Monday, April 23, 2018

David Reich, "Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past"

Friends have been asking me for years if I can recommend a book on the new science of ancient DNA. I have always said, "No, the field is changing too fast." But now there is finally something I can recommend, David Reich's very impressive Who We Are and How We Got Here.

There is not much original in this book, which summarizes the results of ancient DNA studies over the past decade. Reich has been in the thick of those discoveries, first as part of the team that showed Neanderthals and modern humans had interbred, then as the leader of a lab that has read and analyzed a huge amount of DNA. His writing is not great but it is good. You may find some of his technical explanations hard to follow; I did, and have been reading about this stuff for years. My advice is that if you get bogged down in a particular passage, just skip it and go on. If you do that, you should be able to get a huge amount of information out of this book however minimal your background in genetics or statistics.

I have been writing here all along about the big discoveries, which I would say are these:
  • Modern humans interbred with Neanderthals, and outside of Africa human genomes are on average 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal.
  • Modern humans in East Asia also interbred with another lineage of archaic humans we call Denisovans, although as Reich shows in this book the identity of Denisoavans is a complex story.
  • Our modern races are not ancient branches of the human tree, but the result of mixing that has taken place since the origin of agriculture; 20,000 years ago Eurasia was home to a different assortment of races, and the first farmers of Syria were as different, genetically, from those of Iran as Chinese and Welsh are today.
  • There are in the Eurasian family tree groups with no clear obvious descendants today, such as "ancestral West Eurasians"; we call these "ghost populations".
  • Modern Europeans are descended from three quite different ancient groups: the Paleolithic hunter-gathers of old Europe, the farmers who migrated from the Middle East beginning around 9,000 years ago; and invaders who came in from the Steppes during the Bronze Age.
  • The people of India are a mix of an ancient population ("Ancestral South Asians") and West Eurasians; the West Eurasian invaders seem to have come in multiple waves beginning in the Bronze Age. As you would expect by looking at people in India, the mixture of West Eurasian ancestry is much greater in the north, but there is some admixture even in the far south. This mixture skews male, indicating that the invaders were majority male, or else that they did their most successful breeding with local women.
  • East Asians are a mixture of an ancient Yangtze Valley ghost population, which spread after the invention of agriculture, with numerous other ghost populations, in particular one in the Yellow River Valley; modern Han Chinese originated within the past 5,000 years from a mixture of those two and possibly other groups.
Reich concludes by recapitulating the essay he published in the Times on whether this genetic data confirms or will feed racism. I have wondered why he went out on a limb over these issues, and some of my friends have as well. I can only imagine that he knows or expects that genetic data is going to come out that somebody will think has racist implications, and he wants to get ahead of the curve.

One of the anti-racist points Reich makes in both his book and his Op-Ed is that modern races are all mixtures of ancient races. There are no pure racial types; miscegenation is our legacy and our origin. It is true that some groups have remained relatively pure for the past 3,000 years or so, but compared to the vast sweep of human evolutionary history that just isn't very long.

In other words, the vast movements and upheavals of modern times – migrations, conquests, the rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of old peoples and the appearance of new ones – are not an aberration. The medieval world seems to have experienced a few thousand years or so of comparative stasis and endogamy, leaving us a legacy of people who think they belong to a pure race (Koreans, Japanese, Han Chinese, Germans, Jews, Celts). But that only goes back a certain distance, and we now have the tools to peer back much farther. In that long view, migration and mixing are the human norm.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Facebook Rumors and Real Riots

The crap that spreads via Facebook is bad enough in America, but can be downright deadly in places with weaker governments and stronger hates:
Past the end of a remote mountain road, down a rutted dirt track, in a concrete house that lacked running water but bristled with smartphones, 13 members of an extended family were glued to Facebook. And they were furious.

A family member, a truck driver, had died after a beating the month before. It was a traffic dispute that had turned violent, the authorities said. But on Facebook, rumors swirled that his assailants were part of a Muslim plot to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority. . . .

The rumors, they believed, were true. Still, the family, which is Buddhist, did not join in when Sinhalese-language Facebook groups, goaded on by extremists with wide followings on the platform, planned attacks on Muslims, burning a man to death. . . .

Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed — the primary portal for news and information for many users — unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks.

A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.
I highly recommend the whole article, by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher. There is a real sense in which peer-to-peer media are taking us backward, from the centralized media world to that of village rumor. In some ways that is liberating, but the overall effect may turn out to be disastrous. They sum up:
Facebook’s most consequential impact may be in amplifying the universal tendency toward tribalism. Posts dividing the world into “us” and “them” rise naturally, tapping into users’ desire to belong.
Which brings me back to one of my favorite quotations of recent years, from Twitter co-founder Evan Williams:
I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection at Christie's

Curious about what Rockefellers collect, I immediately clicked on the ad for the upcoming Christie's sale of this collection. Quite impressive, really. There are more than a hundred paintings, all from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, almost all French or America. I don't like all of it but I can see that it is all first-class work, or else by a first-class artist. This is Paul Signac, Antibes (la pinède), 1917.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Near Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1931.

There are five Monets; this is Extérieur de la gare Saint-Lazare, effet de soleil, 1877

Lots of raving from their experts about this Picasso, The Apple.

Wassily Kandinsky, Winter Study with Mountain, 1908

Charles Burchfield, Country Home in Midsummer, 1951.

Juan Gris (1887-1927) La table de musicien, 1914.

Van Gogh, Beet Planting.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Richard Russo, "Bridge of Sighs"

Most of the fiction I read is either fantastic, historical, or set in strange, far away places. But every once in a while, curious about what I might be missing. I try a "mainstream" novel set in contemporary America or Europe. Thus Bridge of Sighs (2007) by Richard Russo, which I grabbed off the "recommended" shelf at the library on a whim. Russo won the Pulitzer prize for an earlier book (Empire Falls) and this one garnered enough extravagant blurbs and mentions on ten best books of the year lists to make me think it represents the better sort of American middlebrow fiction.

Bridge of Sighs is built around the reminiscences of Louis Lynch, 60-year-old, lifelong resident of the upstate New York town of Thomaston. It focuses on his childhood and his high school years, with a bit about the earlier lives of his parents and the events of his sixtieth year. Besides his family the main characters are his best boyhood friend, who eventually becomes a well-known artist, and the girl who becomes his wife.

I found it pleasant to read, mostly, and I made it through all 650 pages. It has some good characters and good material on psychology and family dynamics. The town feels like a real place. It is smoothly written and has some lovely reflective passages, like this one:
The line of gray along the horizon is brighter now, and with the coming light I feel a certainty: that there is, despite our wild imaginings, only one life. The ghostly others, no matter how real they seem, no matter how badly we need them, are phantoms. The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.

Blame love.
But oh, the plot. The travesty, the ignominy, the horror of the plot. It makes one question the whole literary world of our time, that such a book could be praised, that anyone could consider it among the ten best of anything.

The main thing is the love triangle involving the narrator (a big doofus with a heart of gold), his friend the intensely-wired, multiply-divorced artist, and the narrator's conflicted wife. The sheer, utter obviousness of this, and the ham-handed way it was set up, made me cringe over and over. It was even worse than the equally obvious, ham-handed love triangle at the heart of the last mainstream novel I assayed, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Gag me. Aren't there any other plots?

And though the set-up is bad, the resolution is even worse: the exciting artist dies of a heart attack chasing after the train on which rides the woman he should have pursued in high school but foolishly left behind on his way to artistic fame. I kid you not. He actually drops dead, clutching at his heart, watching the Best Woman He Ever Knew disappear into the distance toward her happy home and doofus husband.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. Even more than the appalling love triangle, what bothered me was the way the story focuses in on the senior year of high school. This year, we see, is the fulcrum on which the rest of our lives depend. After that, nothing meaningful happens, just the unrolling of a script dictated by the choices of that Fateful Year. You leave or stay home, go to college or don't, pick a mate, and the rest is history. By comparison to that time of freedom and possibility, of action or potential action, adulthood is blah: no change, no secrets to reveal, no new worlds to explore.

