Wednesday, 17 October 2012

'Ancient Aliens Debunked'

A three-hour documentary has been released by film-maker and former Ancient Aliens believer Chris White about the failures of Erich von Daeniken's ancient astronaut theories.  It goes into every piece of evidence methodically and carefully, in marked contrast to the sensationalism of Ancient Aliens.  Pumapunku, one of the archaeological sites most egregiously misrepresented by von Daeniken and the History Channel, is addressed first, probably due to its importance in ancient astronaut mythologyWhite does a good job of explaining why ancient astronauts are superfluous in understanding the site, and why almost every alien-related claim made about it is just, well, wrong.  I personally would have liked a bit more detail about who built Pumapunku and what sort of traditions it was representative of, but that's just because I'm interested in such things (and I was pleased to note the mention of the Yaya-mama iconography in the film).  Some of the claims White makes are themselves flawed, and the most recent issue of eSkeptic, the email newsletter of Skeptic magazine, discusses some of these, including especially the idea that flood myths are universal.  (They aren't, by the way.)  But either way, Ancient Aliens Debunked is a good, sensible breakdown of the claims made on Ancient Aliens and, as it can be watched in parts, it's a particularly good resource.  There is also a website on which White has provided citations for the claims he makes (quite unlike Ancient Aliens, I'd like to add!).  So if you find the time, do give it a look.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Austronesian Origins

Where did the Austronesian languages come from?  People have been talking about that for a few hundred years now - Austronesian linguistics is not an entirely new phenomenon - but the debate has now developed to a high degree of sophistication and nuance.  Early European explorers noticed the similarities between Austronesian languages, especially those in Polynesia, at about the same time as British scholars in India were noticing the similarities between the Indo-European languages.  While Indo-European is, of course, the more celebrated of the two and by far the best-studied language family on the planet, Austronesian linguistics has been part of the academy for some time, even if only as a minor specialism.  It is now one of the most securely identified language families and Urheimats that we know of.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


My reading must seem erratic.  I've blogged about South America, southern Africa, human sacrifice, the Indo-European expansion, classic ethnographies of highland southeast Asia, and Alfred Russel Wallace.  I'm not an expert on any of these things, but I do read a lot, and I read a very diverse range of books.  I just want to know more about the history of humankind, and ideally, I'd like to spread awareness of the brilliant craziness of so much of it whether I'm an expert or not.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Great Zimbabwe

Tropical Africa presents many of the same problems as lowland South America to the investigator of the past.*  The environment precludes easy excavation in many areas (especially in the West African rainforests, which are famously dense), and even in areas where it doesn't, many of the materials used in indigenous African cities were organic and thus inherently less lasting than hard rock. Some African capitals were moved frequently, as was the case in Buganda, one of the best-documented kingdoms in Africa.  The capital was described by Europeans and Americans (including Henry Morton Stanley), many of whom were in awe of its massive wooden buildings and well-designed layout, but the city moved - dismantled and reassembled elsewhere - fairly often, and the building materials were all biodegradeable.  If you're wondering why the numerous kingdoms of tropical Africa have failed to leave tangible, beautiful remains and extensive UNESCO World Heritage sites, it isn't because the people of Africa were not industrious or didn't build anything.  It's just that they seldom built in stone, they liked to move about, and they often lived in environments that degraded or concealed the organic materials they used.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Lady Metallurgist in Bronze Age Austria

A new archaeological find from Austria suggests that women may have worked metal in the Bronze Age.  There seems to be a single Associated Press report going around all the papers with very minor variations.  The Daily Mail provided a sexist headline, and was the only paper to urge caution about the significance of the find.  Caution is probably a good thing, but I find it hard to believe that the Daily Mail was inspired by a desire for scientific accuracy.  Especially after having seen some of the readers' comments.

Thursday, 4 October 2012


Complex societies and 'civilisations' seem to develop in areas where scarcity, opportunity, population density, and diversity can be found simultaneously.  By that I mean, 'civilisations'* like Sumer and Egypt develop in places where there are obstacles to healthy living and natural geographical boundaries to human development, like deserts; opportunities for growth within the bounded region, like the presence of fertile alluvial floodplains or marine resources; a rising population, possibly as a result of improved agriculture or some other cause; and a diversity of environments (floodplain and steppe, for instance) and people (different language families).  I don't want this to be simplistic, of course, because the development of complex civilisation is an incredibly complicated topic - but most of the complex civilisations of which I am aware developed in such environments.  It seems as if the development of civilisation is inevitable in areas where population density creates pressure on scarce resources, but where different resources can be exploited by a division of labour allowed for by the stratification of society, all of it enriched by ideas and technologies provided by diverse populations living in diverse environments.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Wallace Online

The entirety of Alfred Russel Wallace's works can now be found online for free, including papers, newspaper articles, and manuscripts.  While I like my paper copy of The Malay Archipelago, it's always gratifying to know that old and often-expensive works can be read without charge - and of course, I'm glad to see that Wallace is getting the attention he deserves.

Wallace was co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection.  Wallace sent a letter to Darwin from Ternate, in what was then the Dutch East Indies, outlining his views on natural selection.  The letter spurred Darwin to action, resulting in a paper authored by both Darwin and Wallace and the publication of On the Origins of Species [...] in 1859.  It is clear from Darwin's works that he had thought more about evolution and its mechanisms than Wallace had, and Wallace didn't publish very much on the topic, so credit should rest primarily with Darwin.  But Wallace was a clever chap and a great naturalist.  Later in his life, Wallace became a spiritualist and attended seances - a fashionable thing to do at the time (Arthur Conan-Doyle and the explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, among many others, became spiritualists as well).  This supernaturalist tendency conflicted with his scientific sensibilities, and it is notable that Wallace refused to accept the possibility of human evolution.  He believed, as do many creationists, that humans are too intricate and special to have come from an ape-like ancestor.  He has subsequently been proven incorrect, of course, and Darwin's position on the subject of human origins has been vindicated (even down to the continent, Africa, on which the bulk of the process of human evolution occurred).

The Malay Archipelago is worth reading if you have any interest whatsoever in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, etc, or if you love animals (the parts about orangutans may shock you a bit, however).  The original illustrations are great as well.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Human Sacrifice

At Kerma, Nubia, on the present-day border between Sudan and Egypt, there are ruins of an ancient African civilisation that flourished c.1600 BCE. The Kingdom of Kerma, located between the First and Fourth Cataracts of the Nile, was probably the earliest 'black' African complex civilisation, and likely rose in order to control trade along the river from tropical Africa up to the Nile Delta. From the Amarna letters, a collection of diplomatic correspondences found at Akhenaten's capital Akhetaten (now known as Amarna), we know that tropical African products were traded in the Near East, especially ebony, indicating that the trade was extensive by the middle of the second millennium BCE. G. A. Reisner, who excavated the capital city of Kerma in 1913, found 322 human sacrifices in Tumulus X, one of several massive burial mounds at the site. He estimated that there had been over 400 sacrificees in Tumulus X before tomb robbers disturbed the place. This is the greatest concentration of human sacrifices revealed by archaeologists from any tomb in the world.