had some very interesting ecological effects – van der Geer et al. had some interesting observations on that topic)

“On her 68,890-nautical-mile (127,580 km) journey round the globe, HMS Challenger discovered about 4,700 new marine species, and made 492 deep sea soundings, 133 bottom dredges, 151 open water trawls and 263 serial water temperature observations.[115]

“Seaborne trade carries more than US $4 trillion worth of goods each year.[139]

“Many substances enter the sea as a result of human activities. Combustion products are transported in the air and deposited into the sea by precipitation. Industrial outflows and sewage contribute heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, disinfectants, household cleaning products and other synthetic chemicals. These become concentrated in the surface film and in marine sediment, especially estuarine mud. The result of all this contamination is largely unknown because of the large number of substances involved and the lack of information on their biological effects.[199] The heavy metals of greatest concern are copper, lead, mercury, cadmium and zinc which may be bio-accumulated by marine invertebrates. They are cumulative toxins and are passed up the food chain.[200]

Much floating plastic rubbish does not biodegrade, instead disintegrating over time and eventually breaking down to the molecular level. Rigid plastics may float for years.[201] In the centre of the Pacific gyre there is a permanent floating accumulation of mostly plastic waste[202] and there is a similar garbage patch in the Atlantic.[203] […] Run-off of fertilisers from agricultural land is a major source of pollution in some areas and the discharge of raw sewage has a similar effect. The extra nutrients provided by these sources can cause excessive plant growth. Nitrogen is often the limiting factor in marine systems, and with added nitrogen, algal blooms and red tides can lower the oxygen level of the water and kill marine animals. Such events have created dead zones in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.[205]

iii. List of chemical compounds with unusual names. Technically this is not an article, but I decided to include it here anyway. A few examples from the list:

“Ranasmurfin: A blue protein from the foam nests of a tropical frog, named after the Smurfs.”

“Sonic hedgehog: A protein named after Sonic the Hedgehog.”

Arsole: (C4H5As), an analogue of pyrrole in which an arsenic atom replaces the nitrogen atom.[16]

“DAMN: Diaminomaleonitrile, a cyanocarbon that contains two amine groups and two nitrile groups bound to an ethylene backbone.”

fucK: The name of the gene that encodes L-fuculokinase, an enzyme that catalyzes a chemical reaction between L-fuculose, ADP, and L-fuculose-1-phosphate.[3]

Moronic acid: Moronic acid [3-oxoolean-18-en-28-oic acid], a natural triterpene

Draculin: An anticoagulant found in the saliva of vampire bats.[27]

iv. Operation Proboi. When trying to make sense of e.g. the reactions of people living in the Baltic countries to Russia’s ‘current activities’ in the Ukraine, it probably helps to know stuff like this. 1949 isn’t that long ago – if my father had been born in Latvia he might have been one of the people in the photo.

v. Schrödinger equation. I recently started reading  A. C. Phillips’ Introduction to Quantum Mechanics – chapter 2 deals with this topic. Due to the technical nature of the book I’m incidentally not sure to which extent I’ll cover the book here (or for that matter whether I’ll be able to finish it..) – if I do decide to cover it in some detail I’ll probably include relevant links to wikipedia along the way. The wiki has a lot of stuff on these topics, but textbooks are really helpful in terms of figuring out the order in which you should proceed.

vi. Happisburgh footprints. ‘A small step for man, …’

“The Happisburgh footprints were a set of fossilized hominin footprints that date to the early Pleistocene. They were discovered in May 2013 in a newly uncovered sediment layer on a beach at Happisburgh […] in Norfolk, England, and were destroyed by the tide shortly afterwards.  Results of research on the footprints were announced on 7 February 2014, and identified them as dating to more than 800,000 years ago, making them the oldest known hominin footprints outside Africa.[1][2][3] Before the Happisburgh discovery, the oldest known footprints in Britain were at Uskmouth in South Wales, from the Mesolithic and carbon-dated to 4,600 BC.[4]”

The fact that we found these footprints is awesome. The fact that we can tell that they are as old as they are is awesome. There’s a lot of awesome stuff going on here – Happisburg also simply seems to be a gift that keeps on giving:

“Happisburgh has produced a number of significant archaeological finds over many years. As the shoreline is subject to severe coastal erosion, new material is constantly being exposed along the cliffs and on the beach. Prehistoric discoveries have been noted since 1820, when fishermen trawling oyster beds offshore found their nets had brought up teeth, bones, horns and antlers from elephants, rhinos, giant deer and other extinct species. […]

In 2000, a black flint handaxe dating to between 600,000 and 800,000 years ago was found by a man walking on the beach. In 2012, for the television documentary Britain’s Secret Treasures, the handaxe was selected by a panel of experts from the British Museum and the Council for British Archaeology as the most important item on a list of fifty archaeological discoveries made by members of the public.[14][15] Since its discovery, the palaeolithic history of Happisburgh has been the subject of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) and Pathways to Ancient Britain (PAB) projects […] Between 2005 and 2010 eighty palaeolithic flint tools, mostly cores, flakes and flake tools were excavated from the foreshore in sediment dating back to up to 950,000 years ago.”

vii. Keep (‘good article’).


“A keep (from the Middle English kype) is a type of fortified tower built within castles during the Middle Ages by European nobility. Scholars have debated the scope of the word keep, but usually consider it to refer to large towers in castles that were fortified residences, used as a refuge of last resort should the rest of the castle fall to an adversary. The first keeps were made of timber and formed a key part of the motte and bailey castles that emerged in Normandy and Anjou during the 10th century; the design spread to England as a result of the Norman invasion of 1066, and in turn spread into Wales during the second half of the 11th century and into Ireland in the 1170s. The Anglo-Normans and French rulers began to build stone keeps during the 10th and 11th centuries; these included Norman keeps, with a square or rectangular design, and circular shell keeps. Stone keeps carried considerable political as well as military importance and could take up to a decade to build.

During the 12th century new designs began to be introduced – in France, quatrefoil-shaped keeps were introduced, while in England polygonal towers were built. By the end of the century, French and English keep designs began to diverge: Philip II of France built a sequence of circular keeps as part of his bid to stamp his royal authority on his new territories, while in England castles were built that abandoned the use of keeps altogether. In Spain, keeps were increasingly incorporated into both Christian and Islamic castles, although in Germany tall towers called Bergfriede were preferred to keeps in the western fashion. In the second half of the 14th century there was a resurgence in the building of keeps. In France, the keep at Vincennes began a fashion for tall, heavily machicolated designs, a trend adopted in Spain most prominently through the Valladolid school of Spanish castle design. Meanwhile, in England tower keeps became popular amongst the most wealthy nobles: these large keeps, each uniquely designed, formed part of the grandest castles built during the period.

By the 16th century, however, keeps were slowly falling out of fashion as fortifications and residences. Many were destroyed between the 17th and 18th centuries in civil wars, or incorporated into gardens as an alternative to follies. During the 19th century, keeps became fashionable once again and in England and France a number were restored or redesigned by Gothic architects. Despite further damage to many French and Spanish keeps during the wars of the 20th century, keeps now form an important part of the tourist and heritage industry in Europe. […]

“By the 15th century it was increasingly unusual for a lord to build both a keep and a large gatehouse at the same castle, and by the early 16th century the gatehouse had easily overtaken the keep as the more fashionable feature: indeed, almost no new keeps were built in England after this period.[99] The classical Palladian style began to dominate European architecture during the 17th century, causing a further move away from the use of keeps. […] From the 17th century onwards, some keeps were deliberately destroyed. In England, many were destroyed after the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649, when Parliament took steps to prevent another royalist uprising by slighting, or damaging, castles so as to prevent them from having any further military utility. Slighting was quite expensive and took considerable effort to carry out, so damage was usually done in the most cost efficient fashion with only selected walls being destroyed.[103] Keeps were singled out for particular attention in this process because of their continuing political and cultural importance, and the prestige they lent their former royalist owners […] There were some equivalent destruction of keeps in France in the 17th and 18th centuries […] The Spanish Civil War and First and Second World Wars in the 20th century caused damage to many castle keeps across Europe; in particular, the famous keep at Coucy was destroyed by the German Army in 1917.[111] By the late 20th century, however, the conservation of castle keeps formed part of government policy across France, England, Ireland and Spain.[112] In the 21st century in England, most keeps are ruined and form part of the tourism and heritage industries, rather than being used as functioning buildings – the keep of Windsor Castle being a rare exception. This is contrast to the fate of bergfried towers in Germany, large numbers of which were restored as functional buildings in the late 19th and early 20th century, often as government offices or youth hostels, or the modern conversion of tower houses, which in many cases have become modernised domestic homes.[113]

viii. Battles of Khalkhin Gol. I decided to look up that stuff because of some of the comments in this thread.

“The Battles of Khalkhyn Gol […] constituted the decisive engagement of the undeclared Soviet–Japanese border conflicts fought among the Soviet Union, Mongolia and the Empire of Japan in 1939. The conflict was named after the river Khalkhyn Gol, which passes through the battlefield. In Japan, the decisive battle of the conflict is known as the Nomonhan Incident […] after a nearby village on the border between Mongolia and Manchuria. The battles resulted in the defeat of the Japanese Sixth Army. […]

While this engagement is little-known in the West, it played an important part in subsequent Japanese conduct in World War II. This defeat, together with other factors, moved the Imperial General Staff in Tokyo away from the policy of the North Strike Group favored by the Army, which wanted to seize Siberia as far as Lake Baikal for its resources. […] Other factors included the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, which deprived the Army of the basis of its war policy against the USSR. Nomonhan earned the Kwantung Army the displeasure of officials in Tokyo, not so much due to its defeat, but because it was initiated and escalated without direct authorization from the Japanese government. Politically, the defeat also shifted support to the South Strike Group, favored by the Navy, which wanted to seize the resources of Southeast Asia, especially the petroleum and mineral-rich Dutch East Indies. Two days after the Eastern Front of World War II broke out, the Japanese army and navy leaders adopted on 24 June 1941 a resolution “not intervening in German Soviet war for the time being”. In August 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union reaffirmed their neutrality pact.[38] Since the European colonial powers were weakening and suffering early defeats in the war with Germany, coupled with their embargoes on Japan (especially of vital oil) in the second half of 1941, Japan’s focus was ultimately focused on the south, and led to its decision to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor, on 7 December that year.”

Note that there’s some disagreement in the reddit thread as to how important Khalkhin Gol really was – one commenter e.g. argues that: “Khalkhin Gol is overhyped as a factor in the Japanese decision for the southern plan.”

ix. Medical aspects, Hiroshima, Japan, 1946. Technically this is also not a wikipedia article, but multiple wikipedia articles link to it and it is a wikipedia link. The link is to a video featuring multiple people who were harmed by the first nuclear weapon used by humans in warfare. Extensive tissue damage, severe burns, scars – it’s worth having in mind that dying from cancer is not the only concern facing people who survive a nuclear blast. A few related links: a) How did cleanup in Nagasaki and Hiroshima proceed following the atom bombs? b) Minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee Los Alamos, May 10-11, 1945. c) Keloid. d) Japan in the 1950s (pictures).

April 11, 2014 Posted by | archaeology, history, medicine, Physics, wikipedia | Leave a comment

The Roman Invasion of Britain

By Graham Webster.

I liked the first half much better than the second half. I ended up at two stars on goodreads. He spends a lot of time in the second half of the book talking about where various roads/routes and forts may have been located 2000 years ago, and unless you actually happen to live near one of the areas described you’re probably going to get bored at some point; he just keeps going and going about those roads and that little pottery shard which may indicate that perhaps there was a fort nearby, etc. I got bored towards the end, and I do not bore easily. The first half had some quite interesting stuff though.