I decided to write a review of this forgettable book to ask about that basic premise: that high school is the most vibrant part of life, and that what happens then determines all else. Does anybody out there think that is normal, or even common? Sure, who you marry matters, but with age at first marriage creeping up towards 30 it no longer has much to do with what happens when you're 17, if it ever did. Whether you go to college matters, but plenty of people do that years after high school, even decades. Is the world full of people who spend their time remembering high school and regretting the things they did or didn't do, unable to feel the same excitement about the events of their adult years?

It all seems so small to me, so blinkered. Russo focuses so intently on the ties between these dozen or so people in the same small town that he leaves out vast tracts of what people do with their lives and their minds. The narrator's parents were conventional Catholics, but neither they nor anybody else seems to have much faith or to see what happens in terms of God's plan. Nobody cares about science or the Moon landings. Vietnam is just a place local boys went, to die or come back. There is a little about racism, and one troubled gay kid, but otherwise no politics. The sixties never really happen. There is very little art, even though two of the characters are artists, and not even much music. Nobody thinks about history or dreams about the far future. We watch this old factory town fade as the factories shut down, but we see nothing of the new economy, not even a single cell phone.

Stripped of religion, art, science, and politics, life in this little town reduces to a high school contest over who is cool and who dates whom. No wonder adults never change course, but only follow the one laid out in adolescence; in this world there is nothing new, only old friendships, old loves, and old mistakes.

It is utterly foreign to life as I have experienced it. Do all the reviewers who praised it to the skies feel like Russo about high school and adulthood? Or is something else going on that I have missed?

Trauma and Life

The latest on humans thriving under somewhat adverse conditions:
Studies of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19th, 1995, indicate that the traumatic event resulted in people seeking to strengthen their bonds with loved ones: Divorce rates went down, and birth rates went up.
My immediate reaction to the 9-11 attacks was a surge of patriotism; it was the only time in my life I ever felt like waving a flag from an overpass.

Too much trauma is clearly bad for people and can destroy institutions, but sometimes it seems to me that we need a certain amount. Or maybe that our world is set up for a certain amount; we would hardly have invested nation states with so much power if we did not fear attack from dangerous enemies. Maybe marriage also seems more important and more worth preserving under threat of serious loss.

We did not evolve to be safe and comfortable all the time. Wrenching events change us – sometimes for the worse, but maybe sometimes for the better.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Emanuel Macron and the Discontents of Centrism

I was never a believer in Emanuel Macron. He posed as a new man untainted by past mistakes and scandals, and when his new party swept into power some people heralded a new dawn for France. (Others were just relieved that he beat Le Pen, but really there was a lot of "new beginning" rhetoric in some quarters.) But so far as I could see, Macron had no new ideas about how to improve either the quality of life or the quality of politics. His election presaged, not a new departure, but more of the same: more debates about immigration, and more argument over the neo-liberal economic policies he has promoted. And now, with danger of a far-right government pushed aside for now, millions of French people are turning against him:
The undisguised hostility has made clear that, less than a year into this new presidency, anti-Macron sentiment is emerging as a potent force. It is being fueled by a pervasive sense that Mr. Macron is pushing too far, too fast in too many areas — nicking at the benefits of pensioners and low earners, giving dollops to the well-off and slashing sacred worker privileges.

The souring of the public mood is reflected in Mr. Macron’s drooping poll numbers among workers and the middle class. (His popularity remains high among those that the French call “executives.”) It is also seen in the streets, where a wave of strikes and demonstrations is testing Mr. Macron’s resolve as never before.
The French railway system has been shut down by strikes, universities are closed, nurses and orderlies are "working to rule" in many hospitals, and more. Challenged by an interviewer to explain why all these disturbances have broken out at once, Macron could only fume,
Your question is biased! The discontent of the railway workers has nothing to do with the discontent in the hospitals!
Which is not true; whatever the particulars, all of these disputes flow from the attachment of French people to their system of lengthy vacations, early retirements, generous healthcare, and safe jobs. Macron, along with most mainstream economists, believes that France must curb its welfare state and encourage entrepreneurship to compete in the 21st century. His main defense of his policies is to accuse his opponents of "intellectual dishonesty." That is, he thinks they are blaming him for stating the facts, and opposing his actual plans with calls for an alternative that they cannot themselves define.

