Monday, December 12, 2011

Contemporary African Art: A Critical Reaction to an African Past

Throughout the topics explored in our Archaeology and Africa class the ideas of representation and subjectivity of authorship African histories, cultures and traditions were reoccurring. In our study of the controversial Great Zimbabwe tensions emerged from the beliefs of European or African construction. Africa as a whole seems to be constantly battling the external forces—from colonization to modern day research—in attempts to gain some jurisdiction of history from the interior. Our discussion of African art and its subjectivity in the European gallery setting is another example of these tensions. The conflicting nature of the external influence and just general lack of understanding of the continent have allowed (but should not be deemed acceptable) for grand generalizations to be made.

In my experience, when talking or learning about aspects of the world, it is discussed in terms of the countries of Europe, the countries of Asia, the countries of the Americas and then the continent of Africa. These views of Africa as a homogenous unit (with perhaps the notable exception of Egypt) do not just occur in conversation—causal discussion between friends and family but it is inherent in our textbooks, classrooms and news sources. I am afraid I am no exception, I often find myself making generalizations about Africa and I am shocked--how is it possible that an area so large and so old has been viewed and internalized as a uniform area.

Contemporary African art has begun to draw attention and confront these generalizations—drawing attention to Africa’s similarity to the rest of the world. There are two cases in which we can see the artist engage in conversation with this accepted lack of understanding.

David Goldblatt: Mother and child in their home after the destruction of its shelter by officials of the Western Cape Development Board Crossroads, Cape Town, 11 October 1986. (4_3614), 1986. Silver gelatin photograph on fiber-based paper. approx. 30 x 40cm

Image taken from the Goodman Gallery Website

Contemporary art photographer, David Goldbatt is best know for his photographs depicting South Africa during the apartheid (though is still actively documenting the landscapes of South Africa). Goldbatt is a revolutionary figure in African photography as he initiated a change portraying the rulers and powerful members of society as well as focusing on those being ruled, capturing the struggles and abuses they faced. Goldblatt, a native of South Africa, captures these images and broadcasts them to the rest of the world from within Africa challenging the tradition role of the world looking in and appraising from an external position. Goldblatt describes himself as "a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which [he] was born, with a tendency to doing honor or giving recognition to what is often overlooked or unseen" (From an article by Bill Kouwenhoven).

Mikhael Subotzky: Image taken from the Die Vier Hoeke Series

Differently the show entitled Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography curated by Okwui Enwezo was an important and provocative exhibit for African photography and how we look at Africa in general. The show was on display in the western world and examined the way that we, westerners viewed Africa. The self referential aspects of the exhibit—the atrocities portrayed allow the western viewer to sympathize with the victim for an instant but there is the simultaneous realization for the viewer that they are part of the western world with has occupied this space of brutal action against Africans in history (for instance see the Mikhael Subotzky image, I highly recommend checking out the whole Die Vier Hoeke series). This tension in the images throws the view into an uncomfortable contemplative space—evaluating how the “west” sees Africa and how Africa sees the “west. ” These images force the western viewer to confront the truth of the western violence (perhaps not literally, but metaphorical) to African society, history and mostly perspective.

Adrian R. Duran, writes in the Memphis Brooks Museum exhibit review “ while also revealing the ways in which the distance between Africa and “everywhere else” is certainly shrinking…we are able to see a glorious, tragic, joyful, confused, confusing, traditional, changing place and peoples, a contemporary Africa entirely different than the myths and ignorance that have kept us in the dark about a continent so much like our own.”


Kouwenhoven, B. David Goldblatt [Exhibit]. Aperture no. 188 (Fall 2007) p. 20

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Exhibition Review: March 1 - May 25, 2008.

