Sunday, December 09, 2007

Moving to Wordpress

I'm making the move to Wordpress. Sorry, Blogger, but I can't risk the chance that you might delete this blog too.

Hot Cup of Joe (at WordPress)

I'll make the move gradually and will post simultaneously between the two blogs for a while, but eventually all business will be at the new blog address:

Can you believe it? Someone snatched up " just a few days ago? And they aren't doing a thing with it. Meh.

The reason for the move is that I have another blog, which I keep totally separate and anonymous from this one that was removed/deleted. Ostensibly because the Blogger software picked it up as link-spam. Over a week ago, I notified blogger and their automated response to the "restore blog" link was something along the lines of "give us a few days to review your blog."

There was no more advertising than is here (adsense, which is owned by Google -which owns Blogger!) and the content was all original and the links were to legitimate sites. This is outrageous and I urge anyone that has a Blogger account that they blog with to archive their favorite posts and make a back up of your template. You might even consider putting Blogger behind you. I've been blogging on blogger in some form or another since the 90's!

Anyway, I hope that the move to Wordpress will be a good one. It might even inspire me to write more since Wordpress is so much easier to post to and update. It doesn't have the flexibility that Blogger has in that you can't update the template or use javascript, but I'm digging it so far.

Go there and see. And, if you check my blog regularly and usually don't post, please leave me a comment at The Move to Wordpress and let me know what you think. Are you willing to update your blogroll links (if you have a blog with my blog listed)? Are you willing to keep checking me at the new blog site? Are you okay with the new look (couldn't stand the old look)?

Hot Cup of Joe (at WordPress)


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Four Stone Hearth XXIX @ Remote Central

The 29th edition of the Four Stone Hearth is now up at Remote Central.

I was going to say a word about the next edition, hosting, and submitting, but let me just quote the good people at (i.e. Kambiz, without whom we wouldn't have the Four Stone Hearth to begin with):

The next edition of 4SH will be at The Greenbelt, two weeks from now on December 19th, which would make it the equivalent of the Christmas 2007 edition, as well as being the last one for this year, so if you wish to submit content you can do so by following this link:, or indeed by submitting direct to the host site.


Monday, December 03, 2007

The Anthropology of Catastrophe: Volcanoes

Humans have always been afflicted by natural catastrophes ranging from tectonic to weather related and, possibly, even impacts from space! But none, perhaps, have found the significance both culturally and destructively, as the volcano. Throughout the history and prehistory of man, volcanoes have erupted, obliterating entire islands, destroying settlements and cities, ruining local crops and affecting climate on a global scale. And, while volcanoes have also long been anthropomorphized to attribute blame or malevolent intent, not a single one ever intended to cause human destruction.

Notable volcanic eruptions in the archaeological and historical record include Thera, Vesuvius, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Pinotubo, among many others.

Erupted 79 CE – Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy
This was the first documented volcanic eruption in history and was responsible for the instantaneous deaths of thousands who found themselves in the path of the eruption’s heat, poison gases, pyroclastic flows of rock and ash, and the sheer trauma of the blast wave. As most people who have heard of Pompeii are no doubt aware, the site is often billed as an archaeologists’ dream since it represents a “snapshot” in time. The main reason is that settlements like Pompeii and the closer Herculaneum were inundated with volcanic ash and rock in a rapid and hot pyroclastic flow, trapping some residents in death poses until excavated nearly 2000 years later. Recent discoveries at Herculaneum include a wooden throne, preserved in the volcanic ash for over 1900 years.

Thera (Santorini)
Erupted 1627-1600 BCE Aegean Sea
Generally accepted to have brought about the demise of the Minoan civilization and ash layers from the eruption are evident in localities like Crete, and the Santorini archipelagos which includes Thera. The Minoan civilization spread across each of these and other Cycladic islands, with Crete being about 100 miles from Thera. In the Satorini archipelago is Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement buried by the 17th century BCE eruption in volcanic ash. Desturction from this eruption was primarily caused by pyroclastic flow, tsunami and ash deposits. For Minoan settlements on Thera and the Santorini island chain, civilization ended abruptly as they were vaporized, cooked, and buried alive. For the Minoan cities and settlements further away in Crete, they may have had a few more moments until the tsunami created by the massive amount of ash, rock, and other ejecta suddenly plunging into the sea, displacing the water. And, while some Minoan settlements did survive, the eruption of Thera is considered to have contributed greatly to the civilization's demise.

