Fun Facts

It’s time for another edition of Fun Facts!

One in 20 patients remain aware but paralysed during major medical procedures – though the vast majority will not remember it afterwards.

We still don’t know exactly why anaesthetic agents dim our consciousness.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190313-what-happens-when-anaesthesia-fails

In 24 States, 50% or more of babies are born on Medicaid; New Mexico leads the nation with 72%.
https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/terence-p-jeffrey/24-states-50-babies-born-medicaid

White and middle-aged Americans are the demographic groups most at risk for suicide. Between 1999 and 2017, U.S. suicide rates increased by 45 percent for men ages 45 to 64 and by 62 percent for women in that age group.

In 2014, the most recent year such breakdowns of data are available, men with only a high school diploma were twice as likely to die by suicide as men with a college degree. And although middle-aged men of all educational groups experienced rising suicide rates during the Great Recession, 2007 to 2010, since then rates for college-educated men have slightly declined while those for men with only a high school diploma have continued to rise.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-dangerous-shifting-cultural-narratives-around-suicide/2019/03/21/7277946e-4bf5-11e9-93d0-64dbcf38ba41_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ce661ebcfe7e

Suicidal behavior has nearly doubled among children aged 5 to 18, with suicidal thoughts and attempts leading to more than 1.1 million ER visits in 2015 — up from about 580,000 in 2007, according to an analysis of U.S. data.
https://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/bb0gr6/suicidal_behavior_has_nearly_doubled_among/

Graduate students experience depression and anxiety at six times the rate of the general population.
https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/04/sentences-to-ponder-109.html

Suicide attempts by self-poisoning have more than doubled in teens and young adults in the last decade in the U.S., and more than tripled for girls and young women.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190502075817.htm

Seventy-one percent of Americans age 17 to 24 are ineligible to join the military, primarily because they are too overweight or too poorly educated, or they have a record of serious crime or drug abuse.
https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/bb9c03/til_that_71_percent_of_americans_age_17_to_24_are/

“This analysis of a large, nationwide sample demonstrated that Emergency Department visits for SA/SI (suicide attempt/suicide ideation) doubled among youth between 2007 and 2015.”
https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2730063
Nothing to see here. Everything’s fine and getting better and better under Neolobsterism Neoliberalism!

Forty-four percent of the decline in male workforce participation from 2001 to 2015 is due to opioids.
https://www.economy.com/dismal/analysis/datapoints/350176/Opioids-and-the-US-Labor-Market/

The 2008 financial crash directly led to 6566 suicides, causing more deaths than the September 11 attacks.
https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/bfacoa/til_the_2008_financial_crash_directly_led_to_6566/


Lawns, by acreage, are the United States’ largest irrigated crop, surpassing corn.
https://www.curbed.com/2019/3/13/18262285/mcmansion-hell-kate-wagner-lawn-care-mowing

Between 1980 and 2000, about 100 million hectares of tropical forests — roughly the area of France and Germany combined — were converted for grazing, monoculture plantations like palm oil, or short-term subsistence farming.
https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2019/05/09/Traditional-Economics-Biodiversity-Natural-Accounting/

70% of all birds currently alive are chicken and other poultry, enough to create their own geological strata.
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190502-why-the-post-natural-age-could-be-strange-and-beautiful

Globally, one in five deaths are associated with poor diet.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190403193702.htm

The share of 25-34 year-olds who are college graduates was 11% in 1960, 27.5% in 2000, and 35.6% in 2017.
https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2019/03/some-us-social-indicators-since-1960.html

Millennial households had an average net worth of about $92,000 in 2016, nearly 40% less than Gen X households in 2001, adjusted for inflation, and about 20% less than baby boomer households in 1989.
https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/the-great-reset-applied-to-millennials.html

Prisoners employed in manufacturing constitute 4.2% of total U.S. manufacturing employment in 2005.
https://www.ineteconomics.org/research/research-papers/economic-consequences-of-the-u-s-convict-labor-system

Total national health expenditures were 5.0% of GDP in 1960, and 17.9% of GDP in 2017.
https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2019/03/some-us-social-indicators-since-1960.html

Health care CEO pay topped $1 billion in 2018.
https://www.axios.com/health-care-ceo-salaries-2018-3aff66cd-8723-4ec8-abe8-dd19edd24390.html


About half the population [of the United States] in 1915 lived in rural areas, meaning areas with fewer than 2,500 residents. In 2010, by contrast, only 1 in 5 people lived in a rural area…In 1915, about 78 percent of U.S.-born individuals were living in the state in which they had been born, compared with 59 percent in 2010.
http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-life-of-us-workers-100-years-ago.html

One-sixth of the U.S. population lives in this megalopolis (the Acela Corridor).
http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com/2019/04/one-sixth-of-us-population-lives-in.html

The number of people worldwide who drink water that is contaminated with feces is 1.8 billion. (But they have cell phones!!!!)
https://www.treehugger.com/environmental-policy/world-water-disaster-numbers.html

Americans are routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals that have long been banned in countries such as the UK, Germany and France. Of the 40,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the US, according to the EPA, only one percent have been tested for human safety.
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/22/is-modern-life-poisoning-me-i-took-the-tests-to-find-out

More than 90 percent of Americans have pesticides or their byproducts in their bodies.
https://www.thenation.com/article/pesticides-farmworkers-agriculture/

Chicago police say that as of 1 March 2019, they had seized more than 1,600 illegal guns this year. The figures equate to one illegal gun taken off the street every 53 minutes.
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47856992

Somebody once estimated that if bees got paid minimum wage, a jar of honey would cost <$1,000
Unsourced – but sounds plausible to me.

Half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population
https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/apr/17/who-owns-england-thousand-secret-landowners-author

Ninety-five percent of the trading volume in Bitcoin is fake, ginned up through techniques like “wash trading” where a person buys and sells an asset at the same time.
https://boingboing.net/2019/03/28/grifter-galt-gulch.html

“Can you give me a hand moving these?”

People are pooping more than ever on the streets of San Francisco.
https://www.sfgate.com/technology/businessinsider/article/People-are-pooping-more-than-ever-on-the-streets-13778680.php

The average rent in NYC went from 15% of average income in 1950 to 65% today.
https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/04/24/links-4-19/

The Ancient Egyptians had a pregnancy test that actually worked.
https://history.nih.gov/exhibits/thinblueline/timeline.html

In 1996, a federal welfare reform prohibited convicted drug felons from ever obtaining food stamps. The ban increased recidivism among drug felons. The increase is driven by financially motivated crimes, suggesting that ex-convicts returned to crime to make up for the lost transfer income.
https://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/bk6voe/in_1996_a_federal_welfare_reform_prohibited/

Abortion laws in Saudi Arabia are more forgiving than in Alabama.
https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/05/22/abortion-laws-saudi-arabia-more-forgiving-alabama-report

Apple purchases a new company every two to three weeks on average, and has bought between 20 and 25 companies in the last six months alone.
https://boingboing.net/2019/05/06/robert-bork-payout.html

In 2017, the world subsidized fossil fuels by $5.2 trillion, equal to roughly 6.5 percent of global GDP. That’s up half a trillion dollars from 2015, when global subsidies stood at $4.7 trillion, according to the IMF. If governments had only accounted for these subsidies and priced fossil fuels at their “fully efficient levels” in 2015, then worldwide carbon emissions would have been 28 percent lower, and deaths due to toxic air pollution 46 percent lower.
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/05/how-much-does-world-subsidize-oil-coal-and-gas/589000/

Government action to slash pollution before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 led to a rise in birth weights in the city.
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2019/may/17/air-pollution-may-be-damaging-every-organ-and-cell-in-the-body-finds-global-review

The United States has spent more subsidizing fossil fuels in recent years than it has on defense spending.
https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/fossil-fuel-subsidies-pentagon-spending-imf-report-833035/

Although James Watt developed the coal-powered steam engine in 1776, coal supplied less than 5 percent of the planet’s energy until 1840, and it didn’t reach 50 percent until 1900.
https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/04/04/future-without-fossil-fuels/

When Ashton Kutcher’s film “Dude Where’s My Car” was released, a movie reviewer for USA Today wrote “Any civilization that can produce a movie this stupid deserves to be hit by famine and pestilence.”
https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/beohel/til_when_ashton_kutchers_film_dude_wheres_my_car/

Random GOT Thoughts


I’m no Game of Thrones expert or superfan, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts considering that the show is ending this weekend.

