Posts Tagged ‘anthropology’

“Carthago delenda est.”

March 26, 2013 3 comments

Cato the Elder

“Carthage must be destroyed.” RT well remembers how silly and useless our lessons on the Punic Wars seemed to his classmates in High School; who cared what happened in the Mediterranean basin thousands of years ago?

But of late, RT has not been so sure that this major series of wars between Rome and Carthage, fought between 264 and 146 B.C., deserves only a footnote in the history books. Nobody, for starters, believes that these wars, which Rome won, didn’t leave the Roman Republic the dominant power in the Mediterranean, poised to conquer the entire region and become a world empire.

But why did Rome prosecute the wars with such ferocity? RT can think of no reason for the total of destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War–all of Carthage’s inhabitants were either killed or enslaved and its ruins sowed with salt. Why not simply reduce Carthage to a client state? Why not maintain the illusion of independence while wielding the real power?

Rome and Carthage shared much in common–both were former monarchies that had become republics, farming communities on the edge of their cultural spheres that grew to become formidable powers. Both had been self-governing for centuries and were of necessity military powers commanding large armies and navies. It is true that Rome lay within the cultural sphere of the Etruscans and ultimately, of Greece, while Carthage was a colony of Tyre and thus a part of Phoenician society, but how much difference can there have been between the two, each worshiping a related pantheon of gods as it did.

And yet Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.), a Roman Senator, ended most of his speeches with the slogan, “Carthago delenda est.” Why had the phrase become a byword in Rome?

The short answer is: RT thinks an examination of the struggle between Rome and Carthage will help clarify the transition from ancient Mesopotamian society to the helennization of the ancient world. Stay tuned for more…



Image: WikiCmns, Public Domain.


When I Move: Post-It Table

February 11, 2013 Leave a comment


too cool…   RT


When I Move: Post-It Table.

Scottish Gaelic, A.D. 1100 & the Survival of Languages

January 6, 2013 5 comments

File:Scots lang-en.svg

Here is a map of the linguistic situation in the north of Great Britain at the start of the 12th century.

Let’s see where the political situation stood at the time: King Edgar “The Valiant,” who had won the Scottish throne through battle, was in the middle of his brief reign. In England, Henry I was crowned king in 1100; he chose a Scottish princess, Matilda, as his queen. In Norway, Magnus III, “Barelegs” (because he wore a Celtic kilt) sat on the throne; he is sometimes regarded as the last Viking king.

All these kingdoms were struggling to establish centralized authority and connect their peoples to the emerging culture of western Europe. The linguistic map of Scotland reveals a land claimed by rival peoples. In the next several days, RT will post on the development of Scottish languages in the following centuries. People speak the language of their rulers, don’t they, after all?   RT

Map: Legend–turquoise, Scottish Gaelic; dark pink, Norse-Gaelic; green, Cumbrian; light purple, Old English. WikiCmns. CC 1.2 SA, attribution. Author: (original map) SuperGolden; (this version) Chabacano. SourceImage:Mormaerdoms.svg + info of Image:SCOTLANG1100.PNG.


Macedonian Crown

January 4, 2013 Leave a comment



Winter might be the best time for golden objects, and especially crowns. Weren’t the mid-winter queen (and her king) important in early religion and fairy-tale? The cold days and long nights lend themselves to storytelling and dreaming.

In any case, here is an ancient crown from Macedonia, now on display in Thessalonica.

Enjoy!    RT


Photo: Gold Leaf Crown of Ancient Macedonian Origin; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 SA-attrib, author: Tilo 2005.

Mother Earth

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

File:Europe, North Africa and Western Asia at night by VIIRS.jpg


home, sweet home (or at least a part of it)….  RT


Photo: Africa, Europe, Asia (parts thereof); WikiCmns; NASA Earth Observatory; Public Domain.

12-21-12: The Long Count Calender and the Maya

December 21, 2012 Leave a comment


Much is being made of the ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end today. Nobody, needless to say, is too worried about the accuracy of the prediction.

What is worth noting about the Maya, among other things, is their Long Count Calender. The first thing to know about the Long Count, along with its associated calendars, the Haab and the Tzolk’in, is that they are incredibly complicated and fantastically accurate. That is to say, the ancient Mesoamerican calendars are truer to the observed motion of the stars than our own calender, the Gregorian, is.


And here is where the complexity comes in. For starters, the Mesoamerican counting system isn’t based on the number 10, but on the number 20–more or a less. In fact, numbers roll over when they reach 18.

The Long Count is an astronomical calendar that measures vast stretches of time–each of the LC periods lasts about 7,885 solar years. The Haab is a solar calendar that contains 365 whole days and is divided into 18 months. The Tzolk’in is a ritual calendar of 260 days divided into 13-day periods.

And here is where things getting truly mind-blowing: the Haab, the Tzolkin, and the Long Count can all be pictured as wheels working together like gears in a machine. No joke. It is this system of three gears that produced the date-names associated with each day in ancient Mesoamerica.