Mt St Helens and Mt Pinotubo
Erupted in 1980 in Washington, USA and 1991 on the Philippine Island Luzan, respectively
Mt. St. Helens was considered a major volcanic eruption, responsible for 57 deaths and thousands made homeless, not to mention the devastation to the environment. However, it small in comparison to its 20th century colleague Mt. Pinotubo, which erupted in the Philippines just a decade later. This one took 800 lives and left 100,000 or more homeless. The Pinotubo eruption was also 10 times larger than that of Mt. St. Helens. In the case of both of these eruptions, scientists and researchers were carefully monitoring the geologic activity associated with the volcanoes and were able to use the data to evacuate and warn local residents. Indeed, of the 800 killed by Pinatubo, the majority lost their lives due to the ash fall which mixed with rain and caused roofs to collapse.

In the case of each eruption, the cultural effects included the cost of rebuilding and recovering infrastructure and private property. The St. Helens eruption cost $1.1 billion to recover from the catastrophe. The residents of Luzon only faced about half that cost, but they, perhaps, suffered far more economically since the Luzon economy was ruined. Clark Air Base, which the U.S. occupied was evacuated and the Air Force never returned, which, by itself, would have spelled trouble for the local economy. The last I heard, the region is still trying to recover the economy and rebuild infrastructure.

How volcanoes destroy
Lava Flows
Although instantly associated with volcanoes, lava flows only account for a fraction of a percent of the total number of deaths due to volcanoes in the last xx years. Lava is slow and can be outrun, but it does damage property and infrastructure in places such as Hawaii where the Kilauea volcano regularly spews forth a basaltic magma that becomes lava as it leaves the ground.

These kill slightly more people than lava. Denser than air carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide are the most dangerous as they flow into and fill low lying areas. Carbon dioxide is colorless and odorless and can asphyxiate people who breath it unawares. Hydrogen sulfide has a "rotten egg" smell, but a single breath can kill in high enough concentrations. Fortunately, such concentrations are relatively rare. Other gases can also be problematic for humans, albeit indirectly. In 1783, the laki fissure eruption killed an estimated 10,000 Icelanders, but due to starvation and famine after the loss of crops and livestock due to long-term exposure to hydrogen fluoride.

Tephra, Ash, and pryoclastic flows
Tephra includes the fragmented rocks and blocks ejected in the air by the eruption itself. Fortunately, tephra and ash typically affect the regions closest to the volcano, having increasing less effect the further from the eruption you go. Ash, however, can be ejected high into the atmosphere, allowing it to be deposited many miles away. But its that ash and rock that lands near the volcano that is the most problematic. Much of the tephra and ash comes back down into the volcano's crater, but this often results in pyroclastic flow which can leave a wake of destruction in its path as hot ash and rock are forced down and out away from the volcano's cone due to the force of the eruption.

Relatively few people have actually lost their lives due to tephra and ash falls, however, the danger ash poses most is the accumulation on the roofs of homes and buildings, particularly if the ash becomes wet. Wet ash soaks up water, and creates a very heavy mud, about 10 inches of which are sufficient to collapse a roof, injuring or killing the building's occupants.

Pyroclastic flows have claimed far more victims, however, making this one of the more dangerous features of a volcanic eruption. 27 percent of the lives lost in recorded volcanic eruptions were due to pyroclastic flows, the effects of which are most notable in Pompeii and Herculaneum, where pryroclastic flows of ash, rock, gases, and bits of lava quickly rushed in along the ground, burying both cities. Residents had seconds to realize what had occurred, and probably each killed instantly as the heat from the flows cooked their bodies and boiled their brains -the ash burying them along with the buildings, homes, and artifacts of their cities. Alun Salt discusses a recent find of a throne at Herculaneum at Clio Audio, describing the effects of pyroclastic flows and preservation of material remains.

