Spring Grab Bag

A new study claims that desertification of the Sahara may have been exacerbated by human activities such as herding. The Sahara Desert is an interesting case, in the sense that its development was a case of cattle before crops. The reason was because the highly variable rainfall and climate made a mobile way of life like herding far less risky than crops which cannot be moved and demand consistent levels of rainfall. But it seems that the needs of cattle may have altered the environment in negative ways.

BY the way, those desert herders may have been the source of much that was unique about Egyptian culture. Many of those features are still seen in African herding cultures such as Nuer and Masai today.

A new paper authored by archeologists with Seoul National University has suggested that the Sahara Desert, once green and wet, dried out as a result of the actions of ancient peoples. The spread of agriculture depleted the Sahara’s plant life and caused the region’s the shift to a desert biome, the paper claims.

Humans may have transformed the Sahara from lush paradise to barren desert (The Conversation)

Was the Sahara Desert Created by Humans? (Science News Journal)

Ancient Humans Created the Sahara Desert, Says Archaeologist (Sputnik News)

Is human sacrifice linked with hierarchy?

In almost all societies, killing within a tribe or clan has been strongly taboo; exemption is granted only to those with great authority. Anthropologists have suspected that ritual human sacrifice serves to cement power structures — that is, it signifies who sits at the top of the social hierarchy.

How human sacrifice propped up the social order (Nature)

Is our narrow definition of agriculture causing us to miss other methods of “agriculture” –of humans transforming the landscape to meet their needs in sustainable ways?

Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe has recently published a book called Dark Emu: Black seeds, agriculture or accident? that challenges the popular perception of our Indigenous past. He argues that the economy and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people has been ‘grossly undervalued’ for the past 200 hundred years. The early writings of white explorers and settlers are central to his argument; they described the cultivated way Indigenous people managed the land.

‘Hunter-gatherer societies forage and hunt for food and do not employ agricultural methods or build permanent dwellings,’ he writes. ‘But as I read these early journals, I came across repeated references to people building dams and wells, planting, irrigating and harvesting seed, preserving the surplus and storing it in houses, sheds or secure vessels … and manipulating the landscape.’.

Rethinking Indigenous Australia’s agricultural past (ABC)

And, related, more evidence that Amazonia was once a food forest, centered around perennials and tree crops:

“Large areas of the Amazon are less pristine than we may think,” said Hans ter Steege, a tropical ecologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, and an author of a paper published in Science on Thursday. “The people who lived there before Columbus left serious footprints that still persist in the composition as we see today.” He was one of more than a hundred researchers who found that domesticated tree and palm species — like cacao, cashews, the açaí palm, the Brazil nut and rubber — were five times more likely to dominate the modern Amazonian forest than nondomesticated plants.

How the Amazon’s Cashews and Cacao Point to Cultivation by the Ancients (New York Times)

Amazon forest ‘shaped by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples’ (BBC)

Evidence of agroforestry in the ancient Amazon (tywkiwdbi)

Archaeologists Have Discovered More Than 450 Large Geometrical Geoglyphs in the Amazonian Rainforest (Science News Journal)

Another example of humans transforming the landscape: An ancient oasis in China’s remote desert (BBC)

It’s built around the Turpan Water System, an underappreciated engineering marvel:

The system has wells, dams and underground canals built to store the water and control the amount of water flow. Vertical wells are dug at various points to tap into the groundwater flowing down sloping land from the source, the mountain runoff. The water is then channeled through underground canals dug from the bottom of one well to the next well and then to the desired destination, Turpan’s irrigation system. This irrigation system of special connected wells has been claimed to originate in Iran (e.g., the qanat system), to have originated indigenously, or to have been invented in other parts of China. Both historical and archaeological research convincingly point to the origins of this technology as arriving from more western regions along with indigenous innovations.