In general the book could be easier to navigate and it was downright infuriating a few times; there were a lot of placenames I didn’t know (I didn’t grow up in Sussex), and I was thinking to myself while reading this: Why the hell not present a map with that kind of stuff at the beginning to make the book easier to read for people who happen not to have grown up in Eastern Essex (…or wherever)? I should note that there were plenty of maps in the book, with depictions of where various different types of coins have been found and where military routes and forts are assumed to have been located, among other things – so it’s probably not that the idea did not occur to him. But for some reason the author decided that the first 15 maps in the book (or whatever, I didn’t count) should contain close to zero information about place-names, etc. You could probably add placenames to the maps included by deducing where all those places he’s talking about must be located given the locations of the dots on the early maps (each dot representing a coin which has been found at that location), but the first map with a significant number of place-names was on page 117; much, much too late. I at one point gave up figuring out precisely where one of the places he talks about in the book was, because pretty much the only google hits I got from looking up the term were quotes from the book; wikipedia had no clue where it was. Later on I realized where it was, but that kind of stuff just can’t happen – I thought up some not very nice terms which I might have been tempted to use to describe the author while I was confused about these things, and I don’t often finish books which start making me think along those lines.

I did finish it though, and it actually isn’t as bad as I might have made it out to be – there was good stuff as well. I’ve previously read some stuff about the European bronze age, and some stuff about the history of the Roman Empire – from more than one angle – but although Robin Lane Fox did talk a bit about this stuff in his book this was definitely a topic about which I did not know much and about which I wanted to know more. And I did learn quite a bit although it’s not a very exciting book. The book is not just about the Romans; a substantial number of pages are devoted to telling you about the British people inhabiting the islands at the time of the invasion (and before), and about the various tribal leaders and their relationships with each others and with Rome. Some cultural (e.g. the Romans didn’t like the Druids, and the feeling was mutual) and economic (some parts of South England were for various reasons trading much more with Rome than were other parts, see also below) factors of importance are covered. Great emphasis is often placed on the problems confronted by the archaeologist when he’s to decide what can and cannot be deduced from the evidence at hand, and although there’s a lot of speculation in the book (given so limited evidence there arguably has to be in a book like this, for it to be at all readable) it’s clear where the evidence ends and the speculation starts.

I should perhaps emphasize that my relatively low rating of the book has nothing to do with it being ‘poorly documented’ or ‘unscientific’. It’s a solid piece of work, almost surely based on the best evidence available at the time of publication. Nope, it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s rather that the author somehow manages to make this exciting stuff quite boring, and he also managed to make me borderline angry at him while I was reading his book because of the things he chose not to include in his work. At the time where he was talking about the 28th route on his map, I really didn’t give a crap whether there was a fort near Baldock or not. You need to be more autistic than I am to find that stuff interesting.

A few quotes from the book below – I’ve added links to wiki articles to provide context where I assumed context was needed:

“Taking a broad view of the country, one could say that the most backward peoples were living in the hill country of the north and west, while the most sophisticated, in terms of social organization and knowledge of the crafts, especially in metallurgy, occupied the lowlands of the south and east, and in those parts nearest the Continent dwelt the very latest newcomers.
But such statements should be treated with caution” […]

“The first Iron Age culture to make inroads in Britain is known as the Hallstatt […] So great had been the influx of new settlers, that there are signs of land hunger and a struggle for possession. This is seen in the growth of defended enclosures in strong positions, the first hill-forts. […] it would seem that by c. 700 BC the newcomers had spread across Britain, taking possession of lands and setting up their hill-forts to protect themselves from others coming along in their wake or, of course, against the people whose lands had been taken over. […] the distribution of the Hallstatt type of defences and artefacts was confined to the south and east of a line from the Bristol Channel to the Humber, apart from settlements in east Yorkshire. This important geological division was to remain, […] a cultural divide in the organization of the Province of Roman Britain. […] the people of Britain, at the time of the Roman conquest, were an amalgam of those who had been here for thousands of years and of the spasmodic succession of migrants more recently from Europe seeking refuge and lands for settlement. The most important ethnic groups which came to dominate much of Britain were the Celts. These peoples originated in central Europe in the valleys of the Upper Danube and Rhine.” […]

“The most important effect of Caesar’s appearance on the British scene was to divide the south-eastern tribes into pro- and anti-Roman groups. Those who had suffered defeat, i.e. the tribes on the north bank of the Thames and in Kent were forced to pay an annual tribute which sustained a festering hatred of Rome. Those who benefited, the Trinovantes, the Catuvellauni if, as logic demands, are the people of the Verulamion and Braughing areas and their allies, would have been rewarded by political alliances and access to trade with Rome […] As far as Rome was concerned, south-eastern Britain had been conquered and treaty relationships had been established with a powerful group of tribes. The next stage would have been to allow the effects of trade and cultural contacts to prepare the way for full occupation with all the apparatus of government and law.” [But then the Romans had trouble with Gallic tribes, and then there was a civil war.] “The 97 years between the two Roman invasions can thus be divided into two parts; the first, when Rome was preoccupied by her own internal troubles and when there are no historical references to Britain; the second, when Augustus began to consider the problems of his Empire, and Britain was placed on the diplomatic agenda and references begin to appear. One has to rely heavily on the archaeological evidence to supply the missing parts in the story of these changes.” […] One can reasonably assume that a trading connection had been well established by c. 10 BC following the wine route. Fine Roman wines needed fine vessels to grace the tables of the richer Britons […] we know now that the trade extended far beyond this range of goods. A rescue excavation at Skeleton Green, not far from Braughing, has produced a large assemblage of pottery, which included nearly a hundred vessels from the well-known factory at modern Arezzo, halfway between Florence and Perugia.” […] very little imported wine reached Kent, nor is there evidence of any imported metalwares or pottery […] The pottery from the Kent cemeteries seems to bear out the evidence, or lack of it, in the absence of early amphorae and the very small quantity of fine metalware, all of which points to the lands south of the Thames being in a cultural backwater.” […]

“The legions were the main fighting force of the army. Although the number varied there were usually about 30 stationed along the frontiers at any one time. […] A legion consisted of ten cohorts, each divided into six centuries of 80 men (i.e. each cohort had 480 men) except the first cohort, which consisted of five double centuries (160×5=800 men), and could be used as an independent tactical unit. […] When Caesar invaded Britain for the second time in 54 BC there is little doubt that he intended a conquest of the south-east. He brought with him five legions and 2000 horses, which represented an army of about 27,000. But this assumes that his legions were up to full strength, although on another occasion, when Caesar hastened to the relief of the beleaguered Cicero, he gives the number of his force of two legions and some cavalry as 7000.[11] The army of Claudius would certainly have been up to strength and fitness. For such an important enterprise, all units would have retired their elderly and unfit, replacing them with younger men in the customary manner. The army, assembled on the Gallic coast, consisted of four legions, some 20,000 crack troops and, unlike Caesar’s army, as many auxiliaries, so the total, excluding the fleet, could have been as many as 40,000.” […]

“One has to appreciate that the stirrup had not yet reached Europe and fighting on a horse required quite a different technique to that of later periods after its introduction. The horse in classical times and earlier, was controlled with the knees and the bit, there was no solid fixed seat and the rider could not stand up to wield his sword or throw his spear; nor could cavalry be used as shock troops in a charge. Nevertheless, there was no lack of skill and fighting ability, much of which depended on the mobility of the rider on the horse. It also meant that there was a much closer relationship between the horseman and the foot-soldier. […] The functions of auxiliary cavalry varied. When the legions were on the march, they acted as a screen at the front and sides, clearing the ground and woods of any enemy lurking there, chasing off small parties and giving warning of any large body advancing or lying in wait. In a set battle they were stationed on the flanks protecting the legions in the centre from sudden attack from the sides and from the rear, but their most important contribution came when the legions broke the enemy line and their warriors began to retreat and to turn and run. This was the moment when the horsemen rode in from the flanks to cut them down from behind” […]

“the Roman invasion was precipitated by the sudden change in the political climate in south-east Britain. The rise of the anti-Roman forces, following the death of Cunobeline, totally changed the balance of power; Rome had now either to abandon any hope of maintaining useful political and trading relationships, or seize the country by force of arms. It could not have been difficult for Claudius and his advisors to reach a decision.”

“[Crassus] came from a long and distinguished line[49] although Seneca considered him stupid enough to be an emperor”

“[The Battle of the Medway] was one of the greatest and most significant battles fought on British soil signalling not merely a great victory for Rome, but the conquest of lowland Britain. Plautius must have realized that the Province was now virtually his, and all that remained were mopping-up operations and a great deal of talking and argument with the tribal leaders to bring them over to Rome. […] it is worth observing that no archaeological trace has ever been found of this momentous event. There is a myth in the minds of many people that battles leave behind masses of skeletons, a debris of armaments and weapons.[20] This remarkable notion is a complete illusion, since all the valuable equipment would have been carefully collected after the fighting, and the bodies removed for proper burial. One could expect ditches of Roman camps, but they have yet to be found.[21] The only possible piece of evidence is a hoard of 34 gold coins found at Bredgar in 1958[22]. The latest of these are four coins — issues of Claudius minted in 41 and 42. The site of this find is on the Downs but almost 11 miles, a day’s march, due east of the Medway, so it could hardly have been buried immediately before the battle, but must have been at a stopping point in the advance. An officer may have buried his savings before being despatched to deal with a minor incident and never returned to collect it[23].”

November 8, 2013 Posted by | archaeology, books | Leave a comment

A few papers

i. The Living Dead: Bacterial Community Structure of a Cadaver at the Onset and End of the Bloat Stage of Decomposition. There are a lot of questions one might ask about how the world works. Incidentally I should note that when I die I really wouldn’t mind contributing to a study like this. Here’s the abstract, with a couple of links added to ease understanding:

“Human decomposition is a mosaic system with an intimate association between biotic and abiotic factors. Despite the integral role of bacteria in the decomposition process, few studies have catalogued bacterial biodiversity for terrestrial scenarios. To explore the microbiome of decomposition, two cadavers were placed at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science facility and allowed to decompose under natural conditions. The bloat stage of decomposition, a stage easily identified in taphonomy and readily attributed to microbial physiology, was targeted. Each cadaver was sampled at two time points, at the onset and end of the bloat stage, from various body sites including internal locations. Bacterial samples were analyzed by pyrosequencing of the 16S rRNA gene. Our data show a shift from aerobic bacteria to anaerobic bacteria in all body sites sampled and demonstrate variation in community structure between bodies, between sample sites within a body, and between initial and end points of the bloat stage within a sample site. These data are best not viewed as points of comparison but rather additive data sets. While some species recovered are the same as those observed in culture-based studies, many are novel. Our results are preliminary and add to a larger emerging data set; a more comprehensive study is needed to further dissect the role of bacteria in human decomposition.”

The introduction contains a good description of how decomposition in humans proceed:

“A cadaver is far from dead when viewed as an ecosystem for a suite of bacteria, insects, and fungi, many of which are obligate and documented only in such a context. Decomposition is a mosaic system with an intimate association between biotic factors (i.e., the individuality of the cadaver, intrinsic and extrinsic bacteria and other microbes, and insects) and abiotic factors (i.e., weather, climate, and humidity) and therefore a function of a specific ecological scenario. Slight alteration of the ecosystem, such as exclusion of insects or burial, may lead to a unique trajectory for decomposition and potentially anomalous results; therefore, it is critical to forensics that the interplay of these factors be understood. Bacteria are often credited as a major driving force for the process of decomposition but few studies cataloging the microbiome of decomposition have been published […]

A body passes through several stages as decomposition progresses driven by dehydration and discernible by characteristic gross taphonomic changes. The early stages of decomposition are wet and marked by discoloration of the flesh and the onset and cessation of bacterially-induced bloat. During early decay, intrinsic bacteria begin to digest the intestines from the inside out, eventually digesting away the surrounding tissues [3]. Enzymes from within the dead cells of the cadaver also begin to break down tissues (autolysis). During putrefaction, bacteria undergo anaerobic respiration and produce gases as by-products such as hydrogen sulfide, methane, cadaverine, and putrescine [5]. The buildup of resulting gas creates pressure, inflating the cadaver, and eventually forcing fluids out [3]. This purging event marks the shift from early decomposition to late decomposition and may not be uniform; the head may purge before the trunk, for example. Purge may also last for some period of time in some parts of the body even as other parts of the body enter the most advanced stages of decomposition. In the trunk, purge is associated with an opening of the abdominal cavity to the environment [3]. At this point, the rate of decay is reported by several authors to greatly increase as larval flies remove large portions of tissues; however, mummification may also occur, thus serving to preserve tissues [6][9]. The final stages of decomposition last through to skeletonization and are the driest stages [7], [10][13].”