Like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama, Macron thinks the old economy of safe factory jobs is just dead, and nothing can bring it back.The future requires us to get more education and more skills, and to constantly update our skills in an ever-changing world. The role of the government is to help people get those skills, to cushion the transitions when an industry collapses, and to take care of those who cannot work. Otherwise it's up to us.

There is a harshness to this worldview, but it does have two virtues: it faces the facts as its adherents see them, and it offers a clear program for the future. All of these "new left" leaders have supported a template that includes reducing some regulations, encouraging new industries rather than protecting old ones, promoting education, and opening the nation to the world so the best people, ideas, and investments will flow in. Using the tax code to somewhat ameliorate the increasing inequality that is bound to follow. I feel certain that it is not the best possible plan, but it is a plan and experience shows that it can work in a basic way.

But this approach is vulnerable to attacks from every direction. Libertarians decry the high taxes and continued government interference in markets. Conservatives hate the embrace of change for its own sake (as they see it) and the welcoming of foreigners and foreign influence. Leftists hate the emphasis on investment and profit, the disregard shown to older workers, the way decisions that mean life or death for communities are made in distant boardrooms or Davos cocktail parties. Many people of all sorts hate the upheaval, or fear the prospect of it. Emotionally it is weak stuff, as we saw in the campaign of Hillary Clinton, putting Democracy in peril to the gut appeal of blood and soil nationalism, or (perhaps, in the future) revolutionary socialism.

Ten years ago I thought we would always muddle through, that because there is no real alternative to the representative democracy/mixed economy/open world system, we would keep going down this path pretty much by default. But recent events have shown that you don't need a real alternative, that the emotional appeal of our system so weak, its rewards so paltry, is victims so many, that a completely fake alternative will do. I suspect Emanuel Macron will eventually be defeated by one, fulminating to the end that only he sees reality and knows what must be done.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The New American History

The version of Microsoft Word in which I am currently writing objects to capitalizing "Confederate."

Today's Big Number

Viruses raining from the sky:
Each day some 800 million viruses fall onto every square meter of the planet.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Chinese Farming and Incremental Science

What the world needs right now, I think, is not so much grand scientific breakthroughs is more effort devoted to making minor improvements in ordinary things. Like this major government agricultural effort in China:
Running from 2005 to 2015, the project first assessed how factors including irrigation, plant density and sowing depth affected agricultural productivity. It used the information to guide and spread best practice across several regions: for example, recommending that rice in southern China be sown in 20 holes densely packed in a square metre, rather than the much lower densities farmers were accustomed to using.

The results speak for themselves: maize (corn), rice and wheat output grew by some 11% over that decade, whereas the use of damaging and expensive fertilizers decreased by between 15% and 18%, depending on the crop. Farmers spent less money on their land and earned more from it — and they continue to do so.
I am convinced that very few of the ways we do things are truly optimal, from sowing rice to timing traffic lights, and I look forward to many more similar efforts.

The Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth

Bayreuth's 1748 opera house has just re-opened after a six-year, $36 million renovation; the Times has an appreciation and many more pictures.

The opera house was the project of Wilhelmine, Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, daughter of King Frederick William I of Prussia and sister of Frederick the Great.
An ambitious polymath who composed music, wrote verse and corresponded with Voltaire, she built Bayreuth’s intimate yet elaborate Margravial Opera House, one of the most outstanding surviving examples of Baroque theater architecture in Europe.
The architect was Joseph Saint-Pierre, and the interiors were designed by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena and his son Carlo. Few of these Baroque theaters remain, partly because they are so expensive to maintain and partly because they are so small. This was a theater for the aristocratic elite, of whom there just weren't very many, so seating for 450 was a great plenty. Hard for an opera company to make money on those terms today. Or even in the nineteenth century, when Richard Wagner built his own 2,000-seat Festspielhaus outside of town, where the Bayreuth festival is still held. But how wonderful that at least one of these has been restored to its original glory.

Monday, April 16, 2018

No-Fly Zone

She fears something but can't say what.
She goes in reverse, mopping up her own tracks.
When she sleeps, it's always the same foggy night.

The dead have stopped knocking. No answer.
Their big cars hover along her block, engines
Idling, woofers pumping that relentless bass

Into the bones of her house. All night they pass
Bottles cinched in bags back and forth
Through open windows.

