independent.co.uk 8-2023 Underworld discovery casts doubt on our understanding of human evolution
Did an extinct ‘small-brained ape-man’ species develop a sophisticated culture millennia before we did? – by David Keys
Scientists are planning to solve one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries. Using an unparalleled range of tests, experts are investigating whether a group of ‘ape-men’ succeeded in creating a complex human-like culture – potentially thousands of years before our own species, Homo sapiens, managed to do so. Evidence, gathered by the scientists, suggests that a complex ‘ape-man’ culture with some practices and belief systems normally only associated with modern humanity, emerged in southern Africa around 300,000 years ago.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the now long-extinct species behaved in several key ways like modern humans – and yet appears to have been able to do that with brains which were only a third the size of ours. The discovery and the ongoing research threatens to overthrow key aspects of how the scientific world understands human evolution.
The evidence assembled so far is beginning to suggest that these small-brained ‘ape-men’ may have been able to do seven remarkable things:
- -Envisage an afterlife (in other words, a belief that some form of existence continues beyond death).
- -Believe that an afterlife occurs in some sort of ‘underworld’, located beneath (rather than on or above) the world of the living. That implies that they may have developed some very embryonic sense of cosmology.
- -Conceive the idea of physically burying their dead – in that ‘underworld’.
- -Give grave goods to dead members of their community – an apparent act that implies that they may have believed that the dead would somehow be able to use them in an afterlife.
- -Carry out potential rituals – specifically funerary meals – inside their ‘underworld’.
- -Create rudimentary art (abstract designs) around the entrance to at least one of the burial chambers in that ‘underworld’.
- -Plan some sort of relatively complex lighting system (either a succession of small fires and/or torches) to enable them to penetrate their ‘underworld’ and take their dead there.
Their ‘underworld’ was located deep underground in a complex subterranean system, known as Rising Star Cave, in what is now the north-east part of South Africa. To reach the main chamber (accommodating what appear to be burials) within that system involved a 130 metre long subterranean journey. The discovery have been met with excitement by some scientists but with scepticism from others.
“We know that what we’re discovering breaks totally new ground – and is therefore likely to be controversial. That’s why we are deploying every possible type of investigative technology to ensure that the maximum amount of additional evidence can be found,” said the leader of the Rising Star Cave investigation, National Geographic and University of Witwatersrand palaeoanthropologist, Professor Lee Berger, who with co-investigator, human evolution expert Professor John Hawks, has just published a detailed National Geographic book on the discoveries, entitled Cave of Bones.
Preliminary scientific tests have already been carried out – but large numbers of other tests are now being planned to confirm or amend initial conclusions. The most controversial aspect of the species (named Homo naledi by the scientists) is the creature’s brain size – barely bigger than that of a chimpanzee.
So a crucial part of the ongoing investigation will be further detailed examination of the species’ skull fragments, found in the cave complex, to try to better understand the structure and organisation of their brains. So far remains of at least 30 individuals have been found there – and it’s likely that dozens more will be discovered over the coming months and years.
Certainly, despite its small brain size, the creature had very well-developed human-like frontal lobes, the precise area of the brain known to be involved with planning and language. To make the discovery less controversial, the scientists will need to provide additional evidence that brain size is not necessarily crucial in terms of cognitive ability. That would involve demolishing literally centuries of scientific belief.
The investigation so far strongly suggests that Homo naledi corpses were deliberately brought into the cave system and deliberately buried there. The evidence gathered so far points to living members of that species being responsible for doing that. One Homo naledi individual (a child) seems to have been deliberately buried with a grave good – a probable tool placed in his or her right hand.
Now, further excavations are planned which may yield additional such grave goods in other graves in the Homo naledi ‘underworld’. Any such discoveries would further bolster the idea that Homo naledi had a concept of life after death.