Okwui Enwezor, “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography,” in Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, ed. Okwui Enwezor (New York: International Center of Photography and Göttingen: Steidl Publishers, 2006).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Evolution of Language: Where Archaeology Merges with Science

Language development is one of the most important areas of study in ancient archaeology. It is language that basically differentiates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom and allowed us to dominate the globe like no other species ever has. However, evidence of the origin of language is incredibly hard to find. Written language was developed long after spoken language, so there are no written records of the development of language to look at. It is near impossible to look at the tools of ancient humans and sites where they lived and infer about possible language being spoken like we do to infer about other aspects of their lives.

The answer may lie in more of a scientific and anthropological approach. Observing the current world and using it to infer about the past is a popular strategy for many other topics of archaeology. Many of the theories on hunter-gatherer cultures in pre-historic Africa are based on observations of current hunter-gatherer cultures. And now, closely studying the people and other animal species of today has led to an exciting breakthrough and clues to understanding how language developed.

The idea that acquiring language is a biological facet of humans was originated by Noam Chomsky. Children acquire language too efficiently and effortlessly for it to simply be a social construct. From this, theories followed that we should be able to see some form of evidence of the development of language in the path through our evolutionary ancestors that still survive today, such as chimpanzees. So while archaeology yearns for ancient artifacts about language, perhaps there are records in our DNA.

Scientists actually believe they have found one of the most important genes for developing language. The gene is FOXP2, meaning that the gene creates the protein FOXP2. Through studying a unique family and another unrelated young boy, all of who struggle with language in specific ways, they found that all of them had deficiencies in this gene. The scientists then did a bit of "scientific archaeology" on the evolution of this gene. A version of the gene exists in every land vertebrate, and in most specie lineages has remained pretty much unchanged. In the human branch, however, changes to several of the amino acids that make up the protein FOXP2 occured over the course of a few million years, which the scientists took as a sign that this gene experienced rapid natural selection, similar to other features of humans such as our upright posture or large brains. Further studies have also found that this protein is actually facilitator of many other genes, aiding in the growth of neurons in the brain and fine muscle movements that would be used in creating sounds in speech.

Ultimately, the findings on the FOXP2 gene don't answer exactly how language biologically developed in us. It is only a beginning piece for understanding the process. Its value to archaeological studies, however, is still priceless. As we understand this gene (its processes and functions as well as its development) more, we can then look for indirect clues of its evolution in the archaeological evidence. For instance, maybe we won't be able to see direct signs of the first spoken language, but if we learn of other physical changes that this gene created as it evolved, then perhaps we could find pieces of evidence indicating these physical alterations and then infer that at this time humans could have been speaking. Already connections can be made (albeit fairly thin connections). The FOXP2 gene, as previously mentioned, helps to facilitate the learning of new motor skills. When humans developed, they had to learn a whole range of new motor movements associated with being human, like running and calling. These changes, as observed through archaeological study, are already evidence that this gene was actively helping us to evolve into present day humans. Hopefully with further study and understanding of the FOXP2 gene we will be able to draw even more connections about how it helped us develop more complex brains and master complex sounds, leading to the first words spoken between ancient humans.

-Chris Vandenberg


Discover Magazine: The Language Fossils Buried in Every Cell of Your Body

FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Face Only an “Altruistic Homo” Mother Could Love?

Inferior view, revealing the characteristic deformities of this craniosynostosis: The posterior part of
the cranium is twisted to the left with respect to the sagittal plane; the left glenoid cavity is more
anteriorly placed than the right one. Source and adapted text

Theory surrounding our ancestor’s capacity for love and affection are unclear. The exact nature of ancient companionship have yet to be concretely established, leaving theories surrounding child care unclear even still. Yet, the discovery of a juvenile skull displaying a condition known as craniosynostosis allows paleoanthropologists to consider the presence of physical and possible mental handicaps in our history, dated to be 530,000 years ago. What commentary does this provide on the parental and emotional capacities of our Homo ancestors?

Dating from the Middle Pleistocene period, the skull has been identified as an “immature specimen” aged approximately 5-8 years at death. Discovered in 1976, the specimen’s cranial deformities continue to be the focus of debates surrounding the limits of compassion that the species Homo could convey towards their young. Craniosynostosis is a congenital birth defect that affects the structure of the infant’s head. The defect causes the one or more sutures that run along the skullcap to fuse prematurely. This constricts the growth of the brain, causing contortion of the skull into a long and narrowed shape, motor impairment, aneurysms, and mental retardation if intracranial pressure is severe enough and left uncorrected.

