It is hard to claim that the design is beautiful, dazzling or engrossing. But the artwork is destined to be priceless and famous, because it seems to be the earliest evidence for a drawing in the archaeological record, by some margin. Apart from some cave paintings from Spain dated to around 64,000 years ago — presumably the work of Neanderthals (D. L. Hoffmann et al. Science 359, 912–915; 2018) — the next instance of drawing came around 40,000 years ago with cave paintings found at opposite ends of Eurasia: in the spectacular art decorating the walls of caves in Spain and France, and the more recently discovered cave art in Sulawesi in Indonesia (M. Aubert et al. Nature 514, 223–227; 2014). Despite being located 12,000 kilometres apart, cave paintings such as these contain images that we instantly recognize as figurative art, including a range of animals, and stencils of hands that speak to us, millennia later, as signs of human self-awareness.
As the sole surviving species of the genus Homo, we Homo sapiens are one of the most taxonomically lonely species living on Earth today. But dig back a few thousand years or more and we find ourselves with plenty of company: Many now-extinct species shared the genusHomo, ranging from the robust Homo neanderthalensis, to the hobbit-like Homo floresiensis to the more primitive Homo habilis and Homo erectus. But do all these species, with their wide diversity of physical and cultural traits, actually belong in the same genus?
Traditionally, hominin fossils have been classified into either the genus Homo or Australopithecus, with Homo dating back to about 2.8 million years and the oldest Australopiths dating back to about 4 million years ago. But some anthropologists think we need more options. “Right now, we are stuck in a false dichotomy, where if it isn’t an Australopith, it must be Homo and if it isn’t Homo, it must be an Australopith,” says Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “We obviously need more genera if our classification of hominins is to meaningfully reflect the diversity within our family.”
But reparsing the hominin family tree is easier said than done. “This problem is just as much philosophical as taxonomical,” Tattersall says. “We’re wrestling with nothing less than human exceptionalism” — the idea that humans are so distinct from other organisms that the rules of taxonomy don’t apply to us, a problem that has plagued paleoanthropology from its earliest discoveries. “Homo has become a wastebasket of names with very little meaning,” Tattersall says. “And yet, we’re so emotionally attached to those names that even people who think they should be changed are unable to agree on how to go about it.” Nonetheless, some are trying.
What’s in a Name?
In the mid-1700s, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus proposed a binomial naming system to classify organisms according to relatedness and shared characteristics. This organizational system evolved into the familiar ranks of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species.
A species is loosely defined as a population of organisms that can successfully breed. But things get a little more contrived at the genus level, which is less rooted in biology and more in the scientific drive for organization. “Species have a reasonably objective biological reality that is grounded in the dynamic that exists among their members,” Tattersall wrote in the journal Inference in February 2016. “Genera, on the other hand, are purely historical constructs,” he wrote.
“A genus is like a make of car,” says Bernard Wood, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. All Toyotas are more closely related to each other than to any other make of car and they’re all derived from the original Toyota, which was made in the 1930s, he adds. A grouping made up of “all the four-wheel-drive cars made by Toyota would make a sensible genus,” Wood says. “But a grouping of four-wheel-drive cars made by different companies would not qualify, even if they look alike and drive alike, since they don’t share a common ancestor.”
Great archaeological detective stories start with unexpected discoveries in unusual places.
In May, an international team of scientists led by Thomas Ingicco revealed new archaeological findings from Kalinga, in the northernmost part of Luzon, Philippines. Until now, scientists have mostly assumed that the Philippines were first inhabited by modern humans, only after 100,000 years ago. But the artifacts unearthed by Ingicco and coworkers were much older, more than 700,000 years old.
Just a decade has transformed the debate over whether Neanderthals were practising what we have no better word for, than art.
In 2007 a review paper by Marie Soressi and Francesco d’Errico critically discussed much of the until-then disparate finds, and showed that in fact there was a substantial body of ‘legit’ evidence. Since then, researchers have upped their game through not only developing more sophisticated analytical approaches and methods, but also just keeping their minds open to the possibility. Intentionally looking out for those tiny traces which have just managed to hang on over tens of millennia can make the difference between finding them or not.
Two new papers are being released today, and even with the different world we now find ourselves in compared to ten years ago, aspects of them still represent genuinely jaw-dropping finds. [I was asked for comment by a media outlet which is why I’m able to write all this in advance].