Key to the investigation will be dating the hearths used to cook food (including antelope) in the pitch-dark subterranean complex. Dating them is crucial in order to definitively confirm that the hearths were made in the Homo naledi era. Using a dating system, known as electron spin resonance, it may be possible to date the enamel of teeth from those antelopes and other animals. What’s more the archaeologists will try to use another dating system to determine the age of a layer of solidified lime which overlies some of the hearths.
The individuals cooking the antelope and other meat also seem to have deliberately broken those animals’ long bones, presumably to extract the very nutritional marrow from inside them. Microscopic analysis of the bone breaks will be carried out to try to prove that they were deliberately broken with a stone tool, rather than accidentally.
Another key part of the investigation will involve detailed geomorphological and other studies of the cave rock faces where what are almost certainly engravings have been discovered. First, the archaeologists will need to prove beyond any doubt that the designs seemingly engraved on those walls could not have been made by erosion or other natural processes.
Then they will need to demonstrate that they were made by tools. And crucially, the scientists plan to date the apparent engravings by using uranium series dating to reveal the age of patches of stalagmite-like material (calcite) which formed inside the engravings after they were made.
The investigators will also be looking for any traces of surviving Homo naledi DNA associated with the engravings or with any other material adhering to the cave walls. That’s because other, albeit much less ancient, Stone Age art is known to have sometimes been created by using a mixture of pigment and potentially DNA-bearing spit.
“We are currently planning the most ambitious and comprehensive scientific investigation ever carried out on apparent prehistoric engravings. If we can confirm that the patterns on the rock face were most likely created by Homo naledi, they will overturn scientific thinking on the evolution of symbolic thought,” said rock art specialist Genevieve von Petzinger, co-leader of the Spanish-based archaeology group, the First Art Team, which is carrying out the examination of the Rising Star Cave engravings.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Homo naledi ‘underworld’ is its difficult-to-access location. In order to reach it today involves a 130 metre long 30 minute subterranean journey including around 12 metres crawling through narrow passageways between 15 and 20 centimetres high, before descending down an almost vertical 12 metre long ‘chimney’, with an average width of just 20 centimetres.
Geomorphological surveys of the cave complex suggest that it was almost as challenging back in Homo naledi‘s era. So it would have taken huge determination and, arguably, even ideological vision, for them to take corpses, fire wood, fire brands, and potentially antelope and other meat on such a daunting subterranean journey.
The ten metre high ceiling of the main burial chamber is deep underground – around 35 metres below the outside world with no apparent alternative above ground access. The importance of the discovery – potentially implying that ‘ape-men’ had religious and even perhaps cosmological concepts about life after death – are so revolutionary that many scientists will find the very concept extremely difficult to accept. It very substantially blurs the cognitive boundary between our species (Homo sapiens) and our ‘ape-man’ ancestors and predecessors. And yet, if the ongoing investigations strengthen those revolutionary implications, they may shed fascinating new light on the ultimate origins of how and what modern humans still think and believe.
A majority of the world’s population still believes in an afterlife – and historical and ethnographic evidence clearly shows that very large numbers of ancient human cultures thought that that afterlife was, cosmologically, located beneath the world of the living (rather than on it – or, heaven-style, above it). Perhaps tellingly, it is a global concept.
From at least the 4th Millennium BC, the ancient Sumerians (of southern Iraq) believed in an underworld called Kur (meaning ‘earth/ground’ or ‘mountain’). The ancient Egyptians had an underworld called the Duat, while the ancient Chinese had a similar concept (called the Diyu, literally meaning ‘Earth Prison’ and the Difu, literally meaning the ‘Earth Mansion’). In Hinduism, there is the ancient concept of the Patala (literally ‘that which is below the feet’), while in the Americas, the ancient Maya, the Aztecs and the Incas all had underworld concepts, as did the ancient Celts, Greeks and Romans in Europe, the Polynesians of the Pacific, the Inuit of the Arctic and the peoples of Japan and Korea. In Christianity the concept survives as hell.
Homo naledi‘s apparently sophisticated funerary culture is significant because its the first time that archaeologists have discovered evidence of such behaviour being practiced by a species not closely related to us, Homo sapiens.