The Irish potato famine was caused by wealthy landlords who prized profit over people — and thousands starved (Raw Story). It was caused by replacing communal structures with capitalist markets, but we can’t acknowledge that.

The route that eventually became the Silk Road developed based on the movement of nomadic herders:

Our model shows that long-term strategies of mobility by highland nomadic herders structured enduring routes for seasonal migrations to summer pastures, which correspond significantly with the evolving geography of ‘Silk Road’ interaction across Asia’s mountains,” said Michael Frachetti, lead author of the study and an associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

Silk Road evolved as ‘grass-routes’ movement (Phys.org)

Eurocentric history focuses on Greece as the birthplace of democracy, but cultures in the Americas may have had a more democratic arrangement as well:

…Tlaxcallan is one of several premodern societies around the world that archaeologists believe were organized collectively, where rulers shared power and commoners had a say in the government that presided over their lives. These societies were not necessarily full democracies in which citizens cast votes, but they were radically different from the autocratic, inherited rule found—or assumed—in most early societies.

It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas (Science)

An anthropologist considers how humans invented numbers:

Numbers are this really simple invention. These words that reify concepts are a cognitive tool. But it’s so amazing to think about what they enable as a species. Without them we seem to struggle differentiating seven from eight consistently; with them we can send someone to the moon. All that can be traced back to someone, somewhere saying, “Hey, I have a hand of things here.” Without that first step, or without similar first steps made to invent numbers, you don’t get to those other steps. A lot of people think because math is so elaborate, and there are numbers that exist, they think these things are something you come to recognize. I don’t care how smart you are, if you don’t have numbers you’re not going to make that realization. In most cases the invention probably started with this ephemeral realization [that you have five fingers on one hand], but if they don’t ascribe a word to it, that realization just passes very quickly and dies with them. It doesn’t get passed on to the next generation.

How Humans Invented Numbers—And How Numbers Reshaped Our World (Smithsonian)

Was the apprenticeship system and the skills it inculcated critical in the rise of Europe and the Industrial Revolution?

Before the Industrial Revolution, almost all useful knowledge was tacit. The main mechanism through which tacit skills were transmitted across generations was apprenticeship, a relationship linking a skilled adult to a youngster whom he taught the trade. Apprentices spent most of their waking hours in the master’s workshop, where they learned from the master and more experienced apprentices and journeymen. As apprentices spent time in the shop, they gradually acquired the skills of the master, often through imitation and guided learning-by-doing…What we argue is that the institutions governing the intergenerational transmission mechanism were of central importance to the dissemination of best-practice techniques. The nature of the apprenticeship system based on personal contacts and mostly local networks was a central factor in the closing of gaps between best-practice and average-practice techniques. We argue that apprenticeship institutions in Europe led to faster dissemination of best-practice technical knowledge and contributed, ultimately, to Europe’s technological primacy.

Apprenticeship and the rise of Europe (Naked Capitalism)

Reddit consideration of why the continent of Africa is impoverished today: ELI5: Why is Africa, as a whole, such an impoverished continent?

Rather than hunter-gatherers being “old by age 30”, it seems like that is a more accurate description of people in modern, industrial societies:

The healthiest hearts in the world have been found in the Tsimane people in the forests of Bolivia, say researchers. Barely any Tsimane had signs of clogged up arteries – even well into old age – a study in the Lancet showed. “It’s an incredible population” with radically different diets and ways of living, said the researchers. They admit the rest of the world cannot revert to a hunter-gathering and early farming existence, but said there were lessons for all of us.

‘Healthiest hearts in the world’ found (BBC)

And, related, Anxious, depressed, distracted — what if the cure is just outside? (Grist)

A geomagnetic spike hit the ancient kingdom of Judah in ancient times. If this were to happen again today, the electrical grid could be a smoking ruin.