Now, I should note that I haven’t seen any episodes this season. I’m not technically inclined enough, nor motivated enough, to do what everyone else apparently does and just steal it off the streaming torrents on the Interwebs.

My television access consists solely of a flat screen TV hooked up to a DVD player in my basement, where I watch DVDs that are exclusively rented from the public library, so that I pay zero $$ for my entertainment. But that means I’m usually a bit behind on current teevee—I just watched the last season of Poldark that aired on Masterpiece last year, for example. But the huge 2-year gap between series meant that I was all caught up on all the latest developments on GOT going into this final season. Thus, I was eager to see how they would tie up all those various dangling plot threads and resolve the multiplicity of character and story arcs.

Given all the hullabaloo surrounding the ending of the show, I figured there was no way I was going to isolate myself from the plot developments for the year or so that it will take for it to come out on DVD and wind up on my local library’s DVD reservations list. And so I went the opposite route: I decided to actively read as much as I could about it. Because, let’s face it, I want to know how the story ends just as much as everyone else out there!

And so, my experience of the show has been all second-hand (articles, reviews, and YouTube videos), so I will necessarily be hampered by that. But, having said that, I’m amazed at how negative the coverage has been in the main. Fans, it seems, are quite sore and very disappointed. Unreasonably, I think (although maybe I’ll change my mind once I actually get to see it).

(And, and it goes without saying, that if you ARE one of the people who IS trying to actively avoid any spoilers about what happens this season—and actually think you can accomplish this—then stop reading right now, and do not read any further!!!).

If you’re still here, here a few random thoughts I had about the penultimate episode, with the caveats above.

1. In my opinion, the destruction of King’s Landing by fire seems like the most logical thing to happen, and really is a masterstroke for many reasons. After all, the whole series of books was entitled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” by its author. So, we had the “ice” aspect of the series resolve itself in episode three with the defeat of the Night King and his hordes of ice-zombies, and so now it is time for the “fire” to play its integral role in the plot with the destruction of King’s landing by dragonfire. Song of Ice and Fire, get it?

2. But why was the destruction of King’s landing so meaningful? Why were there atrocities committed? And why was all of that necessary given the logic of the books?

Well, in the medieval-fantasy genre, war and warfare have traditionally been portrayed as “noble” and “heroic”—as the climax a conflict between “pure” good and “absolute” evil. Look at the final battle in The Lord of the Rings, for example. The standard trope is, the “rightful ruler” takes his (usually his) place on the throne; is just and benevolent; all conflict ceases; and they all live happily ever after, et cetera, et cetera.

George R.R. Martin’s books, by contrast, have always been about bringing a sense of realism to the genre and subverting the usual fantasy tropes. And how could there be a better one than this? After all, this is what happens in actual war. It’s a murderous, bloody, and brutal affair. And it was during the ancient and Medieval periods just as surely as it is today. Isn’t it about time that the fantasy genre grow up and acknowledge this gruesome reality?

George R.R. Martin’s novels have always been steeped in history from the very beginning. I believe that a knowledge of history is not just useful, but, in fact, essential in understanding his writing. With that in mind, there were two major historical events running through my mind as I read the accounts of episode five online. The first was the famous Siege of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099. Wikipedia summarizes:

Atrocities committed against the inhabitants of cities taken by storm after a siege were normal in ancient and medieval warfare. The Crusaders had already done so at Antioch, and Fatimids had done so themselves at Taormina, at Rometta, and at Tyre. However, the massacre of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may have exceeded even these standards. Historian Michael Hull has suggested this was a matter of deliberate policy rather than simple bloodlust, to remove the “contamination of pagan superstition” (quoting Fulcher of Chartres) and to reform Jerusalem as a strictly Christian city…”

According to Raymond of Aguilers, also writing solely of the Temple Mount area, “in the Temple and porch of Solomon men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.” Writing about the Temple Mount area alone, Fulcher of Chartres, who was not an eyewitness to the Jerusalem siege because he had stayed with Baldwin in Edessa at the time, says: “In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.”

Siege of Jerusalem (1099) (Wikipedia)

The second historical event I thought of is far more recent—the infamous “Rape of Nanjing” that took place during the Second World War:

Following the capture of Nanjing, a massacre, which was perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army, led to the deaths of up to 60,000 residents in the city, a figure difficult to precisely calculate due to the many bodies deliberately burnt, buried in mass graves, or deposited in the Yangtze River…B. Campbell, in an article published in the journal Sociological Theory, has described the Nanjing Massacre as a genocide, given the fact that residents were still slaughtered en masse during the aftermath, despite the successful and certain outcome in battle.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated that 20,000 women, including some children and the elderly, were raped during the occupation. A large number of rapes were done systematically by the Japanese soldiers as they went from door to door, searching for girls, with many women being captured and gang raped. The women were often killed immediately after being raped, often through explicit mutilation or by penetrating vaginas with bayonets, long sticks of bamboo, or other objects. Young children were not exempt from these atrocities and were cut open to allow Japanese soldiers to rape them…

Nanjing Massacre (Wikipedia)

That is what real warfare looks like. This is what happens. This. This is where the untrammeled pursuit of power by flawed human beings inevitably leads. Always. Is it any wonder that this was the core message that George R. R. Martin (and the showrunners) wished to convey here at the end?

3. But by far the most important historical event alluded to, more than the others in my opinion, must be the firebombing of Dresden (albeit by planes instead of a dragon). I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere else, but I’m sure someone else must have picked up on it.

Why this event in particular? Well, one reason is the fire aspect, obviously. But also it was one of the most destructive military events of the entire Second World War, surpassing even the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (only the aerial bombings of Hamburg and Tokyo unleashed more destruction).

Consider this statement by one of the survivors of the bombing:

To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire.

Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then—to my utter horror and amazement—I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. (Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders.

Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: “I don’t want to burn to death”. I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.

— Margaret Freyer, survivor.

My guess is that this is the exact feeling intended to be conveyed by the collective writers of GOT in the penultimate episode.

Although I haven’t seen the entire episode, I have seen some of the imagery and clips online. In terms of visuals, I was reminded not of only of the iconic photos of the destruction of Hiroshima, but also of the visuals from the German film Downfall (Der Untergang) showing the unfathomable devastation of Berlin when the war had finally concluded:

From the teaser trailer released online for season 8, episode six, it looks like much of this same visual imagery will be used by the show’s artistic team in the ultimate episode as well. We’ll see. Again, the message is clear: This is what war is really like, and often the people most devastated by the power game aren’t the ones who are playing it.

The second reason is the moral ambiguity of the attack. While it’s true that Germany hadn’t unconditionally surrendered (unlike King’s Landing), the bombing of this city has been controversially considered to be tantamount to a war crime by a few historians.