It’s really quite an interesting paper, but you probably don’t want to read this while you’re having dinner. A few other interesting observations and conclusions:

“Many factors can influence the bacteria detected in and on a cadaver, including the individual’s “starting” microbiome, differences in the decomposition environments of the two cadavers, and differences in the sites sampled at end-bloat. The integrity of organs at end-bloat varied between cadavers (as decomposition varied between cadavers) and did not allow for consistent sampling of sites across cadavers. Specifically, STAFS 2011-016 no longer had a sigmoidal colon at the end-bloat sample time.” […]

“With the exception of the fecal sample from STAFS 2011-006, which was the least rich sample in the study with only 26 unique OTUs [operational taxonomic units – US] detected, fecal samples were the richest of all body sites sampled, with an average of nearly 400 OTUs detected. The stomach sample was the second least rich sample, with small intestine and mouth samples slightly richer. The body cavity, transverse colon, and sigmoidal colon samples were much richer. Overall, these data show that as one moves from the upper gastrointestinal tract (mouth, stomach, and small intestine) to the lower gastrointestinal tract (colon and rectal/fecal), microbiome richness increases.” […]

“It is important to note that while difference in abundance seen in particular species between this study and the others noted above could be due to the discussed constraints of culturing bacteria, differences could also be due to a variety of factors such as individual variability between the cadaver microbiomes, seasonality, climate, and species of colonizing insects. Finally, abundance does not necessarily indicate metabolic significance for decomposition, a point of importance that our study cannot address.” […]

“Our data represent initial insights into the bacteria populating decomposing human cadavers and an early start to discovering successive changes through time. While our data support the findings of previous culture studies, they also demonstrate that bacteria not detected by culture-based methods comprise a large portion of the community. No definitive conclusion regarding a shift in community structure through time can be made with this data set.”

ii. Protein restriction for diabetic renal disease.


Diabetic renal disease (diabetic nephropathy) is a leading cause of end-stage renal failure. Once the process has started, it cannot be reversed by glycaemic control, but progression might be slowed by control of blood pressure and protein restriction.


To assess the effects of dietary protein restriction on the pro gression of diabetic nephropathy in patients with diabetes .

Search methods

We searched The Cochrane Library , MEDLINE, EMBASE, ISI Proceedings, Science Citation Index Expanded and bibliographies of included studies.

Selection criteria

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and before and after studies of the effects of a modified or restricted protein diet on diabetic renal function in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes following diet for at least four months were considered.

Data collection and analysis

Two reviewers performed data extraction and evaluation of quality independently. Pooling of results was done by means of random- effects model.

Main results

Twelve studies were included, nine RCTs and three before and after studies. Only one study explored all-cause mortality and end-stage renal disease (ESRD) as endpoints. The relative risk (RR) of ESRD or death was 0.23 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.07 to 0.72) for patients assigned to a low protein diet (LPD). Pooling of the seven RCTs in patients with type 1 diabetes resulted in a non-significant reduction in the decline of glomerular filtration rate (GFR) of 0.1 ml/min/month (95% CI -0.1 to 0.3) in the LPD group. For type 2 diabetes, one trial showed a small insignificant improvement in the rate of decline of GFR in the protein-restricted group and a second found a similar decline in both the intervention and control groups. Actual protein intake in the intervention groups ranged from 0.7 to 1.1 g/kg/day. One study noted malnutrition in the LPD group. We found no data on the effects of LPDs on health-related quality of life and costs.

Authors’ conclusions

The results show that reducing protein intake appears to slightly slow progression to renal failure but not statistically significantly so. However, questions concerning the level of protein intake and compliance remain. Further longer-term research on large representative groups of patients with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus is necessary.”

The paper has a lot more. Do note that due to the link between kidney disease and dietary protein intake, at least one diabetic I know has actually considered the question of whether to adjust protein intake at an even earlier point in the disease process than the one comtemplated in these studies, i.e. before the lab tests show that the kidneys have started to fail – this is hardly an outrageous idea given evidence in related fields. I do think however that the evidence is much too inconclusive in the case of diabetic nephropathy for anything like this to make much sense at this point. Lowering salt intake seems to be far more likely to have positive effects. I’d be curious to know if the (very tentative..) finding that the type of dietary protein (‘chicken and fish vs red meat’) may matter for outcomes, and not just the amount of protein, holds; this seems very unclear at this point, but it’s potentially important as it also relates to the compliance/adherence problem.

iii. Direct evidence of 1,900 years of indigenous silver production in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Southern Peru:

“Archaeological excavations at a U-shaped pyramid in the northern Lake Titicaca Basin of Peru have documented a continuous 5-m-deep stratigraphic sequence of metalworking remains. The sequence begins in the first millennium AD and ends in the Spanish Colonial period ca. AD 1600. The earliest dates associated with silver production are 1960 ± 40 BP (2-sigma cal. 40 BC to AD 120) and 1870 ± 40 BP (2-sigma cal. AD 60 to 240) representing the oldest known silver smelting in South America. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS) analysis of production debris indicate a complex, multistage, high temperature technology for producing silver throughout the archaeological sequence. These data hold significant theoretical implications including the following: (i) silver production occurred before the development of the first southern Andean state of Tiwanaku, (ii) the location and process of silverworking remained consistent for 1,500 years even though political control of the area cycled between expansionist states and smaller chiefly polities, and (iii) that U-shaped structures were the location of ceremonial, residential, and industrial activities.”

A little more from the paper:

“Our data establish an initial date for silverworking that is at least three centuries earlier than previous studies had indicated. […] Three independent lines of evidence establish the chronological integrity of the deposit: 1) a ceramic sequence in uninterrupted stratigraphic layers, 2) absolute radiocarbon dates, and 3) absolute ceramic thermoluminescence (TL) dates (1). […] the two absolute dating methods are internally consistent, and […] these match the relative sequence derived from analyzing the diagnostic pottery or ceramics. The unit excavated at Huajje represents a rare instance of an intact, well-demarcated stratigraphic deposit that allows us to precisely define the material changes through time in silver production. […] The steps required for silver extraction include mining, beneficiation (i.e., crushing of the ore and sorting of metal-bearing mineral), optional roasting to remove sulfur via oxidation, followed by smelting, and cupellation […] Archaeological or ethnographic evidence for most of these steps is extremely scarce, making this a very significant assemblage for our understanding of early silver production. A total of 3,457 (7,215.84 g) smelting-related artifacts were collected.”

November 1, 2013 Posted by | archaeology, biology, diabetes, medicine, papers | Leave a comment

The Incas and their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru (II)

Here’s my first post about the book. I gave it 3 stars on goodreads. This is my 49th completed book this year.

The last two-thirds or so of the book actually doesn’t have a lot of stuff about the Incas – that part of the book mostly deals with the people who came before them. I knew very little about this part of South American prehistory, so I learned a lot and it was quite interesting.

I should note that in the Epilogue (last three pages) Moseley can’t stop himself from displaying some of that bottled-up hatred he clearly has towards the later colonial rulers and the current “international financial institutions” that ‘indirectly govern’ “a denigrated ethnic underclass”. Just to make clear – if there’d been just two sentences like that in the first 10 pages of the book, I’d have slammed the book shut and given it one star on goodreads. I have zero tolerance for overt politicizing in books like these. But there weren’t any such sentences to be found – the book is about the archaeology of prehistoric Peru and surrounding areas, and he keeps his mouth shut about ‘other stuff’ until the very last few pages, where you can sort of forgive such digressions. In the last couple of pages he incidentally also repeats a problematic claim from the beginning: “The era opened when Tahuantinsuyu was arguably the largest nation on earth”. This sentence really annoyed me. Has he heard about the Ottoman Empire? The Ming Dynasty? The Grand Duchy of Moscow? For those who haven’t, here are a few numbers:

Inca Empire in 1527: 2,000,000 km².
Ottoman Empire in 1520: Roughly 4,000,000 km²
Grand Duchy of Moscow in 1533: Roughly 2,800,000 km².

Wikipedia doesn’t have an area estimate for the Ming Dynasty during the 1500s, but in 1403 it was estimated at 6,500,000 km² and it didn’t lose more than two-thirds of its total area during the intervening 100-150 years (the population doubled during that century). The estimated Ming population around the year 1500 incidentally was 125 million people (Inca empire: 20 million).

Authors of books like this one tend to feel very strongly about the things they write about and sometimes that means they end up exaggerating certain things. The rest of the book is fine and it’s the only place where I’m aware that he does it – but when I see stuff like that, it annoys me a lot. There’s no doubt the Inca state was a major international player, you don’t need to add inaccurate claims to the mix to impress me.

All that said, most of the book is solid (and interesting!) work. In the stuff below I’ve mostly focused on agricultural developments in part because that’s much easier to blog. There’s a lot of stuff about the platform mounds, sunken courts, ceremonial architecture, sanctuaries, etc. in the book, and in order not to completely disregard all that stuff I decided to add some links at the bottom. Here are also a few pictures:


450px-Sechín_Archaeological_site_-_relief_(warrior)(image credit: Wikipedia)


(image credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway, below some stuff from the last five chapters:

“The spread of intensive farming and pottery followed the path of least resistance, moving from low to high and moist to dry environments. In the well-watered tropical north of Colombia and Ecuador, agriculture was adopted well before 3000 BC. However, extension down the arid Cordillera lagged, and only after an episode of dusty, and apparently dry, climatic times did farming take hold in northern and central Peru around 1800 BC. Further south there was again a lag until 1600 BC when rainfall increased in the Titicaca region and supported the rise of agropastoralism. From here it still took many hundreds of years for farm plants and pottery to diffuse into the hyper-arid environments of San Pedro de Atacama and the very dry Chilean coast. […] As mountain populations decreased their dependence on wild resources and increased their reliance on cultivation, they were slowly drawn away from the higher elevations to lower settings where warmer temperatures and milder conditions favoured plant tending in the bottomlands of sierra drainages. A gradual downward shift in the locations of camps and residential sites is well-documented during pre-pottery times […] human colonization of the Andes was a gradual matter of sedentary parental communities giving rise to more mobile daughter colonies seeking new terrain […] Andean people experienced a many-fold increase in their numbers during the Preceramic Period. In the sierra, residential sites became more numerous and scattered, on the coast fisherfolk filled in the littoral around sources of potable water, and large civic-ceremonial complexes arose in the mountains and deserts of northern and central Peru.” […]

“In many valleys it seems that irrigation developed along the path of least resistance, and most canal systems were situated well inland. Developments began in canyons and valley necks where river gradients are relatively steep […] Reclamation then advanced downstream where shallow gradients required greater investments in canal construction. In many valleys land immediately behind the coast was either never irrigated or only reclaimed very late. Because canal irrigation pulls farmers inland, the Initial Period is marked by split patterns of residence, with fisherfolk living along the littoral and farmers settling inland. […] less than 5 percent of the desert that is farmed today could be easily reclaimed by individual effort, and this condition certainly worked against the rise of independent farmers during the Initial Period. Preceramic economies supported the evolution of corporate organizations capable of executing large building projects.” […]

“In the Ayacucho region Initial Period settlements have yielded pottery assemblages, called Andamarca and Wichqana, with limited decoration and few suggestions of tropical influence. The Wichqana site has a ceremonial structure […] associated with the buried skulls of decapitated women. In the nearby Andahuaylas Valley, excavations in the Muyu Moqo sector of the Waywaka site produced a 3,440-year-old stone bowl containing metalworking tools and gold beated into thin foil. This is the earliest evidence of precious metalworking in the Andes.” [Severed heads? Gold? What’s not to like?]