Earth’s geomagnetic field wraps the planet in a protective layer of energy, shielding us from solar winds and high-energy particles from space. But it’s also poorly understood, subject to weird reversals, polar wandering, and rapidly changing intensities. Now a chance discovery from an archaeological dig near Jerusalem has given scientists a glimpse of how intense the magnetic field can get—and the news isn’t good for a world that depends on electrical grids and high-tech devices.

Astonishing geomagnetic spike hit the ancient kingdom of Judah (ars Technica)

Sometimes it takes new technology a while to catch on:

By 1907, only 8 percent of Americans lived in homes served by electricity nationwide. It was not dispersed super swiftly because the infrastructure had to be built. Once that was in place, the question was whether you could you afford it. For every new technology, people have to be persuaded that it’s important. I think the thing that made them really want electricity was the radio, which didn’t become ubiquitous until the 1920s and ‘30s.

How the war of the currents brought power to cities (CityLab)

And also: How the world’s first cities got started (CityLab). Similar thesis to what I wrote about the origins of cities.

Before there was Jesus, there was Apollonius of Tyana.

Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations (NASA)

Is the idea that all scientific inquiry in the Middle Ages was squashed by the all-powerful Catholic Church just a myth that need to be laid to rest?:

About once every 3-4 months on forums like RichardDawkins.net we get some discussion where someone invokes the old “Conflict Thesis”. That evolves into the usual ritual kicking of the Middle Ages as a benighted intellectual wasteland where humanity was shackled to superstition and oppressed by cackling minions of the Evil Old Catholic Church. The hoary standards are brought out on cue. Giordiano Bruno is presented as a wise and noble martyr for science instead of the irritating mystical New Age kook he actually was. Hypatia is presented as another such martyr and the mythical Christian destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is spoken of in hushed tones, despite both these ideas being totally untrue. The Galileo Affair is ushered in as evidence of a brave scientist standing up to the unscientific obscurantism of the Church, despite that case being as much about science as it was about Scripture.

It’s not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked up these strange ideas from websites and popular books. The assertions collapse as soon as you hit them with hard evidence. I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.

The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers” (Strange Notions)

Is it possible that ancient people saw the world very differently than we do?:

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze… Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow…

It turns out that the appearance of color in ancient texts, while also reasonably paralleling the frequency of colors that can be found in nature (blue and purple are very rare, red is quite frequent, and greens and browns are everywhere), tends to happen in the same sequence regardless of civilization: red : ochre : green : violet : yellow—and eventually, at least with the Egyptians and Byzantines, blue.

Blue certainly existed in the world, even if it was rare, and the Greeks must have stumbled across it occasionally even if they didn’t name it. But the thing is, if we don’t have a word for something, it turns out that to our perception—which becomes our construction of the universe—it might as well not exist. Specifically, neuroscience suggests that it might not just be “good or bad” for which “thinking makes it so,” but quite a lot of what we perceive.

The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World (Clarke’s World)

And, related, non-Western “traditional” peoples’ perception is different than our own:

One explanation for their astonishing focus may come from the cattle rearing itself. Identifying each cow’s markings was apparently essential for their daily life – and this practice may perhaps train the eye with a focus and attention that was lacking in all modern societies. “I think that does come from their traditional lives – the powers to concentrate,” says Davidoff. But it could also be that modern life itself makes us more easily distracted by our surroundings. And it is for this reason that Opuwo is so interesting, as younger generations slowly migrate to the shanty villages on the edge of the small town…

To discover how this move might influence the Himba’s psychology, Davidoff’s team compared Himba migrants to the small town, with those still living the traditional lifestyle. As they had expected, the Himba who had spent years living on Opuwo were less focused on the local details than those living in the countryside. But you didn’t need to have spent your whole life in the town for it to have an effect; the team found that even very short day trips to Opuwo seemed to have had a lasting impact their perception, making them less focused on differences in the local details (and more conscious of the overall shape) when comparing two abstract figures, for instance. Needless to say, the influence was much greater for those who lived in the town – but it was still present even for the Himba who had only visited a couple of times. “There does seem to be a ‘dose effect’ – the more of it you have, the greater the effect becomes,” says Davidoff.

