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The rock art of Tassili n’Ajjer, the Sahara Desert, Algeria.

Tassili is a stunning mountainous region located in the central Sahara, and is the home to over 15,000 engravings and paintings which are thought to date from about 10,000 BC to the first centuries of the present era. Tassili would have been more climatically suitable for human occupation during prehistoric times, and the remains of burial mounds, lithics, and habitations have also been found.

Having grasped international attention since 1933, these stunning paintings stand as a testament to, and provide a record to the lives of, the inhabitants of Tassili who lived in this landscape for thousands of years. They provide us with a kind of ‘history book’, documenting climate change, the evolution of human life, animal migrations, extinct species, and the like.

The rock art has been divided into 5 different periods. The first has been termed the ‘naturalistic period’, which features depictions of the savannah and fauna, followed by the ‘archaic period’. Up next is the ‘Bovidian period’ (about 4000-1500 BC), which is when the majority of the rock art dates to. A renewed naturalistic aesthetic becomes apparent in the art, with significant examples of scenes of daily life and representations of bovine herds (note image #4 of this post in particular). The 4th period is the ‘Equidian period’, which is notable for coinciding with the area’s progressive desiccation (extreme drying), and the disappearance of the many species it caused. Finally, during the early Christian era, we have the ‘Cameline period’, where we see the appearance of dromedary (also known as the Arabian camel). As the appearance of dromedary suggests, Tassili’s climate was now hyper-arid.

Photos courtesy of & taken by Patrick Gruban. UNESCO’s write up on the site was of use when writing up this article.

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Eastern Europe is paved with dystopian public housing blocks—all divided into tiny studio apartments built to house the thousands of workers who were moved from their villages to industrial centers during the communist era. As you can probably imagine, most of these apartments are much smaller and in worse shape than anything similar in the West. So much worse in fact that they grabbed the attention of Romanian photographer Bogdan Gîrboveanu. Fascinated by the anthropology and the geometry of these spaces, Gîrboveanu set out to photograph all the studio flats in his building.

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Study finds significant facial variation in pre-Columbian South America

A team of anthropology researchers has found significant differences in facial features between seven different pre-Columbian peoples they evaluated from what is now Peru – disproving a longstanding perception that these groups were physically homogenous. The finding may lead scholars to revisit any hypotheses about human migration patterns that rested on the idea that there was little skeletal variation in pre-Columbian South America.

Skeletal variation is a prominent area of research in New World bioarchaeology, because it can help us understand the origins and migration patterns of various pre-Columbian groups through the Americas.

"However, for a long time, the conventional wisdom was that there was very little variation prior to European contact," says Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist at NC State University and co-author of a paper describing the new work. Read more.

Traditional beliefs promote sustainability in West Africa

Sacred forests and traditional beliefs are shaping sustainable farming practices in communities in West Africa, according to new research.

Scientists from Lancaster Environment Centre  carried out a unique 18-month study in Liberia, examining the traditional agriculture of the Loma people where farmers do not use industrial farming practices or artificial fertilisers. They found sacred forests and ancestral lands were valued more than short-term economic gain through increasing food production.  

Lancaster researchers calculated that their food production method, which involves farmers planting crops in fertile man-made soil known as ‘anthropogenic dark earth’, has twice the energy efficiency of either ‘slash and burn’ rice production and hunting and gathering.

[Read More at Lancaster University] [Science Direct Article]


Blame the Gerbils? Blame the Journalists!*
Source: https://deathsplaining.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/blame-the-gerbils-blame-the-journalists/

It would appear that a lot of people are actually interested in the accurate reporting of research results. YOU HEAR THAT ‘THE MEDIA’? Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to discuss how in the heck it went oh so very wrong – leaving aside again any discussion on the actual results of the study (although you can get a sneak peak in the comments of my last piece). The first few news stories actually reported this study pretty well. But while some went down the ‘plague driven by climate’ and ‘plague reintroduced multiple times’ route with their headlines, others (even though……….Read More

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Osteoarchaeology: Human stories from the bones

Becky Gowland is a senior lecturer in Bioarchaeology at the University of Durham. She currently teaches human skeletal analysis at both Undergraduate and Masters level.