Interestingly, some Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis communities buried or deposited their dead in caves – as have many modern human (Homo sapiens) cultures from the Stone Age to the present day. In many ancient civilizations worldwide, humans even created artificial caves, if there were no natural ones available. The ongoing research into the mysteries of Rising Star Cave is likely to shed fascinating new light on the distant origins of human thought and belief systems. The ultimate implication may affect how we view prehistory going back several million years ago – because Homo naledi was almost certainly not a direct ancestor of ours.
Instead, Homo sapiens is and Homo naledi was probably descended from a common ancestor species long before either existed – so the similarities in belief could be either coincidental or inherited from even deeper prehistory.
Zoological research over recent years has begun to reveal that a number high intelligence animal species (elephants, chimpanzees, monkeys, magpies, dolphins and others) appear to have death-related ‘rituals’ – including standing guard over the dead and in some cases covering the dead with leaves and other material. Additional future research into such animal behaviour may well shed additional light on the very distant origins of modern human and pre-modern-human funerary behaviour.
The Rising Star Cave investigation – which is currently the subject of a one and a half hour long Netflix documentary (Unknown: Cave of Bones) – is multidisciplinary and international, involving archaeologists, physical anthropologists, geomorphologists and other scientists from South Africa, The United states, Canada, China, Nigeria, Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Many hundreds of bones of Homo naledi have been found in the cave system in a series of expeditions over the past decade. The engravings have only just been published, as has evidence for the deliberate burial of Homo naledi individuals in the cave.
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theneweuropean.co.uk/ 30-3-2023 The medieval warm epoch: Europe’s longest heatwave – A change in the climate between the years 1000 and 1200 led to profound changes across the continent – and the world – by Peter Frankopan
In 1965, the historian Hubert Lamb noted that evidence had been “accaccumulating in many fields of investigation pointing to a notably warm climate in many parts of the world, that lasted a few centuries around AD1000–1200”. His proposed name for this period, the Medieval Warm Epoch, has since been modified and is now usually referred to by scholars as the Medieval Climate Anomaly or the Medieval Warm Period. Some too have pushed at the dating boundaries, arguing that the period of long-term generally warm climate conditions in fact dates from c.800 and lasted until 1200 or even 1250.
From a European perspective, this was a time of favourable weather patterns which ensured that atmospheric circulation in the North Atlantic was a reliable source of warm, dry air which in turn resulted in a reduction in the number both of wet and cold summers and of bitterly cold winters. This created ideal conditions for agriculture, generating good harvests, inflicting few shocks and, perhaps best of all, providing a climatic context that was reliable and stable. Of course, temperatures and rainfall levels do not remain constant or benign; nor does it mean that there was coherence or consistency across Europe as a whole – something that is in any event difficult to assess given that considerably less attention has been paid to the south and the east of the continent than to the north and the west.
The benign climate conditions that favoured Europe had different consequences for other parts of the world, although it is important to note important regional variations. For example, while rainfall in Iran, Armenia and Palestine was significantly below average for much of this period, there is little evidence that this was true of northern Syria or of western or central Anatolia. Climate impacts varied from region to region, even over relatively small areas – as was the case in what is now Bulgaria, central Greece and western Asia Minor, which do not show uniform precipitation patterns in the early Middle Ages.
Tree-ring data from Central Asia, combined with reconstructions of the Aral Sea salinity, point to the climate being cold and dry, especially from around 900 onwards. This chimes with evidence from the northern parts of China, though the rising cultivation of citrus trees and subtropical plants in Henan province to the south provides a reminder that experiences were not only different but could be sharply contrasting. More detailed and more recent surveys drawing on peat cellulose, stalagmites, ice cores and tree rings show that many parts of what is now China were generally warmer and wetter than average during this long period. Taken as a whole, however, six of the ten warmest decades globally of the last millennium were clustered in the period 950–1250.
These changes have been linked by some scholars to large-scale shifts in the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Others however have suggested that they were driven by high levels of solar irradiance and low levels of tropical volcanism. As such, reduced volcanic activity and variability of the ocean-atmosphere system appear to have been the main motor of what was a major global climate reorganisation.