Lahars and Tsunamis
Another immediate killer from volcanic eruptions are the occasional lahars as well as the tsunamis some volcanoes create due to earth quakes caused by the eruption or pyroclastic flows that dump into the sea, displacing water. Lahar is an Indonesian word that refers to the mud flows created by large amounts of ash and water. The heat from a volcanic event can melt snow and ice and, as the resulting water mixes with ash, a mud is formed which then flows down the mountain, obliterating towns and settlements. Lahars and tsunamis are together responsible for a whopping 34% of the deaths that have been recorded due to volcanoes.

But that isn't the most significant killer that results from a volcano. The most significant killer is, by itself, responsible for a full 30% of the deaths related to volcanoes (remember, lahars and tsunamis are two different things -17% each). That killer is post-eruption famine and disease that takes place months later. Gases and ash ejected into the atmosphere can affect crops and livestock and even global temperatures! 1816 was called the "year without summer" due to the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia the year before. Global temperatures dropped to between .4 and 1.0 Celsius and crops were affected around the globe. In Europe, particularly in Great Britain, a typhus epidemic that broke out that year was blamed on the unseasonably cold weather.

Volcanoes and Human Belief, Religion, and Superstition
Volcanoes don't seek human attention or appeasement. But its easy to see how others might think so. Humans have long had very tenuous relationships with their volcanoes, which remain oblivious to the anthropomorphizing applied by cultures in South America, Indonesia, Polynesia, and Mesoamerica. Volcanoes gods exist in many cultures even today and many sacrifices have been made to these gods in the way of virgins and material possessions in attempt to appease the god.

Perhaps the most familiar volcano god to Americans is Pele, since this legend is still told (albeit mostly tongue-in-cheek) in the state of Hawaii where the Kilauea volcano is still active. According to the legend, Pele is the goddess that lives in the volcano and she created (and is still creating) the islands of Hawaii.

In Japan, Mt. Fuji is the source of several myths and legends, including that the goddess Sengen resides there, tossing off the mountain any pilgrim of impure heart. Legend has it that the mountain was created in a single day at around 86 BCE, though the mountain itself can be geologically dated to as far back as 8500 BCE when it was volcanically created. There was, however, an eruption at around 86 BCE, which may have inspired the legend of its creation.

The myth of Atlantis, a story first created in two dialogs by Plato, may have had its inspiration in the oral stories that surrounded the fall of the Minoan civilization and the sudden demise of several of their cities. If true, Plato certainly embellished the account and modified it to fit the the lesson he was trying to teach through Critias and Timaeus, the two dialogs in which he mentions Atlantis. It is fascinating to consider the appeal that the story has on even modern humans and their beliefs.

Finally, it mustn't be overlooked that the very term "volcano" and the study of volcanoes, "volcanology," is derived from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

One might ask why bother living near such an unpredictable god? One reason, of course, is that the god provides a bounty by way of rich soils for cultivation and other resources such as an abundance of chert and obsidian needed for manufacture of stone tools.

For all the difficulties volcanoes have created for man, we, perhaps, have reaped far more benefit.

Additional reading

Appeasing the Volcano Gods
Feldman, Joanne and Robert I. Tilling (2007). Danger Lurks Deep: The Human Impact of Volcanoes. Geotimes, 52(11), 30-35.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Four Stone Hearth #28

Thank you for reading this edition of the Four Stone Hearth. As most of you are aware, the Four Stone Hearth (4SH) is a bi-weekly blog carnival dedicated to anthropology, welcoming post submissions on all aspects of anthropology. The name is taken from the "four" major fields in anthropology: archaeology, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and linguistics.

If you're new to blogging, a carnival is an event much like a magazine in that it is usually a regular event that has a common theme and includes articles by many different authors. The difference being that this magazine has editors who take turns "hosting" the event and by publishing it on their own blog. That makes the host's blog a hub to the articles. The benefit to the host and those that submit articles is increased web traffic and the opportunity to get your writing noticed by people who share their interests. If you would like to host an upcoming 4SH or if you're interested in sending articles and posts please send an email to (hosting), or (article/post submission).

This week's edition is below the fold, so please click the "Read More…" link and visit the authors of some of the best anthropology writing in the blogosphere!