The astonishing focus of Namibia’s Nomads (BBC)

Real Solutions

In the Netherlands, an elder care facility also acts as a dorm, bringing old and young people together to their mutual benefit: The Nursing Home That’s Also a Dorm (CityLab)

Related: The Dutch prison crisis: A shortage of prisoners (BBC) Compare to the U.S.

Is depression an evolved response that actually has a beneficial purpose?

Some psychologists, however, have argued that depression is not a dysfunction at all, but an evolved mechanism designed to achieve a particular set of benefits. I’ve certainly considered whether it’s done that for me, both in high school and later in life. If they’re right, it means that our thinking about depression needs an intervention too.

Does depression have an evolutionary purpose (Nautilus)

Planners hope more benches in urban centres will help build friendlier cities: ‘Street seats’ aim to revolutionise cities through sitting (BBC)

Forget shorter showers; individual solutions won’t save the planet:

As narrator Jordan Brown says, no matter what environmental problem you consider, whether it’s the water crisis, the waste crisis, the emissions crisis, you name it, our personal actions account for very little of what’s going wrong. The vast majority of the problems can be traced back to the industrial economy, which consumes most of the water, generates most of the plastic waste, creates the most emissions, and so on and so forth.

What we do as individuals, he argues, does almost nothing to change the big picture. For example, municipal household waste accounts for only 3 percent of waste in the United States, so what’s the point of encouraging people to go zero waste at home?

Brown identifies four problems with perceiving simple living as a political act.
1) It is based on the notion that humans inevitably harm their land base. This fails to acknowledge that humans can help the Earth.
2) It incorrectly assigns blame to the individual, instead of targeting those who wield power within the industrial system – and the system itself.
3) It accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us as consumers, rather than citizens. We reduce our potential forms of resistance to ‘consuming vs. not consuming,’ despite there being far broader resistance tactics available to us.
4) The endpoint of logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within our economy is destructive, and we want to stop this destruction, then the planet would be better off with us dead.
Personal solutions can’t save the planet

Personal solutions can’t save the planet (Treehugger)

Spain’s abandoned coal belt is trying to survive through innovation rather than going back to the past:

…Javi Fernandez’s small house is surrounded by edible plants. Among traditional winter crops grown in this area, like verza, a kind of cabbage, there’s also mustard, Jerusalem artichokes, and shiitake mushrooms. It’s a small patch of bounty amid miles of empty, rolling hills.

Rather than study engineering to work in the coal mines like both his father and grandfather, Mr Fernandez studied agriculture in Cuba. “I couldn’t afford to go to a paying university so I studied for free at the ISCA University, in San Jose de las Lajas,” he beams, digging through the 400 sq m (4,300 sq ft) of artichokes he has planted.

Will Spain’s coal belt survive through online barter? (BBC)

Paris compost urinals open near Gare de Lyon station (BBC)

How food waste can feed the hungry, train the jobless and fight loneliness too (Treehugger)

The food waste fighter (BBC)

On a chilly summer’s night in the centre of Copenhagen, a crowd gathers around the entrance of a restaurant called Dalle Valle. It’s 22:30 and the dinner buffet is winding up and the kitchens are about to close. But these people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are here for the food that the diners inside didn’t want.

Dalle Valle is one of hundreds of restaurants and cafes listed in an app called Too Good To Go, which lets you order takeaway food that would otherwise be thrown away, for knock-down prices. It’s an example of many social initiatives set up in the last few years to address the growing problem of food waste. And in Denmark, they are leading the world.