In the southern Mediterranean, changes were modest. The eastern parts of the Roman empire that had survived the Arab attacks had regrouped. Characterised by centralised control of Constantinople and a bureaucratic, military and religious apparatus which sustained integration as well as a common Roman identity now went through a period of contraction where cities became smaller and networks less vibrant. Exchanges between the Middle East, Levant, North Africa and Spain were based on a similar model of political structure that provided protection of property rights, administered justice and collected taxes. The difference was one of scale, with cities like Damascus, Cordoba, Fustat and many others being both larger and more numerous than those in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine world that was centred on the Aegean, the Balkans and Greece.
Both stood in sharp contrast with western and northern Europe. There, the decline and fall of Rome brought about fragmentation and atomisation. There were brief spells of consolidation, most notably during the reign of the great ruler Charlemagne who succeeded in uniting much of what is now France, the Low Countries, Germany and northern Italy into a single realm. The high water mark came with Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo II on Christmas Day in 800. This was a brief and exceptional moment in what was otherwise a period of almost no long-distance trade and a narrowing of horizons that lasted for hundreds of years.
Rather than the romantic figure of Charlemagne, who became a totemic symbol for those keen to provide a reference point for ideas about European unity, the regional emporia of Comacchio and Torcello in Italy, Verdun in France and Birka in Scandinavia were better examples of reality. Curiously, each was set in locations that were ecologically marginal and geographically peripheral; but more importantly, each was a trading zone that was an internal market, where commerce took place between local producers and local consumers rather than with those of other regions.
This in turn provided a setting for a very different form of social and economic development. In the absence of a sophisticated bureaucracy, a new baronial class emerged in western Europe that was able to establish authority over both the labour force and over productive land. The magnates faced challenges from each other, of course, as well as from other competitors – namely the Church, which built up extensive landholdings and sought to protect and maximise its own socio-economic and political position. Together, these represented a superclass of dominant individuals, families and landowners who sought to concentrate power in their own hands, and retain it within kinship groups closely related by marriage or in institutional ownership that kept assets away from the king.
Ideas about the “feudal revolution” that were commonplace a few decades ago have been replaced by much more sophisticated interpretations, many of which emphasise the variety and importance of other participants in early medieval society in western Europe – such as guilds, urban groups, parishes, regional assemblies and universities. Some commentators have also stressed that the initial weakness of property rights spurred innovations over time in the formalisation and consolidation of power as aristocrats built up assets and status that ultimately proved transformational. The evolving role of the Church, as the recipient of endowments and distributor of alms, patronage and influence, was also a significant factor in social, institutional and ecological change.
The consequent transformation of both human societies and the natural environment in the early Middle Ages was so profound that some scholars have talked of this period as being the time of “the most significant agricultural expansion since the Neolithic”. The role of new technologies in driving yields and production has long been emphasised by medieval historians. Particular attention has been paid to the importance of horse collars and to the development of heavy ploughs that were much more effective in turning the heavy clay soils of northern Europe. These improved weed control, enhanced drainage and had the twin effect of boosting yields and requiring less work by farmers, thereby freeing up time and resources that could be allocated to other activities. The breaking up of larger estates into smaller units resulted in important social change, altering perceptions of the land and landscape for the peasantry as well as for the emerging baronial class.
What was most important about the uplift in agricultural productivity was its relationship to urbanisation: by improving per capita income and spurring the development of transport and commercial networks, the changes in the agrarian economies of western and northern Europe set off a chain reaction that led to the growth in size and number of towns. This in turn encouraged specialisation and cultural experimentation and resulted in further migration from the country to urban settlements – and drove cycles of dynamic growth.