Several factors have made the bombing a unique point of contention and debate. First among these are the Nazi government’s exaggerated claims immediately afterwards, which drew upon the beauty of the city, its importance as a cultural icon; the deliberate creation of a firestorm; the number of victims; the extent to which it was a necessary military target; and the fact that it was attacked toward the end of the war, raising the question of whether the bombing was needed to hasten the end…Several researchers claim not all of the communications infrastructure, such as the bridges, were targeted, nor were the extensive industrial areas outside the city center. Critics of the bombing have claimed that Dresden was a cultural landmark of little or no strategic significance, and that the attacks were indiscriminate area bombing and not proportionate to the military gains.

Bombing of Dresden in World War II (Wikipedia)

Yes, war is often morally ambiguous, another message I’m sure Martin et. al. were eager to convey here in the final season. I wouldn’t be surprised if the final episode (episode 6) featured attempts by certain actors to “whitewash history” and claim that the destruction of King’s Landing was “necessary” and “inevitable” in the aftermath. History is written by the victors, after all. We’ll see.

And, the third reason I think the firebombing of Dresden is the template for the conclusion of the show (and the books) is a literary reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five.

Now, George R.R. Martin has been a writer his whole life, and he is a keen student of the science fiction/fantasy genre in all of its manifestations. He is clearly a smart guy who knows his history and his literature. There’s no way he’s not intimately familiar with Slaughterhouse Five, and would want to honor the late Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful meditation on the senseless horrors of war. The centerpiece of Vonnegut’s book is, of course, the firebombing of Dresden which the young Vonnegut experienced as a German prisoner of war.

There may be a few other references too. I wonder if Bran’s mental time traveling is somehow analogous to Billy Pilgrim’s becoming “unstuck in time”. That’s just a speculation, of course. But Slaughterhouse Five is one of the few books that can be arguably called “science fiction” to have transcended the genre—to have become something more. It rises to become a work of great literature, a mediation on the fundamental human experience. And I’m pretty sure that this is what Martin is aspiring to as well. So it’s no stretch to imagine that he would want both to appropriate—and simultaneously pay homage to—Vonnegut’s masterwork in concluding his own epic fantasy series.

So, in my opinion, that’s why things unfolded the way that they did. The final episode will probably make this intent more clear (or not, we’ll see).

Now, as for the rather abrupt and jarring transition of Daenerys Targaryen’s character; well, I agree with those who see it as a unfortunate contrivance given the fact that the writers were forced by circumstances to wrap up the series in a very limited amount of time. If you’re a literary author, you can spend hundreds of pages and ten years of writing to bring this about in a logically consistent manner. If you’re writing a TV series on a very tight schedule, by contrast, and millions of dollars are at stake, you have to bang out a conclusion whether it is ideal or not. That’s just the reality.

Clearly this outcome had been hinted at all along during series, albeit subtly and ambiguously. And there were several events featured prominently this season that were clearly intended by the writers to undermine Daenerys’ mental state and set her up for her character’s troubling final turn.

But it fits in well with Martin’s sensibilities throughout the entire series–that anyone who fashions themselves as a “savior” turns out, in the end, to be a monster. Recall Nietzsche’s famous dictum: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” I’m sure Martin is familiar with Nietzsche as well as Vonnegut. To date, the only consistently “noble” character has been Jon Snow, who has repeatedly insisted that he is not interested in wielding power, and just wants to live a relatively “normal” life beyond the wall once the war is over. No doubt there’s an intentional statement there.

And that has been a central message of the show from the very beginning. It’s what I believe makes it a truly great work of art (along with the brilliant characters and complex world-building). I feel like many of the fans got so caught up in messy details that they forget about the big picture—what I would argue is the central “message” of Martin’s entire Song of Ice and Fire series of novels in my view.

Which is this: There is no “nobility” in the naked pursuit of power. Once you seek to acquire power over others, no matter how noble your intentions may be at the outset, you will inevitably be forced to do things that are immoral. That’s the nature of the game.

And in these dark times, that’s an important message to convey.

Here are a couple of articles I enjoyed about the show’s final season:

Stop the nitpicking! This season of Game of Thrones is miraculous (The Guardian)

The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones (Scientific American)

The Anthropology of Game of Thrones (YouTube)

Standing on Zanzibar

Given the title of this blog, I couldn’t not post this article from the BBC:

We look to fiction for eternal truths about our world and timeless insights into the human condition – either that or giddy escapism. But sometimes, in striving to achieve any or all of the above, a novelist will use the future as their backdrop; and just occasionally, they’ll predict what’s to come with uncanny accuracy. They can sit down at their desk and correctly envisage, for instance, how generations to come will be travelling, relaxing, communicating. And in the case of John Brunner, a sci-fi author who grew up in an era when the word ‘wireless’ still meant radio – the specificity of his imaginings retains its power to startle.

In his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, for instance, he peers ahead to imagine life in 2010, correctly forecasting wearable technology, Viagra, video calls, same-sex marriage, the legalisation of cannabis, and the proliferation of mass shootings. Equally compelling, however – and even more instructive – is the process by which Brunner constructed this society of his future and our present…

Ultimately, it is Brunner’s process that makes Zanzibar’s crystal-ball-gazing predictions so enduringly fascinating: he arrived at them via a combination of careful observation, listening and reading – that and a zany imagination. He was looking to the future, but it was only by being fully immersed in the present that he was able to see it with such unnerving clarity, effectively turning his typewriter into a time machine…

The 1968 sci-fi that spookily predicted today (BBC). In weird time-travel-paradox sort-of-way, maybe he even predicted this blog (which actually debuted in 2011).

(NEGRO. Member of a subgroup of the human race who hails, or whose ancestors hailed, from a chunk of land nicknamed—not by its residents—Africa. Superior to the Caucasian in that Negroes did not invent nuclear weapons, the automobile, Christianity, nerve gas, the concentration camp, military, or the megalopolis.

The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan) [SOZ; pp. 85-86]

HUMAN BEING. You’re one. At least, if you aren’t, you know you’re a Martian or a trained dolphin or Shalmaneser.
(If you want me to tell you more than that, you’re out of luck. There’s nothing more anybody can tell you.

The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan) [SOZ; p. 41]

Anthropology/Archaeology Roundup

I have a backlog of anthropology/ancient history news articles, so that means it’s finally time to clear out the links:

Human ancestors were ‘grounded,’ new analysis shows (Science Daily). See my previous article. It’s long been assumed that we descended from tree-dwelling apes, and that ground-based locomotion evolved much later-possibly independently—in ancestral humans and apes. But this new study indicates that the common ancestor of chimps, bonobos and humans had already evolved for mobility on the ground:

In his research, Prang ascertained the relative length proportions of multiple bones in the primate foot skeleton to evaluate the relationship between species’ movement (locomotion) and their skeletal characteristics (morphology). In addition, drawing upon the Ardi fossils, he used statistical methods to reconstruct or estimate what the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees might have looked like.

Here, he found that the African apes show a clear signal of being adapted to ground-living. The results also reveal that the Ardi foot and the estimated morphology of the human-chimpanzee last common ancestor is most similar to these African ape species.

“Therefore, humans evolved from an ancestor that had adaptations to living on the ground, perhaps not unlike those found in African apes,” Prang concludes. “These findings suggest that human bipedalism was derived from a form of locomotion similar to that of living African apes, which contrasts with the original interpretation of these fossils.”

The original interpretation of the Ardi foot fossils, published in 2009, suggested that its foot was more monkey-like than chimpanzee- or gorilla-like. The implication of this interpretation is that many of the features shared by living great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans) in their foot and elsewhere must have evolved independently in each lineage — in a different time and place.