The country where unwanted food is selling out (BBC)

Our Society Doesn’t Work

Spending large amounts of time indoors under artificial light and staring at computer screens has helped produce a “myopia epidemic” with as many as 90 per cent of people in some parts of the world needing glasses. Industrial food production has also turned primates’ taste for sugar — which evolved to persuade us to gorge on healthy fruit when it was ripe — into one of the main causes of the soaring rates of obesity in the Western world. And our sense of smell is under attack from air pollution, producing an array of different effects, including depression and anxiety.

‘Mismatch’ between the way our senses evolved and modern world is making us ill, experts warn (Independent)

The Basic Psychological Structure of Our Society Does Not Work (Ian Welsh)

Is the dark really making me sad? Writing this from Milwaukee in March, most definitely, yes.

Old, but relevant: Is Civilization A Bad Idea? (NPR)

What does it mean to be human? (Mosaic Science) Related: Neanderthals may have medicated with penicillin and painkillers:

Neanderthals living in prehistoric Belgium enjoyed their meat – but the Neanderthals who lived in what is now northern Spain seem to have survived on an almost exclusively vegetarian diet. This is according to new DNA analysis that also suggests sick Neanderthals could self-medicate with naturally occurring painkillers and antibiotics, and that they shared mouth microbiomes with humans – perhaps exchanged by kissing.

Neanderthals may have medicated with penicillin and painkillers (New Scientist)


A beautiful rammed earth house in China based on vernacular forms: Modern rammed earth home echoes region’s natural cave dwellings (Treehugger) Also, this Australian home uses tent fabrics to meld inside and outside: Modern Australian tent house seamlessly brings nature inside (Treehugger)

Architecture’s forgotten drawing: the section:

With their Manual of Section, the three founding partners of LTL architects engage with section as an essential tool of architectural design, and let’s admit it, this reading might change your mind on the topic. For the co-authors, “thinking and designing through section requires the building of a discourse about section, recognizing it as a site of intervention.” Perhaps, indeed, we need to understand the capabilities of section drawings both to use them more efficiently and to enjoy doing so.

Studying the “Manual of Section”: Architecture’s Most Intriguing Drawing (ArchDaily)

Interesting article on digital techniques and traditional architecture, probably of interest mainly to architects/engineers: Modern Design from Historical Perspective (AUGI)

Could these techniques give a rebirth to more traditional forms/ornamentation and away from arbitrary ad-hoc form-finding by “starchitects” held together by space-age technology? Related:

Professor Alan Short of the University of Cambridge has published a book advocating for the revival of 19th-century architectural ideas to address the crippling energy use of modern skyscrapers. The Recovery of Natural Environments in Architecture proposes an end to the architectural fetish for glass, steel, and air conditioning, instead drawing inspiration from forgotten techniques in naturally ventilated buildings of the 1800s. The book is a culmination of 30 years’ research and design by Prof. Short and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge.

In his book, Prof. Short highlights a developed, sophisticated science of natural ventilation used in the 19th-century, exemplified by the first Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. After three years digitally modeling the hospital, Prof. Short and his team noted that ventilation performance in the building was equivalent to a modern-day computer-controlled operating theater. During the 19th-century, public anxiety over toxic air led to the development of public buildings devoted to exceptional air quality, a mindset which Prof. Short argues has been lost in the computer-controlled ventilation of modern skyscrapers.

New Book Calls for an End to Our Fetish for Conditioned Skyscrapers (archdaily)

A gallery of round architectural plans. Related, Round runways could save a lot of land, reduce fuel consumption and cut noise (Treehugger)

One thought on “Spring Grab Bag

  1. Monster linkpile, thanks! Two comments:

    1.) I can remember being taught the dark origins of the Potato Famine at school, in order to try and understand the background to the Troubles. The English have never been completely forgiven.

    2.) Only this week I’ve been reading that the doctrine of Transubstantiation was, in medieval times, considered to be grounded in sound Aristotelian science. The problem with Galileo was that he was threatening Aristotlelian science as a whole. That threatened the Mass, which threatened access to God. In the end the Mass was indeed reformed in various ways…

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