Monday, October 31, 2011
The need to name and classify is essential to humans; there is even thought to be a gene for it. Whenever naming is required, the wheel is reinvented in order to precisely reflect the essence of what the thing or idea being named is. Fixing its place and defining its identity with specific clarity is essential in order to ensure that when the thing is called by whatever name it is given, no other hands rise in acknowledgement. In theory, a name reflects the discrete individuality of that which is named; thus Americans saddle their children with badly spelled invented names, although they refuse to amend the Constitution which is seen as written in stone, while France formally regulates the use of the French language through the Académie française and had, until quite recently, an enforced national policy governing acceptable and legally permitted given names.
Names signify specific individual things. Churches, temples and mosques are all sacred spaces first, then houses of worship, and then buildings. But not all buildings are houses of worship, and not all houses of worship are either churches, temples or mosques, and, of those, not all are sacred spaces. The old nightclub, Limelight, on 18th street and 6th Avenue was an Episcopal church that was deconsecrated, and repurposed, so that although it remains a building that appears to be a house of worship -indeed, it’s a rusticated brown stone Gothic church with a typical pointed arch door that looks like dozens of other Episcopal churches- it is no longer the latter, since it is not a sacred space. Recent developers have made it into an indoor mall while maintaining the church exterior. Now it is a building that looks like a church -is a church- but functions as an agora, and is neither a house of worship, nor a nightclub, although it could still become a sacred space if the shopping is good enough. Names and nouns represent things and ideas that are concurrent interdependent parts of both greater categories and smaller groups. Since these relationships can be of incalculable number, and are simultaneously fluid yet permanent, it is essential that names and nouns maintain their fixed and discrete autonomy. If one word is changed, everything linked to it is transformed through kinetic reaction.
Assigned names maintain order. Otherwise, it’s like writing about musicians such as , the Artist (Formerly Known as Prince), Prince, or TAFKAP, and Sean Combs, aka Diddy, P. Diddy, Puff Daddy and now Diddy-Dirty Money. But that was his name in March. After that it was Swag, the first expiration-dated name, to be used for one week only starting 5/24/11 and reverting to Diddy on 6/1/2011. This analogy is not merely cute, it’s appropriate. If naming reifies that which is named, then changing its name transforms it to some degree into something else. Whether it changes so subtly that the shift is invisible, or completely to the point of unrecognizability, it is nevertheless made fundamentally different. The act of of renaming causes uncertainty, shifting the point of view by destabilizing the taxonomic equivalent of the lowest common denominator of language, which is the noun, be it proper or common.
The geographical area currently known as the State of Israel has formerly been known as, in no particular order, Palestine, the British Mandate, the Palestinian Mandate, the Roman Province of Palaestina, Παλαιστίνη, Israel, Canaan, Philistia, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, among numerous others. It has been in the possession of the empires of Egypt, Greece, Rome, France, Syria, Turkey, Germany, England, and of the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Holy Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and Mamelukes, at one time or another, and sometimes more than once. These nomenclatures represent different rulers, their assorted points of view, and the various desires of past and current territorial occupiers. Each different name in each different language describes a separate perception of what that landscape represents to the speakers of that language; how it defines the conception of the named place in relation to the observer-speaker. The names given to the area are not mere translations of the same word and identical ideas, but subtly and profoundly different interpretive identifiers of the same place as viewed by different parties and subject to the idiosyncratic characteristics of the language as well as the time in which the words themselves were forged.
The French named the Eastern Mediterranean le Levant to signify it as the place where the sun rises. Levant means rising, and the sun really does seem to rise from there, especially if you’re viewing dawn from Western Europe.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
The ibis bird, which belongs to the stork family, was regarded in particular as sacred and worthy of burial and mummification. Ibis is also a hieroglyphic symbol. Revered in ancient Egypt, Ibis was associated with wisdom and the ibis-headed god Thoth, who was the scribe of the gods, god of learning, and a deity. Thoth gave the hieroglyph of life to Osiris. Thoth could also be represented as the baboon and North Saqqara was a burial place for both animals.
These burials and shrines at Saqqara became a place pilgrims would come for to pay respects to, especially to the god Thoth. At Saqqara, the cult of the relatively unknown deity Thutmose, a young ibis, was particularly popular among women.