“In the beginning, mountain agropastoralism and desert irrigation fostered economic boom times with people spreading into under-exploited niches, prospering and increasing their numbers. Yet growth inevitably slowed, and by the time of Christ refinements of Arid Montane and Maritime-Oasis adaptions had led to the filling-in of easily exploited habitats and further agrarian expansion required substantial investment. […] now governance was in the hands of an elite class, the kuraka, who claimed special descent from founding figures. This fostered great elaboration of ancestor veneration among commoners in general and elites in particular. […] competition and hostilities increased as easily farmed land was filled in by growing populations and during episodes of drought” […]

“Geoglyphs at Nazca and elsewhere certainly served more than one function. Calendrial significance for the lines has long been suspecteed, but not yet demonstrated. The great concentration of figures on the Nazca pampa represents by far the largest cultural artifacts of the region’s ancient inhabitants. Similar to the many mounds at Cahuachi, they are numerous and impressive, but do not represent great expenditures of energy. Although the geoglyphs are technically similar, each seems to have been created separately, used for a time, and then forgotten. New figures cross old ones in amazing confusion, and the works were obviously not part of a larger, centralized conception planned by one mind at one time.” […]

“Triggered by deep drought, the Middle Horizon was an era of punctuated cultural change as old empires withered and new ones arose. […] Technically the horizon dates between AD 600 and 1000 in the Ica Valley. Yet it was set in motion in AD 562 when rainfall began a 25-30 percent plunge that lasted until AD 594. This was the most pronounced Andean rainfall abnormality of the last 1,500 years […] Famine certainly occured because agrarian systems in many settings stretched beyond their modern limits. We can infer that the productivity of highland rainfall farming declined proportionally by 25-30 percent and that the productivity of desert irrigation declined disproportionally by at least twice as much due to dry mountain soils absorbing scant runoff moisture. Consequently coastal populations were more severely disadvantaged than their sierra counterparts. During drought, however, both populations were ill-equipped to deal with normal disasters, such as large-magnitude earthquakes and El Niño crises […] Huarpa people in the Ayacucho area were among the first to terrace and irrigate inclined terrain. […] Building such a reclamation system required substantially more labor than other communities were investing in agricultural works at the time. Nonetheless, such investment gave Huari distinct economic advantages over its neighbors, and in a sense preadapted it to weather the great drought. […] The demise of Huari remains undated and not understood, but the original spread of its appealing ideology, featuring a resurrected Staff God, was farreaching due to accompanying agrarian innovations. By introducing mountain-slope, terrace farming to many highland regions Huari preadapted sierra populations to drought […] intensification of pastoralism was an important response to drought.” […]

Tiwanaku people considered cranial deformation a mark of beauty and bound the heads of babies to shape their skull growth. Individuals in a cemetery shared the same deformation pattern, and patterns varied from one Omo graveyard to another.” [And you thought foot binding was bad! (okay, foot binding is bad, but…] […]

“beginning around AD 1100, four centuries of climate change saw precipitation decline and reach a 10-15 percent below-normal nadir shortly after AD 1300. Drought endured until AD 1500, and we can see a range of human responses to the waxing and waning of protracted stress. Sierra populations dispersed to higher altitudes where rainfall could still support farming, albeit with large investments in terracin mountain slopes. There was also migration into the wet eastern face of the Cordillera, where tarracing was again essential. Desert farmers fared very poorly […] the pre-Inca altiplano was a landscape of combative señoríos that the lords of Cuzco played off against one another and conquered in piecemeal fashion. […] The Incas conquered the lake region as drought waned and gave way to exceptionally wet conditions that permitted farming to be renewed at lower, less hostile elevations. Consequently, Tahuantinsuyu often moved people out of fortified hilltops and resettled them in low-lying localities that gave better yields, afforded easier political control and were closer to the imperial highway system. […] Pushing north as dry times waned, Cuzco’s forces often encountered little organized opposition. […] In overview, from northern Chile through northern Peru drought prompted mountain people to move higher, as well as eastward where rainfall could still sustain farming and herding. Opening these vast reaches of the Cordillera to intensive production required extensive investments in terracing and agricultural infrastructure, but they sustained significant population growth in spite of dry times. This changed the demographic balance of power in favor of the sierra, as coastal populations wilted in the wake of protracted drought.” […]

“It is doubtful that combat and blood sacrifice permeated everyday life. More likely, iconographic themes expressed ideological rituals that were scheduled and enacted over the course of an annual ceremonial calender, much like the Inca’s sacramental almanac.” [Note that people in power didn’t suddenly start all that human sacrifice stuff when the Inca’s came into power. This stuff was tradition at that point and had been for a while.]

Links: MocheEl Paraíso, Huaca del Sol. Chan ChanChavín de Huántar. Lima Culture. Nazca Lines. Pachacamac. Wari culture, Pikillaqta.

September 14, 2013 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books | Leave a comment

The Incas and their Ancestors: The archaeology of Peru (1)

Here’s the link, the average goodreads rating is 3.55. I found the book via the AskAnthropology reading list.

It’s not the first book I read on this specific subject (THP also covers some of this stuff, but in much less detail), however we know a lot more now than we did when Métraux wrote his book (as Moseley puts it in the introduction, “Due to a tremendous escalation in Andean studies, more archaeological, historical, and anthropological research has been carried out during the current generation than during all prior centuries.”) so I’m learning a lot. A really nice thing about the book is that although it deals only with a very specific group of people, it still has some focus on highlighting general principles regarding human development. Of course a book like Boyd and Richerson’s The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (I’m planning on reading this at some point..) presumbly deals with such matters in much more detail, but it’s still nice to have at least some big-picture stuff in a book like this.

Some stuff from the first half or so of the book, as well as a few comments:

“Just as the historical accounts of Tahuantinsuyu are not without prejudice, the archaeological record did not remain unbiased by the Spanish arrival. The conquering forces quickly learned that great stores of precious metal existed in the ground. Much was purely geological in context, but the tombs of past lords and nobles also contained enormous stores of gold and silver. Within a generation of the conquest, looting operations grew so large and financially rewarding that they became legally synonymous with mining. Ancient monuments were divided into claim areas with titles registered in notarial archives. Title holders established chartered corporations to mobilize massive work forces and systematically quarry ruins. As with geological mines, the Castilian king was entitled to a 20 percent tax on all wealth extracted from the ground. Within a short span the Crown established a royal smelter in the Moche valley, not because of any local geological wealth but because the royal mausoleums of Chan Chan had been discovered and looting of the nearby Pyramid of the Sun was underway. […] the Andean Cordillera is probably the most intensively looted ancient center of civilization in the world.”

“Thanks to the rugged Cordillera, which is characterized by global extremes in environmental conditions, Andean civilization differs from other great civilizations of antiquity. If thriving civilizations had matured atop the Himalayas while simultaneously accomodating a Sahara desert, a coastal fishery richer than the Bering Sea, and a jungle larger than the Congo, then Tahuantinsuyu might seem less alien. Fundamental contrasts in the Andean Cordillera’s habitats confronted humans with radically disparate conditions and dissimilar ressources. […] The mountain, marine, desert and jungle habitats required distinctive adaptive strategies and promoted different evolutionary pathways, called Arid Montane, Maritime-Oasis, and Tropical Forest lifeways. The Incas were a montane society, but the land of the four quarters incorporated people adapted to other conditions.” (Many large civilizations of the past have had huge environmental variation within their borders, so I think Moseley may be overemphasizing here how unique the Inca empire was in this regard (see e.g. here), but it seems beyond argument that environmental factors played a major role in the structure and development of the Inca state.)

“About 90 percent of Andean runoff descends to the Atlantic watershed, while only 10 percent descends to the Pacific.”

“cold and anoxia oblige people to eat more, and highlanders are estimated to need around 11.5 percent more calories than lowlanders. Consequently, it costs measurably more to support life and civilization in mountains than in lowlands. Life is also more precarious because comparable food shortages, caused by drought and other disasters, exert greater nutritional duress at higher elevations than at lower ones. […] [But on the other hand…] High-altitude rainfall farming fluctuates less severely than low-elevation runoff farming and irrigation. Arid mountain soils, like sponges, absorb fixed amounts of moisture and must reach saturation before rainfall will produce runoff. […] if rainfall fluctuates by 10 percent […] then runoff [may] fluctuate on the order of 36 percent. […] the flow of Andean rivers fluctuates dramatically from year to year. […] Normally, runoff farming generates much higher yields than rainfall farming. […] During drought, rainfall farming is depressed less severely than runoff farming and coastal irrigation suffers the most because it is furthest away from mountain precipitation.”

“Seasonal variation increases with elevation, and plant-growth cycles are successively shorter at progressively higher altitudes. In the towering mountains, ecological zones are compressed and stacked atop one another. Andean people can trek 100 km as the crow flies and go from hilly jungle to alpine tundra, crossing counterparts of the major continental life zones. Mountain populations around the world pursue farming, herding, and the exploitation of multiple ecological zones because stacked habitats with different growing seasons are close together and the productivity of different zones fluctuates from year to year. In the Andes, this exploitation pattern moves people and produce up and down the mountains, and it is called ‘verticality’ in contrast to ‘horizontality’ which typifies lowland movement.
Verticality and horizontality are associated with different means of procuring resources. Mountain families typically exploit three or more ecological zones […] Consequently, they directly procure commodities from a series of habitats by moving produce along a vertical or elevational axis […] Alternatively, in desert and tropical lowlands people generally make their living in a single continental life zone. Because major zones are far apart, resources from distant habitats are procured indirectly by trade, barter, or exchange with other people […] In the world’s highest mountains many forces of natural selection are similar, including anoxia, cold temperatures, frost, hail, poor soils, short growing seasons, very limited crop diversity [few crops can survive in very high altitudes – US], rugged topography, and marked fainfall variation over short distances. Consequently, human populations in the Alps, Himalayas, and Andes exhibit many parallel adaptions, including symbiotic integration of agricultural and pastoral production, exploitation of multiple ecological zones, reliance on different crops from different altitudes, sequential timing of work in different ecological tiers, dependence upon dung fertilizer, frequent fallowing of fields, emphasis on long-term storage of food products, relatively little sexual division of labor in subsistence tasks, and a mixture of household and communal control of land use.”

“Mountain political centers, such as Cuzco, Huari, and Tiwanaku, expanded both through the uplands as well as down into the lowlands where resource diversity was greatest. In contrast, coastal centers, such as Chimor and Moche, expanded along the Pacific littoral, with little penetration into the highlands above 2000 m”

“Labor was the coin of the realm and the imperial economy extracted tribute in the form of work. […] [There were] three types of labor for the state that can be called agricultural taxation, mit’a service, and textile taxation. […] Agricultural taxation extracted work from both men and women. Commoners did not own land – it belonged to the ayllu. It was Inca practice to divide conquered agricultural land into three categories, ideally of equal size, all of which the peasantry was obliged to farm. The first category was dedicated to the support of the gods […] These lands were cultivated first, before other categories of fields. Yields went to support religious functionaries, priests, and shrine attendants […] The second category of fields belonged to the emperor […] Imperial fields were tended after religious ones, and yields went to support the imperial court and the needs of government. […] agrarian tribute from both religious and imperial lands was largely under Cuzco’s direct control. […] The third category of land was assigned to the local community for its support, redistributed annually to village members by the local kuraka. This allotment was not in equal parts, but proportional to the size of a family and the number of dependents under each head-of-household. As households grew or shrank, their share of land changed. […] Puna pasture lands and llama and alpaca resources were organized in a similar three-fold manner.”

August 31, 2013 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books | Leave a comment

The Ancestor’s Tale

I’ve read approximately half the book by now (320 pages). As I pointed out in the last post, “It’s pop sci and I have been disappointed a few times by some of the remarks he’s made during the first 200 pages”. A few examples of ‘irritating/disappointing remarks’:

“In practice all intermediates between pure hunter-gatherers and pure agriculturalists or pastoralists are found. But, earlier than about 10,000 years ago, all human populations were hunter-gatherers.”

