October 30, 2007

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Blogging update
Last post for about two weeks MAYBE. I’m off to China tomorrow for a conference. I’ll have enough time to do some sightseeing, but it’s unclear how much time I’ll have to blog.

OTOH, I might email Andie and see if she has time to link some stuff. Otherwise, I shall return around Nov. 12.

Dinosaur extinctions update

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Extinctions update Dinosaurs this time: Dinosaur Deaths Outsourced to India?

A series of monumental volcanic eruptions in India may have killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, not a meteor impact in the Gulf of Mexico. The eruptions, which created the gigantic Deccan Traps lava beds of India, are now the prime suspect in the most famous and persistent paleontological murder mystery, say scientists who have conducted a slew of new investigations honing down eruption timing.

“It’s the first time we can directly link the main phase of the Deccan Traps to the mass extinction,” said Princeton University paleontologist Gerta Keller. The main phase of the Deccan eruptions spewed 80 percent of the lava which spread out for hundreds of miles.

It is calculated to have released ten times more climate altering gases into the atmosphere than the nearly concurrent Chicxulub meteor impact, according to volcanologist Vincent Courtillot from the Physique du Globe de Paris.

The new part is the dating which seems to coincide with both the initial extinctions and the long recovery period.

October 29, 2007

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New Ideas About Human Migration From Asia To Americas

Questions about human migration from Asia to the Americas have perplexed anthropologists for decades, but as scenarios about the peopling of the New World come and go, the big questions have remained. Do the ancestors of Native Americans derive from only a small number of “founders” who trekked to the Americas via the Bering land bridge? How did their migration to the New World proceed? What, if anything, did the climate have to do with their migration? And what took them so long?

A team of 21 researchers, led by Ripan Malhi, a geneticist in the department of anthropology at the University of Illinois, has a new set of ideas. One is a striking hypothesis that seems to map the peopling process during the pioneering phase and well beyond, and at the same time show that there was much more genetic diversity in the founder population than was previously thought.

“Our phylogeographic analysis of a new mitochondrial genome dataset allows us to draw several conclusions,” the authors wrote.

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Red-headed parthenogenetic lesbian Neanderthal chicks — HERE ON ARCHAEOBLOG! Neanderthals didn’t breed with men

Just read it.

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Battlefield archaeology update Main Plaza finds discussed at meeting of archaeologists

Archaeologists who investigated an old trench uncovered during San Antonio’s Main Plaza renovations found bits of ammunition, sword tips and other artifacts that tell the story of Mexican soldiers who dug in there to protect themselves from Texian rebels during an 1835 siege that preceded the battle of the Alamo.

A short distance away, beside the Bexar County Courthouse, the archaeologists from PBS&J of Austin found discarded animal bones, broken pottery, cooking utensils and other items in what was a trash pit used by both Native Americans and Spanish colonial settlers between the mid-1700s and early 20th century.

The archaeological dig in the heart of downtown was among the topics Saturday at the annual meeting of the Texas Archeological Society at the Menger Hotel.

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Archaeologists in Puerto Rico surprised by discovery of Indian artifacts

U.S. and Puerto Rican archaeologists say they have uncovered what they believe to be one of the most important pre-Columbian sites found in the Caribbean, containing stones etched with ancient petroglyphs and graves that reveal unusual burial methods.

The stones at the site in southern Puerto Rico form a large plaza measuring some 130 feet by 160 feet (40 meters by 50 meters) that could have been used for ball games or ceremonial rites, said Aida Belen Rivera, director of the Puerto Rican Historic Conservation office.

The petroglyphs include the carving of a human figure with masculine features and frog legs. Archaeologists believe the site might belong to the Taino and pre-Taino cultures that inhabited the island before European colonization.

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Roman tombstone found at Inveresk

The first Roman tombstone found in Scotland for 170 years has been unearthed at Carberry, near Inveresk.

The red sandstone artefact was for a man called Crescens, a bodyguard for the governor who ran the province of Britain for the Roman Emperor.

The National Museum of Scotland said the stone provided the strongest evidence yet that Inveresk was a pivotal Roman site in northern Britain.

UPDATE: More here.

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Letters to the Crocodile God

Seventy-five miles south of Cairo, hidden by shifting sands on the edge of the desert, are the remains of the ancient oasis town of Tebtunis. Archaeologists and diggers clamber over the site, a collection of impressive ruins that sprawl across nearly 100 acres and more than 3,000 years. At dusk, the exposed walls and oblique light call to mind a giant desert labyrinth. At the south end of the site are the low ruins of a Greek settlement, including a massive temple to the crocodile god Sobek. To the north, later Byzantine and Islamic ruins once stood higher–10 to 12 feet in the 1930s–before unknown assailants knocked them down. But the true value of this old town is not in its remaining walls; it is in little flecks of paper that document three millennia of life here and across this region of Egypt.

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How to be a music detective, Part I So anyway, a few months ago I heard this song from the ’70s on the radio. I remembered it from my youth but, sadly, it was on one of those stations sans DJs that just plays the songs one after the other and you hear nothing about either the song or the artist. Stumped, I figured it would come to me.