And, related: Humanity’s Early Ancestors Were Upright Walking Apes (Discover Magazine)

…bipedalism, or two-legged locomotion, was the first major evolutionary change in human ancestors, which is evident from bones. Other distinguishing features, like big brains, small molars and handcrafted stone tools, came millions of years later. Therefore, to find early members of our lineage, anthropologists look for ancient apes with skeletal traits indicative of habitual bipedalism — they regularly walked upright.So who were the first bipedal apes and would you recognize them as relatives?…

History of the Horse: Ancient DNA Reveals Lost Lineages (Discover Magazine)

For the last 5,000 or so years, the horse has done more than any other animal to affect the course of human history (sorry, dogs and cats…it’s not even close).

Horses have hauled us and our stuff (including our languages, cultures and diseases) all over the world. They’ve charged into battle, plowed fields and crisscrossed continents delivering news. And, after death, they’ve been broken down into a variety of useful products, from hides to food.

But the new research found that some of the traits we associate most closely with horses have only recently evolved. For example, the genetic variations associated with locomotive speed appear to be the product of selective breeding only in the last 1,000 or so years.

The European horse breeds nearly went extinct, and genetic diversity in horses is declining in general:

The genome-wide analysis also found that established populations of European horses were nearly wiped out in the 7th to 9th centuries thanks to the arrival and spread of horses with a Persian pedigree…

Beginning about 2,000 years ago, the diversity of the Y chromosome in domestic horses began to decline, likely because breeders were increasingly choosing specific stallions as studs. But the researchers also found that horses’ overall genetic diversity has fallen by about 16 percent just in the last 200 years, probably because of increased emphasis on the “purity” of a line.

The domestication of horses remains something of a mystery, but I find this author’s speculation a likely possibility:

Archaeological evidence of horse domestication points to the Botai culture of Central Asia at least 5,500 years ago, but those horses are genetically related to the wild Przewalski’s horse, not domestic horses. Various studies have suggested different areas of central and southwestern Eurasia as the homeland of the domestic horse, but the matter remains unresolved.

Personally, I’m betting that the earliest history of the horse took a course not unlike that of the dog: A sweeping 2016 paleogenetic study showed that dogs were domesticated more than once, at about the same time but in different locations, though one lineage eventually dominated.

BONUS: Here’s Brian Fagan on horse domestication from The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History:

Capturing or controlling such fast-moving, potentially ferocious animals as tarpans would never have been easy, especially on the open steppe, where close stalking 1s difficult at best for someone on foot armed with only a bow and arrow or a spear. So the hunters often turned to carefully orchestrated ambushes and cooperative drives. Such hunts required dealing with horses at close quarters. Such circumstances must have been commonplace enough, so much so that hunters may have gotten into the habit of corralling some of the trapped mares alive or even hobbling them, allowing them to feed in captivity until it was time to kill them. They may have focused on slower-moving pregnant mares, which would then give birth in captivity. Their foals would have been more amenable to control if brought up in captivity from the beginning. This may have been how domestication took hold, through loose management of growing herds of mares, who still bred with wild stallions.

This was not, of course, the first time that people had wrestled with the problem of domesticating large, often frisky animals. The first groups to domesticate horses were accustomed to cattle management. Like cattle, horses travel in bands. As with cattle, too, there’s a lead female, who decides the route for the day. The others follow. Cattle and sheepherders had known for centuries that to control the leader was to control the herd, whether a flock of sheep or a small group of cattle. p. 138

No one knows precisely where horses were first domesticated, but if genetics is any guide, they were tamed in many locations between eastern Europe and the Caucasus. We will never find a genetically ancestral mare, the “Eve,” as it were, of Equus caballus, for crossbreeding with wild stallions was commonplace. With genetics inconclusive, we have to fall back on archaeological clues. These are contradictory at best. As is the case with cattle, it’s a question of interpreting slaughter curves compiled from jaws and teeth. They can tell us the ages of slaughtered beasts, but not necessarily what the patterns mean. Unfortunately, too, there was so much size variation in wild horse populations that diminishing size is an unreliable criterion. p. 139

Quite when people first rode horses is the subject of unending academic debate, largely because its virtually impossible to tell from archaeological finds. At first, people rode their beasts with some form of noseband of leather, rope, or sinew, which rarely survive in archaeological sites. Bits, bridles, and other equipment came into use centuries later than animal domestication. (The earliest bits date to about to 3000 BCE, made of rope, bone, horn, or hardwood. Metal bits appear between 1300 and 1200 BCE, originally made of bronze and later of iron.)’ But just how big a step was this? Perhaps the transition from herding to riding was much less than we think, accustomed as we are to bucking broncos and rodeos, also to terrified pedigree animals whose every instinct is to flee, flail out savagely, or bite. We shouldn’t forget char the first people to ride horses had almost certainly sat on the backs of oxen, which already plowed fields and served as occasional pack animals. Also the first horses to be ridden on the steppe were much smaller than some later breeds. Even more important, those who domesticated them were intimately familiar with the behavior of agitated horses confronted with the unfamiliar. p. 141

We are learning more about the domestication of sheep and goats:

At the ancient settlement of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey, archaeological evidence suggests that humans began domesticating sheep and goats around 8450 BC. These practices evolved over the next 1,000 years, until the society became heavily dependent on the beasts for food and other materials.

The team used the urine salts [left behind by humans and animals] to calculate the density of humans and animals at the site over time, estimating that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. The results suggest that domestication may have been more rapid than previously expected. They also support the idea that the Neolithic Revolution didn’t have just one birthplace in the Fertile Crescent of the Mideast, but rather occurred across several locations simultaneously.

Switch from hunting to herding recorded in ancient urine (Science Daily)

Horses were just the beginning, however: Humans Domesticated Dogs And Cows. We May Have Also Domesticated Ourselves (Discover Magazine):

According to proponents [of the so-called self-domestication hypothesis, floated by Charles Darwin and formulated by 21st century scholars], as human societies grew in size and complexity, more cooperative, less combative individuals fared better. These behavioral traits are heritable to some extent and also linked with physical traits, such as stress hormone levels, testosterone during development and skull robustness. Tamer individuals more successfully passed on their genes, and so these traits prevailed in the human lineage. Over time, our species became domesticated.

So it’s thought that humans self-domesticated because aggressive individuals were gradually eliminated from society. A happy tale of “survival of the friendliest.”…

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this, but this article provides a really good overview:

Researchers now know that breeding animals solely for tameness ultimately leads to full domestication. That’s thanks to an ongoing experiment in fox domestication, started in 1959 Soviet Russia…domesticates’ tameness results from smaller adrenal glands, which release less stress hormones. This physiology allows the creatures to stay cool in situations where wild animals would enter a “fight-or-flight” state.

Compared to their wild forbears, domesticated species are less aggressive and fearful towards humans. They often have floppy ears, curly tails, white spots on their heads, and smaller skulls, snouts and teeth. As adults, they look and act more like juveniles of the wild ancestors, and the males appear less masculine…affected features are influenced by or derive from neural crest cells, a specific class of stem cells. In developing vertebrate embryos, these cells form along the back edge of the neural tube (precursor to the brain and spine). They eventually migrate throughout the body, ultimately becoming many types of tissues, including parts of the skull, adrenal glands, teeth and the pigment cells affecting fur.

In domesticates, these tissues seem underdeveloped or smaller than their wild counterparts. A deficit in neural crest cells could explain this difference, i.e. the domestication syndrome.

In Soviet Russia, animal domesticates you, LoL!

In natural settings and experiments, people are far more prosocial. Chimps are reluctant to cooperate, quick to lose their tempers and prone to aggressive outbursts. Humans, in contrast, routinely communicate and cooperate with strangers. Even infants will use gestures to help others solve a task, such as finding a hidden object.

