Category Archive 'Ethnography'

12 Apr 2017

When Humans First Daubed Arrows With Poison

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The Conversation:

When did human beings start tipping their weapons with poison to hunt prey? This is a question at the forefront of recent archaeological research.

In southern Africa San (or Bushman) hunter-gatherer groups, such as the /Xam of the Western Cape and the Ju/wasi and Hei//om of Namibia, used poisoned arrows for hunting during the 19th and 20th centuries. The origins of this technology, though, may be far older than we thought.

Recently, traces of the poison ricin were found on a 24 000 year-old wooden poison applicator at Border Cave in South Africa’s Lebombo mountains. If this identification is correct it would mean that people in southern Africa were among the first in the world to harness the potential of plant-based poisons.


Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

25 Jul 2012

Chromosomal Evidence That Mankind Nearly Went Extinct

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A leading causal candidate for the human genetic bottleneck is the volcanic supereruption that formed Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Sam Kean, in Slate, explains that the number of human chromosomes suggests that modern humanity emerged from a small, inbred population.

Humans have 46 chromosomes. Our closest primate relatives have 48. So where did those extra two disappear to? …

Let’s go back a million years, when most proto-humans had 48 chromosomes, and follow a hypothetical Guy who has 47. Again, a chromosome fused at the tips won’t affect Guy’s day-to-day health. But having an odd number of chromosomes will cripple the viability of his sperm. (If you prefer to think of a female, the same is true of her eggs.)

Say the fusion left Guy with a normal chromosome 12, a normal 13, and a 12-13 hybrid in each cell. During sperm production his body has to divide those three chromosomes into two cells, and there are only a few possible ways to divvy them. There’s {12} & {13, 12-13}, or {13} & {12, 12-13}, or {12, 13} & {12-13}. The first four sperms are either missing a chromosome or have a duplicate, practically a cyanide capsule for an embryo. The last two cases have the proper amount of DNA for a normal child. But only in the sixth case does Guy pass the fusion on. Overall, then, two-thirds of Guy’s children die in the womb, and just one-sixth inherit the fusion. And any Junior with the fusion would then face the same terrible odds trying to reproduce. Not a good recipe for spreading the fusion—and again, that’s still only 47 chromosomes, not 46.

What Guy needs is a Doll with the same two fused chromosomes. Now, the odds of two people with the same fusion meeting might seem infinitesimal. And they would be—except in inbred families, where the chances of finding a cousin or half-sibling with the same fusion don’t round down to zero so easily. What’s more, while the odds of Guy and Doll having a healthy child remain low, every 36th spin of the genetic roulette wheel (because 1/6 x 1/6 = 1/36), the child would inherit both fused chromosomes—giving him 46 total.

And here’s the payoff: Junior and his 46 chromosomes would likely have an easier time having children than his 47-chromosomed parents. Remember that the fusion itself doesn’t ruin you—lots of healthy people have fusions. It’s only reproduction that gets tricky, since fusions can lead to an excess or deficit of DNA in embryos. But because he has an even number of chromosomes, little Junior wouldn’t have any unbalanced sperm cells: Each would have the right amount of DNA to run a human, just packaged differently. As a result, all of his children have a good chance of being healthy. And if his children start having their own children—especially with other relatives with 46 or 47 chromosomes—the fusion could start to spread. …

How did having 46 chromosomes then spread worldwide? It’s possible that having two fewer chromosomes than everyone else gave Guy and Doll’s family a whopping evolutionary advantage, allowing them to out-compete the 48-chromosome sluggards. But probably not. More likely, they happened to be living at a point when the human race nearly got wiped out.

Take your pick for the cause of our near-extinction—ice ages, plagues, Indonesian gigavolcanoes. But humans have far less genetic diversity than most other species, and the most reasonable explanation for this is a genetic bottleneck: a severe reduction in the population of humans in the past, perhaps multiple times. One study suggested that our population, worldwide, might have dropped as low as 40 adults. (The world record for fitting people in a phone booth is 25.) That’s an outlandishly pessimistic guess even among disaster scientists, but it’s common to find estimates of a few thousand adults, below what some minor league baseball teams draw.

Read the whole thing.

11 May 2012

Russian Police Nationality Reference

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Here is a neat item. A Russian police facial reference sheet used for identifying male subject’s probable nationality.

(click on picture for larger image)
Top row from the left: Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar, Jew, Gypsy, Kyrgyzian.
Middle row from the left: Belorussian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh, Uzbek.
Bottom row from the left: Latvian, Estonian, Azerbaijani, Moldovan, Tajik, Turkmenian

From Galina Sokolovska via Viktorija Ruškulienė.

04 Jan 2012

Spectacular Photos

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Eagle Falconry, Altai Mountains, Mongolia

This 7:28 trailer for Human Planet, a BBC Ethnographic Travelogue series scheduled to begin broadcasting in March, has some striking images. Photographer Timothy Allen did the voice-over.

20 Oct 2009

America’s Pashtun Predicament

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19th century Pathans

The Pathans (as they used to call them in English), or Pashtuns (as is preferred currently), the largest ethnic group (c. 42,000,000 people) without a state, are the hosts of al Qaeda and Taliban’s prime recruiting base. Their inhospitable mountainous tribal homelands are the base of the insurgency in Afghanistan and the safe refuge of Islamic terrorism.