-Carl Feagans

Cosmopolitan - Bringing Archaeology into Forensics

This is one of my favorite articles so far. Anatoly Venovcev, a 2nd year archaeology student in Canada, discusses an experiment directed by his professor in which archaeological technique is applied to forensic examination of a house fire, complete with pig carcasses! Everyone listed in the 4SH today wrote some good stuff, but I'm sorry, Anatoly wins this week's Editor's Choice Award. Did I mention he included pig carcasses?

Archaeozoology - Exploitation of Wild Mammals in South-west Ethiopia during the Holocene
Archaeozoo is the nom de blog of the author of this article, which is a very interesting read. The author compares and contrasts the biodiversity, particularly with regard to faunal populations of past and present-day Ethiopia and the Afar rift of Africa. Human activity truly can be inferred from examining faunal remains and this article reveals a few tidbits of information on how this is possible. - Nakalipithecus nakayamai, a Miocene Ape from Kenya
Kambiz discusses recent PNAS paper on the Nakalipithecus nakayamai, a Miocene Ape from Kenya, and goes into some detail regarding the dentition. Included in this article are photos of a mandible and upper canine of the Miocene ape. For any student of primate evolution or anyone interested in primate evolution, this article is a must.

Remote Central - Professor Teuku Jacob - December 6, 1929 - October 17, 2007
Tim Jones highlights the career, achievements and, perhaps, the shortcomings of Professor Teuku Jacob, the most senior palaeoanthropologist in Indonesia who recently passed away. Jacob was recently criticized regarding the damage suffered to the Liang Bua 1 fossil set (Homo floresiensis, a.k.a. the hobbit), but, as Tim shares with us, Jacob was very influential and notable in paleoanthropology and Indonesia. Our condolences to the family and friends of Teuku Jacob.

Shared Symbolic Storage - Evolutionary Metaphysics V
Michael writes that this is an article that should be of interest to anthropologists since it relates to the evolution of the human mind and language. It's so rare that we get posts on linguistics that I dived right into this post almost as soon as it arrived in my inbox. I plan to read his other stuff as well, since linguistics is a field that I find fascinating.

Hot Cup of JoeRock Art Analysis
My own short post on rock art analysis. This was originally hosted at, but I think it got lost in the server change earlier this year, so I thought I might give it new life.

The posts above were submitted directly by the authors, and I thank them, as I'm sure you do. But this isn't the limits of anthropological writing in the blogosphere. There are hundreds of blogs that deal with some form of anthropology or another, so I took the liberty of piecing together a list of articles available, most of them from authors we all know and love already, but, hopefully, there will be some new blogs you can add to your own personal list. If you're like me, your feeds are out of control, but I try to read them all! For those blogs included below that normally contribute regularly to 4SH but didn't get around to it, we understand! It's the holidays… your busy! (Note, if I included anyone that would rather not be listed, please send me an email or leave a comment and I'll remove your post. Maybe).

Thank you, Tim, for providing links to most of these!

The rest:

Aardvarchaeology - Anders Söderberg on Sigtuna Metalworking

A Very Remote Period Indeed - The modern Stone Age family Archaeology - New Dating Technique Tested at Lene Hara Cave

Afarensis - Dover Comes to PBS - The AAA decides to oppose HTS Anthropology and More on the AAA's decision to oppose the HTS

Antiquarian's Attic – Two Brothers

Bad Archaeology – Modern Ruins

BLDG Blog – Inside The Vault

Centauri Dreams - A Technological Civilization by Night

Dieneke's Anthropology Blog - How humans became warlike altruists

Exploring Our Matrix - The Atheist Contribution to World Civilization

Greg Laden's Blog - Modern Humans and Neanderthals: Did they "do it?"