Scientists have also found evidence for self-domestication in human skeletal remains. Based on what’s happened to animal domesticates, it’s predicted that skulls should have become smaller and more feminine looking (in both sexes) with reduced brow ridges. Indeed, that’s what a 2014 Current Anthropology paper found, which measured Homo sapiens skulls from the Stone Age to recent times, about 200,000 years of human evolution. These results agree with previous studies reporting that average skull — and by proxy brain — volume in Homo sapiens has decreased by roughly 10 percent in the past 40,000 years.

It wasn’t all fun and games, however:

Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has argued that ancient societies likely used capital punishment to execute individuals who acted as belligerent bullies and violated community norms. Through sanctioned, punitive killings, troublemakers were weeded out of humanity’s gene poll.

And despite our propensity to cooperate, humans are obviously capable of war, murder and other atrocities towards our own kind. In his 2019 book The Goodness Paradox, Wrangham attributes this to two biologically distinct forms of aggression: reactive and proactive. The former comprises impulsive responses to threats, like a bar brawl sparked by escalating insults. The latter is planned violence with a clear goal, such as premeditated murder and war. Research suggests these forms of aggression are controlled by different brain regions, hormone pathways and genes — and therefore could be dialed up or down independently by distinct evolutionary pressures.

The book The 10,000 Year Explosion argued the same case:

Selection for submission to authority sounds unnervingly like domestication. In fact,there are parallels between the process of domestication in animals and the changes that have occurred in humans during the Holocene period. In both humans and domesticated animals, we see a reduction in brain size, broader skulls, changes in hair color or coat color, and smaller teeth. As Dmitri Belyaev’s experiment with foxes shows, some of the changes that are characteristic of domesticated animals may be side effects of selection for tameness.

As for humans, we know of a number of recent changes in genes involving serotonin metabolism in Europeans that may well influence personality, but we don’t know what effect those changes have had—since we don’t yet know whether they increase or decrease serotonin levels. Floppy ears are not seen in any human population (as far as we know), but then, changes in the external ear might interfere with recognition of speech sounds. Since speech is of great importance to fitness in humans, it may be that the negative effects of floppy ears have kept them from arising.

Some of these favored changes could be viewed as examples of neoteny—retention of childlike characteristics. Children routinely submit to their parents—at least in comparison to teenagers—and it’s possible that natural selection modified mechanisms active in children in ways that resulted in tamer human adults, just as the behaviors of adult dogs often seem relatively juvenile in comparison with adult wolf behavior.

If the strong governments made possible by agriculture essentially “tamed” people, one might expect members of groups with shallow or nonexistent agricultural experience to be less submissive, on average, than members of longtime agricultural cultures. One possible indicator of tameness is the ease with which people can be enslaved, and our reading of history suggests that some peoples with little or no evolutionary exposure to agriculture “would not endure the yoke,” as was said of Indians captured by the Puritans in the Pequot War of 1636. In the same vein, the typical Bushman, a classic hunter-gatherer, has been described as “the anarchist of South Africa.” pp. 112-113

It’s even written all over our faces: The history of humanity in your face (Science Daily)

Changes in the human face may not be due only to purely mechanical factors. The human face, after all, plays an important role in social interaction, emotion, and communication. Some of these changes may be driven, in part, by social context. Our ancestors were challenged by the environment and increasingly impacted by culture and social factors. Over time, the ability to form diverse facial expressions likely enhanced nonverbal communication.

Large, protruding brow ridges are typical of some extinct species of our own genus, Homo, like Homo erectus and the Neanderthals. What function did these structures play in adaptive changes in the face? The African great apes also have strong brow ridges, which researchers suggest help to communicate dominance or aggression. It is probably safe to conclude that similar social functions influenced the facial form of our ancestors and extinct relatives. Along with large, sharp canine teeth, large brow ridges were lost along the evolutionary road to our own species, perhaps as we evolved to become less aggressive and more cooperative in social contexts.

Another very exciting and important discovery: a Denisovan jawbone indicates that Denisovans (or a close ancestor) were the first inhabitants of the high-altitude Tibetan plateau. There they developed particular genetic adaptations to the altitude, and then much later passed these adaptations to the ancestors of modern humans living there today.

Our protein analysis shows that the Xiahe mandible belonged to a hominin population that was closely related to the Denisovans from Denisova Cave,” said co-author Frido Welker, from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

The discovery may explain why individuals studied at Denisova Cave had a gene variant known to protect against hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) at high altitudes. This had been a puzzle because the Siberian cave is located just 700m above sea level.

Present-day Sherpas, Tibetans and neighbouring populations have the same gene variant, which was probably acquired when Homo sapiens mixed with the Denisovans thousands of years ago. In fact, the gene variant appears to have undergone positive natural selection (which can result in mutations reaching high frequencies in populations because they confer an advantage).

“We can only speculate that living in this kind of environment, any mutation that was favourable to breathing an atmosphere impoverished in oxygen would be retained by natural selection,” said Prof Hublin.”And it’s a rather likely scenario to explain how this mutation made its way to present-day Tibetans.”

Denisovans: Primitive humans lived at high altitudes (BBC).

First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans (Science Daily)

I wonder: Could the legends of the Yeti be a memory of the ancient Denisovans? Now that’s really speculating!

Details of the history of inner Eurasia revealed (Science Daily). There are three major ecological regions, and three major peoples in this region of the world:

This vast area can also be divided into several distinct ecological regions that stretch in largely east-west bands across Inner Eurasia, consisting of the deserts at the southern edge of the region, the steppe in the central part, taiga forests further north, and tundra towards the Arctic region. The subsistence strategies used by indigenous groups in these regions largely correlate with the ecological zones, for example reindeer herding and hunting in the tundra region and nomadic pastoralism on the steppe.

They found three distinct genetic groupings, which geographically are arranged in east-west bands stretching across the region and correlating generally to ecological zones, where populations within each band share a distinct combination of ancestries in varying proportions.

The northernmost grouping, which they term “forest-tundra,” includes Russians, all Uralic language-speakers, which includes Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, and Yeniseian-language speakers, of which only one remains today and is spoken in central Siberia. The middle grouping, which they term “steppe-forest,” includes Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations from the Volga and the region around the Altai and Sayan mountains, near to where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. The southernmost grouping, “southern-steppe,” includes the rest of Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations living further south, such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks, as well as Indo-European-speaking Tajiks.

Because the study includes data from a broad time period, it is able to show shifts in ancestry in the past that reveal previously unknown interactions. For example, the researchers found that the southern-steppe populations had a larger genetic component from West and South Asia than the other two groupings. This component is also widespread in the ancient populations of the region since the second half of the first millennium BC, but not found in Central Kazakhstan in earlier periods. This hints at a population movement from the southern-steppe region to the steppe-forest region that was previously unknown…

Interestingly, this is also where the horse was first domesticated, although we don’t know exactly when or where as we saw above. Anyways, back to the first farmers:

The First Anatolian farmers were local hunter-gatherers that adopted agriculture (Science Daily)

Farming was developed approximately 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a region that includes present-day Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan as well as the fringes of southern Anatolia and western Iran. By about 8,300 BCE it had spread to central Anatolia, in present-day Turkey. These early Anatolian farmers subsequently migrated throughout Europe, bringing this new subsistence strategy and their genes. Today, the single largest component of the ancestry of modern-day Europeans comes from these Anatolian farmers. It has long been debated, however, whether farming was brought to Anatolia similarly by a group of migrating farmers from the Fertile Crescent, or whether the local hunter-gatherers of Anatolia adopted farming practices from their neighbors.

A new study by an international team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and in collaboration with scientists from the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel, published in Nature Communications, confirms existing archaeological evidence that shows that Anatolian hunter-gatherers did indeed adopt farming themselves, and the later Anatolian farmers were direct descendants of a gene-pool that remained relatively stable for over 7,000 years.