The rise of towns and cities – and the regular arrival of newcomers and strangers – had profound effects on urban cultures as well as on those who lived in the countryside, with new customs, ideas, fashions and tastes producing an explosive transformation of Europe. As long-distance trade networks developed, intellectual, cultural and geographic horizons expanded too, typified by concepts like pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a journey that was long, expensive and often risky, but that gave considerable kudos to those who were able to visit the sites where Jesus Christ had lived, died and risen from the dead.
Ideas about nature also evolved, as did concern about competition for resources that varied from region to region; these ideas were evidently influenced by changing lifestyles, as well as by engagement with flora and fauna. Concepts of the natural world could be ambiguous: as one leading historian has pointed out, growing one’s own food in early medieval Italy “was both a necessity and a luxury”.
For some scholars, however, climate shifts provide an invaluable key to help understand the early Middle Ages. It has been suggested, for example, that warming was at least a contributing factor in the move of the Bulgars into the Middle Volga region from around AD 800, as it was in the establishment around this time of the Volga Bulgarian state, which opened up trade routes fanning out to Scandinavia, Byzantium, the Middle East and Central Asia.
These networks spread goods as well as ideas and religions: when the Arab envoy Ibn Faḍlān visited the Volga Bulgars just over a century later, he reported that the ruler presided over a court complete with elaborate rituals, and with expensive materials and goods on display that had come from Constantinople and Baghdad – although he was unimpressed by the incomplete understanding of Islamic teaching.
Journeys to the east were mirrored by those heading both south and west. New evidence based on mammal faeces, pollen samples and charcoal analysis suggests settlement of the Azores by Scandinavian peoples – which has been linked to anomalous winds and warmer temperatures in the northern hemisphere. The expansion of Scandinavian peoples across the North Atlantic into the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland in the ninth century has also been strongly linked to the retreat of the polar ice cap that allowed ice-free sailing, to the northerly migration of fish stocks and to the emergence of favourable growing conditions on land. Such colonisation was not easy, for it involved not only a jump into the unknown but also leaving families and friends behind. A major eruption of the Hallmundarhraun volcano in Iceland around c.900 must have been unsettling and inspired at least some settlers to build an enormous boat-shaped structure in a 1,600-metre-long lava cave in the interior, with animals including sheep, cattle, horses and pigs apparently sacrificed as burned offerings to appease pagan gods.
This was just one of dozens of eruptions in the period c.850–c.1250, with some – such as the Eldgjá volcano in 934 – proving particularly damaging to flora and fauna alike.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was mainly men who set out in the first waves of colonisation. Although Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) evidence suggests that Norse women were involved in expansions to the Shetlands, Orkneys and northern parts of Scotland, genomic data reveals that in Iceland most settlers were lone men who brought enslaved women from the British Isles to satisfy their sexual desires through rape and coercion. Some made it as far as North America to the L’Anse aux Meadows site in Newfoundland, although the settlement proved unsuccessful.
Advances in dating techniques allow us to know that a Scandinavian community had become established by 1021 – when trees were cut down with metal blades used by Vikings, but not by indigenous peoples.
Trade between new colonies in the North Atlantic and Scandinavia was primarily centred around low-bulk, high-value prestige goods that could be sold back home for rich rewards, most notably walrus hides and ivory tusks. That produced problems of its own, with Iceland evolving into a society that was dominated by those who had arrived first and built up the best and largest landholdings; by the mid-tenth century, it was “over-chieftained” – one reason why the national assembly, the Althing, was established, with the earliest laws concerned with protecting landholdings from new arrivals and landowners from each other. There were creative efforts to correct the manpower shortage, with texts like the Íslendingabók setting out how Erik the Red was able to tempt others to journey to Greenland with an astutely judged sales pitch that spoke of verdant and abundant land and of limitless opportunities that this auspiciously named island offered.