Hominin Dental Anthropology - New Kenyan fossil at 10 Ma

John Hawks - An interview with Mica Glantz

NorthState Science - Exploring Our Matrix - And Why Intelligent Design Forced Me To Leave The Church

Old Dirt, New Thoughts – A Cold End to the Church Dig

Savage Minds - Family Affair, II: "traditional" families and child abuse

Writer's Daily Grind - Cavemen, the TV show

Yann Klimentides - Recent revisions regarding how the genome works

Remote Central - 7,000-Year-Old Cave Paintings Found Near Chichen Itza


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Rock Art Analysis

Rock art analysis has received a bad rap in archaeology over the years, but in the last decade or so, some advances have been made to begin changing that. It’s easy to see why many archaeologists might have a hard time with rock art in general: rock art is near impossible to accurately date and its artistic nature makes interpretation very subjective. Is the image a symbol for an idea or concept that is consistent from site to site and even cross-culturally, or is it merely the artistic expression of the individual who created it? Does the scene depicted in a rock art panel represent a real event, a myth or story, or is it just the daily musings of an artistically inclined hunter-gatherer?

Despite past marginalization of rock art analysis, the glyphs and images painted, etched and carved are artifacts of the past. They’re material remains of an ancient culture and, in some cases, are all that remain to speak for that culture. Luckily, new techniques and standards are being developed to overcome the marginalization of rock art and look at it with an objective and scientific eye.

Among the chief concerns of archaeologists in examining a rock art site is dating. When were the images on the rock created? Where they created at once? Were there earlier registers with later ones added in stages? Was maintenance done over the millennia on one or more registers? If one register was maintained by re-applying pigment, and not others, why is this so?

There are a few different relative dating techniques that can apply to rock art: examining how one motif overlays another; dating intrusions like water stains; dating artifacts found in the vicinity; and so on. But these only give relative dates to each other and no absolute date from which to begin. There are, however, a few techniques that are being developed that can absolutely date rock art.

Rock Varnish Dating

Microbes on the rock surface capture fine particles of dust that build up laminations in a micro-stratagraphic sequence. From this, several methods can be used to derive an age of the varnish and, thus, the earliest possible age for the glyph. The first involves measuring the cation-ion ratio. The chemistry of the rock varnish is examined at the microscopic level to determine the rate at which major trace elements like potassium and calcium are leached out compared with other elements like titanium. While not the most precise of dating methods, CR dating does compare very well to dating a site based projectile point and ceramic styles.

A second technique involving rock varnish is VML (varnish miscrolamination). This technique looks at rock varnish layers in a way similar to dendrochronology in that it depends on the consistent application of varnish layers over time with exception to significant climatic interruptions. And, it is these climatic interruptions that are depended upon to create visible markers in the layered sequence since they result in micro-stratigraphic layers that are rich or poor in manganese for wet and dry conditions respectively. There appears to be good use for such techniques in samples with ages over 10,000 years.

A third method involves accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) radio-carbon dating of organic matter that can become trapped in small crevices and cracks. Like each of the rock varnish techniques, AMS depends on the fact that the varnishing of the rock surface occur after the glyph has been etched. The AMS method can also be used on pictographs, however, if the pictograph was painted with a charcoal-based paint or one created with an organic binder like blood or saliva, assuming that he organic compounds can be extracted. Pictographs can also be dated using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) of wasp or swallow nests since the period in which the quartz granules contained in the nest matrix have been deprived of sunlight, all the while building up luminescence, can be determined. Such a technique doesn’t tell when the pictograph was painted, of course, but it can tell at least how long it’s been present.

The subject of rock art analysis is one that is fascinating and it’s a topic that I, for one, intend to follow more closely. One of my primary interests in archaeology is that of ancient religions and beliefs and, for the pre-literate, pre-pottery societies artistic representation on rock surfaces is among the only material remains these societies have left behind. Indeed, being pre-literate in no way implies that these people did not have stories to tell and a desire to share them with subsequent generations. If one assumes that these people were aware that oral traditions naturally suffer from accident omission, forgetfulness, and exaggeration, wouldn’t it follow that they would want some sort of framework from which subsequent story-tellers can flesh out the tale? Tales of origins, tales of tricksters, tales that answer the why and how questions that burn in all of us. Are we so different today with our blogs and our YouTube and countless other means of recording our histories and the things that we find significant in our attempts to answer the questions of why and how?

The following is a bibliography that I hope others may find useful. Much of the above was derived from it, but I’ll include a few sources I have yet to read but are on my list.