They also built the world’s earliest temple (that we know of). We also know that they didn’t stay put. Anatolian farmers moved around the Mediterranean and into Iberia (Spain). From there, it appears they migrated northward to the British Isles, where they displaced the original hunter-gatherer populations. It is they who brought the tradition of megalithic stone building (and presumably feasting) to prehistoric Britain.

Researchers compared DNA extracted from Neolithic human remains found across Britain with that of people alive at the same time in Europe. The Neolithic inhabitants were descended from populations originating in Anatolia (modern Turkey) that moved to Iberia before heading north. They reached Britain in about 4,000BC.

The migration to Britain was just one part of a general, massive expansion of people out of Anatolia in 6,000BC that introduced farming to Europe.Before that, Europe was populated by small, travelling groups which hunted animals and gathered wild plants and shellfish.
One group of early farmers followed the river Danube up into Central Europe, but another group travelled west across the Mediterranean. DNA reveals that Neolithic Britons were largely descended from groups who took the Mediterranean route, either hugging the coast or hopping from island-to-island on boats. Some British groups had a minor amount of ancestry from groups that followed the Danube route.

When the researchers analysed the DNA of early British farmers, they found they most closely resembled Neolithic people from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal). These Iberian farmers were descended from people who had journeyed across the Mediterranean. From Iberia, or somewhere close, the Mediterranean farmers travelled north through France. They might have entered Britain from the west, through Wales or south-west England…

In addition to farming, the Neolithic migrants to Britain appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths. Stonehenge in Wiltshire was part of this tradition.

Although Britain was inhabited by groups of “western hunter-gatherers” when the farmers arrived in about 4,000 BC, DNA shows that the two groups did not mix very much at all. The British hunter-gatherers were almost completely replaced by the Neolithic farmers, apart from one group in western Scotland, where the Neolithic inhabitants had elevated local ancestry. This could have come down to the farmer groups simply having greater numbers…

Professor Thomas said the Neolithic farmers had probably had to adapt their practices to different climatic conditions as they moved across Europe. But by the time they reached Britain they were already “tooled up” and well-prepared for growing crops in a north-west European climate…

Stonehenge: DNA reveals origin of builders (BBC). Interesting that both Spain and Britain became the main centers of shepherding and wool production during the Middle Ages. Here’s an additional comment from Reddit r/history:

Someone working on aDNA here. The Mediterranean route is closely related to Cardium Pottery cultures. Radiocarbon dates suggest that there was a rapid spread about 5500 BCE – including into Sardinia, the South French and Iberian coasts; which has been interpreted as evidence for seafaring spread of agricultural societies. These early farmers slowly and progressively intermixed with surrounding Hunter Gatherers (which were as different from the Early farmers as present-day Chinese are to Europeans!), until these were completely absorbed. Before agriculture (and broadly the people who brought it) moved on to Britain, there was about a 1000 year break – why is kind of unknown.

From a historical period closer to our own time, the DNA of several Crusaders was examined and found to be fairly diverse. However, it appears that Europeans didn’t have much of a lasting imprint on the local populations in the Levant:

Archaeological evidence suggested that 25 individuals whose remains were found in a burial pit near a Crusader castle near Sidon, Lebanon, were warriors who died in battle in the 1200s. Based on that, Tyler-Smith, Haber, and their colleagues conducted genetic analyses of the remains and were able to sequence the DNA of nine Crusaders, revealing that three were Europeans, four were Near Easterners, and two individuals had mixed genetic ancestry.

Throughout history, other massive human migrations — like the movement of the Mongols through Asia under Genghis Khan and the arrival of colonial Iberians in South America — have fundamentally reshaped the genetic makeup of those regions. But the authors theorize that the Crusaders’ influence was likely shorter-lived because the Crusaders’ genetic traces are insignificant in people living in Lebanon today. “They made big efforts to expel them, and succeeded after a couple of hundred years,” says Tyler-Smith.

“Historical records are often very fragmentary and potentially very biased,” Tyler-Smith says. “But genetics gives us a complementary approach that can confirm some of the things that we read about in history and tell us about things that are not recorded in the historical records that we have. And as this approach is adopted by historians and archaeologists as a part of their field, I think it will only become more and more enriching.”

A history of the Crusades, as told by crusaders’ DNA (Science Daily)

Crusader armies were remarkably genetically diverse, study finds (Guardian)

Why didn’t a civilization emerge along the Mississippi river valley? (Ask Reddit) Of course, it did: the Mississippian culture. The real question is, why was it not the most advanced New World civilization, rather than the cultures which appeared farther south in the Yucatan and the Andes mountains? One answer might be the frequent and terrible flooding of the river valley:

The Mississippi changes course quite often, which would break down any long term settlements. Wunderground, when it was good, had a wonderful article on this, and how it’s desperate to change course now, but that would destroy the trade routes etc., along the river, and make New Orleans a ghost town, which shows that what happened in the past, can happen again to our civilization.

That’s true of the Yellow River in China (“China’s Sorrow”), and in fact, containing the Yellow River may have been a spur for civilizational development in China. But its situation was different:

That is actually true of the Yellow River too. There were over 1,000 recorded floods, 18 documented major course changes, and the river made giant swamps/lakes that came and went, and just a lot of shenanigan with that river. I think what helped was that it is long enough and the civilization originated around its upper reaches rather than its incredibly problematic lower reaches, and by the time stable populations started living in the the worst flood plains, the population and technology were enough to prevent/mitigate most floods and handle a few really bad ones (i.e. losing a million or two is bad, but won’t be civilization ending)…[a] combination of where civilization developed, the technology to modify the river’s flow, and population is what saved China.

How differently did Eastern and Western Roman Empires cope and deal with the Barbarians? (Reddit history) Top comment:

The Eastern and Roman Empires weren’t separate entities as such at this point: Theodosius later ruled over both. I’m not sure there’s an issue of ‘learning from’ the experience differently but rather different underlying conditions. A huge amount of ink has been spilt on why the West fell (and the East didn’t) but I think some likely elements

– The Western Empire had the less wealthy provinces. Money was vital both for paying armies and for paying off barbarians: later on, the East paid barbarians to go away who went to the West instead…

– The Western provinces simply had more of a vulnerable extended border with barbarian tribes than the East. The East had to deal with Sassanians but they were a single enemy who could be negotiated with, and there was relative peace in the 5th century. Until the Arab conquests the richest provinces were harder to reach for enemies while being well-connected for friends by the Mediterranean. The Hellespont was a natural barrier for easy passage from Europe into Asia.

– The West had more usurpers and less stable continuity of power. As Emperors tended (probably rightly) to see usurpers as more a threat than barbarians, civil wars tended to sap ability to stop barbarians.

– I’m less sure of this one as a cause of the problems, but some attribute the West’s problems to the fact its emperors were more often dominated by military strongmen (weak emperors in the East being usually dominated by civilians). However, you can equally argue those strongmen helped stave off the fall!
In terms of surviving a thousand years, the Eastern empire was reduced to something of a rump state by the Arab conquests (Peter Heather says it became a ‘satellite state’ of the Caliphate, with its ability to act dependent on the rise and falls of their strength rather than vice versa). While the East saw times of regaining strength, by 1453 it was more a city-state than an Empire and successor states in the West had been stronger for some time, albeit without the same institutional continuity.