But Harris can’t engage any of this history, any of these material factors, because he’s a reductive idealist. Amazingly, he is far more reductive in his thinking with respect to Islam even than the Bush administration. George W. Bush saw very clearly the need for strong institutions in the Muslim world. He understood that the problem wasn’t Islam, it was the poor political order in the region. The problem is that Bush failed to understand that if the United States attempts to provide this order itself, no domestic force will develop which can step in and take the reigns. The order the United States attempted to impose in Iraq and which it continues to attempt to impose in Afghanistan only lasts as long as America remains willing to commit unlimited, vast sums of resources to these countries. As soon as the United States leaves, the same underlying problem resurfaces, because the factions and leaders we put in power are dependent on our military capability to maintain order in the country. Once we leave, they once again must try to come up with a way to legitimate their order on their own. They don’t succeed, and we end up back where we started–with America having spent trillions of dollars and with thousands of lives lost. Our role in the region now mirrors the role that Britain and France used to play–we are breaking Middle Eastern states, failing to put them back together, and eventually quitting and leaving a mess. Between us and the Europeans the region has never been able to find its own path and figure out what kinds of institutions it wants for itself, and the state of Islam reflects this wider governance problem.
I’ve told you all of this history to make a relatively simple point, and one which is perhaps much less important than many of the points we’ve made along the way–that Sam Harris’ idealism and obsessive hatred of religion causes him to ignore the history, politics, and economics of the Muslim world. Despite this, he continues to be taken seriously by other people who also don’t pay attention to these things.
Furthermore, it is well-documented that when a man dons the mask of a Kachina in preparation for the sacred rituals and dances, he is understood to take on and manifest the spirit of the Kachina he is portraying. In the book Masks of the Spirit: Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica, by Peter and Roberta Markman (1994), a Hopi man named Emory Sekaquaptewa, who has himself performed these rituals, is quoted as saying:
For the kachina ceremonies require that a person project oneself into the spirit world, into the world of fantasy, or the world of make-believe. Unless one can do this, spiritual experience cannot be achieved. I am certain that the use of the mask in the kachina ceremony has more than just an esthetic purpose. I feel that what happens to a man when he is a performer is that if he understands the essence of the kachina, when he dons the mask he loses his identity and actually becomes what he is representing . . . He is able to do so behind the mask because he has lost his personal identity. (page 68)
The similarities to the traditions of the Cantonese opera described above are remarkable, the more so because there is not thought to have been any historical contact between the ancient Native American nations of the Hopi or the Zuni and the ancient culture of China.
Even if one were to admit the possibility of some sort of ancient contact between China and the Americas (which may well have taken place), it would stretch credibility to argue that such transoceanic contact is also responsible for the masked sacred drama of ancient Greece, or of Africa, and so on around the globe.
The world-wide prevalence of ritual drama and dances, almost always utilizing masks and also similar types of music and percussion, on every continent and island of our planet argues that this pattern may be far more ancient, and may descend from some common predecessor culture or cultures, just as the world’s ancient myths share striking similarities and a basis in celestial metaphor — similarities too specific to be convincingly explained as “coincidental development in complete isolation,” and yet too widespread across both geographical distance and also across millennia to be easily explained by cultural distribution during conventionally-acknowledged history after the rise of the civilizations of ancient China, ancient India, ancient Egypt, and ancient Mesopotamia (especially since the celestial myth-patterns are already present in the earliest known texts from those civilizations).
Exploring the role of instinct and instinctual behaviours in building as a counterbalance to the social determinism of many current narratives; the forms of categorisation used in archaeological and architectural studies are considered, distinguishing between abstract narratives and real-world observations. Strongly canonical monument forms are not only constrained in their original design, but also influence the nature of their subsequent anthropic modifications and predetermines some pathways to decomposition, while ensuring that the form of the original structure may be discernible even following millennia of use and abuse of the monument. Finally, some technical issues affecting drystone building are introduced and the relationship between the concepts of monumentality and engineering efficiency are discussed.
Hello again, my dear readership….
This is the 198th. blog post. Attentive followers may have noticed that I’ve slowed down a bit, and don’t have so much to say. Mostly because of my poor health. I guess I may continue towards the 200th. For no better reason than to make it a round number. Then I might stop. Or not.
It does give me something interesting to do through the long dark wet winter months. I might try out the new version of WordPress, and if it is amazing, that might inspire me to do more posts. On the other hand, if it’s horrid, that might be another reason to stop. Whatever. All things come to an end, eventually.
The internet and this computer technology has been an exhilarating ride. I’ve enjoyed it all immensely. I used to think that it might solve some of the world’s perennial problems, but that vision has soured. Seems to me, much of it’s become just another vicious political and cultural battleground, a sordid showcase for human malice, nastiness, and depravity. But some of it is still positive and amusing, better than TV and newspapers, anyway.