What can we NOT infer from this discovery? We cannot infer the exact level of mental impairment that the child suffered from. Likewise, we cannot infer the exact cause of death. Craniosynotosis is associated with intracranial pressure, which can cause a laundry list of syndromes including but not limited to the aneurysm and mental retardation previously mentioned. Because of this, we can neither infer to what extent the child was treated similarly, or different, than Middle Pleistocene Homo individual.

Virtual endocast of the skull. Note the general bilateral asymmetry, the occipitomastoid bulging of the left side, the anteriorly placed left temporal lobe compared with the right, and the protruding left occipital pole. Source and adapted text

What we can infer is that the child did receive some form of care. Gracia, who is responsible for the uncovering of the skull stated that, "It is obvious that [this] hominin species did not act against abnormal/ill individuals during infancy." Generally speaking, it would be unlikely for even a modern child to survive without a constant source of food, care, or contact. Because of the cranial deformities present in the child’s skull it is unlikely that food gathering would have been a task undertaken by this individual. At the most basic level, a constant supply of food and/or care was provided for this individual which, in turn, allowed for survival.

What we could we infer? We could infer that there had been enough resources within the group, most likely made up of several individuals, to accrue enough excess resources (the remains were found within a group of 28 other skeletal remains, all of European Middle Pleistocene Neandertal lineage). These surplus resources could have been used to either support the disabled child, or to support the primary care giver who may have been required to devote more energy to parental care than to other tasks. What can be said concretely is that a characteristic of the genus Homo was bipedal. Depending on the severity of impairment, the child may have had limitations on its motor coordination, and therefore, in the ability to be motile. A medium to large group capable of accumulating excess resources or the ability to have an individual devote more energy towards the child may have been necessary to its survival past infancy.

Even though this is the earliest case recorded of craniosynotosis, there have been other examples of individuals displaying altruistic characteristics. In one of the more well-known is “Nandy” the skeletal remains of a man in an Iraq cave who displayed fracture on the left side of his face leaving him blind in one eye, an atrophied right arm as a result of several fractures and the absence of a lower right hand. These injuries most likely occurred during adolescence, and yet he was aged between 40 and 50 years old.

In an interview conducted by’s section of Weird Science, Dr. Penny Spikins, who co-wrote The Pre-History of Compassion, comments on the possibility of a society displaying altruism at the Shanidar Cave site:

“We look in the archaeological record for evidence of individuals who were sick, and not able to care for themselves. We see that in early Homo, and by the time we get to Neanderthals, that kind of record becomes much more extensive. Take the “Old Man of Shanidar.” He had had degenerative deformities in the b

ase of his legs, would have had difficulty walking, and had a crushing injury to his cranium, so he was probably blind in his left eye. The bones show those injuries occurred when he was adolescent, and he lived to 40. He was probably looked after for 25 to 30 years, which implies that it wasn’t just one person looking after him, but several. Most of our Neanderthal skeletons show some evidence of having been looked after for their injuries. And in the age of Neanderth

als, you also start to see evidence of deliberate burials and funerary rites. That means a shared feeling.”

Withered right humerus compared to robust left humerus. Photo: Chip Clark
Smithsonian Institution.
Source and adapted text

The problem with these inferences in both case studies is that we have no way of judging the developmental merit, the evolutionary significance or if not acting against the child was considered “right” or “good”. In short, we have no sense of what was normal for the time period. The contribution of this publication, and with paleoanthropology in general, is that it allows for a personal narrative. Because of the sole discovery of such a skull displaying this congenial birth defect, altruism cannot (and should not) be attributed to an entire society’s’ practices, we are only privy to the individual’s, and his or her caretaker’s, story. Though, the same benefit also poses a problem. We cannot draw overarching conclusions from these pieces of evidence presented in the article and one’s similar to it.