Hmmm. And here are a few more things to think about. The Mesoamerican writing systems are one of five instances in human history of the independent invention of writing. That’s right–just four other societies–Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China– created a writing system from scratch. And the Mayan glyphs, which in fact are a syllabary, are very complex, so much so that it is only in the last 20-or-so years that archaeologists have been able to read Classic Mayan with confidence.

Finally, there is the Popul Vuh, the Maya book of creation. The PV tells of a series of creations, of which which the human is the last, the present cosmic era. This account is reminiscent of the scientific account of evolution, which underlines the fact that, beyond their many gods, the Maya studied and worshiped time. The Maya were (and are) one of the world’s great peoples, inventors, watchers of stars, builders of monumental cities.

Be that as it may, it seems quite unlikely that the lights will go out today…



Image: Maya stela containing the Mayan creation date. WikiCmns. Public Domain.


Lithic Revolutions: The Quaggas of Creativity, Post 5

November 9, 2012 3 comments

The lion-man statue at left tells us something about our ambitions: to be fierce, powerful, and beautiful. Its age, by the standards of human involvement with stone, is not great, but you can bet that the Quaggas of Creativity have long been aware of its implications. Humans are hungry, they are clever, and sometimes they are capable of transcending themselves.

Stone technology has long been derided as ridiculously primitive; not so. If there is a ladder that we have climbed up to heaven on, it’s made of stone.

No joke. People have been fooling with rocks for more than 3 million years. That’s longer than we’ve been speaking (a mere 2 million years), and takes us all the way back to the Pliocene Era, when the global climate first cooled down to resemble the weather patterns of our own era (the Holocene). And who made the first stone tools?  Certainly Homo Habilis, the first member of the genus Man, knapped flint, but perhaps our predecessor genus, Australopithecus, did too.

Chip, chip; chip, chip. And here’s something else to think about. That means that the emergence of stone tools is roughly contemporaneous with the emergence of human thought. We are toolmakers, manipulators of our environment, at our roots. The making of the first stone implements may well be our first creative act.

Let’s take a look at an example of that earliest stone technology; to the right we have an  early Oldowan tool. Not very impressive, right? Couple of whacks with something big and hard, and there you go. Ah, but the plot thickens! We can tell from the tools that their makers were right-handed, indicating lateralization of the brain, which brought with it the development of thinking. The makers of these tools had to recognize the acute angles they were fashioning and to judge these edges against the tool’s proposed uses: scrapping, cutting, and cleaving. An intensity of purpose lay behind these tools. The effort and coordination required would not have been expended on a simple digging stick or other wooden implement. Whoever made this stone tooth of a tool had become human.

And now let’s look at some of the most advanced prehistoric stone tools, those produced during the Aurignacian period. Wow! What a difference! The blades to the left all exhibit fine motor control and a clear visualization of the final shape and implement. The toolmakers have achieved mastery–and perhaps even beauty. It is no coincidence, of course, that these blades date from the same period as the statue at top–one of the earliest stone statues ever produced. These people–and who else could they be but us?–have entered the realm of the imagination, of dreams and of the spirit.

Or maybe not. The basic skills used in producing the Aurignacian tools are present in the “primitive” Oldowan; doubtless such tools remained in use for basic chores–no need to waste one’s finest products on elementary work. And merely by the introduction of contrast to the Oldowan chopper, its maker added one of the elements of beauty to his work. We are not only toolmakers, but also artists, at our roots. The deep sense of satisfaction at work well done, an obstacle overcome, is common to both tool and statue.

The question has to be: have people mastered themselves as they have mastered stone (and now metal, too)? The answer lies locked up in our creativity, in the artist in us. The artist recognizes the achievement of the chopper, the blade, the statue.   RT


Photos: top: Lion-Man, WikiCmns, Public Domain; middle: Stone Chopper, WikiCmns, Public Domain; bottom: Solutrean Tools, WikiCmns, CC 3.0 Unported, author, World Imaging.


Animals–the Roots of Language

March 24, 2012 7 comments


Searching for the origins of human language has taken RT to some amazing places recently.

For instance, what about animal intelligence? Reading around has left me with the impression that animals are smarter than I had suspected.

Here is a list of the cognitive abilities that animals have demonstrated:

1) object recognition (the ability to pick out an object in an animal’s field of vision)

2) problem solving (the ability to use cause-and-effect reasoning to achieve goals);

3) tool-use

4) language (the ability to communicate discrete concepts, instructions, and observations to other members of the same species);

5) cultural adaptation (the ability to create behaviors unique to a group of animals);

6) political bargaining (the ability to create alliances between certain members of a species to gain control over other members of the species) ;

7) an ability to count;

8) self-recognition; and even

9) ethical behavior.

Golly, gosh, and gee! That’s a lot of thinking going on. And many species have demonstrated at least some of these abilities, including: mammals (especially primates), birds, ants, and bees are among the animals that have shown remarkable abilities to learn, communicate, and cooperate.

And in case any of the cognitive abilities listed above seem too basic to be taken as signs of intelligence, the struggles that computer specialists have had in creating robots that mimic even the most widespread mental functions, such as touch and object recognition, tell a different story. None of these skills emerged overnight.