Dr. Gowland also co-organises and teaches a short course in Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology.

Becky’s research interests include the archaeology of childhood and the relationship between the body and identity.

By: Archaeosoup Productions.

And if you have been following popular science reporting the last couple of days, you probably think you know what I mean.

Well, that’s the surprise: you don’t.

For those who haven’t seen the original report or its follow-ups, supposedly a “lost city” unknown to science, the “untouched ruins of a vanished culture”, has been confirmed in eastern Honduras.

Most news coverage uses the words “discovery” and “lost civilization”. Some coverage explicitly connects this report to legendary cities: Ciudad Blanca, the “White City”, even the “City of the Monkey God”.

(I am not linking to these stories because I don’t want to drive traffic to them: go hereif you want to read some real archaeological research about Honduras presented for the public without exoticization.)

1915 redux

Reading these reports, it seems like 1915 has come again and everything actual archaeologists have spent the last century learning has been swept away.

For modern archaeologists who aren’t trying to aggrandize themselves or live a fantasy about tomb raiders, the imagery of “discovery” and “lost civilizations” make this story tragic: instead of knowledge, this story is a message of ignorance.

Back when these adventurers first announced this supposed revolutionary discovery, a number of archaeologists with expertise in the region, including me, told them there already was a substantial body of research on the area, and told them who to contact: Chris Begley, a Professor of Anthropology at Transylvania University with a PhD from the University of Chicago and the strongest record of research in eastern Honduras of any archaeologist alive today (and in my pretty authoritative opinion, the strongest record of archaeological research in the area of anyone, living or deceased).

No one on this adventure fantasy trip reached out to Professor Begley, whoseNSF-funded dissertation research may well have already recorded this site. It wouldn’t have been hard: his research actually has been covered in documentaries and in published popular science books. There’s even a YouTube video.

If they had talked to Professor Begley, they might have read the scholarly articlehe co-authored back in 2007 taking apart the way that the mythology of a lost city is shaped for modern literary tastes.

They might have found in his writing respect for the living people whose ancestors built settlements in the area, and whose own oral histories are the original sources of rumors of cities in the rain forest, cities never lost to these people.

Narrow story lines

Because of course, the region is far from uninhabited. The indigenous people who live in eastern Honduras today— the Pechand the Tawahka Sumu — likely include the descendants of the builders of the many settlements Begley and others have documented in this area, abandoned around the time of European colonization.

Now, I understand that people want the excitement of novelty. Like every archaeologist in creation, I know we battle against a media appetite for certain narrow story-lines: “discovery” that ignores the inconvenient fact that people living in areas where archaeologists come to work already know about the traces of human beings in their neighborhood; “lost civilizations” that relegate those living people to some kind of relics who have fallen from past glories and so lost the right to representation as living, breathing people whose histories archaeology is privileged at times to explore — not discover — and to seek to understand — not appropriate.

But try this for a real surprise; dare I say, an honest to god discovery.

For his doctorate, completed in 1999, Chris Begley test excavated more than a dozen of over 200 archaeological sites he documented in the region that today’s brave explorers are claiming was unknown.

Actual facts, actual science

And he actually found something no one expected. Something really intriguing — not a mystery, but a surprise, one that is still unfolding in the conferences where actual scholars go to debate what really happened in the region before the arrival of European colonists.

A colleague and I were directing our own research project a bit west of Begley’s project area in the early 1990s, and were especially excited at finding multiple ballcourts in the region where we worked (the modern Department, or State, of Yoro).

According to the existing models, these stone courts used for playing games not unlike soccer using a rubber ball shouldn’t have been that far east in Honduras.

And then we saw Chris present his ongoing research from much, much farther east: and not only had he mapped multiple large settlements, many also had ballcourts, even more astonishing in this more distant location.

If you read Spanish, you can read Chris’s report on his work from 2002. Even if you can’t understand Spanish, you can look at the maps and drawings.

And if you find the actual facts interesting, why not read more actual science writing:this report from 2011 (in English) including Begley’s recent archaeological research in another part of under-studied eastern Honduras, work done along with a multi-disciplinary team including Dr. Mark Bonta, a geographer whose research on eastern Honduras is also being ignored by the so-called discoverers of Ciudad Blanca.