The expansion from Scandinavia into the North Atlantic was part of a wider intensification not only of regional trade and knowledge networks, but of long-distance trade too – most notably to the east and to the south that in turn brought enormous volumes of silver coinage into circulation first in the Nordic and Baltic lands and then elsewhere. These activities, coupled with human interventions in the landscape such as building new settlements, farming and rearing domesticated animals, changed ecosystems – as did the hunting of animals for food and trade. One outcome was a world of plenty – and of equality: while evidence from Roman sites suggests men ate 50 per cent more protein than women, in Scandinavian societies in this period women and girls had access to the same food sources as men and boys and had better health outcomes as a result. Some scholars have even suggested that this may help explain why there are such high levels of female autonomy and gender equality in contemporary Scandinavia.
The impact of human activities in geographically constrained locations with finite resources could be severe: within decades of the first settlers arriving in Iceland it is possible to detect soil erosion and deforestation that continued for several hundred years before long-term conservation practices were adopted. Genomic analysis, combined with radiocarbon dating and use of written sources, shows that the local population of walrus was wiped out soon after the Norse settlement in Iceland, with overhunting the most obvious cause of extinction – even if warming climate and volcanism may have been additional stress factors.
The pressure on managing resources led to shifts in consumption patterns, such as in Iceland with deliberate moves away from pigs and cattle to sheep, whose rising numbers may be explained also by attempts to produce wool for domestic use and for export. Isotope data shows that adaptation in Greenland led to terrestrial meat-based diets being replaced over time by reliance on marine protein sources.
In other words coping strategies were needed not only at times of climate shifts, but also to manage the consequences. The favourable conditions and material incentives that opened up routes between Scandinavia and the North Atlantic led to different sets of questions that were part of a constant negotiation and renegotiation between human agency and the natural environment: the arrival of any animal or plant species could have major ecological consequences. It just so happened that humans brought cascades of change in their wake as a result of interventions in the landscape: the need for settlement, food, water and other resources meant that human impact on ecosystems was profound. Plants and animals that were brought by humans, deliberately or otherwise, were part of a “natural” set of changes that had anthropogenic causes – such as weeds, seeds and parasites that were carried in the guts of pigs, or plants carried for food, for planting or simply as insulation or packaging that then took root in a new ecological setting. These outcomes, sometimes referred to as human ecodynamics, are particularly clear with the occupation of previously uninhabited locations that are then occupied and transformed by human settlement.
Taken as a whole, the period c.800–c.1250 was one of profound intensification of connections – within interlocking and interdependent worlds in Asia, Africa and Europe, or within communities in the Americas which emerged as central if independent hubs that had little or no interaction. It was hardly the case that this long time-frame provided conditions of peace and harmony that enabled relentless economic and demographic growth: in fact, one could argue the opposite was the case, as empires and dynasties rose and fell, states fought, were subsumed by or conquered each other or faded into obsolescence as new competitors emerged who could supply goods more quickly and more cheaply.
Nevertheless, as with other periods, it is hard to escape the fact that the fundamentals of ecological equilibrium and environmental sustainability underpinned the cultural, political, socio-economic, diplomatic and military histories of individual kingdoms, states or regions. Reliable food and water supplies were central at all times, but especially during periods of demographic expansion. Societies had to contend with finite natural resources; when those became exhausted or came under stress because of over-exploitation, because of shifts in rainfall patterns or because of conflict, disease or the failure of infrastructure such as river defences, disaster soon followed. That provides some food for thought for the present and future – as well as the past.
An extract from The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan
theguardian.com 5-3-2023 The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan review – why humans have always been under the weather -The historian reveals how our lives have been shaped by environmental changes since the emergence of Homo sapiens in this sweeping, riveting study – by Rohan Silva
Around 2250BC, Naram-Sin reigned supreme over a big chunk of Mesopotamia in modern Iraq – an empire known as Akkad. But then, catastrophically, came “the curse of Akkad”. Rains stopped and crops failed, leading to rampant inflation, mass starvation and political chaos. At the time, it was believed that the “curse” was Naram-Sin’s doing – he’d wronged by “defying the gods” and “losing divine favour”.