Further skeletal remains showing similar physical deformities may be missing from the archaeological record because of mistreatment. They may have been abandoned as infants or even disallowed from being buried in cemeteries belonging to the society. Further evidence is needed to draw a definitive conclusion about the limits or capabilities of altruism, though these case studies provides an insight about the capabilities that our Homo ancestors could have, pertaining to compassion and resource allocation. If we had access to more examples of individuals surviving deformities, how could we look at altruism? Is the behavior a result of a higher categorization of morality, affection, empathy, or accident? Is it possible to distinguish the intangibility of emotion through the archaeological record?

Further reading:

The Neanderthal Skeletal Remains from Shanidar Cave, Iraq: A Summary of Findings to Date T. D. Stewart. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society , Vol. 121, No. 2 (Apr. 29, 1977), pp. 121-165.


The Prehistory of Compassion: Neanderthals Cared Too

Craniosynostosis in the Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14 from the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain

Deformed skull of prehistoric child suggests that early humans cared for disabled children

The Sima de los Huesos crania (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). A comparative study

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bringing Back Neanderthals... Could We or Should We?

In a June 2011 conference in Dubai on science, religion and modernity, the question “should we clone Neanderthals” was raised. Cloning Neanderthals will help us answer many questions. Such as, according to DISCOVER, “did we mate with Neanderthals, or did we murder them?” how are the Neanderthals related to our own species? What were the Neanderthals actually like? We will actually be able to see and study the Neanderthals, unlike how scientists have to draw analogies between chimps and prehistoric hominids to find out more about the Australopithecus. The benefits of cloning Neanderthals are to be craved for: everyday people will be able to meet with the Neanderthals that broke away from the lineage of modern humans around 450,000 years ago, that evolved larger brains than us, thatdeveloped a wider variety of stone tools and more efficient techniques for making them. But even if we could clone them, should we clone them?

Approximately two years ago, researchers had publishedthe rough draft of the Neanderthal genome. The genome was not perfect, of course; it contained many errors because the DNA obtained was simply prehistoric. Apoptosis, a process where cells begin to break down, takes over within hours of death, as dying cells release enzymes that spoil and scramble the DNA. Since scientists do not have living Neanderthal cells to catalyze the process of cloning, after reconstructing the genome, the re

searchers have to put the right amount of DNA into the chromosomes, and get those chromosomes into the nucleus of a cell. Other scientists suggest the pre-existing idea of tweaking the genetic code in living human cells so that they match up with the Neanderthals. However, for this way to work, scientists may have to make up to millions of changes to a human cell’s DNA. Nevertheless, even if scientists perfect the process of putting a Neanderthal DNA in a cell nucleus, creating a baby clone by moving the cell nucleus into the egg of a related species, in other words, humans, will be gruesome. Even in processes of cloning other living animals, the egg where the cell nucleus has been transferred to often dies, meaning that there will be dead Neanderthal fetuses in a human’s womb. Even since the successful cloning of Snuppy, the first dog clone in 2005, cloning involves trial and error. Are we ready to put humans through this?

Let’s assume that Neanderthals can be easily cloned flawlessly for a moment. In many ways, these Neanderthals will be extremely different, yet similar to the Neanderthals in Geico commercials. In the Geico commercials, the Neanderthal seems like he may fit in, but at the same time, he can be viewed as extremely clueless in the modern world’s society. We simply don’t know what the consequences of successfully cloning a Neanderthal will be. Their brains are different, implying that their consciousness may be drastically different from ours as well. It is also a common belief that they had the power of speech, but then again, some says that is doubtable. According to Andrew Brown, “the minimum ethical thing to do would be to clone 20 or 30.” No one wants to be the only one living of his or her species. We can watch and learn from these 20 or 30 clones. Keep in mind that Neanderthals had traditions and beliefs; they buried their dead, and created mythologies. If we study these clones, we will be studying a brand new set of Neanderthals relative to their ‘enclosure’ (is it even right to put them in an enclosure?). We will NOT be learning more about the original Neanderthals, their culture or myths.