In their very significant paper No Sign until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier, Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason address the issue at length, providing a quick background in history and ethnology, and explaining how Pakistan and the United States created the problem in the first place by facilitating the preaching of jihad to oppose the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan. The authors contend that efforts to impose external authority on the Pashtuns only provoke greater fanaticism and more enthusiastic resistance, and argue that the key to defeating Islamic extremism among the Pashtun tribes consists of strengthening indigenous self-rule and conducting diplomatic relations with the tribes in a fashion consistent with a Pashtun perspective and sense of honor very different from our own.

According to tradition, members of the Pashtun Hill Tribes who inhabit the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) are descendents of Karlan, a foundling adopted as the fourth son of Qais Abdur Rashid, a contemporary of the Prophet Mohammed and the ur-ancestor of the Pashtun ethnic group. The Hill Tribes, or Karlanri, include many of the most warlike tribes, such as the Afridis, Daurs, Jadrans, Ketrans, Mahsuds, Mohmands, and Waziris. Of all the Pashtun tribes, the Waziris of greater Waziristan (a region that includes North Waziristan Agency, South Waziristan Agency, and the Bermol District of Afghanistan’s Paktika Province) are reputed to be the most conservative and irascible. The Waziris pride themselves on never having paid taxes to any sovereign and never having their lands, which they consider veiled, or in purdah, conquered. (Considered good but unreliable fighters by the British during the colonial era, the Waziris and several other tribes were prohibited de facto from enlisting in native regiments of the Indian Army.)

Historically, the rural Pashtuns have dominated their neighbors and have avoided subjugation or integration by a larger nation. As one elderly Pashtuntribesman told Mountstuart Elphinstone, a British official visiting Afghanistan in 1809, “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood . . . we will never be content with a master.” This characteristic makes Pashtuns the perfect insurgents.

With more than 25 million members, the Pashtun represent one of the largest tribal groups in the world. …

Pashtuns identify themselves in terms of their familial ties and commitments, and have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. As the preeminent Afghan scholar M. Jamil Hanifi wrote in 1978: “The Afghan individual is surrounded . . . by concentric rings consisting of family, extended family, clan, tribe, confederacy, and major cultural-linguistic group. The hierarchy of loyalties corresponds to these circles and becomes more intense as the circle gets smaller . . . seldom does an Afghan, regardless of cultural background, need the services and/or the facilities of the national government. Thus, in case of crisis, his recourse is to the kinship and, if necessary, the larger cultural group. National feelings and loyalties are filtered through the successive layers.”

Pashtuns engage in social, political, and economic activities within these concentric rings; this engagement prevents government-oriented institutions from gaining a foothold in tribal areas.24 This segmentation is one reason why, historically, no foreign entity—whether Alexander, the British, the Soviets, the Afghans, or the Pakistanis—has been able to reconcile the Pashtun to external rule. During the nineteenth century, at the height of its imperial power, Great Britain struggled and failed to subject the Pashtuns to state authority. Even the most brutal of these foreign incursions, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, failed to subjugate the Pashtuns—despite genocidal military tactics and a massive commitment of military personnel and firepower that killed more than a million Pashtuns and drove at least 3 million more into exile in Pakistan and Iran. …

The obstinacy of the Pashtun tribes and the inability of the British Empire to control them led to a border policy of “masterly inactivity” that essentially used the tribesmen as a buffer between India’s northern frontier and the approaching Russian Empire in Central Asia. Successive Pakistani and Afghan governments were no more successful than the British or the Russians, and the designation of this region as a kind of tribal no man’s land over generations created the loose political system of tribal autonomy in the FATA seen today. Indeed the name for this area is actually a misnomer. It is not federally administered in any sense of the word. Constitutionally, Islamabad has never maintained legal jurisdiction over more than 100 meters to the left and right of the few paved roads in the tribal areas. …

Why have the Pashtuns provided a safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaida, while their neighbors along the same border have proven so resistant to such religious radicalization?…

The explanation for the Pashtuns’ provision of safe haven to the Taliban and al-Qaida lies in their unique social code, known as Pashtunwali: a set of values and unwritten, but universally understood, precepts that define Pashtun culture. Pashtunwali, literally translated, means “the way of the Pashtun.” For U.S. policymakers seeking to address the challenges of the Pashtun tribal areas, an understanding of the core principles of this cultural value system is crucial. Pashtunwali is the keystone of the Pashtuns’ identity and social structure, and it shapes all forms of behavior from the cradle to the grave. Its rules are largely responsible for the survival of the Pashtun tribes for more than 1,000 years, but they remain little understood in the West. As Charles Allen writes, “[Pashtunwali is] an uncompromising social code so profoundly at odds with Western mores that its application constantly brings one up with a jolt.” A Pashtun must adhere to this code to maintain his honor and retain his identity. The worst obscenity one Pashtun can call another is dauz, or “person with no honor.” In a closed, interdependent rural society, a Pashtun family without honor becomes a pariah, unable to compete for advantageous marriages or economic opportunities, and shunned by the other families as a disgrace to the clan. …