Scientists today have reached a different conclusion. Evidence suggests there was a sudden change in the climate at the time – “an evaporation event” – which caused severe drought followed by several centuries of aridity. As Peter Frankopan puts it in his masterly new book: “the collapse of the Akkadian empire has become an important and salutary example for the modern age” and “a stark warning of how mighty civilisations can fold in on themselves”, because of rapid ecological shocks. “Our world has always been one of transformation, transition and change,” he writes, and yet “the weather, climate and environmental factors have rarely been seen as a backdrop to human history, let alone as an important lens through which to view the past”.
The Earth Transformed is Frankopan’s sweeping attempt to forge a new kind of history, one made possible by new technologies (machine learning, sensors and data analytics) that are opening up new ways to study the relationship between our climate and our past…
econoist 11-3-2023 Peter Frankopan looks at the past differently in “The Earth Transformed” – How the environment shapes history—and vice versa
People are exercised by three things above all else, wrote Voltaire in the mid-18th century: climate, government and religion. He was ahead of his time in putting climate first. Peter Frankopan opens his new book with Voltaire’s comment and proceeds to show how all manner of natural disasters have shaped human history: not just floods and storms, but earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and crashing meteorites, too.
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Voltaire was fascinated by the earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755, which he incorporated into his philosophical novel “Candide”. Tremors began on the morning of November 1st, All Saints Day, when most of the locals were at mass. A huge tsunami followed. Soon the Portuguese capital lay in ruins. Tens of thousands of people are thought to have died, a big chunk of the city’s population.
The earthquake and ensuing upheaval epitomise the way natural disasters can change mindsets. It struck as the vogue for scientific observation was beginning to undermine the church’s prerogative in explaining life on Earth. The meaning of the calamity was a matter of dispute between, on one side, modernising rationalists such as Voltaire and, on the other, believers, for whom it was a sign of God’s wrath.
Professor Frankopan, who teaches global history at Oxford, has long been keen to expand Westerners’ understanding of the past. “The Silk Roads”, his book of 2015, was about Central Asia and early globalisation; it was followed three years later by “The New Silk Roads”, modestly subtitled: “The Present and Future of the World”. His latest book is, if anything, even more ambitious. In contrast to the study of history based on war, economics and political power (what some call “chaps and maps”), “The Earth Transformed” aims to put climate in its broadest sense at the centre of the story.
It canters through the formation of the Earth, with its shifting land masses and pop-up volcanic islands. Then it focuses on how humanity has “exploited, moulded and bent the environment to its will, both for good and for ill”, beginning 12,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene period, when humans spread across the globe amid favourable conditions.
In roughly chronological order, and in his characteristically pacey style, Professor Frankopan traces how ice ages alternated with warmer periods; how resources came to be exploited around the globe; how climate influenced food production and the rise of cities; how, in turn, urbanisation promoted the spread of disease; and how, over the past few decades, anxiety about the Earth’s ecology has become entrenched. He shows, in other words, both how the climate shaped modern life and how it increasingly defines the world’s economic and political tensions.
This is not a new field. In his study of the Mediterranean, published almost 75 years ago, Fernand Braudel, a French historian, identified geography and the environment as the bedrock layers of history. Still, “The Earth Transformed” raises fresh and urgent questions. Which will be the dominant countries of the future? Will access to water be more important than access to mineral resources? How can India, Pakistan and Bangladesh clean up the filthy air that chokes their citizens if they fail to co-operate amicably?
The author does not claim to be able to see into the future. Above all, his work will encourage readers to think differently about the past. He highlights new forms of computer modelling and data analysis that are shedding light on little-known areas—infrared spectroscopy that has allowed researchers to study social change in the 12th century in the area between the Shashi and Limpopo rivers of southern Africa, for example, or the recent identification of the process whereby seeds were preserved in the pits and cesspits of Jerusalem under the Abbasid caliphate. That has offered fresh evidence about the westward spread of crops in the early Islamic period.