It has become a question of ethics then. In 1997, Stuart Newman attempted to patent the genome of a chimpanzee-human but lost his case because the patent office believes it would violate the 13th amendment prohibitions against slavery. Neanderthals will also be much more “human” than chimpanzee-humans. So what kind of laws will the Neanderthals be under? According to Andrew Moseman, “a Neanderthal could be granted enough legal protection to make doing extensive research on it illegal, not just unethical.” How will a Neanderthal actually live in the current world though? There is an assumed consequence far worse than culture-shock: a Neanderthal from 25,000 years will basically have no immunity to any of the diseases that have evolved since then. We happen to be the lucky ones with the gift evolution has brought to us. Will the Neanderthals want live in our world?

Cloning Neanderthals: Not a Pipedream

Should We Clone Neanderthals?

Should We Clone Neanderthals?

Heroic Africans

Last weekend I took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to explore the temporary exhibit on view until January 29th, 2012, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures. The exhibit features more than 100 sculptures from different parts of Africa and highlight different peoples traditions and artistic techniques. The Met is pleased that the exhibit challenges conventional perceptions of African art and engages viewers – I would have to agree. As I walked through the exhibit I was overwhelmed (in a good way) with the amount of art I was seeing. Most impressive was the variety; every piece was significantly different. The exhibit is organized based on eight regions, and boasts pieces from as early as the 12th century to photographs taken last year.
Queen Mother Pendant Mask
            When I first walked in, my attention was drawn to sculptures by the Benin peoples in Nigeria. Although photography was prohibited, most of the artworks are featured on the Metropolitan Museums website. The first piece I saw was the “Queen Mother Pendant Mask”, made by the Oba peoples in Nigeria. The mask dates to the 16th century and is made of ivory, copper, and iron. According to the Met website, the mask was “made for King or ‘Oba’ Esigie, the king of Benin, to honor his mother, Idia. The Oba may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification.” 
Head of an Oba
       Another piece by the Oba peoples entitled “Head of an Oba,” made of brass and dates to the 17th century. This particular style of sculpture was created to commemorate the Benin peoples rulers. This sculpture would have been placed upon an altar at the palace of the king of Oba, so as to never forget the importance and of past and present rulers. The Met explains, “The altar constitutes an important site of palace ritual and is understood to be a means of incorporating the ongoing influence of past kings in the affairs of their descendents.” The detail in the piece is extraordinary and looks like it weighs a ton!
Altar to the Hand of Ezomo Ehenua
            One of my favorite pieces from the collection was the brass sculpture “Altar to the Hand of Ezomo Ehenua (Ikegobo)” from the 18th century sculpted by the Benin peoples. The sculpture is very detailed and is said to illustrate “the accomplishments of exceptional individuals.” The idea behind this sculpture is a to present your hand with honor — as it has helped you gain wealth. The Met explains that “The hand is associated with action and productivity, and is considered the source of wealth, status, and success for all those who depend on manual skill and physical strength.” The sculpture shows Benin people doing different tasks using their hand - which turns out to be a very important aspect of Benin culture. Depending on the status of the person who commissioned the sculpture, it could have been made out of different mediums, like terracotta, brass, or wood. I find it interesting that class has a distinct effect on the artwork found in Nigeria among the Benin tribes.
            The exhibit features works by other tribes from other parts of  Africa, like Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. The different areas used different elements to create their artworks. In Cameroon, it was not uncommon to find wood, beads, leather, string, and human hair among the art works. Raffia, metals, and pigments were also commonly used in the fabrication of various artworks.
            The Met selected a wonderful variety of artworks from Africa to display for this exhibit. Every piece was different and the information provided was thoughtful and engaging. I would recommend this exhibit to anyone who has an interest in African art or culture in general. The history behind the artworks is interesting and made me realize that art varies throughout Africa just as much as the people and traditions do. I hope that if you find yourself at the Met before the end of January that you will pass by the Heroic Africans exhibit. You will not be disappointed.