It didn’t. For months. I’d hear it every few weeks and listen intently to anything that might give it away. Of course, it was an instrumental so there were no lyrics that one could search on, and no chorus that might give away the name. Cursed, I trolled various internet fora trying, lamely, to describe this song; you can imagine trying to type out the words to describe an instrumental song. “Well, it’s got this sax melody, see. . .” I knew it was the ’70s, probably mid-decade, but that was it. No idea who did it. I tried searching the web using various search terms; no luck. I tried cruising around iTunes’ 1970s compilation CDs and listening to snippets to see if I could find it; no luck. Finally, I quit actively searching, hoping it would come to me eventually, but it never did.

Until yesterday. I finally got to watch a vastly underrated movie — Undercover Brother — on TV and from the very beginning when, lo and behold, IT WAS THE SONG. Played for just about 30 seconds but THERE IT WAS. Eureka! A source! Off I went at the next opportunity to the local Barnes and Noble and straight to the soundtracks section. Undercover Brother! Put on the headphones at a listening station and click through the titles. There it was! #2!

Average White Band. Pick up the Pieces. Yeah, baby. I am just waiting to get home, download, and listen as many times as I want. Onto the iPod it goes! Probably along with “Play that funky music, white boy”.

So there, gentle readers, patience and persistence pays off. It once took me 2 years to find a quote from William Gladstone about how societies treat their dead (look at cemetery web sites, half of them show the quote on their front page). I finally found the actual quote and the source in a book of quotations.

I was, um, looking because a retired (female) porn star emailed me asking about it. No, I did not get anything in return, only a hearty thank you and a virtual pat on the back. But I wanted something, oh yes I did. . . . .

A credit on a porno movie. Just like Cindy Brady!

UPDATE: Okay, I also downloaded Rubberband Man, which inspired me to troll YouTube. For your viewing pleasure, I give you the Making of the Rubberband Man Commercial:

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On the nightstand 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Actually, it’s on the nightstand and in the briefcase to read on the way to, from, and in China this week and next. The Wiki page has a few newspaper reviews, but I have yet to track down an academic one. The newspaper reviews there, including an interview with Indian Country which is the most interesting.

I have to wonder how much will be about the actual depopulation which seems to me to be the key issue. What is the evidence for it and what does the archaeology say about the distribution and density of population pre-contact? Seems to me a few years ago most of the conservative estimates put the loss at around 85% (see Vectors of Death by Ann Ramenofsky which has GOT to have the best book title ever). Ramenofsky based much of her work on her dissertation which compared archaeological manifestations both before and after contact. Population is certainly a dicey issue though and a lot of the literature tends to rely on. . . .ethnographic analogy, which is more or less what this book sets out to question.

UPDATE: I tracked down one review by Dean R. Snow in Science (Science 2 June 2006: Vol. 312. no. 5778, p. 1313 DOI: 10.1126/science.1128736). It pretty much tracks what some of the newspaper reviews have to say. Couple of passages (it’s sub-only):

Along the way, Mann shoots down popular misconceptions that have been previously refuted by various authorities. I will cite just a few. . .Surprisingly simple hunting societies encountered in interior South America were the scattered remnants of more complex societies that had been devastated by epidemics, not pristine survivors from the stone age. Pizarro and Cortés defeated American Indian empires because they had guns, cavalry, and germs on their side, not because the Incas and Aztecs were hobbled by superstition and other forms of inferiority. The American landscape was an anthropogenic one for millennia, which reverted temporarily to wilderness between the epidemic decline in Indian populations and resettlement by expanding Europeans. Deep anthropogenic soils and other archaeological evidence in the Amazon lowlands indicate that before 1492 Indian populations were much larger there than previously suspected. The last finding was particularly inspiring for the author.

I bolded that bit myself, since this seems to be the overarching story of American archaeology, and world archaeology in general: that modern technologically simple societies, from the !San of Africa to the Amerindians observed by early European explorers are somehow evolutionary holdovers from an earlier time. Probably goes back to the idea of evolution as a ladder that was overturned by Darwin, but still lived on in anthropology via the various stages concepts (stone age, bronze age, etc., egalitarian, chiefdom, etc.).

Unfortunately the book also contains overstatements, errors, and speculations of the kinds that creep in when an author’s purpose is to make a strong case for a thesis. Again, I will cite just a few. It is unnecessary to argue that Europeans were “unbearably dirty” to make the case that Indians were not filthy savages or to repeat Henry Dobyns’s wildly inflated population estimates to make the case that colonial era epidemics were unprecedented in their devastation–everybody was smelly in 1491, and 60% mortality is horrendous no matter what the absolute size of the population. Older is better in popular books, and Brazil’s Lagoa Santa skeletons are dusted off again. But none of the surprisingly early dates claimed for these and other finds in eastern Brazil meet minimum scientific standards for reliability. The Great Law of the Iroquois is very different from the U.S. Constitution. The framers of the latter were inspired mainly by European philosophy, yet Mann repeats the modern myth that the framers of the Constitution “were pervaded by Indian ideals and images of liberty.”

Doubtless there will be a lot of this sort of thing, which isn’t really surprising for a non-specialist writer and in a book of such scope (though the Iroquois thing seems a bit overdrawn to be a result of mere ignorance of the literature).

Snow sums it up:

The book is a good read. For the most part, Mann paints a fair picture of American Indians, and his account is largely free of fawning political correctness. But readers who know the subject well will question the polemics, erratic organization, and various factual statements. Critical readers should use 1491 only as a starting point, following the author’s excellent notes and bibliography to explore more specific topics in the vast literature pertaining to Columbus’s Other World.

That seems to be the general consensus. In the first few pages of the book I haven’t seen anything to raise my eyebrows so we’ll see.

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