Intrinsically flexible and dynamic, Pashtunwali has core tenets that include self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, forgiveness, and tolerance. Not all Pashtuns embody the ideal type defined by Pashtunwali, but all respect its core values and admire—if sometimes grudgingly—those who do. When hillmen come down out of the mountains to buy staples in the bazaar of a valley town, with their long fighting knives visible in their waistbands, the towns-people are likely to sneak admiring glances and mutter something to their friends about “real Pashtuns.” …

For centuries, these interlocking elements of the unwritten code of the Pashtun—freedom, honor, revenge, and chivalry—have defeated every effort to subdue the Pashtuns and supersede Pashtunwali with a more codified and centralized rule of law. Nevertheless,Western policymakers continue to ignore or to downplay the primacy of these fundamental cultural values in their efforts to shape strategies for southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, while the Taliban and al-Qaida use them for recruitment, shelter, and social mobilization.

09 Sep 2008

Horses’ Teeth and the Indo-European Homeland

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Andrew Lawler describes an interesting approach to linguistic archaeology.

Measuring teeth from dead horses in upstate New York seems an unlikely way to get at the truth behind some of the most controversial questions about the Old World. But David Anthony, a historian and archaeologist at Hartwick College, discovered that by comparing the teeth of modern horses with their Eurasian ancestors, he could determine where and when the ancient ones were ridden. And answering that seemingly arcane question is important if you want to explain why nearly half the world today speaks an Indo-European language.

The origin of Indo-European tongues has roiled scholarship since a British judge in eighteenth-century Calcutta noticed that Sanskrit and English were related. Generations of linguists have labored to reconstruct the mother from which sprang dozens of languages spoken from Wales to China. Their bitter disputes about who used proto-Indo-European, where they lived, and their impact on the budding civilizations of Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Indus River Valley are legion.

That contentious debate, says Anthony, has been “alternately dryly academic, comically absurd, and brutally political.” To advance their own goals, Nazi racists, American skinheads, Russian nationalists, and Hindu fundamentalists have all latched on to the idea of light-skinned and chariot-driving Aryans as bold purveyors of an early Indo-European culture, which came to dominate Eurasia. So the search for an Indo-European homeland is now the third rail of archaeology and linguistics. Anthony compares it to the Lost Dutchman’s mine—“discovered almost everywhere but confirmed nowhere.”

Read the whole thing.


Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

23 Jul 2008

Amazon Tribe Does Not Use Numbers



The idea that people have an innate mathematical ability has been questioned by a study of an Amazonian tribe that has no sense of number.

The ability of tribal adults of the Pirahã to conceptualise numbers is no better than that of infants or even some animals and their language, with only 300 speakers, has no word even to express the concept of “one” or any other specific number.

Prof Gibson found that there were no words for ‘one’ or ‘two’ for members of the Pirahã tribe
The team, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of brain and cognitive sciences Edward Gibson, found that members of the Pirahã tribe in remote northwestern Brazil use language to express relative quantities such as “some” and “more,” but not precise numbers.

It is often assumed that counting is an innate part of human cognition, said Prof Gibson, “but here is a group that does not count. They could learn, but it’s not useful in their culture, so they’ve never picked it up.

Hat tip to MeaninglessHotAir.

25 Apr 2008

Study Suggests: Humans Nearly Became Extinct 70,000 Years Ago

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Human beings may have had a brush with extinction 70,000 years ago, an extensive genetic study suggests. The human population at that time was reduced to small isolated groups in Africa, apparently because of drought, according to an analysis released Thursday.

The report notes that a separate study by researchers at Stanford University estimated the number of early humans may have shrunk as low as 2,000 before numbers began to expand again in the early Stone Age.

“This study illustrates the extraordinary power of genetics to reveal insights into some of the key events in our species’ history,” Spencer Wells, National Geographic Society explorer in residence, said in a statement. “Tiny bands of early humans, forced apart by harsh environmental conditions, coming back from the brink to reunite and populate the world. Truly an epic drama, written in our DNA.”

Wells is director of the Genographic Project, launched in 2005 to study anthropology using genetics. The report was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Previous studies using mitochondrial DNA — which is passed down through mothers — have traced modern humans to a single “mitochondrial Eve,” who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

The migrations of humans out of Africa to populate the rest of the world appear to have begun about 60,000 years ago, but little has been known about humans between Eve and that dispersal.

The new study looks at the mitochondrial DNA of the Khoi and San people in South Africa which appear to have diverged from other people between 90,000 and 150,000 years ago.


The BBC reports the study’s conclusion that mankind nearly split into two separate species at the same time.

Ancient humans started down the path of evolving into two separate species before merging back into a single population, a genetic study suggests.

The genetic split in Africa resulted in distinct populations that lived in isolation for as much as 100,000 years, the scientists say.

This could have been caused by arid conditions driving a wedge between humans in eastern and southern Africa.


Behar et al., The Dawn of Human Matrilineal Diversity, The American Journal of Human Genetics (2008), doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.04.002

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