Further Reading:

Dorn, Ronald I; Jull, A.J.T.; Donahue, D.J..; Linick, T.W.; Toolin, L.J. (1989). Accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating of rock varnish. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 101, 1363-1372.

Dorn, Ronald I.; Whitley, D.S. (1983) Cation-ratio dating of petroglyphs from the Western United States, North America. Nature, 302, 816-818.

____ (1984). Chronometric and Relative Age Determination of Petroglyphs in the Western United States. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 74, 308-322.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Dorn, R.I. (1996). Understanding spatial variability in environmental changes in drylands with rock varnish microlaminations. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 86, 187-212.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Broecker, W.S. (2000). How fast does rock varnish grow? Geology, 28, 183-186.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Broecker, W.S.; Bell, J.W.; Mandeville, C.W. (2000). Terminal Pleistocene wet event recorded in rock varnish from the Las Vegas Valley, southern Nevada. Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology, 161, 423-433.

Valledas, H.; et al (1992). Direct Radiocarbon Dates for the Prehistoric Paintings at the Altamira, El Castillo and Niaux Caves. Nature, 357, 68-70.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Call for Submissions: Four Stone Hearth

The next edition of the Four Stone Hearth will be hosted here on 11/21/07 –that's Wednesday!

Think about it: lots of folks will be off for Thanksgiving… sitting around… reading blogs on the computer since they're not at work. Get that exposure for your blog this week! Send your latest anthropology writing to me at cfeagans AT gmail DOT com.

So far, I have 2 submissions! The latest is in linguistic anthropology. Send articles, posts, and blog entries related to archaeology, cultural anthropology, physical/medical anthropology, and linguistics. If I don't get anything, I'll browse the anthro-blogs and find something, so if you see an article of your listed and you'd rather it isn't, send me an email or leave a comment and I'll remove it.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Carnival Time!

The 27th edition of the Four Stone Hearth is up at Sorting Out Science. Sam Wise has done a great job presenting some of the best in anthropological blogging in the last week or two.

I'll be hosting this carnival here in a fortnight, so if you have posts you'd like to suggest from your own blog or others, email them to me at cfeagans -AT- gmail -DOT- com.

In the meantime, visit Sam and check out the other anthro blogs linked in the FSH this week.

If you're interested in hosting a Four Stone Hearth blog carnival on your blog, send an email to Martin Rundkvist through Submissions for upcoming FSH's can be sent to and they'll be redirected to the host.


Monday, November 05, 2007

The "Number One on Google" Meme

By way of Northstate Science, who saw it first at Pharyngula, and apparently originated from World's Fair about 2 weeks ago (I'm behind on my blogging...), comes a meme with "the premise that you will attempt to find 5 statements, which if you were to type into google, you'll find that you are returned with your blog as the number one hit."

Here is my five:

  1. Hot Cup of Joe
  2. Kevin Trudeau Pseudoscience
  3. Chariots Egyptian Abydos
  4. Howler Monkey Vocalizations
  5. Pseudo-Archaeology Bosnian Pyramid


Cavemen Liked Big Butts and They Cannot Lie

Acouple of online editions of U.K. newspapers reported the recent finds of 30 carvings recovered at an archaeological site in Poland, dating to about 15,000 years ago. Most anthropologists and archaeologists would probably be immediately familiar with the Venus Figurine motif, but the recent media report was been picked up by a few blogs, each appealing to the title gag.

(Note: This post originally appeared on in March 2007 and I was considering a follow up post linking to it, but couldn't find it in the archives. I think a few posts were lost Kambiz's server move. I'm reposting it here and using it for my Four Stone Hearth entry this fortnight with more (hopefully) on the Venus Figure motif in the future.)

Venus Figurines of the Paleolithic and Their Caricatured Features

Admittedly, the gag is funny, but looking deeper at the Venus Figurines reveals an interesting and fascinating motif and one that, amazingly enough, spans large geographic and chronological ranges. The distinctive motif has been found from Spain and France to Russia and back down to Anatolia and Mesopotamia (Turkey and Iran/Iraq). They date to as far back as 24,000 years and as recent as the Bronze Age, perhaps about 5,000 years ago.