- Jessica
Works cited:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Astronomy, Memory and Pinochet's Regime

In 1973 the Chilean military overthrew Salvador Allende's Marxist government and General Augusto Pinochet assumed power, ruling the country as a dictator until 1990. Throughout the 70s he ordered the arrest and detention of thousands of leftist dissenters and young people, killing or holding them in concentration camps. At least 3000 people were killed and another 1000 remain missing; additionally, Pinochet's regime tortured at least 30,000 Chileans over his 13 year rule.

Patricio Guzmán's documentary Nostalgia for the Light follows three very different groups of searchers in the Atacama Desert of Chile. The first is a group of astronomers who set up powerful telescopes to take advantage of the clear skies offered by the Atacama, the driest region on earth. They collect data in search of very distant stars and galaxies and the origins of life. The earthbound seekers are archaeologists tracing pre-Columbian petroglyphs and mummified remains, and a group of women who scour the desert every day in search of body parts of loved ones killed by Pinochet in the 1970s. The film presents beautiful imagery of the cosmos and the strange, Mars-like landscape of the Atacama but also confronts the viewer with mass graves and the ruins of concentration camps.

What connects these disparate groups is an attention to time and memory and an attempt to uncover the past. The lead astronomer Guzmán interviews makes the point that what we see as the present has all happened in the past, even if just by a fraction of a second. This lag time caused by the speed of light becomes more apparent the farther one reaches. As young student we all learn that it takes 8 minutes for the sun's light to reach Earth. These astronomers try to catch light and sound waves emitted by distant planets and, ultimately, the Big Bang. The archaeologist working with the Atacama petroglyphs notes the similarity of their projects, calling the astronomers "archaeologists of the sky."

One of Guzmán most salient and troubling questions is the paradox that Chilean archaeologists seek to understand ancient inhabitants of the region at the same time that the country actively represses any acknowledgment of the violent history of Pinochet's regime. There is a disconnect between academic investigation of the desert's secrets and the personal, grief-fueled mission of the women. I found the assistance provided by the archaeologists very beautiful despite the difficult facts it unearthed, as it illustrates the usefulness of archaeological interpretation in bringing forth answers the Chilean military is still unwilling to provide. Starting in the 1990s after Pinochet stepped down, archaeological teams helped excavate mass graves, a process of which Guzmán shows archival footage. The women continually find tiny fragments of bones littering the desert, some less than an inch in length. Osteologists confirmed that these were human bones and archaeologists were able to reconstruct the gruesome process by which these came about. Pinochet's military would return to mass graves of prisoners they had murdered, dig them up with machines, and transport the bodies to a second location so they would not be found. The scatter of the bones allowed archaeologists to note that as the bodies were shoveled up their heads protruded from one side of the scoop and their feet from the other. Decomposed and broken bones would then fall back to the ground, leaving accumulations of metatarsal and skull fragments in an identifiable pattern.

Archaeologists working to expose the governmental wrongdoings validate the immense task these women have undertaken. To many their search for lost loved ones seems to be an impossible and fruitless refusal to let go of the past. Archaeology helps clarify what exactly went on in the 1970s and also provides academic support for their very personal quest. Juxtaposed with astronomical research that is exceedingly interpretive and otherworldly, these women's task seem more tangible and attainable. And presenting science in such a metaphysical light underscores the idea that the human search for knowledge cannot be totally secular or unemotional. The astronomer interviewed notes that his is a semi-spiritual project and that science cannot be divorced from belief. Taken together, these disparate stories show how essential human emotion is in driving our actions and how important it is to follow any drive for greater understanding of our condition, whether on a macro scale encompassing the entire universe or on a smaller scale hunting for ancestors thousands of years past or relatives lost a few decades ago.

Short TIME bio of Pinochet:,8599,1568723,00.html

Reviews of the film:

Image sources: and