Ibis mummies were mummified with their feet grasped and plunged into a vat of liquid resin. Then they were elaborately wrapped in linen bandages. Often times they were placed into ceramic jars which later were placed into catacombs. Some of the mummies were set rigid with palm-ribs, which was the same technique used on human mummies. Mummification of the ibis included desiccation and evisceration. Large volumes of ibises have been found and understood to have been specially reared in or around the temples. At the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara, several ibis eggs in a courtyard have been identified as the ibis hatchery. Ibis temples have also provided information for specific breeding sites.
Below is a video link describing the process of animal mummification:
Giakoumis, Melina. "Return of the (Brooklyn) Mummies." Archaeology Magazine. 16 Aug. 2010.
Ikram, Salima. Divine Creatures. Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2005.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute recently dated Acheulean tools found in Lake Turkana, Kenya as 1.76 million years old, making them the oldest known specimens of this type. Previously, Acheulean tools were believed to have developed between 1.4 to 1.6 million years old.
Friday, October 21, 2011
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Approaching archeology from a science background, I am constantly on a quest for the deeper scientific explanation for any observed behavioral change. It makes sense to me, for example, that people might want to settle down and build communities or farms; a stable controlled food source and a community to aid in protection seem like attractive options, and we see that while some communities did remain with a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, others domesticated cattle or began agricultural practices. While the development of these cultural practices and the archaeological records they leave behind are incredibly interesting, I can't help but wonder, how did these environmental changes influence human morphological or genetic composition?
A relatively common occurrence in human evolution, particularly in Saharan Africa tribes, is the domestication of cattle, sometimes even the sacred reverence of cattle, such as the cattle burials found at Nabta Playa.1 This domestication and semi-worship of cattle introduced several sources of food, through meat and dairy products. Interesting in itself, as it shows the emerging control of homo sapiens over their own environments, this domestication is even more interesting for the subsequent genetic changes it has induced in human populations.
Most mammals can not digest dairy products as adults; homo sapiens are no exception. The gene coding for the enzyme that digests milk products, lactase, is expressed after birth in order for infants and young toddlers to break down their mother's milk, but gradually decreases expression after weaning. This is not the case, however, in traditionally pastoralist populations, such as those in northern Europe and Africa .Through mtDNA transcription studies, as well as genomic sequencing of those with lactase persistence, the coding gene has been found to be dominant in pastoralist societies2. The high prevalence of this lactase persistence phenotype (~90%) compared to non pastoralist populations (~1-20%) suggests natural selection for the genotype that produces lactase well into adulthood, allowing pastoralists to exploit the dairy provided by their cattle, further equipping them for species survival. This relationship between cultural practice and biological fitness suggests that human culture has gradually outfitted the human population for greater survival.
Another example of this cultural influence on human fitness is the emergence of malaria resistance in Africa. In Western Africa, ancient agriculturalists began clearing rain forests for yam farming land as early as 8000 BC.3 This deforestation allowed for pools of water to form where they otherwise would not have, providing the perfect breeding ground for malaria carrying mosquitos. The gene that confers resistance to malaria, when possessed by a heterozygous person (a person who has two differing copies of the same gene), allows for normal phenotype (physical characteristics) with resistance to malaria, but when possessed homozygously (a person has two identical copes of a gene), this gene causes sickle cell anemia, a deadly disease of the blood. Because of its lethal capabilities, this gene is extremely rare in most human populations, thus rarely causing any sort of trouble, but in agricultural communities in warmer tropical climates where malaria carrying mosquitos are found, natural selection has favored a heterozygous genotype for the sickle cell anemia gene, making the gene, and subsequently, the disease, incredibly prevalent in those select populations4. Again with this example we see a genetic advantage selected for based on cultural mediation of environment. These genetic modifications suggest that though humans have found ways to selectively manipulate their surroundings for thousands of years, high cognitive functioning does not a modern human make. Homo sapiens still underwent, and are probably undergoing, relentless natural selection based on the self imposed changes within their societies.