Naturally the last sentence is what I take issue with, not the first part. It’s not that it’s wrong as such, but it will likely give people who don’t know any better the wrong impression – you can’t really leave it at that, without qualifying the statement a bit. As I’ve pointed out before, the development of farming and husbandry took thousands of years and what we still think of mostly as ‘hunter-gatherers’ did a lot of the work that brought about the changes necessary for human groups to switch to something close to the model of farming we know today. Dawkins speaks out against the widespread tendency to adopt an essentialist mindset in the field of taxonomy later on (‘the tyranny of the discontinuous mind’), but by mentioning a cut-off point like this without any qualifiers he’s in my view close to engaging in exactly the same kind of behaviour as are the people he’s criticizing. 10,000 years ago is an arbitrary cut-off point, and the ‘hunter-gatherers’ living before then were some places well on their way to developing farming as we know it – the distinction between ‘farmers’ and ‘hunter-gatherers’ was a lot more fluid in the far past than it is now. How far into the past the process went and how gradual the process from hunter-gathering to farming was surprised me a great deal when I read THP, but unfortunately I don’t have the book at my place at this point (I’ve borrowed it to a friend) – so wikipedia will have to do for now:

“Archaeologists have conducted an exhaustive study of Hut 1 at Ohalo II; this hut yielded over 90,000 seeds. The seeds account for more than 100 species of wild barley and fruits. Such a high concentration of seeds in the hut makes it highly unlikely that they were accidentally deposited into the hut via natural forces such as wind. In addition, statistical analysis demonstrates that the concentration of plant matter was significantly higher around the walls than the center. Had the seeds been deposited by the collapsed roof, they would have evenly scattered on the ground. Furthermore, just 13 species of fruit and cereal make up about half of the total number of seeds found in the area; these include brome grains (Bromus pseudobrachystachys), wild barley (Hordeum spontaneum) and millet grass grains (Piptatherum holciforme), just to name a few. This suggests a marked preference of certain species of edible plants. A seed of particular interest comes from the Rubus fruit, which was fragile, difficult to transport, and preferably eaten immediately after collection. The presence of Rubus seeds at the Ohalo II site could indicate that the seeds were dried in the sun or by the fire for storage: early evidence for advanced planning of plant food consumption. Most importantly, the extremely high concentration of seeds clustering around the grinding stone in the northern wall of Hut 1 led Ehud Weiss, an archeologist, to believe that humans at Ohalo II processed the grain before consumption. The exact spatial distribution of the seed around a grinding stone further indicates extensive preparation.”

This settlement burned to the ground around 19,400 BP. They may not have been ‘farmers’, but people who don’t know about people like these may get the wrong idea when reading Dawkins’ statement quoted above. Later on he mentions that, “Husbandry was not the overnight brainwave of some genius” and talks about the gradual changes required to get from where we were to where we ended up, both when it comes to husbandry and agriculture; but the unqualified 10.000 year mark is still bugging me a bit, and it’d not be hard to read the book and assume that the gradual changes mentioned later on took place only after 10.000 BP.

Here’s another annoying little quote:

“It [Madagascar] is a natural botanical and zoological garden, which houses about five per cent of all the plant and animal land species in the world, more than 80 per cent of them being found nowhere else.” […] [two pages later:] “If you wiped out Madagascar, you would destroy about a thousandth of the world’s total land area, but fully four per cent of all species of animals and plants.”

So which is it – four or five per cent? An editor ought to have caught that one and asked him to clarify or change one of the sentences. The repetition also really isn’t necessary. I’d expect stuff like that in a blog post, not in a published book. [see info’s comment…] Yet another:

[footnote:] “Carrots are rich in beta-carotene from which vitamin A can be made: hence the rumour – rumours can be true – that carrots improve vision.”

Yeah, well, if you’re going to include a sentence like that you’re gonna have to write a little more than that. Many people today are presumably aware of how the rumour in question came about but it’s likely that far fewer readers are aware of just how severe of a problem vitamin A deficiency still is in many developing countries (“Most common cause of blindness in developing countries […] Approximately 250,000 to 500,000 malnourished children in the developing world go blind each year from a deficiency of vitamin A, approximately half of whom die within a year of becoming blind.”).

I should point out that he talks about different speciation methods/mechanisms throughout the pages, but he doesn’t mention what they are called (see this for an overview) and his coverage is non-systematic and spread out over many pages. This is understandable given that it’s a pop sci book, but stuff like this is part of the reason why I rarely read such books.

Okay, enough with the critical remarks (I could easily include a few more but it’s not worth it) – there’s lots of really good stuff in there as well. I’ll just post a few quotes below with some ‘big picture’ stuff, but do note that most of the book is concerned with the details of how all this stuff happened – it’s a big narrative, going back hundreds of millions of years, a narrative about where we came from; and given that you need to spend some time talking about what the species which came before us were actually like. Did they have the same number of limbs as we do? How big were they? What did they eat? How did they get from A to B? Who else were around back then? And so on…  Anyway, big picture stuff and some other interesting stuff from the book which I couldn’t help including below:

“Biological evolution has no priviliged line of descent and no designated end. Evolution has reached many millions of interim ends (the number of surviving species at the time of observation), and there is no reason other than vanity – human vanity, as it happens, since we are doing the talking – to designate any one as more privileged or climactic than any other. […] A living creature is always in the business of surviving in its own environment. It is never unfinished – or, in another sense, it is always unfinished. So, presumably, are we.”

“for particular genes, you are more closely related to some chimpanzees than to some humans. And I am closer related to some chimpanzees than to you (or to ‘your’ chimpanzees). Humans as a species, as well as humans as individuals, are temporary vessels containing a mix of genes from different sources. Individuals are temporary meeting points on the crisscrossing routes that genes take through history. […]
We normally assume that we can draw a single evolutionary tree for a set of species. But […] different parts of DNA (and thus different parts of an organism) can have different trees. I think this poses an inherent problem with the very idea of species trees. Species are composites of DNA from many different sources. […] each gene, in fact each DNA letter, takes its own path through history. Each piece of DNA, and each aspect of an organism, can have a different evolutionary tree. […] Species trees can be drawn, but they must be considered a simplified summary of a multitude of gene trees.”

“Rodents are one of the great success stories of mammaldom. More than 40 per cent of all mammal species are rodents, and there are said to be more individual rodents in the world than all other mammals combined.”

“Selection drives evolution only to the extent that the alternative types owe their differences to genes: if the differences are not inherited, differential survival has no impact on future generations.”

“Carnivora is an irritating name because, after all, it simply means meat-eater, and meat-eating has been invented literally hundreds of times independently in the animal kingdom. Not all carnivores are Carnivora […] and not all Carnivora are carnivores (think of the gentle giant panda, eating almost nothing but bamboo).”

“Geological time is large not only in comparison to the familiar timescales of human life and human history. It is large on the timescale of evolution itself. This would surprise those, from Darwin’s critics on, who have complained of insufficient time for natural selection to wreak the changes the theory requires of it. We now realise that the problem is, if anything, opposite. There has been too much time! If we measure evolutionary rates over a short time, and then extrapolate, say, to a million years, the potential amount of evolutionary change turns out to be hugely greater than the actual amount. […] Darwinian selection, if we impose it artificially as hard as we’re able, can drive evolutionary change at a rate far faster than we ever see in nature. […]

One million years, which is too short to notice in most parts of the fossil record, is 20,000 times as long as it takes to triple the oil content of maize seeds. […] these experiments serve to warn against looking at apparent trends spread over millions of fossil years, and naively interpreting them as responses to steadily sustained selection pressures.
Darwinian selection pressures are out there, for sure. And they are immensely important […] But selection pressures are not sustained and uniform over the sort of timescales that can normally be resolved by fossils, especially in older parts of the fossil record. The lesson of the maize and the fruit flies is that Darwinian selection could meander hither and yon, back and forth, ten thousand times, all within the shortest time we can measure in the record of the rocks. My bet is that this happens.
Yet there are major trends over long timescales, and we have to be aware of them too. To repeat an analogy I have used before, think of a cork, bobbing about off the Atlantic coast of America. The Gulf Stream imposes an overall eastward drift in the average position of the cork, which will eventually be washed up on some European shore. But if you measure its direction of movement during any one minute, buffeted by waves and eddies and whirlpools, it will seem to move west as often as east. You won’t notice any eastward bias unless you sample its position over much longer periods. Yet the eastward bias is real, it is there, and it too deserves an explanation.”

“Why bother to lose the wings? They took a long time to evolve, why not hang on to them in case one day they might come in useful again? Alas (for the dodo) that is not the way evolution thinks. Evolution doesn’t think at all, and certainly not ahead. […] Evolution, or its driving engine natural selection, has no foresight. In every generation within every species, the individuals best equipped to survive and reproduce contribute more than their fair share of genes to the next generation. The consequence, blind as it is, is the nearest approach to foresight that nature permits. Wings might be useful a million years hence when sailors arrive with clubs. But wings will not help a bird contribute offspring and genes to the next generation […in the specific setting in which the ancestors of the dodos found themselves, US. It seems obvious that in the general case wings do help birds get more offspring or they wouldn’t bother with them…], in the immediate here and now. On the contrary wings, and especially the massive breast muscles needed to power them, are an expensive luxury. Shrink them, and the ressources saved can now be spent on something more immediately useful such as eggs: immediately useful for surviving and reproducing the very genes that programmed the shrinkage.
That’s the kind of thing natural selection does all the time. It is always tinkering: here shrinking a bit, there expanding a bit, constantly adjusting, putting on and taking off, optimising immediate reproductive success. Survival in future centuries doesn’t enter into the calculation, for the good reason that it isn’t really a calculation at all. It all happens automatically, as some genes survive in the gene pool and others don’t. […]

Moas are extreme among flightless birds in that they have no trace of wings at all, not even buried vestiges of wing bones. They thrived in both the North and South Islands of New Zealand until the recent invasion by the Maori people, about 1250 AD. They were easy prey […] and the Maoris slaughtered them all, eating the choicer parts and discarding the rest, belying, not for the first time, the wishful myth of the noble savage living in respectful harmony with its environment. […] Perhaps as many as 200 species [of flightless rail] have gone extinct on tropical Pacific islands since human contact.” […other estimates are even higher]

July 9, 2013 Posted by | archaeology, biology, books, evolution, genetics | 3 Comments

European Societies in the Bronze Age (II)

I finished the book. I ended up giving it 3 stars on goodreads, but as I read the last half I mostly moved closer to a 2-star evaluation. Part of the book is great, part of it is very weak. It’s best when it just deals with the facts; what do we find when we look in the different kinds of tombs left behind (and why might we not always find what we’d expect to find?), how big were the dwellings they lived in and what were they made of, how did these guys procure the metals we’ve been talking about, what did they eat, what did they wear and how did they make their clothes – questions like that. It’s much weaker when he’s engaging in various forms of bigger-picture theorizing, or telling me about the theories other people have come up with for this and that; many of those theories are presumably discussed and forwarded by people I’d prefer got fired from the institutions they work at.

Overall there’s much good stuff and I learned a lot – and as I did point out through the goodreads rating, overall I liked the book. Here’s one of the parts from the last half of the book which answered one of the many questions I’d been curious about the answer to before starting out:

“As with most prehistoric populations, people in the Bronze Age did not live long. Disease, whether chronic such as arthritis, or epidemic, such as viral infections, must have been prevalent at all times and places. Mortality studies invariably show a pattern whereby perinatal and infant mortality was extremely high and child mortality high; for those who survived into their teens, the chances of making it into adulthood were quite good, but by the age of 35 the odds against further survival increased dramatically. People older than 45 were unusual. This can be demonstrated from the analysis of El Argar, where a large sample (563 individuals) was studied: life expectancy at birth was 19.9 years, but at age 20 it was still a further 15.9 years;[19] the figures for Grossbrembach and Velika Gruda are not dissimilar.[20] Brothwell estimated an average lifespan for British Bronze Age males of 31.3 years and for females of 29.9 years, with only 3.3% surviving beyond 50.[21] […] Given the incidence of disease, the quality of life must in many cases have been poor. Those with chronic arthritis would have been in constant pain, and dependent on other members of the community for the maintenance of daily life. Even so ‘minor’ an affliction as tooth caries could have caused ongoing pain, while a tooth abscess could even have been life-threatening. Fourteen of the Grossbrembach adults had tooth caries, in some cases extensive.”

