Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos (1980) featured many anthropological themes and set the bar for much of the educational programming that has aired since. Hopefully, this updated version, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, will spark renewed public interest in the science of humanity!
Archaeologist Brian Fagan wrote a broadly informative book called Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind. Arguably, no other variable has had such a significant impact on the rise and fall of civilizations than water. The Indus Valley Harappan civilization appears to be no exception.
Environmental variables, such as unpredicted changes in the availability of water, have been implicated in the declines of most pre-industrial civilizations. These variables are often compounded by sociopolitical factors (warfare, internal strife, etc.), but the role of resource shortage is undeniable. Paleoclimatic data published recently in Geology - and summarized this week in Nature - indicates that drought hastened the decline of Harappan civilization:
“The decline of Bronze-Age civilizations in Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia has been attributed to a long-term drought that began around 2000 bc. Now palaeoclimatologists propose that a similar fate was followed by the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilization, at about the same time. Based on isotope data from the sediment of an ancient lake, the researchers suggest that the monsoon cycle, which is vital to the livelihood of all of South Asia, essentially stopped there for as long as two centuries” (Emma Marris; Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2014.14800).
There’s always an in between.
The thing I like most about teaching anthropology: it makes a positive difference in the world. The thing I like least about teaching anthropology: feeling like I have to tiptoe through one of the least controversial facts in all of science – humans evolved.
Like many other teachers, I would like to spend more time sharing my passion for the wonders of evolution and less time convincing people that evolution is real; less time rehashing 19th Century arguments in a 21st Century world.
This is one reason I chose not to watch the Bill Nye and Ken Ham Evolution-Creation debate this week. Why are we “debating” this in the year 2014? It’s like debating who won Super Bowl XLVIII (my beloved Seattle Seahawks!). What fun is there in watching a debate where one side honors time-tested rules of evidence and the other just makes s— up? As much fun as watching a football game where one team plays by NFL rules and the other team kicks the ball into the stands and screams “100 points, we win!”
If anything good came out of the debate, it’s that people are talking about evolution – most often talking past each other. Ignorance is on proud display. Images like this break the heart of an anthropologist.
If you’ve seen all 22 of these images, you know that it’s a whole lot of wrong; people smugly holding signs displaying the most elementary misunderstandings of science and religion. Good news: if you want to make your extinct hominin memorable to an anti-evolutionist, give it a cute name like “Lucy.” Bad news: that might be all he/she remembers – to the exclusion of all other paleoanthropological finds!
If you’re taking the time to read Anthropology Now, you probably know that Lucy is one specimen of the species Australopithecus afarensis. There are, of course, other individuals representing this species. And Lucy’s skeleton is 40% complete (more than “a few pieces”). You want hundreds of bone specimens? Below is a partial list of hominin species identified in the fossil record (there is some disagreement about which were truly distinct species and which could be “lumped” into the same species – now that is an actual evolutionary debate!):
Australopithecus afarensis (the young lady and I agree that this one exists)
Australopithecus (Paranthropus ) aethiopicus
Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei
Australopithecus (Paranthropus) robustus
Homo sapiens (I’m guessing she acknowledges the existence of this one too).
Also the mysterious Denisovans and Homo floresiensis (“Hobbit”) about whom we still have a lot to learn. There’s plenty of freely available information on each of these species online, along with links to the peer-reviewed primary literature and tons of popular books, magazine articles, and documentaries. Just Google any of the species names above.
Our evolutionary past can only remain a mystery if we choose not to see it.
Sorry to beat the weathered bones of a very dead horse, but basic misconceptions about evolution seem to pervade American culture. So much that I was compelled to write a letter to the editor of my local newspaper this week. Here it is:
A recent letter writer commented on “…the religion of Darwinism, whose faith rivals that of any fundamentalist.” It’s important to note that the theory of evolution (theory meaning a coherent explanation of all observations, not a guess or hunch) does not meet any anthropological definition of religion. Such definitions always include the term supernatural, which Darwinian evolution is not. Nor is it a matter of faith, since scientific findings are based on empirical evidence, not magical thinking. Key point: evolution by natural selection is not “just another belief.” It is one of the most well-supported theories across every field of science (from Anthropology to Zoology), and the foundation of our understanding of the natural world. Any “controversy” regarding evolution is cultural and political, not scientific. Darwinism is no more a religion than gravity or plate tectonics.
It’s true, popularizers of archaeological research tend to use a lot of words like mystery, secret, adventure, explore, discover, unknown, and decoded. Especially decoded; I personally use three documentaries in my classes that contain “code” or “decoded.” There must something alluring about the prospect of cracking the code of an ancient secret mystery (see how I did that?).
People who teach and write about archaeology work awfully hard to bridge the “excitement gap” between fiction and reality. We’re excited by the reality and are sometimes surprised when others don’t share our enthusiasm. As a result, we let loose a torrent of attention-getting words to liven up the sometimes mundane (but exciting!) questions of archaeological research.
I was reading about Mike Parker Pearson’s book about Stonehenge on amazon.com (you’ve probably seen him on Nova, the National Geographic Channel, etc.). Anyhow, one reviewer of the book perfectly described how high use of the word mystery drives expectations:
“Readers looking for something fascinating about the ancient mysteries of Stonehenge need to know that archaeologists have a different understanding of the word ‘mystery’ than the average layperson. For them, it is a mystery why a certain layer of sediment or animal bone is found in one place as opposed to another, not whether ancient aliens were involved in the monument’s construction” (J.D. Mason).
Heck, I’m intrigued by the layers of sediment and animal bone, but the reviewer makes a very good point. If someone bought Parker Pearson’s book expecting ghosts, magic, and crystal skulls, they’d be very disappointed! I’ll keep my eyes open for compelling evidence of ancient aliens. In the meantime, I will also do my best to not overhype the MYSTERY! of real archaeology.
I’m always glad to see how Google draws attention to worthy individuals with its daily Google Doodle. Today, they mark what would have been the 82nd birthday of primatologist Dian Fossey, famous for her pioneering research among gorillas. Check out the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International for more about her life and work.
There are many, many problems with pseudoarchaeology. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews from Bad Archaeology excellently describes the racism of pseudoarch. Enjoy!
A common observation made by critics of Bad Archaeologists is that so many of their ideas have an underlying and unspoken racist assumption: the benighted savages of distant continents and ancient times could not possibly have been responsible for the remarkable ruined structures found in their lands. Thus the walls of Puma Punku (Perú), the pyramids of Giza (Egypt), the Great Enclosure of Zimbabwe or the Serpent Mound of Ohio (USA) must have been built (or at the very least designed) by outsiders, whether they came from a more “advanced” (but nevertheless contemporary and known) civilisation, a lost continent or outer space. And if those responsible were human, they are usually described in terms that leave us in no doubt that they were white-skinned.
Sometimes, mythology is used to justify these ideas. Bad Archaeologists are very fond of stories about Wiracocha in South America, for instance. We are told that he was a tall bearded man with white skin who came from overseas to bring civilisation to the Andean peoples before departing across the sea. What they fail to reveal is the source of these legends: accounts by the Spanish Conquistadores who used them to justify their conquests and to show the conquered people that a previous visitor from elsewhere had brought them nothing but good. The subtext is plain and it ought to come as no surprise that versions of the stories collected by more recent anthropologists and folklorists do not have the details that make Wiracocha appear to have European characteristics.