Their work is what real science looks like: careful and honest recording, without hype.

And when carried out by people who know the history of research in an area, it can yield surprises — even, yes, discoveries.


Articulating burial process: Primary and secondary burials in the British and Middle Eastern Neolithic
Source: https://chronologyandidentity.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/articulating-burial-process-primary-and-secondary-burials-in-the-british-and-middle-eastern-neolithic/

Something which has often come up as a subject of discussion in prehistoric British archaeology is that of excarnation and secondary burial.  What are these you ask? Technically the term excarnation can be used to define any burial process which removes flesh from the body.  It is also used to refer to what I will call exposure burial; where a body is left exposed to the elements until it is reduced to bones. Secondary burial can be used to describe any burial which  has multiple stages.  For example, cremation is both a way of removing the flesh from the body (excarnation) and a form of secondary………. Read More at https://chronologyandidentity.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/articulating-burial-process-primary-and-secondary-burials-in-the-british-and-middle-eastern-neolithic/

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fourty meters up, and surrounded by angry bees pacified by the smoking wet leaves he carries, mongonjay, a member of the bayaka tribe of the jungles of the central african republic, hunts for honey suspended by fraying vine.

"when climbing big trees, you have to empty your heart of fear," he says. "if you have fear you will die. many of my friends have died doing this." 

bayakan fathers like mongonjay are considered “the greatest dads in the world,” and not just because they risk life and limb to provide their families with honey. bayakan fathers cuddle and play with their kids five times as often as fathers from any other society, and spend almost half their time within arms reach of their kids.

when the mother is not present, bayaka fathers will soothe their hungry, crying babies by having them suckle on their nipples until she can return. most male mammals do not have nipples, and some evolutionary biologists believe that human males have retained theirs for this very reason. many anthropologists believe this nurturing fatherly behaviour was once the norm for humans.

the bayaka, however, now face extinction as forty years of excessive industrial logging has forced most to abandon the sustaining forest they’ve called home for thousands of years and replace it with a life of poverty and disease (particularity malaria and cholera), where they are viewed as “not truly human, a people without civilization” by most across equatorial africa.

they suffer “appalling socioeconomic conditions and a lack of civil and land rights,” states a recent study conducted by the rainforest foundation. according to the WWF, it would only take $2 million to secure enough rainforest for future generations of bayaka to retain their traditional lifestyle.

photos by timothy allen for the bbc documentary human planet. video of the climbing scene can be seen here. see this short documentary and an article from smithsonian magazine for more.

Thousands of South American indians were infected with measles, killing hundreds, in order to for US scientists to study the effects on primitive societies of natural selection, according to a book out next month.
The astonishing story of genetic research on humans, which took 10 years to uncover, is likely to shake the world of anthropology to its core, according to Professor Terry Turner of Cornell University, who has read the proofs.
"In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology," Prof Turner says in a warning letter to Louise Lamphere, the president of the American Anthropology Association (AAA).
The book accuses James Neel, the geneticist who headed a long-term project to study the Yanomami people of Venezuela in the mid-60s, of using a virulent measles vaccine to spark off an epidemic which killed hundreds and probably thousands.
Once the epidemic was under way, according to the book, the research team “refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit order from Neel. He insisted to his colleagues that they were only there to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their roles as scientists, not provide medical help”.
The book, Darkness in El Dorado by the investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, is due to be published on October 1. Prof Turner, whose letter was co-signed by fellow anthropologist Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, was trying to warn the AAA of the impending scandal so the profession could defend itself.
Although Neel died last February, many of his associates, some of them authors of classic anthropology texts, are still alive.

'Big Brain' Gene Found in Humans, Not Chimps

A single gene may have paved the way for the rise of human intelligence by dramatically increasing the number of brain cells found in a key brain region.

This gene seems to be uniquely human: It is found in modern-day humans, Neanderthals and another branch of extinct humans called Denisovans, but not in chimpanzees.

By allowing the brain region called the neocortex to contain many more neurons, the tiny snippet of DNA may have laid the foundation for the human brain's massive expansion.

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