I want to wake her. Drag her by the gown
Down into the street where her parents
Are alive again, laughing like stoned teenagers

At some idiot joke. Look, I want to say,
The worst thing you can imagine has already
Zipped up its coat and is heading back
Up the road to wherever it came from.

–Tracy K. Smith

The Latest Numbers on the Anglo-Saxon Migration to Britain

Recent studies of DNA from early medieval skeletons provide a new estimate of what portion of the English genome derives from Anglo-Saxon invaders:
Our research concluded that migrants during what’s now thought of as the Anglo-Saxon period were most closely related to the modern Dutch and Danish—and that the modern East English population derived 38 percent of its ancestry from these incomers. The rest of Britain, including today’s Scottish and Welsh, share 30 percent of their DNA with these migrants.
That's a quite high percentage as these things go; the people of Turkey are genetically only about 10 percent Turkish. So the new result confirms significant migration into post-Roman Britain.

The data also show mixing of immigrant and native populations within a few decades of arrival.

Equally interesting is the spread of the migrants: according to this data, lowland Scotland and south Wales both have about the same percentage of Anglo-Saxon genes as Sussex or the Midlands. I have encountered several Scots online who hate this, but there is a reason most Scots speak English and already did by the time of Edward I.

František Kupka

František Kupka (1871-1957) was a Czech artist who spent most of his adult life in Paris. During his long career he painted in many different styles. The works you are mostly likely to see online are symbolist paintings and engravings done around 1900; this is one of two works titled The Path of Silence, 1903.

Kupka trained at the Academy of Painting in Prague; according to the biographies at the Guggenheim and Centre Pompidou his early works were historical scenes in a realistic style. I suppose they look like this, A Papal Ceremony, which is dated 1904.

But certainly the first famous works are the Symbolist pieces. The Black Idol (Resistance), 1903.

Babylon, 1906. These were painted in Paris, where Kupka moved in 1896.

During his first decade in Paris Kupka did all sorts of illustration work, especially satirical pieces for left-wing publications. Money, 1902.

Kupka became a famous artist because of his involvement in the creation of Abstraction. He started working in this vein around 1910. Localization of Graphic Motifs, 1912.

There's a lecture in French on the Pompidou Center web site that argues the real aim of these early abstractions was telepathy:
Many pioneers of abstraction considered non-objective painting as a transitional step before the more radical solution of a direct transmission of emotions, "spirit-to-mind."
Study for the Language of Verticals, 1910-1912.

Kupka was certainly a highly spiritual man, into Anthroposophy and other cults as well as orthodox Catholicism, and many abstract painters aimed to bypass the rational brain and communicate directly with the subconscious. But whether Kupka really believe art might eventually evolve into telepathy I cannot tell you. Form of Blue B I, c. 1925.

Divertimento I, 1935.

Kupka continued to experiment with new approaches throughout his career; this is one of a series of paintings he based on machinery, Machine Drill, c. 1928.

A fascinating little look at the history of art in the Modern era.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dish with Visconti Arms

Majolica, 1480-1500

The Decline of White Urban Accents in America

Big industrial cities across the US used to have distinctive accents, but they are fading fast. They were the verbal expression of a certain kind of community that no longer exists. Edward McClelland:
The “classic Chicago” accent, with its elongated vowels and its tendency to substitute “dese, dem, and dose” for “these, them, and those,” or “chree” for “three,” was the voice of the city’s white working class. “Dese, Dem, and Dose Guy,” in fact, is a term for a certain type of down-to-earth Chicagoan, usually from a white South Side neighborhood or an inner-ring suburb. . . .

The classic accent was most widespread during the city’s industrial heyday. Blue-collar work and strong regional speech are closely connected: If you were white and graduated high school in the 1960s, you didn’t need to go to college, or even leave your neighborhood, to get a good job, and once you got that job, you didn’t have to talk to anyone outside your house, your factory, or your tavern. A regular-joe accent was a sign of masculinity and local cred, bonding forces important for the teamwork of industrial labor.