The Feasting Theory rides again! The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn’t hurt (Science Daily)

A thousand years ago, the Wari empire stretched across Peru. At its height, it covered an area the size of the Eastern seaboard of the US from New York City to Jacksonville. It lasted for 500 years, from 600 to 1100 AD, before eventually giving rise to the Inca. That’s a long time for an empire to remain intact, and archaeologists are studying remnants of the Wari culture to see what kept it ticking. A new study found an important factor that might have helped: a steady supply of beer…

Nearly twenty years ago, Williams, Nash, and their team discovered an ancient Wari brewery in Cerro Baúl in the mountains of southern Peru. “It was like a microbrewery in some respects. It was a production house, but the brewhouses and taverns would have been right next door,” explains Williams. And since the beer they brewed, a light, sour beverage called chicha, was only good for about a week after being made, it wasn’t shipped offsite — people had to come to festivals at Cerro Baúl to drink it. These festivals were important to Wari society — between one and two hundred local political elites would attend, and they would drink chicha from three-foot-tall ceramic vessels decorated to look like Wari gods and leaders. “People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state,” says Williams. In short, beer helped keep the empire together…

By looking at the chemical makeup of traces of beer left in the vessels and at the chemical makeup of the clay vessels themselves, the team found two important things. One, the vessels were made of clay that came from nearby, and two, the beer was made of pepper berries, an ingredient that can grow even during a drought. Both these things would help make for a steady beer supply — even if a drought made it hard to grow other chicha ingredients like corn, or if changes in trade made it hard to get clay from far away, vessels of pepper berry chicha would still be readily available.

The authors of the study argue that this steady supply of beer could have helped keep Wari society stable. The Wari empire was huge and made up of different groups of people from all over Peru. “We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations, it kept people together,” says Williams.

The study’s implications about how shared identity and cultural practices help to stabilize societies are increasingly relevant today. “This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds,” says Williams. “Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society.”

I don’t know about that last part, we have more microbreweries than ever in the United States, yet we haven’t been more divided since the Civil War :(.

The microbrewery came to a dramatic end, however:

Then, after the brewery had run for hundreds of years, it hosted one final blowout bash. The artifacts at the site, the researchers believe, are a snapshot of what it looked like during its final hours.

Based on the positions of the artifacts, as well as ash and other sediments, it appears that this last festival ended with the Wari intentionally burning down the brewery. Festival-goers smashed their cups onto the smoldering ashes; the fermentation jars were toppled, the pieces strewn about the brewery; and seven necklaces of shell and semi-precious stones were ceremoniously laid on the ruins. The whole thing was covered with sediment.

Why they did this is unclear. But one thing’s for sure: It was a clear signal that the brewery was now closed.

If you’re curious to recreate the bonding experience of the ancient Wari, don’t despair! You may get your opportunity:

The Field Museum had already partnered with Off Color Brewing in Chicago to make a dino-themed brew called Tooth and Claw. And when the Field Museum’s marketing team got wind of the Wari research, they wondered if Off Color might be interested in making a chicha, too.

There were a few roadblocks. The Wari recipe makes a brew that only keeps for five days. That’s slightly problematic in the modern beverage industry. Plus, to legally call a drink a “beer,” certain recipe standards have to be met — fermented corn and pepper berries don’t quite cut it.

But the group persevered. Instead of replicating the exact recipe, they decided, they’d just work to replicate the flavor in the form of a modern ale. Off Color obtained flavor-packing ingredients from the source: purple maize and pink peppercorns from Peru.
The brewers went through multiple iterations with the archaeologists until they got the taste just right. The beer first came out in 2016 and was so popular Off Color is re-releasing it this June.

The Field Museum helped supply Discover with a six-pack of Off Color’s Wari Ale. And, for my personal tastes, the pepper-berry-chicha mimic is delicious. It’s a little sour but doesn’t make you pucker; a little fruity but not too sweet. It’s light and refreshing, and a fabulous shade of purple.

A Brewery in Peru Ran For Centuries, Then Burned After One Epic Ancient Party. (Discover Magazine). I may have to take a field trip to Chicago to try this out.

Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans? (The Atlantic)

We’re used to imagining extinct civilizations in terms of the sunken statues and subterranean ruins. These kinds of artifacts of previous societies are fine if you’re only interested in timescales of a few thousands of years. But once you roll the clock back to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years, things get more complicated.

When it comes to direct evidence of an industrial civilization—things like cities, factories, and roads—the geologic record doesn’t go back past what’s called the Quaternary period 2.6 million years ago. For example, the oldest large-scale stretch of ancient surface lies in the Negev Desert. It’s “just” 1.8 million years old—older surfaces are mostly visible in cross section via something like a cliff face or rock cuts. Go back much farther than the Quaternary and everything has been turned over and crushed to dust.

The authors don’t believe that there was, but they use it as a thought experiment to document the long-term effects of human industrial civilization. Perhaps this hypothetical ancient civilization was George R.R. Martin’s Westeros? They do seem to live with extinct megafauna.

Imagine if geography was maximized to spread cultural developments around the world. That’s the idea this guy had: Welcome to Jaredia (World Dream Bank). Diamond has a brand new book out: Upheaval by Jared Diamond review – how nations cope with crisis (Guardian)

The Ancient Earth globe.

Did a cardiac arrhythmia influence Beethoven’s music? (Science Daily)

The story of handwriting in 12 objects (BBC)

Why India (and only India) is called a “subcontinent” (TYWKIWDBI)

Associating color with sounds is not just for synesthetes, and the pairing appear to be universal. (Science Daily)

‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany (Guardian)

Are dingoes just feral dogs? (Anthropocene)

Evidence for a giant flood in the central Mediterranean Sea (Phys.org)

A lot of people have speculated as to when capitalism first got started. Now, I think we may finally have an answer. The way I see it, capitalism truly began when we started to rip each other off: Prehistoric Traders Cheated Rich People With Fake Amber Jewelry (Discover Magazine):

The researchers know the beads are fakes, but are still working out why they exist. Odriozola and colleagues propose three possible explanations. The first plays on the fact that amber is rare. It’s possible a shortage of real amber inspired the creation of imitations. Alternatively, the production of a low-cost product that serves the same social function as amber for members of society who could not afford the real gems is plausible. But the third possibility appears the most likely: Traders who could not acquire the valuable and rare items developed counterfeits to sell as the real thing and cheat their clients.

The researchers say this last option might have been the case in Cova del Gegant, where the four resin-covered beads were found alongside two genuine amber beads that are nearly identical in size and shape. Visually, the authentic beads and the counterfeits look exactly the same.

“The quest for power and wealth are conspicuous behaviors in humankind that would fit perfectly on middlemen cheating wealthy people to acquire wealth and power,” Odriozola said. Plus, Odriozola says, if the tradesmen fooled him and his colleagues, who are well-trained archaeologists, with the fake amber, then it’s almost certain they also pulled one over on the wealthy community members.

And thus, capitalism was born, ha!

The Capitalism vs. Socialism Debate

I’ve got just a few more thoughts about whole the Communism versus Socialism debate. Not about the Peterson/Zizek debate specifically, but about the Capitalism/Socialism debate more generally.

The first is that it’s a lot easier to criticize capitalism than it is to defend socialism.

This is obvious. We’ve seen that even the most ardent defenders of capitalism fully acknowledge many of its shortcomings, as Peterson does in the debate. They are fully aware that there are many problems with capitalism, and sometimes even serious problems with it. Anyone who denies this would look like an idiot.

So that’s a good place to start.

Rather than immediately set up a false dichotomy, why not point out the shortcomings of the current system and go from there?

So many debates assume, implicitly or not, that there is some sort of “-ism” that we can simply plug in and replace the existing system root-and-branch.

I think it’s plain to see that there is no such “-ism.” And so therefore many people just give up and accept the status quo, or make sweeping, facile statements about “overthrowing capitalism” or some such, without any real idea of what they’re talking about. Such people are easily dismissed.

And yet, the current problems with capitalism are not so easily dismissed.

The problem I see is that many of the specific, targeted solutions to specific problems under our current form of capitalism are dismissed and waved away as socialism, as if that was somehow an argument.