But, truth be told, not many species demonstrate mental capacities that truly resemble our own. The short list: cetaceans, the great apes (chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and bonobo); and perhaps, the elephants.

Some of these animals have mastered vocabularies that include hundreds of words. And I make no extraordinary claims here–after all, a human language contains about a million words. The question then becomes: what are the differences between our conversations and talking with, say, a chimpanzee?

RT says: stay tuned for the next installment on this.


Photo: Bottlenose Dolphin; NASA; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

The Elephant Bird

December 29, 2011 6 comments

OK, it was big. Our feathered friend weighed in at almost 900 lbs (more than an adult male grizzly bear) and stood more than 10 feet tall (higher than a basketball hoop). It laid eggs a foot long and 3 feet in circumference. We’re talking about the biggest bird that ever lived.

The Elephant Birds were a family of ratites that ranged across the island of Madagascar. They’ve been extinct since the 1600’s.

The bird resembled one of its relatives, the ostrich; it had hair-like plummage, powerful, thick legs, and vestigial wings. The EB was vegetarian and likely had no predators. Its enormous beak and large, clawed feet were more than adequate to fend off its hungry neighbors.

Despite its size and strength, the EB was surprisingly vulnerable. It was not a fast runner (unlike the ostrich, which can outrun a horse) and it most likely produced only a single egg at a time. Several causes for the bird’s extinction have been proposed, including hunting and egg-gathering by humans and infection by diseases common to chickens and other birds brought to the island by people.

What is most compelling about the Elephant Bird may be the place it held in the mosaic of Madagascar’s endemic species; not only the island’s long isolation from Africa and India (160 million years), but the diversity of its landscape (seven ecoregions) have produced what many consider to be a biodiversity hotspot. More than 100 species of lemurs; a predator related to mongooses,  the fossa; eight species of flowering plants; and the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (up to 4 in long) are found nowhere else.

And this does not include the wildlife that has vanished since people first arrived 2000 years ago: 17 species of lemur (including the Giant Lemur, which was as big as a gorilla), a species of pygmy hippopotamus, a species of giant tortoise, and the Giant Fossa.


Interested in supporting Madagascar’s remaining wildlife? Gerald Durrell and the organizations he founded are one place to consider.


Illustrations: top: Photo of Elephant Bird Skeleton and Egg; Monnier, 1913; WikiCmns; Public Domain. middle: Reconstruction of a Live Elephant Bird; Acrocynus; WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported; bottom: Sloth Lemur; Smokeybjb; WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported.

Jacob’s Sons: The Bible and the Z Revolution, Part 3

October 18, 2011 Leave a comment

At first glance, the birth-order of Jacob’s sons, the Twelve Patriarchs, might not seem important to deciphering the mysteries of the Elohist and the evolution of the Bible. After all, the Bible gives a clear account of the births, setting the stage for the struggle between Joseph and his brothers. But what if Genesis preserves a listing of the births that reports Joseph wasn’t the next-to-last son (and that Benjamin wasn’t Jacob’s youngest)? In fact it does, in Chapter 46, a passage that Richard Friedman attributes to the P author. And what if not one, but two other birth-orders can be discerned–the J birth-order (in Chapter 49) and the original E birth-order (a product of RT’s readings of Genesis and Exodus. And btw, what if Joseph had a second wife? RT thinks he might have–but that’s a topic for a later B&ZR posting). Could it have been that the birth-order (and everything else to do with the 12 Patriarchs) was a matter of burning religious and political concern to the E, J, and P authors? And just what was the P story of the births (a lost account implied by the survival of his list of the births)? Pesky questions to be sure, but perhaps worth pursuing. Anyway, here are the birth lists:

A. The “E” Birth-Order

Leah’s Older Sons

1. Reuben

2. Simeon

Bilhah’s Sons

3. Dan

4. Naphtali

Zilpah’s Sons

5. Gad

6. Asher

Leah’s Younger Sons

7. Isaachar

8. Zebulon

Rachel’s Sons

9. Joseph

10. Benjamin

Born in Egypt

11. Judah

12. Levi

B. The “J” Birth Order

Leah’s Sons

1. Reuben

2. Simeon

3. Levi

4. Judah

5. Zebulon

6. Issachar

Bilhah’s First Son

7. Dan

Zilpah’s Sons

8. Gad

9. Asher

Bilhah’s Second Son

10. Naphtali

Rachel’s Sons

11. Joseph

12. Benjamin

C. The “P” Birth-Order

Leah’s Sons

1. Reuben

2. Simeon

3. Levi

4. Judah

5. Isaachar

6. Zebulon

Zilpah’s Sons

7. Gad

8. Asher

Rachel’s Sons

9. Joseph

10. Benjamin

Bilhah’s Sons

11. Dan

12. Naphtali

Notice the place where the lists match: Reuben and Simeon are the first two sons in every list. And the same sons are attributed to the same mothers throughout. Why were Reuben and Simeon so important?   RT

Painting: Jacob and Rachel; Joseph Tissot; WikiCmns; Public Domain.