Monday, January 30, 2017

Lucy in the Trees Without Diamonds

When I first learned the human fossil record back in my undergraduate days, it was a straight shot from Homo habilis to modern humans. But since then, the path of human evolution has become a tangled tree with many branches, and it's much harder to explain. Now we have all kinds of Australopithecines and any number of the species Homo and with each discovery comes a rethinking of our past.

One of those controversies focuses on Australopithecus afarensis, and more specifically on the 40% compete fossil specimen affectionately known as "Lucy."

I admit that Lucy has a special place in my heart. For many years I hung out with the paleontologists who found her, and so her fame at the time as the most ancient hominid feels like part of my personal history.

During my first years as a professor at Cornell, I had the job of purchasing and organizing fossil casts so that students could look at, and even hold, their ancestors  duringIntroductory Biological Anthropology.
For about two years, all sorts of casts were mailed to me, but none were as special as those of Al-288-1's (Lucy's official fossil name). She arrived in many boxes and I had to unwrap each piece and place them, one by one and in  correct anatomical orientation, onto sheets of  foam set in wood drawers. It was, for me, not so much about getting ready for a class as a sacred, deeply moving, act.

I remember so distinctly holding the cast of Lucy's tiny pelvis and thinking about bipedalism and how that bone confirmed that Lucy and her kind walked one two legs, even 3.2 million years ago, meaning she was a human, not an ape.

But since that time, researches have deduced that Lucy actually retained some ape characteristics—curved hand bones, long arms, and most recently, heavy use of her arm bones, all suggesting lots of time spent in trees, perhaps.

I don't really care where Lucy spent her time. She's my special fossil. It was this woman's bipedalism that pushed the hominid lineage back millions of years. In a sense, Lucy stood up for us. And she was, in fact, the first women to stand up for herself and others.

Our legacy, in other words, started with her.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Double Clicking But Not With A Mouse

When I was an undergraduate, it was standard fare for students to watch the classic anthropology film called The Hunters. Made in 1957, it was still a revelation when I saw it the first time in 1975. 

The Hunters is a documentary of the Ju/'hoansi people of Namibia. You might know them as !Kung or Bushmen but that's certainly not what they call themselves. 

The focus of the film is a many day hunt of a giraffe by four men. The viewer might be struck by their tireless pursuit of the failing giraffe, or the savanna landscape, or maybe what the hunters are wearing and also using as weapons. But what struck me most back then, and the many times I've watched the film since, is the language.

Sounds that we might group together "clicks" pepper Ju/'hoansi language (called Taa or !Xoon) where the ! signals a particular click that allides onto the word) making it a symphony of sound, and rendering any Romance language flat and boring in comparison. 

Also, a listener is struck dumb on how a person could actually do those sounds, do them quickly and repeatedly. An English speaker attempting to imitate Taa usually ends up striking the tongue off the roof of the mouth and sputtering tsk tsk tsk, as if indicating someone has done something wrong. So not even close.
 It seems that Taa language "click" language is actually the most complex language in the world. English has about 45 distinct sounds while the addition of clicks gives Taa 208 sounds.

The home base of the treasure trove of the ingenuity of human language is the Kalahari Desert of Namibia, Southern Africa. Many Ju/'hoansi are still full time or part time hunters and gatherers while some have settled on government land. And there are only a few thousand people left how utter these sounds as they talk to each other and go about their day.

Taa is surely one of the most beautiful human mouth sounds on earth, along with with babies laughing, and whispered words of love, and what a shame that it is disappearing from the human linguistic playbook. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Not Everyone Wants to be Westernized

It's easy to wear blinders in a cultural way. That's because what we see everyday seems the "normal" way, as if everyone on earth had the same values, experiences, care and woes. 

It's also easy to think that other kinds of lifeways disappeared long ago, that there are no more hunter and gatherers, no more people living in the depths of forests or the plains of the steppe, nobody roaming around with herds of animals, or that no one is actually planting their own crops as a way to eat other than make money. 

But none this is true.

Anthropologists are there to remind us that there are many ways to make a living, and that some of these ways have been around a lot longer than the Industrial Revolution. More interesting, and less academic, The New York Times also keeps reminding us there's a big world out there and we are only one small part of it.

In September, the paper published an article about the Yugur and Uighur of China, cultures that most Chinese don't even know about. 

"The history of the Yugurs tells of the wax and wane and missing of cultures, dictated by geography and migration and the choices made by societies. The influence of a variety of nomadic steppe cultures in what is today northern China is a towering part of Asian history up the the 20th century," writes reporter Edward Wong.

Following the historical complexity of these cultures and their religions requires a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, and even that might not be enough, but the end result is clear. "We don't have the written language anymore," said a manager of a handicraft workshop who once worked in the Sunan Country cultural office. "If we don't preserve the oral language, then it will quickly disappear. If we don't preserve handmade crafts or the techniques of making things by hand, then there's nothing special about us." (And what's so special about Western culture, one might ask).

In December, Jon Emont and Surgey Ponomarev wrote in The Times about endemic Mentawai people on the Mentawai Islands on Indonesia. Many of these people still live in the forest, and some of those who have relocated to villages on the outskirts of the forest want to go back. Noting that he would soon leave his wife, children and everything else to return to the forest and care for his aging parents who refuse to leave, Petrus Sekalour said, "Personally I prefer living in the forest. I'm happier there. I don't have to stress about finding work every day." Or finding something to eat or someone to talk to. 

According to the article, the Mentawai  traditional religion is not affected in any way by Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, nor Muslim beliefs. Even with Western medical care available, the forest Mentawai  still rely on shamans. They tend pigs and carry on without all the trappings of Western culture that we think everyone wants. But they don't. Why don't they? "The older generation is happier than we are," says Mr. Sekaliou, which might be a hint. 

This then is the real anthropological lesson. Not only are there other cultures and other lifestyles in operation across the globe, some of those people have it better than we do. Sometimes a lot better, all things considered. 

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