Wikipedia does not at present have enough material on the stuff covered in this book for you to be able to learn anywhere near the same amount of stuff about this topic as you would learn from reading this book (and I’m sure reading the book would make retention much easier than reading random wikipedia articles) – for instance see the main article on Bronze Age Europe, there’s not much stuff here. However below a few more links to stuff (‘samples of the kind of stuff’) covered in the book:

Apennine culture.
Wessex culture.
Hill fort.
Lusatian culture.

June 18, 2013 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books | Leave a comment

European Societies in the Bronze Age

“The production of charcoal is an aspect of metalworking that is often ignored.62 Charcoal was the ideal fuel for furnaces prior to the advent of coke because it promotes a strongly reducing atmosphere in the furnace, consisting as it does of almost pure carbon, and on burning creates an oxygen-starved atmosphere, essential if oxygen compounds are to be removed from the metal being worked. The forcing of air into an enclosed charcoal-burning furnace raises the temperature rapidly; charcoal has a calorific value about twice that of dried wood. To make charcoal, cut timber is ignited in a sealed heap or pit and allowed to smoulder; only sufficient oxygen is admitted at the start to get the fire going, after which the process continues without the addition of oxygen. By this means combustion is incomplete, no ash results, and almost everything except carbon is removed from the wood. Considerable quantities of timber would have been needed in the most prolific metal-production areas. It has been estimated that to produce 5 kg of copper metal one would need at least 100 kg of charcoal, which would in turn have required some 700 kg of timber, a considerable requirement in terms of labour.”

From European Societies in the Bronze Age (Cambridge World Archaeology), by A. F. Harding. I’ve roughly read the first half of this book today, and so far I like it – if it continues along the same lines, I’ll probably give it three stars on goodreads (where the average rating is currently 3.8). It’s easy to read and it has a lot of interesting stuff about things I do not know much about. Below I’ve added some wikipedia links to stuff related to what’s covered in the first six chapters – they should tell you a bit about what kind of stuff’s covered in this book.

Urnfield culture.
Clearance cairn.
The Thera eruption.
Wattle and daub.
Ard (plough).
Placer mining.

June 17, 2013 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books | Leave a comment


i. PLOS ONE: Till Death (Or an Intruder) Do Us Part: Intrasexual-Competition in a Monogamous Primate.

“Polygynous animals are often highly dimorphic, and show large sex-differences in the degree of intra-sexual competition and aggression, which is associated with biased operational sex ratios (OSR). For socially monogamous, sexually monomorphic species, this relationship is less clear. Among mammals, pair-living has sometimes been assumed to imply equal OSR and low frequency, low intensity intra-sexual competition; even when high rates of intra-sexual competition and selection, in both sexes, have been theoretically predicted and described for various taxa. Owl monkeys are one of a few socially monogamous primates. Using long-term demographic and morphological data from 18 groups, we show that male and female owl monkeys experience intense intra-sexual competition and aggression from solitary floaters. Pair-mates are regularly replaced by intruding floaters (27 female and 23 male replacements in 149 group-years), with negative effects on the reproductive success of both partners. Individuals with only one partner during their life produced 25% more offspring per decade of tenure than those with two or more partners. The termination of the pair-bond is initiated by the floater, and sometimes has fatal consequences for the expelled adult. The existence of floaters and the sporadic, but intense aggression between them and residents suggest that it can be misleading to assume an equal OSR in socially monogamous species based solely on group composition. Instead, we suggest that sexual selection models must assume not equal, but flexible, context-specific, OSR in monogamous species.”

You sort of want to extrapolate out of sample (/…out of species?) here, but be careful:

“Our findings differ from those reported for some monogamous birds, where remaining life-time reproductive success (i.e., the expected future gains) of the individual that initiates or tolerates a ‘divorce’ was higher than if it remained with its initial partner. For example, in kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) and many other pair-living birds, but also in some human societies, it is sometimes advantageous to ‘divorce’, if partners prove incompatible [25], [27], [35]. In contrast, our data strongly indicate that break-ups were associated with factors extrinsic to the pair, and that partners did not voluntarily leave or “divorce” as it has been reported for birds, gibbons, and (in at least one case) brown titi monkeys (Callicebus brunneus) [25][27], [36], [37]. On the other hand, in some species (oystercatchers, Haematopus ostralegus), the reproductive success of stable pairs is not only higher, but there are also accrued benefits with increased duration of the pair-bond, independent of effects of age or experience [38]. This was not the case for owl monkeys, since the number of offspring produced did not change with increased duration of the pair-bond (Fig. 2).”

ii. Smbc (click to watch in a higher resolution):

2868 societal complexity
Just to remind you that SMBC is still awesome. Here are a couple of related comics from the site.

iii. PNAS: Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa:

“The ability to control fire was a crucial turning point in human evolution, but the question when hominins first developed this ability still remains. Here we show that micromorphological and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (mFTIR) analyses of intact sediments at the site of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa, provide unambiguous evidence—in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains—that burning took place in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma. To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context.”

[Another reminder that SMBC is awesome: Here’s a recent comic which is very handy here – it explains what a Fourier transform is, in case you don’t know… (If you actually want to know there’s always wikipedia…)]

iv. I never covered this here and though some of you may already have read it I thought I might as well link to Ed Yong’s write-up on replication studies in Nature published last year. A few quotes from the article:

“Positive results in psychology can behave like rumours: easy to release but hard to dispel. They dominate most journals, which strive to present new, exciting research. Meanwhile, attempts to replicate those studies, especially when the findings are negative, go unpublished, languishing in personal file drawers or circulating in conversations around the water cooler. “There are some experiments that everyone knows don’t replicate, but this knowledge doesn’t get into the literature,” says Wagenmakers. The publication barrier can be chilling, he adds. “I’ve seen students spending their entire PhD period trying to replicate a phenomenon, failing, and quitting academia because they had nothing to show for their time.

These problems occur throughout the sciences, but psychology has a number of deeply entrenched cultural norms that exacerbate them. It has become common practice, for example, to tweak experimental designs in ways that practically guarantee positive results. And once positive results are published, few researchers replicate the experiment exactly, instead carrying out ‘conceptual replications’ that test similar hypotheses using different methods. This practice, say critics, builds a house of cards on potentially shaky foundations.

These problems have been brought into sharp focus by some high-profile fraud cases, which many believe were able to flourish undetected because of the challenges of replication. Now psychologists are trying to fix their field.”

Good luck with that. I don’t see a fix happening anytime soon. A few numbers:

“In a survey of 4,600 studies from across the sciences, Daniele Fanelli, a social scientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, found that the proportion of positive results rose by more than 22% between 1990 and 2007 (ref. 3). Psychology and psychiatry, according to other work by Fanelli4, are the worst offenders: they are five times more likely to report a positive result than are the space sciences, which are at the other end of the spectrum […]. The situation is not improving. In 1959, statistician Theodore Sterling found that 97% of the studies in four major psychology journals had reported statistically significant positive results5. When he repeated the analysis in 1995, nothing had changed6.”

But maybe other fields are just as bad? Well, as already mentioned the space sciences do better – and that goes for other fields too (though I’d say there seems to be major problems in many areas besides psychology and psychiatry):


A major problem here is that unless you’re actually a researcher in the field or know whom to ask, the file drawer effect can be completely invisible to you.

v. Globalization of Diabetes – The role of diet, lifestyle, and genes. A new publication in Diabetes Care. As usual when they say ‘diabetes’ they mean ‘type 2 diabetes’. Some numbers from the article:

“According to the International Diabetes Federation (1), diabetes affects at least 285 million people worldwide, and that number is expected to reach 438 million by the year 2030, with two-thirds of all diabetes cases occurring in low- to middle-income countries. The number of adults with impaired glucose tolerance will rise from 344 million in 2010 to an estimated 472 million by 2030.
Globally, it was estimated that diabetes accounted for 12% of health expenditures in 2010, or at least $376 billion—a figure expected to hit $490 billion in 2030 (2). […] Asia accounts for 60% of the world’s diabetic population. [Do note that this does not mean that Asian countries are on average overrepresented in the diabetes statistics. Asia also has roughly 60% of the World’s population. – US] […] In 1980, less than 1% of Chinese adults had the disease. By 2008, the prevalence had reached nearly 10% […] in urban areas of south India, the prevalence of diabetes has reached nearly 20% […] Compared with Western populations, Asians develop diabetes at younger ages, at lower degrees of obesity, and at much higher rates given the same amount of weight gain […]

If current worldwide trends continue, the number of overweight people (BMI >25 kg/m^2) is projected to increase from 1.3 billion in 2005 to nearly 2.0 billion by 2030 (6). […] the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Chinese adults increased from 20% in 1992 to 29.9% in 2002 (8) […]

In the NHS (26), each 2-h/day increment of time spent watching television (TV) was associated with a 14% increase in diabetes risk. […] Each 1-h/day increment of brisk walking was associated with a 34% reduction in risk […] Cigarette smoking is an independent risk factor for type 2 diabetes. A meta-analysis found that current smokers had a 45% increased risk of developing diabetes compared with nonsmokers (29). Moreover, there was a dose-response relationship between the number of cigarettes smoked and diabetes risk. [That one I did not know about!] […] Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reduced risk of diabetes. A meta-analysis of 370,000 individuals with 12 years of follow-up showed a U-shaped relationship, with a 30–40% reduced risk of the disease among those consuming 1–2 drinks/day compared with heavy drinkers or abstainers (37). […]

common variants of the TCF7L2 gene that are significantly associated with diabetes risk are present in 20–30% of Caucasian populations but only 3–5% of Asians […] Conversely, a variant in the KCNQ1 gene associated with a 20–30% increased risk of diabetes in several Asian populations (43,44) is common in East Asians, but rare in Caucasians […]

Several randomized clinical trials have demonstrated that diabetes is preventable. One of the first diabetes prevention trials was conducted in Daqing, China (58). After 6 years of active intervention, risk was reduced by 31, 46, and 42% in the diet-only, exercise-only, and diet-plus-exercise groups, respectively, compared with the control group. In a subsequent 14-year follow-up study, the intervention groups were combined and compared with control subjects to assess how long the benefits of lifestyle change can extend beyond the period of active intervention (59). Compared with control subjects, individuals in the combined lifestyle intervention group had a 51% lower risk of diabetes during the active intervention period, and a 43% lower risk over a 20-year follow-up.”

vi. Why chess sucks.

vii. If you think your life sucks

February 3, 2013 Posted by | archaeology, biology, data, diabetes, genetics, papers, Psychology, random stuff | 2 Comments


i. Click to view full size:

(link). He probably is going to say something stupid. According to a new paper: The Mere Anticipation of an Interaction with a Woman Can Impair Men’s Cognitive Performance. ‘Further studies needed’ etc., but I’m inclined to believe that they are right and that yes, males are actually that stupid and impressionable. Though effect sizes are important to have in mind too.

ii. I thought this was funny. Then again I’m weird.

iii. I’ve added Guam to my list of ‘places I don’t want to visit anytime in the near future’. Why? Because of this.