Venus of Willendorf
The motif itself includes several prominent and relatively consistent features. In almost all cases the figure is obese, often very obese. Voluptuous breasts and thighs, and an overall curvaceous appearance are features present almost without fail. Other frequently occurring characteristics include the presence of unusually small arms and legs, prominent buttocks, the lack of feet, and obvious vaginal features like a pronounced vulva. Regional features are also notable: the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps the most recognizable Venus Figurine, appears to be wearing a hat or headdress. The goddess figurines of Çatalhöyük are depicted seated in a throne flanked by felines with her hands resting on their heads. She’s also presented as giving birth and James Mellart, who excavated Çatalhöyük in the 1950s, interpreted the shrine where such a figurine was discovered to be a birthing place. A goddess seated between two felines was also found in a Çatalhöyük granary, suggesting that fertility may, indeed, be a theme there.

But did cavemen prefer big butts? The recent media reports about the Polish Venus carvings note that historians attribute this reverence for curves and voluptuousness as attributes that were considered to be ideal for prehistoric societies since they implied wealth and healthy diet.

They also suggested she would be a successful mother, able to produce lots of children and sent out a message to other men that her partner was a strong and successful hunter – making him more attractive to other women.
But this is the Venus Figurine simplified. The fact is, any speculation on what the figurines really meant is, well, speculation. It’s a fact that they span many societies and still have a relatively common appearance. It’s a fact that they greatly out-number male figurines. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines accurately represented what a fat woman looks like, so there must have been fat women from whom the craftsman / artist derived inspiration. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines included details like vulva. And it’s a fact that some features were prominent (breasts, stomachs, buttocks, vulva) and detailed while others were not (feet, arms, face). It’s a fact that red ochre has been found in association with some of the figurines.

When these facts are considered, it becomes clear that the artist spent some time on the details that he wanted to be noticed and diminished the details that were insignificant. The Venus of Willendorf, for instance had a hat: a very detailed and complex representation of a woven textile that must have involved much of the artist’s time. Seven concentric rows that circle a rosette comprise the headgear and dimples, folds and rolls of adipose were carefully crafted. Yet, the artist omitted a face and feet. Could this mean she’s an anonymous representation of the “perfect” woman for the sophisticated hunter-gatherer? Or could it have been a way of representing a generic mother goddess? The pronounced vulva and red ochre that the Willendorf figure was painted in may have, together, been reminiscent of menstruation and thus fertility. Certainly a prehistoric woman with large stores of fat would be better equipped to nourish children and a caricatured, obese representation might have been used to refer to the mother goddess who nourishes all life. Her lack of feet (they weren’t broken off –they were never added) may have been intentional, affording the goddess figurine no way to depart from her assigned station (a birthing shrine or granary); or, maybe, the artist simply wasn’t good at feet and didn’t find them important. Without feet, the figurine couldn’t have been stood up nor would it sit or lie in any manner that appeared natural or intended. But it could be held and the person holding it would feel the curves and the shape of the figure.

Originally, the Venus Figurine was named “Venus” as a joke. A pejorative meant to demean the “uncivilized” and “primitive” opinion of beauty that the “caveman” obviously had. The irony isn’t lost, however, if the figurine motif is, indeed, a goddess. Venus was, of course, the Roman goddess of beauty and love, an analog of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and consistently depicted in the nude. The Roman/Greek version, however, is more in line with the modern (or, at least, Western) idea of beautiful, sensual, and sexually attractive with her thin form and ample, but not pendulous, breasts. Nor was her pubic region depicted as more than a mere space, absent of vulva, vaginal lips, and the details present in her more ancient predecessor.

There is much more that can be written on the Venus Figurine, so perhaps I’ll revisit this subject again in the future. But I’ll close with the following thought: the most convincing evidence to me that the Venus of Willendorf (and, therefore, probably most of the Venus figurines) was a goddess and not a representation of an actual person is the hat and lack of face. Traditionally, representations of elites (kings, queens, nobility, and gods) include headgear. That the face was omitted might signify that there was more anonymity involved than a female ruler, shaman, oracle, or other elite. Certainly the reverence for feminine attributes might indicate matriarchal societies existed, or at least a much less patriarchal one than more recent human cultures are guilty of.