A 1970s study of Chicago steelworker families found that housewives were less likely than their husbands to say “dese, dem, and dose,” because they dealt with doctors, teachers, and other professionals. After the mills closed, kids went to college, where their teachers told them not to say “dese, dem, and dose,” and then they took office jobs requiring interaction with people outside the neighborhood.
The Daleys were the political leaders of old Chicago and sounded like it; more recently the city has been led by Rahm Emanuel, who sounds like what he is, a former Washington policy hand.

Language is social, and big changes always represent big changes in the societies that use it. The transformation of Pittsburgh and Chicago from industrial centers to post-industrial meccas of office life has of course meant changes in the way people speak.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Bias Toward Action

So we've been launching missiles again, because faced with any kind of crisis we just have to "do something." Emma Ashford:
Mr. Trump evidently shares the assumption that America must do something in response to atrocities in Syria — a wholehearted embrace of the Washington bias toward action.

In this, Mr. Trump and his predecessor have something in common: Both he and Barack Obama came into office promising to change America’s foreign policy, but when faced with crises, both yielded to pressure to intervene. This bias toward action is one of the biggest problems in American foreign policy. It produces poorly thought-out interventions and, sometimes, disastrous long-term consequences, effects likely to be magnified in the era of Mr. Trump.

The concept of a bias for action originated in the business world, but psychological studies have shown a broad human tendency toward action over inaction. Researchers have found that World Cup goalkeepers, for example, are more likely to dive during a penalty kick, though they’d have a better chance of catching the ball by remaining in the center of the goal. . . .

The American policymaking system reinforces this tendency. Political pressure and criticism from opponents, combined with the news media’s habit of disparaging inaction, can render even the most cautious leaders vulnerable to pressure. America’s overwhelming military strength and the low cost of airstrikes only add to the notion that action is less costly than inaction.
So we end up with messes like the ones in Iraq and Libya, and we keep stirring the pot in Syria despite the lack of evidence that lobbing in missiles helps anything.

Listen to Talleyrand, a real genius of foreign policy: Most things are achieved by inaction.

Friday, April 13, 2018


Why are graduate students depressed?

A big study made the news recently arguing that graduate students in academic fields suffer from depression at a rate six times the general population. I am not impressed by this study, which is based on surveys that people volunteer to take online, but it is only the latest in a long line of studies with the same general conclusion. Why?

Tyler Cowen suggests possible causes:
1. The ordeal of studying and possibly finishing is extreme, and extreme ordeals depress people. . . .

2. The task of studying and possibly finishing is correlated with a kind of extreme lassitude, and that in turn is correlated with depression.

3. Graduate students become depressed as they realize they have chosen poor life paths.

5. Graduate students are undergoing a transformation of their personalities, and being turned into intellectual elites, but this process is traumatic in several regards, thus leading to frequent depression. The chance of depression is part of the price of admission to a select club.
I find number 5 interesting.

But I think the main cause is in the kind of person who elects for graduate study. People who opt to spend several years of their lives in advanced study of arcane matters are not normal. Their abnormality makes them more interested in theoretical puzzles than most people, and also more prone to depression.

It may also be that a sense of being stuck and not getting on with life as one ought weighs on people; I loved graduate school at first but after three or four years I was ready for it to be over, and yet still it went on.

Other thoughts?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tulips and a Few Others

Flowers outside the swanky hotel where I attended a conference today.

Not Rudolf Ems, or, Some Problems with Internet Images

This images has been circulating on Tumblr attributed to Rudolf von Ems, who lived from 1200-1254. When I saw it I thought, hey, that's cool, but no way does it date to the 13th century. So I looked up Rudolf von Ems, and it turns that he was a writer, not a painter. This is an illustration from his Weltchronik, or world history. My daughter and I eventually tracked it back to a manuscript in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, which indeed dates to the 14th century, not the 13th. Ha.

But seriously the number of misattributed, misdated, and mistitled works of art on the internet is just a tiny glimpse of the perils of believing what you read on the average site. Plus there are all the things I think are fake, as I have often noted here. So caveat lector. When in doubt, try a google image search; sometimes it will find another site with the right information. Then check wikipedia and the web sites of the big museums. If  you can't find what you want in those places, you may be in for a search, but when you solve the puzzle your satisfaction will be its own reward.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Sungir: Inequality in the Old Stone Age

Sungir is an archaeological site in Russia, about 120 miles (200 km) east of Moscow. It was discovered by clay miners in 1955 and excavated between 1957 and 1977. The best radiocarbon dates come out around 32,050 to 28,550 BC.