“Birds are dominant apex predators in terrestrial systems around the world, yet all studies on their role as predators have come from small-scale experiments; the top-down impact of bird loss on their arthropod prey has yet to be examined at a landscape scale. Here, we use a unique natural experiment, the extirpation of insectivorous birds from nearly all forests on the island of Guam by the invasive brown tree snake, to produce the first assessment of the impacts of bird loss on their prey. We focused on spiders because experimental studies showed a consistent top-down effect of birds on spiders. We conducted spider web surveys in native forest on Guam and three nearby islands with healthy bird populations. Spider web densities on the island of Guam were 40 times greater than densities on islands with birds during the wet season, and 2.3 times greater during the dry season. These results confirm the general trend from manipulative experiments conducted in other systems however, the effect size was much greater in this natural experiment than in most manipulative experiments. […]

We compared the abundance of web-building spiders on Guam to that on Rota, Tinian and Saipan. At each site, we set up 1–3 transects, separated by at least 200 meters. The transects were 20 or 30 meters long, depending on the year. We counted all visible webs within 1 horizontal meter of each transect centerline and up to 2 vertical meters above the ground. Webs lacking a spider were considered abandoned, and not counted. […] Guam, without birds, had a mean of 18.37 spider webs per ten meters in the wet season, compared to 0.45 webs per ten meters on nearby islands with birds […]. In the dry season, Guam had 26.19 spider webs per ten meters compared to 11.37 webs per ten meters on nearby islands with birds”

iv. You Don’t Know Me, But I Know You: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight, by Pronin, Kruger, Savitsky and Ross. Interesting. The abstract:

“People, it is hypothesized, show an asymmetry in assessing their own interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge relative to that of their peers. Six studies suggested that people perceive their knowledge of their peers to surpass their peers’ knowledge of them. Several of the studies explored sources of this perceived asymmetry, especially the conviction that while observable behaviors (e.g., interpersonal revelations or idiosyncratic word completions) are more revealing of others than self, private thoughts and feelings are more revealing of self than others. Study 2 also found that college roommates believe they know themselves better than their peers know themselves. Study 6 showed that group members display a similar bias—they believe their groups know and understand relevant out-groups better than vice versa. The relevance of such illusions of asymmetric insight for interpersonal interaction and our understanding of “naive realism” is discussed.”

v. Crunching the data on human brain evolution. Which functional form fits the underlying process better is an interesting discussion but I’d like to note that what I first thought when seeing these (or rather, similar depictions elsewhere) was: ‘hey, look at that standard deviation!’

vi. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Another fMRI-study. I don’t know enough about this stuff to comment on the validity of the conclusions, but I’ll probably bookmark it and keep it for later so that I’ll be able to use it to justify my decision not to ask out the hypothetical cute girl in class next semester (or whatever).

vii. Quality of Diabetes Care in Italy. I’m glad I don’t live in Italy:

“Of 126,163 diabetic individuals (prevalence of diabetes 5.8%, mean age 71 years), as many as 42% did not have their HbA1c measured for over a year. Even considering only insulin-treated people, this frequency remains disappointingly high (35%). The proportion of people having at least two annual tests for HbA1c was low (32.7%; 43.1% among insulin-treated patients). […] Another disappointing finding is the very low proportion of subjects in whom microalbuminuria was tested (27%) in spite of its role as a strong predictor of cardiovascular diseases and dialysis. Annual testing for plasma total cholesterol (61.2%), creatinine (58.9%), eye examination (11.1%), electrocardiogram (25.1%), and arterial echo-Doppler (15.9%) were low.”

I recently posted some corresponding Danish numbers here, though unfortunately that post is in Danish. In Denmark approximately 95% of diabetics get their HbA1c measured at least once a year. I get my HbA1c tested 3-4 times a year and I’d have no clue what to do without these numbers. 92% of Danish patients cared for by the hospital outpatient clinics (diabetesambulatorier) and 55% of the patients treated by their local GP were tested for microalbuminuria at least once every two years. I’m tested once per year. I frankly found it shocking that the Italic HbA1c numbers were that low but I probably should have known better, given the variation in diabetes care across countries. Not all of the variables mentioned are equally important but Italy fails at the really basic stuff too. For a Danish diabetic to move to a place like (Southern) Italy (I’m almost certain the situation is far worse in the south than in the north) would be a bit like an old and frail person moving to a place where they haven’t heard about penicillin. This stuff is a big part of why I’m not very likely to move away from Denmark when I finish my education – a lot of places I basically consider ‘off limits’ because I’d be gambling with my health by moving there, and even a lot of relatively advanced societies still have diabetes treatment protocols which belong in the (metaphorical) Stone Age.

September 18, 2012 Posted by | archaeology, diabetes, medicine, papers, Psychology, random stuff, studies | Leave a comment

‘Mezoamerican civilization’ and ‘From village to empire in South America’

“…the really significant development in the evolution of any civilization is the increase of societal size and internal heterogeneity, that is, the emergence of class and occupational divisions; and this is a process, not an invention to be diffused from place to place” (Sanders 1972, 152)”

The title of the post is a combination of the titles of chapters 16 and 17 in THP, and the quote above is from the first page of chapter 16 (no, it doesn’t mean that e.g. technological diffusion doesn’t matter – the importance of diffusion was underlined immediately before this quote in the text, and I omitted one word from the quote, the word ‘But’ which was right in front of it). Anyway, I’ve almost finished the book now (one chapter to go), and so this may be my last post about the book – unless I can’t find anything else to write about in the next days, in which case I’ll probably add a post about ‘Complex Societies in North America’ or some other similarly silly subject. I read Métraux a while back so not all of the stuff covered in chapter 17 was new to me – but a lot of it was. Even so, it’s nice to have some context – it makes it easier to remember stuff and to arrange things in the right order. It’s hard to get the big picture from wikipedia articles like the ones below alone, but they’re also rather meant to just spark interest; there’s a huge amount of interesting stuff covered in the book, and if you wanted to I’m sure you could spend years reading about all these things (without even paying much for it, unlike a lot of the people who choose to do just that at universities around the world).

Some articles about stuff covered to some degree in the two chapters:

i. Mesoamerican chronology (also have links to many of the articles below).
ii. Teotihuacan. (this doesn’t have a ‘good article’ rank, but it is a good article)
iii. Olmec.
iv. Lost-wax casting.
v. Maya civilization.
vi. Tikal (‘good article’).
vii. Aztec.
viii. Human sacrifice in Aztec culture.

And from the chapter about South America:
ix. Cultural periods of Peru (not good, but the tables are better than nothing. Only the later preceramic periods are covered in this chapter; a previous chapter dealt with the earlier periods mentioned. The article contains links to some of the articles below).
x. Tiwanaku.
xi. Moche.
xii. Nazca Lines.
xiii. Sican (/Lambayeque) culture.
xiv. Chan Chan.
xv. Inca empire.
xvi. Swidden agriculture.
xvii. Terra preta.

July 24, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, history | Leave a comment

Complex Societies of East and Southeast Asia

The post title is the title of chapter 15 in The Human Past. I read it a while ago but I figured I might as well write a post about it. Well, when I say ‘write a post about it’, I mean…

Some links that deal with stuff covered in that chapter:

Chinese characters.
Oracle bone.
Longshan culture.
Shi Ji.
Lower Xiajiadian culture.
Xia Dynasty.
Shang Dynasty.
(Early history of) Zhengzhou.
Changjiang culture.
Zhou Dynasty.
Spring and Autumn period.
Chinese bronze age.
Liangzhu Culture.
Great Wall of China.
The three Kingdoms of Korea.
Yamato period.
The Silk Road.
The Dvaravati.
Art of Champa.

July 20, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, history | Leave a comment


I’ve been postponing writing a post like this about the book for ages. I didn’t really know how best to approach it. In the end I decided that I had to at least post something, and the stuff below’s where I ended up:

I guess the first thing to note is that the book is not just about ‘the fall of Rome’, even though I’ve frequently mentioned the book in that context here on the blog. Mostly it’s a book about migration patterns. The place is Europe, the time-frame covered is from the last part of the (western) Roman Empire up to the end of the first millenium. The (very) short version of the first 2-300 (?) pages is this:

(it’s the very short version!)

Keyword: Völkerwanderung (Danish: folkevandring). Before going any further, do read Razib Khan’s review of the book here (the image is from that post).

After Heather is finished talking about the migration patterns of Germanic ‘peoples’ (it’s necessary to add the ‘…’ He spends quite a bit of time talking about what the migration units most likely looked like, but I’ll not spend time on that here); Goths, Vandals, Franks etc. – I’d never even heard about half of the groups he mentions in the first part of the book – he talks about Slavic migration patterns, and after that he also spends quite a bit of time on the behaviour of the Vikings. I really liked part of the last bit of the book, the part about the early state formations in Central Europe (and beyond) and how these, according to him, were linked to immigration and development. I don’t know if Heather has read Mancur Olson, but he certainly reads as if he has and this most certainly does not make me like the book any less. As mentioned Heather’s treatment stops around the end of the millenium, though he does talk a little about later medieval migration patterns and -developments. Technically, the way I started out the paragraph could give you the wrong idea about how the book is structured so I should clarify. Heather rarely completely stops talking about group X or Y after he’s moved on to group Z, rather he always keeps coming back to stuff he’s previously covered, comparing the patterns observed; making arguments for why and how the experiences of groups X and Y were similar, which motivational factors the groups shared or didn’t share, or perhaps how the consequences of the different (?) migration strategies compared to each other. Sometimes it becomes a little repetitive, but he’s very thorough, and I liked that aspect because it also made it easier to remember the differences between Lombards, Sueves, Heruli and Sarmatians, to name but a few of the groups in question.

As I was reading the book, one thought that frequently crossed my mind was: ‘you have to start somewhere.’ The truth is that I know nothing about most of the stuff covered in the book – how much do you know about the migration patterns of Early Medieval Europe? – and I’ve only read one book now, so I still don’t know much. There’s a little overlap with other stuff I’ve read, but not much – The Classical World stops at Hadrian, and that’s a long time before the Goths really started taking to the road. Heather was a place to start, and I don’t think it’s a bad place to start. But it’s hard to evaluate the accuracy of an account when you don’t know which sources the author has excluded and basically don’t really know anything about the subject matter – you need to take some stuff on faith, and that’s harder to do when the evidence is sparse. And the evidence you need to rely upon when covering stuff during this period of European history is, it turns out, not what most historians would call optimal – as Heather puts it himself:

“The archaeological reflections of many first-millenium migratory processes […] will often be straightforwardly ambiguous in the sense that you could not be absolutely certain, just on the basis of archaeology alone, that migration had occurred.”

And often, archaeological evidence is almost all you have, even though we’re dealing with stuff taking place little more than 1000 years ago. I did not know that so few historical sources exist, but that’s apparently the way it is. Sometimes the most detailed piece of evidence that you have available for analysis is a description written by the worst enemies of the group you’re interested in knowing more about; a description written by someone who most likely was never neither within 500 kilometres nor within 100 years of any of the people whom he described. Most parts of Slavic Europe was basically prehistoric until some time after the end of the first millenium, something I most certainly didn’t know.

Heather’s account is compelling, though some parts of it I find more compelling than others; like Razib I feel a bit uncertain about the proposed link between the proportion of females within the migratory unit and long-run language transmission, but then again linguistics is yet another subject I know next to nothing about so that link may be eminently plausible to people more well-versed in such matters. I also find it a bit hard to see why the link between pottery types and language should be as strong as he would like to make it, making some of the conclusions he draws less certain than he’ll have them be. I consider this to be more of a minor point though, because it’s not obvious to me either why language similarities should necessarily carry more weight than should similarities in material culture when thinking about how to model and stratify populations of the past optimally; it depends on what you want to achieve with your model. Stated another way, I don’t see why it’s all that important which languages the people implementing the Korchak material culture spoke; the cultural diffusion was significant whether the people involved were at that point Germanic speaking or Slavs. Heather includes a few genetic data in his treatment of the western Viking diasporas, but he doesn’t even mention DNA evidence when dealing with the Slavs, which I find problematic (full disclosure: The comment #3 at Razib’s post linked to above was close to making me not buy the book). You get the feeling that Heather has set out to tell a Grand Narrative, and a natural inference to make then is that this means that he’s probably also subconsciously weighing the evidence in a manner that makes his Grand Narrative more likely to be true and, vice versa, competing models less likely to be true. But people who’ll be complaining for many years to come about what he’s supposedly written in his great work will likely get a lot of things wrong, because the argument he’s trying to make is in fact not as strong as you’d probably think from just reading about it – as he puts it himself in his last concluding chapter:

“migration should generally be given only a secondary position behind social, economic, and political transformation when explaining how it was that barbarian Europe evolved into non-existence in the course of the millenium.”