In these ways, bygone people and societies that had seemed mute are finding a voice. By the same token, pressure to acknowledge climate-changing sins of the past—and demands for better policies now—are becoming harder to resist.
elpais.com 29-3-2023 Extreme drought ended one of the ancient world’s greatest empires – Wood from the tomb of King Midas’ father shows how a rainfall shortage and widespread famine could have wiped out the Hittite civilization – by Miguel Ángel Criado
…It’s not the first time climate impacts have been blamed for the end of Hatti, a civilization rivaling the Egypt of Ramses II. But never before has it been dated so precisely. The study that reached this conclusion says what happened to the Hittites can teach us something about the dangers of climate change….
sapiens.org/ 24 -1-2023 Embracing the Poetry of Being Human – A contributor to a special series on decolonizing anthropology rejects the discipline’s colonial and racist roots and instead pursues ways of doing science that center human liberation and possibility. By Delande Justinvil
It is, in the words of anthropologists Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Margaret Bruchac, a “handmaiden of empire and colonialism.” Though lauded for making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, the discipline began with the transformation of biological facts into cultural fictions by making a hierarchy out of human difference. Skin, hair, nails, and more were all used to reduce physical features to racial damnation under the guise of scientific evidence.
Early American ethnologists in the mid-19th century used such race science to defend the institution of slavery, drawing criticism from one of the European forefathers of this science. American Anthropology eventually became synonymous with progress and equality under Franz Boas’ four-field approach, which combined archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology into one field in the early 20th century. But even Boas’ most progressive approaches were bested by the ruse of race science.
As anthropologist Lee Baker has noted, Boas’ understanding of race was contradictory. His breakthrough study of immigrant bodies refuted the reality of race as a marker of human difference. But in other writings, Boas revealed that he saw the assimilation of human difference into the white U.S. majority as the way forward for social progress. Through this vision of assimilation, Boas painted a portrait of a Black future with only shades of white in hand.
AS AN ANTHROPOLOGIST whose work incorporates biological science, at times it can be difficult to fully reckon with these legacies. These were imperial sciences, ways of knowing that acted as tools of domination. The anthropological collections held at many natural history museums were part of an Enlightenment-era project of state-sanctioned human capture.
Doctors and curators alike took human bodies out of their social, cultural, and political contexts—sometimes by force or by theft—then used particular measurements and values as “proof” of white racial superiority. Anthropologists produced power and maintained control over knowledge through the classification, categorization, and collection of these captive human bodies. These same carceral schemes continue to define detention, imprisonment, and other punitive structures that plague the U.S. landscape.
What can be saved from the squall of Anthropology when wave after wave of its imperial aftermath continues to crash, remains and residues in tow?
MY INVESTMENTS LIE IN alternate genres of human science and study. I look to the possibilities and potentials of anthropology as a practice—a way of research as life-work for myself and others that both precedes and exceeds, in the words of anthropologist Aimee Meredith-Cox, “Anthropology with a capital A as we now understand it as an academic discipline.”
I strive to embed this intention into the very fabric of my work, from the recovery of unmarked burials beneath multimillion dollar homes in the nation’s capital to demands for change in the treatment of human remains. Whether in the ground, in the lab, in the archive, or not yet known, I tend to ancestral bodies as a caring and careful form of repair. Though trained within an academic discipline, my practice is an
Aanthropology guided by the descendant communities on whose behalf I work.
These are practices that disrupt the colonial origins of the field through the legacies of what African American studies scholar Britt Russert calls fugitive sciences: practices that revise and revamp theories and methods to incite a science resounding of liberation and possibility.
These are practices, undisciplined in form and function, that give us a feel for something like a decolonial science—one that foregoes empirical concepts of human being and embraces the poetry of being human.
scientificamerican.com 28-3-2022 Anthropology Association Apologizes to Native Americans for the Field’s Legacy of Harm – For decades anthropologists exploited Indigenous peoples in the name of science. Now they are reckoning with that history – By Rachel Parsons on March
see also pre history
varsity.co.uk 12-2021 Thinking like an anthropologist in Cambridge – Anthropology – what exactly is it? Social science? A ‘science’ at all? Heather Cameron open the door to a world of ethnographies, observations, and our oh-so-predictable sense of humour