The site is large, complex, and fascinating, but today I will focus on the two famous burials.

The first was a middle aged man adorned with ‘stunning signs of honor’: bracelets of polished mammoth-ivory, a diadem or cap of fox’s teeth, and nearly 3,000 laboriously carved and polished ivory beads.

Reconstruction of the man's clothing.

Nearby was an even more amazing burial of two children laid head to head. The latest thinking is that both were boys, one about 13 and the other about 10, decked with 5,000 beads and a long lance carved from a mammoth tusk. DNA analysis suggests that while all six of the analyzed skeletons from the site were from the same population, they were not closely related. The two children were first or second cousins, and even less closely related to the older man.

Reconstruction. The best guess is that all the beads from these three burials would have taken 10,000 hours to produce.

The reason this site has been in many articles recently concerns the origins of economic and political inequality. Most people looking at this site have concluded that there was already serious inequality among this group of people 35,000 years ago. Despite that you still regularly see the claim that inequality began with agriculture, or specifically with the ownership of land. Based on this site, probably not.

On the other hand the evidence of inequality in the Old Stone Age is pretty thin, missing from most millennia in most places. So there is also evidence for egalitarian bands of the kind we know from some contemporary hunter-gatherers. As always the lesson is that humans are stunningly diverse: you simply cannot point to any period or region and say "everybody was like this," not even 35,000 years ago.

Monday, April 9, 2018

New Nazca Lines and the Worldwide Problem of Geoglyphs

Interesting news from Peru, where a drone study of the desert surrounding the famous Nazca Lines has turned up new, undocumented formations. Above are some of the famous, long known works. These are cool and also arouse our wonder; in a world without the technology needed to see them properly, why were they made? For the gods, one supposes, but why? In the case of Nazca one theory is that the first lines pointed to things, either sacred mountains and springs or astrological events like the solstice rising of key stars. The thing seems to have kept developing almost as if under its own momentum, with ever more complex figures being created partly because people had gotten good at creating them. So the technology of making these huge drawings came first, and then the idea that they would be pleasing to the gods. Or so some people say.

Above and below are two of the new discoveries. These were not known because they are older and much fainter than the famous formations, completely invisible from the ground and very hard to see from the air without the enhancements that have been applied to these photographs.

The generic name for formations like this is "geoglyphs." Geoglyphs are a hot issue in archaeology right now because people are finding them all over the world. This is generally done using Google Earth, but there are other sources of imagery like the old Corona spy satellites and drones.

The term covers a variety of different site types. For example, the large, V-shaped stone corrals of the Middle East, known as "kites" and apparently used in hunting wild antelope or goats, are sometimes called geoglyphs. (From the Saudi desert) So are what look like old settlements in the Amazon.

The term endures because so many formations have been spotted whose nature is completely unclear; maybe they are practical, maybe they are the ruins of structures, or maybe they are spiritual or works of art. Best to keep things simple by calling them geoglyphs.

But this creates a serious potential problem in my profession. Besides all the serious scholars engaged in this work, searching the globe for geoglyphs has become the hobby of a growing class of crackpots. People have claimed to find ancient solar temples in the patterns of modern railroad lines and electrical wires. Those are easily brushed aside, but what about patterns at the very edge of detectability? Because as the Nazca example shows, geoglyphs will fade over time even in the desert, and in plowed areas or grasslands they may have been rendered invisible to all but the most discerning eye. There is also the old archaeological problem of what is a spiritual site and what might have had a practical use, which is often, given the state of our knowledge, unresolvable.

Now imagine that you are the archaeologist for a new windfarm in the American west. An amateur researcher claims to see an ancient medicine wheel glyph in aerial imagery of your site, but you can't see it. A local Indian tribe gets wind of the discovery and its leaders demand investigation, or just demand that the site of the glyph be considered sacred. What happens? Who decides what is a real geoglyph and what isn't? How would you go about finding out? The field is too new for there to be any guidelines, leaving us to flounder around as best we can.