Heather is not the ‘migration is everything’-strawman that will likely be knocked down many times in the years to come, he’s not denying that a lot of other factors were likely even more important than migration – he states this fact explicitly in his book! But his book also just happens to be about migration, because he thinks immigration was important too. And to someone who does not know a lot about the subject matter, he makes a strong case for that general point. Though people who know more about the period may find his arguments less convincing than I did.

The book is well written and even though I’d have liked to read more about e.g. the material culture of the various migration units, the book is probably long enough as it is (618 pages + 76 pages of maps and notes). If you want to know more about ‘why people migrate today, in the year 2012’ this may not be the best book to get (on the other hand you could also do a lot worse), but it does contain a rather neat description of the (‘a?’) theoretical framework of modern migration studies as well as several examples of how to apply the framework in question. I’ll quote a few key passages related to this point from the last part of the book below:

“Comparative studies provide two basic points of orientation when thinking about the likely causes of any observable migration flow. First, it is overwhelmingly likely that a substantial difference in levels of economic development between adjacent areas will generate a flow between the two, from the less-developed towards its richer neighbour. […] The second point is equally basic. In the vast majority of cases, the precise motivation of any individual migrant will be a complex mixture of free-will and constraint, of economic and political motives. […] Taken together, what both of these observations stress above all is that migration will almost always need to be understood against prevailing patterns of economic and political development. […] Understood properly, and this is the central message screaming out from the comparative literature, migration is not a separate and competing form of explanation to social and economic transformation, but the complementary other side of the same coin. Patterns of migration are dictated by prevailing economic and political conditions, and another dimension in fact of their evolution; they both reflects existing inequalities, and sometimes even help to equalize them, and it is only when viewed from this perspective that the real significance of migratory phenomena can begin to emerge.”

I included this quote also to point out just how wrong-headed it can be to look at immigration as an isolated phenomenon that you can just analyze separately from other important societal phenomena. This is part of why immigration is important, and it’s a point Heather repeats again and again – the fact that this variable interacts with and is dependent upon so many other important variables of interest, and that development and immigration patterns in particular are very closely connected. A lot of people implicitly know this to be true, but many people also don’t know that they know this (or don’t know that they know that they know it…).

This is the part I haven’t said yet, but this is probably all you really need to know: I recommend the book. It has a lot of good stuff and you’ll learn a lot from it even though you have little to no background knowledge.


Razib just posted this, which is highly relevant. I’ll have a look at the paper.

July 17, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, history, immigration | 3 Comments

South Asia: From early villages to buddhism

I mentioned the chapter in a previous post, but I didn’t cover it in any detail and I thought that I probably should, even if it’s not – in my opinion – one of the better chapters in the book. I’m currently finishing the chapter after that one, chapter 15, about ‘Complex Societies of East and Southeast Asia’, which covers stuff taking place in that region during the time period from the 3rd century BC up to the end of the Khmer Empire.

Having some background knowledge about the stuff that’s covered in a specific chapter, a situation I’ve been in a few times, can truly impact reading experience, and I’m not sure I’d have read the book quite the same way if I’d read it some years ago. Generally, if you know stuff from other sources it’s easier to realize just how much stuff is actually covered in a book like this. Robin Lane Fox used more than 700 pages in his book The Classical World to cover what The Human Past spends, what, 4-5 pages on? Similarly, Gernet spends more than 100 pages on the developments taking place from the early Warring States period of Ancient China to the end of the Han Dynasty – a much more condensed version is naturally presented in THP. Heather’s book? Well, here’s what THP has to say about one of the main subjects covered in that book, THP page 429:

“In eastern Europe, the River Danube formed the frontier of the empire. Over the centuries that followed, extensive interaction took place between the Roman provinces and the territories beyond, in the form of trade, cultural and technological borrowing, diplomatic exchange, and military action, until the Roman/non-Roman division dissolved in the late 4th and 5th centuries AD.”

That’s one way of putting it. Or you could write a book about it. Or several books, many have been written about that topic. Something I have thought of as rather interesting is how the book is actually, the scope of the material covered taken into consideration, quite focused on the evidence and the specifics – main sites, findings, etc. There’s less room to spare for ‘the big picture’ than you might have thought, even if it is fundamentally pretty much nothing but a book about big picture stuff. But a lot of the big picture stuff that is included is big picture stuff that has been made plausible by presenting or at least talking about some the evidence first – you don’t see many conclusions you don’t know how the authors arrived at. ‘After having looked closely at the middens found (you’d be surprised how much you can learn from old middens) at these three sites, we can see that the number of sheep bone fragments increase over time and that the number of gazelle bone fragments decrease over time, indicating that (something about domestication and decreased reliance on game as a protein source)’ – no, that’s not a quote from the book, but most of the book is conceptually like this: What did the people living at that point in time leave behind, and what can we conclude based on what they left behind? It’s fascinating how much stuff can actually be covered in such a manner in such a short amount of space, all things taken into consideration.

I expect to have another one of those ‘I’ve read about this before’-experiences when I read chapter 17 (From Village to Empire in South America), given that I’ve previously read Metraux. It should be mentioned that having read other stuff about a subject also makes the newly acquired knowledge easier to put into context and recall afterwards but you guys probably already know that. It’s great if the authors disagree about something, because then you start to feel a need to remember what the other guy said, leading to a more critical reading of both materials. The fact that I hadn’t read anything about the prehistory of South Asia before may be part of why I didn’t much like the chapter, but it’s not the only reason. Anyway, with all that out of the way; I’ve added some links to the type of stuff that’s covered in chapter 14 below. I’ve tried to select only somewhat-substantial articles:

Indus Valley Civilization
Cemetery H culture
Indus script
Mauryan Empire
Kushan empire

Western Satraps
Sunga Dynasty (/Empire)

June 28, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books | Leave a comment

‘The Mediterranean World’ and ‘South Asia: From Early Villages to Buddhism’

The post title refers to the titles of the chapters 13 and 14 in The Human Past. I read the first chapter earlier today and expect to finish chapter 14 later this evening (though I’m now starting to think that may be a bit optimistic). They are both 40+ pages long, so there’s a lot of stuff covered here. Given that each chapter here corresponds to at least half a book in many other contexts, I figured I might as well blog my reading of this stuff more regularly than I’ve done so far. I’ve added some links to stuff covered in chapter 13, the one about the Mediterranean World – the time period covered is roughly the period from early 3rd millenium BC to the fall of the Roman Empire. I haven’t read all the articles so I can’t say if they agree with the book, but I’ll assume for now that many of the same themes are covered. It’s not unlikely that I may have linked to one or two of these before in my wikipedia articles posts, as this is (generally) stuff I’ve read about before, on more than one occasion (some of this stuff was part of the high school curriculum):

Minoan civilization.
Cycladic civilization.
Troy VII
Linear B
Mycenaean Greece
Greek Dark Ages
Etruscan civilization
Philip II of Macedon
Alexander the Great
Ptolemaic Kingdom
Punic Wars
Forum of Trajan
First Jewish–Roman War

June 20, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, history | Leave a comment

From foragers and farmers to complex societies

So, as I’ve also tweetet I read quite a bit of stuff in The Human Past during this weekend. I know some of you are probably sick and tired of hearing about this book and wondering when I’ll finish it and move on to something else; those of you who feel this way will probably be happy to learn that I’ve now read more than half of the book (10 of the 19 chapters).

However the likelihood that I’ll give the book a rest is not very high. I find some of this stuf just incredibly interesting, and I don’t really feel like stopping half way through. The chapters I’ve read over the last week or so have mainly been about the rise of agriculture in various parts of the world and the consequences thereof (names of the chapters I’ve read over the last week: ‘The World Transformed: From foragers and farmers to states and empires’; ‘From foragers to complex societies in Southwest Asia’; ‘Origins of food-producing economies in the Americas’; ‘Holocene Africa’; ‘Holocene Europe’. The book also has a chapter about East Asian agriculture and one about Holocene Australia and the Pacific Basin, but I haven’t read those yet).

One of the interesting things about a book like this is that it makes you realize how much you didn’t know that you didn’t know. I touch upon my own ignorance a lot in this post, and I do it in part to make the readers perhaps start asking themselves some of the same questions I’ve been asking myself: How much do I actually know about this stuff? And how much of that ‘knowledge’ is actually mostly just sh*t I have made up along the way? I never really got a ‘what were you thinking? How could you be so stupid?’-type reaction along the way, but I probably ought to have had it and only my self-pride shielded me from it.

I have never really thought much about how farming came about; whether ‘plants or animals’ came first and which factors impacted this; how agriculture spread, from where and how fast; why it sometimes failed to spread to a specific area or region? How much it might have mattered that some specific places of the world are better suited to this food-production stuff than other places? All kinds of questions pop up once you start thinking about these things. At some specific loci on my knowledge map, I realized while reading the book that my own almost complete lack of knowledge about the subject had not in fact stopped me from having formed quite strong preconceptions about the way things were ‘supposed to have worked’ in the past. You form narratives in your mind, and often those narratives will be dead wrong because they are too simplistic, based on lack of information or perhaps just plain stupid if you give them even a moment’s thought. But you don’t, so the ideas stay where they are until they can be replaced by something else. I had no idea that Sahara was relatively fertile land some millenia ago, I had no idea that the spread of one small bug likely impacted the feasibility of cattle herding in Africa significantly in prehistoric times. I hadn’t thought about how risky the adoption of agricultural practices might have been in some marginal areas with, for instance, significant (long-term) variation in rainfall, nor had I thought about the fact that some places probably were very well suited for the hunter-gatherer way of life and actually didn’t ‘need farming’ to form what was at that point relatively complex societies. In my mental model agriculture used to be the ‘always obviously better choice’ for food procurement, so it didn’t occur to me that the food output of foraging groups some places could locally surpass that of agricultural societies. I also didn’t think about how farming and traditional food procurement strategies could be combined in various ways and how scales and degrees are probably better ways to think about these things than are zeros and ones. It did not occur to me when I started reading this that the process from foraging to farming wasn’t actually just a one-way street; in some places, farming came and then went away again because of climatic- or other factors which impacted food production enough to cause people to give up on that new way of life and go back to what used to work (this last one I actually consider quite embarrasing given my knowledge about Ancient China – I knew this already! Only I didn’t, really. But I ought to have known: “The northern frontiers of the Chinese world formed a zone where the opposing modes of life of the farmer and the herdsman mingled and combined. Down the centuries sometimes the pasturages would advance and the cultivated land shrink, sometimes the arid lands would be conquered and developed by the sedentary peoples. Just as certain tribes of herdsmen changed over to agriculture, so some Han adopted the nomads’ mode of life.”).

I have actually never really thought about how the process of animal domestication (and plant domestication, naturally…) probably depended crucially on which animals were actually around to be domesticated in the local areas, or about just how differently the continents, and local regions as well, were endowed on that score when these ideas first took hold (let’s just say that, for instance, there weren’t a lot of horses in South America pre-1500). Before I read these chapters, I never really thought of farming as some process which gradually developed over thousands of years, where hunter-gatherers played a very significant role in the evolution of the food-production process – I usually (wrongly) sort of assumed that some guy somewhere (perhaps several guys, living in different places) got this Great Idea, ‘and the rest is history’. I always wondered why nobody got that Great Idea a lot sooner, and I guess I’ve sort of gotten that question answered by now.

The last week’s reading has made me think long and hard about which other stupid ideas with no basis in facts I may have put into my head without realizing it. I’m sure there are a lot of them. I think that if you’re asking yourself questions like those after you’ve read some stuff, this is a good indicator that you’ve actually learned something. Ignorance, and its close friend stupidity, is incredibly easy to overlook, because there’s so much of it that you don’t even know where to look for it. You need to know something about X to figure out what you don’t know about X.

June 3, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books | Leave a comment