This relationship between culture and genetics is not always so clear, though there are several more examples mostly relating to diet, skin tone, disease resistance, and sexual reproduction, which are the most survival related characteristics, but the reverse analogging of genetics can also be an effective method in tracing these genetic selections. Through genomic sequencing, a gene called RSEN/PSEN1 has been found to be more prevalent in African Yoruba societies than elsewhere.5 This gene cleaves amyloid plaques in the brain; the plaques that are the main effectors of brain function loss in Alzheimer's disease. In these Yoruba populations, Alzheimer's disease is exceedingly rare. Knowing what we do about gene-culture co-evolution in small populations, we can look at these populations with genetic resistance to Alzheimers and possibly extrapolate the historical environmental or cultural changes conferring this genotype. Further archaeological research must be done to propose any logical theories regarding this resistance to Alzheimers. Both disciplines, evolutionary genetics, and archaeology depend on each other to construct informed theses about the migrations and evolution of peoples across the world, and to answer the questions about ourselves that we desperately seek the answers to. Who are we? And why are we the way we are? We know why some peoples have malaria resistance and the ability to drink milk, but these genetic clues are merely a small piece to the infinitely large puzzle of human evolution.
1Wendorf, F. and R. Schild 1998, Nabta Playa and its role in Northeastern African Prehistory, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17: 97-123.
2Tishkoff, S, et al., Convergent adaptation of human lactase persistence in Africa and Europe, Nature Genetics, 2007, 39:1
4Laland et al., Cultural Niche Construction and human evolution, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2001, 14:1:22-33.
5Voight BF, Kudaravalli S, Wen X, Pritchard JK, A map of recent positive selection in the human genome, PLoS Biol, 2006, 4(3): e72.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Ethnoarchaeology is defined by dictionary.com as “the branch of archaeology that studies contemporary primitive cultures and technologies as a way of providing analogies and thereby patterns for prehistoric cultures”. In Arthur’s research the ‘primitive culture’ (please excuse the offensive political incorrectness) is the Gamo people and their technology is the production of beer in large ceramic jugs. These jugs become extremely corroded on the inside by the acidity of the fermenting beer. Arthur makes the conclusion that this sort of ‘surface attrition’ found in ceramic jugs could be an indicator of beer production in other African archaeological sites. This finding is significant to archaeology because beer is argued earlier in the article to be important to the culture of the Gamo people as well as many other peoples present and past throughout Africa.
The production of beer requires a substantial amount of grain, bananas, or sorghum as well as many days work, usually done by women. Due to the land and labor-intensive requirements for production, beer is recognized as an important symbol of wealth. The Gamo people use beer in every single religious and political ceremony. This culture is dominated by a hierarchical caste system where the topmost caste, the mala, have complete control over agricultural land. The mala are the only group wealthy enough to produce beer and this subsequently gives them complete power over all religious and political rituals because they require beer. The richest of the mala is chosen by the community to be the ritual sacrificer who performs animal and beer sacrifices for the fertility and healthy the people, crops, and animals. Before the chosen rich mala is officially the ritual sacrificer he must provide two beer feast to all the people in his political district. These feast prove the ritual sacrificer’s wealth because they must produce enough beer and food for around 300 people. Through the beer feasts the community is brought together and the richest person must share his wealth with all. Consequently the Gamo avoid situations like Occupy Wall Street.
In conclusion, it is important to look for the production of beer in the archaeological record because this luxury good can indicate the social relations and wealth of the community. Evidence of ‘surface attrition’ or corrosion of large ceramic vessels indicates the production of beer. Many vessels could point to large-scale production of beer, which results from agricultural success. Large quantities of beer can potentially lead archaeologist to infer cultural qualities like trade, feasts, organization of work parties, taxes and wealth redistribution if paired with other archaeological finds or ethnographic evidence. Evidence of this important social lubricant could indicate complex cultures otherwise lost in the archaeological record.
This article makes me think differently about the significance of my own cultural practices surrounding beer consumption. In my college community as well as in the Gamo community beer brings people together. Although the alcohol content can have an affect on peoples' inhibitions, it can be argued that simply the act of sharing and participating in a common activity can enhance social interactions and strengthen community bonds. This concept reminds me of the classic scene in Judd Apatow's cult classic t.v. show "Freaks and Geeks". In the episode titled "Beers and Wiers" the dorky little brother, Sam, replaces the keg at his sister's house party with a keg of nonalcoholic beer. The party continues with normal high school debauchery and community building even without the interference of alcohol. I wonder if this social experiment would turn out similarly at my own house parties or even at the Gamo beer feasts.
Arthur, John. "Brewing Beer: Status, Wealth and Ceramic Use Alteration among the Gamo of South-western Ethiopia." World Archaeology 34.3 (2003): 516-28.