That’s the problem.

Stick to the issue not the -ism.

Rather than failings, I think we should focus on how much socialist ideas are responsible for the the prosperity we enjoy under our brand of so-called capitalism.

Whether that’s worker protection laws (currently being gutted), advanced technological infrastructure, or government subsidies keeping “free” market prices reasonably stable, many of the concepts and practices that make current Industrial societies as wealthy and prosperous as they are are as far away from doctrinaire “Classical British Liberalism” as can be.

A lot of what Marx was writing about doesn’t even exist today. And besides, it’s not like Classical British liberalism didn’t kill anybody. The people of Ireland in the 1840’s might have something to say about that. As a percentage of the population, we’re talking about deaths that are on par with Stalin’s crimes. Yet it somehow doesn’t count because it happened earlier?

From my understanding, what Marx was saying was that the inherent contradictions of capitalism would eventually cause the system to undermine itself, making it less and less viable over time. And from where I sit, this prophecy seems to be coming true.

He wasn’t saying that capitalism was worse than feudalism, or that mass-production of commodities didn’t confer benefits to a lot of people. Rather, he argued that capitalism wasn’t an end-stage of human social organization, but a necessary transitory one that we needed to pass through. It *had* to be transitory, for several reasons.

The simplest and most basic one is that nothing grows forever. Capitalism, as currently constituted, requires ever-increasing production, ever-growing surplus, and ever-higher profits. Like an airplane or bicycle, its forward momentum is the only thing that keeps it stable and upright over time. But the idea that you can constantly produce more and more every single year implies that needs and wants—and more alarmingly the biosphere itself—are infinite.

So that’s one contradiction.

Related to this is the fact that capitalism requires scarcity even while producing abundance. The commodities that capitalists sell need to be reasonably scarce, or they will not command a sufficiently high price (i.e. exchange value) in markets to justify their production, and that is what capitalists care about rather than actual use value. And so, you need to keep even abundant goods artificially scarce. You also need to keep people persistently dissatisfied with what they already own so to that they will keep purchasing “new and improved” items—hence the “organized creation of dissatisfaction” that the early advertisers (honestly) claimed was their reason for existing.

Simply put, too much prosperity is bad for business.

And one that has come into very sharp relief today is the fact that capitalism relentlessly drives towards more efficiency, but such efficiency necessarily reduces the amount of total labor that needs doing. Yet everyone is required to sell their labor as a basic condition of survival!

This has recently been brought into sharp relief with recent developments in automation and AI, but it’s been a serious problem for a long time. It’s a problem all over the world today where capitalism has displaced more traditional arrangements not predicated on wage-earning and constant, never-ending growth.

Clearly there is, in fact, a “lump of labor,” at least at any single point in time, otherwise unemployment would never have existed throughout history! Otherwise, how do we explain things like the Luddite Revolt and the Captain Swing riots (just to mention two of them). And, even if the “jobs we can’t even imagine” do eventually manifest themselves, what are displaced workers supposed to do in the meantime under a “pure” capitalist (i.e. non-socialist) system?

It was basic contradictions like these that Marx could see by taking an unflinching look at the system that had developed out of earlier forms of economic organization. He felt that the capitalism of his time could not continue. And, to some extent, these developments have already undermined the kind of imaginary libertarian capitalism taught in economics textbooks, but that exists nowhere in the real world outside of them.

I mean, big business and corporate bosses are the frequent recipients of all sort of largesse from governments that we might consider to be socialism (or “corporate welfare”). Are they really going to then turn around and argue that socialism has been a total failure? Has it failed for them?

Why it it only a “failure” when it improves the lives of the average citizen?

Instead of arguing for Marxism (whatever that means), why not persistently argue for all the ways that socialism has worked all around the world, and continues to work? Rather than constantly running from the Black Book of Communism, how about talking about how many lives socialism has actually saved through initiatives like universal health care (where it exists), public assistance, worker housing, and the like. I mean, a hell of a lot of the higher living standards we enjoy under capitalism are not, strictly speaking, due to doctrinaire capitalism.

As an aside, the very first thing I ever heard Jordan Peterson say (it was on the Rogan podcast—I had no idea who he was at the time) was to belittle college students for daring to criticize capitalism on their iPhones. So you might say I was predisposed not to think of him as any sort of “deep thinker” from the very start.

This argument is so tired and cliched that it has its very own cartoon:

Not to mention that almost everything in the iPhone was created through publicly-funded government investment and research. And yet, the public now has to buy back their own investment from the richest company on earth, one that sits on piles of cash it doesn’t even know what to do with (while simultaneously being told by politicians in both parties that our government is “broke”). The public can’t even afford to go to sports games in the countless sports arenas and stadiums that they (we) pay for!


Why don’t we talk about that? I wonder, is socialism really such a failure after all?

Finally, to criticize social scientists for being secret “Marxists” not only smacks heavily of McCarthyism, but is also like criticizing biologists for being Darwinians. See the bonus below for why. What does that trope exactly mean, anyway?

Anyway, those are just some random thoughts…

BONUS: I thought this video by someone calling himself the “Finnish Bolshevik (!)” made some good points regarding the whole “Capitalism is the only system aligned with basic human nature” argument:

[Peterson] repeated over and over again that, ‘yeah, there [are] problems, but there’s nothing that can be better.’ He said that climate change is not as big a problem as many people think it is. There’s always going to be inequality but we’re trying to deal with it to the best of our ability…that’s the typical moderate position that, ‘Yeah, it’s not good, but this is the best we can do. Stop talking about any real change…’

Basically, Peterson makes these tired old anti-Communist arguments, extremely cliched; what we’ve heard a million times before: human nature, Communism has killed millions, Communism has never worked, calculation problem, it’s all there…

Then, Peterson basically does the whole ‘human nature’ argument. He says that humans are naturally different, hence you have this natural hierarchy, therefore Communism supposedly goes against human nature and is impossible, and Capitalism supposedly corresponds to human nature. But once again, he doesn’t know about Marx. He doesn’t know that Marx talks about natural differences in people, and that it’s not a problem for Communism. And it’s just a foolish idea to think that capitalism corresponds to human nature, as if you let a feral child loose into the wild for a year, and then he’s going to build Wal-Mart.

No, Capitalism does not exist in what Rousseau would call a “State of Nature.” A hunter-gatherer society exists in nature. Capitalism exists in civilization; in society. In a state of nature, we had a hunter-gatherer society—what Marx called “primitive communism,” because that was a society where everybody worked, where there was no exploiter class, where there were no different classes, there were no means of production, there was no property—that is how humans lived for 250,000 years! That is how humans lived in a state of nature.

Then technology developed. We built civilization; we built society. And then, instead of just having biological evolution, we started to have cultural evolution, societal evolution, technological evolution, what have you. And then we got these different forms of societies—we got slave society, feudal society, capitalist society, socialist society. Capitalism doesn’t naturally grow out of a human’s biology. It emerged as a result of previous civilizations—previous social, cultural and economic development.

And that’s why, if you put a human in a a hunter-gatherer society, he’s going to act a whole lot different than in a slave society. A hunter-gatherer is going to think that it’s perfectly natural that land is not owned by anybody. He’s going to have a ‘naturally’ communist concept when it comes to land ownership. Somebody in a slave society is going to think that it’s perfectly natural that we have slaves. Every society has always said that ‘this is the way it’s supposed to be—this is what human nature is.’ But human nature is malleable, and it greatly varies based on what kind of economic system you’re in.

And that’s the basic Marxist argument. That it really is the class struggle that determines how we act. It defines how our entire society is structured. Different classes = entirely different society. Slaves: slave society. Workers: Capitalist society. Hunter-gatherers: primitive communist society…