Further Reading:

Evans, Martin (2007). Why cavemen liked curvy cavewomen ... like Kylie. Daily Express, Tuesday, March 13, 2007.

Soffer, Olga; Adovasio, J.M.; Hyland, D.C. (2000). The “Venus” Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic, Current Anthropology 41, pp. 511-537.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Tutankahmen on Display - the Anniversary of the Discovery of his Tomb

Gold—everywhere the glint of gold! These were the words of Howard Carter as he recalled first seeing the antechamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb as he flicked his flashlight back and forth. Revealed to Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon were effigies of Tutankhamen himself, falcon-headed figures, a golden throne, overturned chariots, a gilded snake, and other treasures. It must have been a terrific sight -one that most archaeologists never come close to seeing as they meticulously dust and scrap matrix away from broken potsherds and dull-by-comparison hearths. And today, November 4, marks the anniversary of Carter and Carnarvon's discovery of Tutahnkamen's tomb, perhaps the single most celebrated pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

And this week, archaeologists removed Tutankhamen's mummy from its sarcophagus, placing it on display in a climate controlled display case. According to the BBC, "only about 50 living people have seen the face of the boy king, who died more than 3,000 years ago" until the display that took place today. Part of the reason for the new venue is due to the heat and humidity introduced into his tomb each year by tourists. But I'm sure another consideration is revenue:

"The golden boy has magic and mystery and therefore every person all over the world will see what Egypt is doing to preserve the golden boy, and all of them I am sure will come to see the golden boy," Egypt's antiquities chief Zahi Hawass told reporters before the body was moved.

Howard Carter and his team (Lord Carnarnvon died a few weeks after the tomb was opened from an infection brought on by a mosquito bite, giving rise to the "curse" myth) set a standard for meticulous excavation of the tomb. It took him nearly a full decade to photograph and record all the details of Tutankhamen's tomb which contained 5,398 items! This, in spite of the fact that thieves made off with at least 60 percent of the original jewelry based on calculations made from comparing the 200 or so pieces that remained with packing inventories. Most of these that remained were actually in Tut's sarcophagus and wrapped in his linens.

The mummy itself didn't fare so well by today's standards of excavation, however. While removing the treasures, Carter dismembered Tutankhamen and "used hot knives and wires to remove the gold mask which was fused to Tutankhamen's face by the embalming process."

Tutankhamen was actually laid out in the sun so the heat would soften the resin and allow the team to remove the wrappings and the artifacts.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Anthropologists find evidence of earliest "Double-Dog Dare:" over 164,000 yrs ago!

One of my favorite movies during the holidays is the 1983 classic "A Christmas Story" depicting the schemes of Ralphie Parker as he tries to convince Santa Clause (and his parents) to bring him a Red Ryder BB gun, which every adult (including the department store Santa) warns, "you'll put your eye out." In this classic film, a bunch of kids gather around a flagpole, bundled in their winter coats, and dare one of their peers to lick the pole. It's below freezing. The result, of course, is that the aptly named character, Flick, sticks his tongue to the pole. Where it gets stuck.

Flick: Are you kidding? Stick my tongue to that stupid pole? That's dumb!
Schwartz: That's 'cause you know it'll stick!
Flick: You're full of it!
Schwartz: Oh yeah?
Flick: Yeah!
Schwartz: Well I double-DOG-dare ya!
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] NOW it was serious. A double-dog-dare. What else was there but a "triple dare ya"? And then, the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog-dare.
Schwartz: I TRIPLE-dog-dare ya!
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Schwartz created a slight breach of etiquette by skipping the triple dare and going right for the throat!
As kids, most of us have been witness or party to the Double-Dog-Dare (and a few unfortunates may have been subjected to the "Triple-Dog-Dare"). But where does it come from? How long have people been "daring" each other? Before the DVD player and VCR, was there a "Jackass" culture that simply lacked a reality-television to properly proliferate?

Anthropologists have shed some new light on this enigma. Read below the fold for more!

Listening to Morning Edition on NPR this morning, between guilt-ridden appeals for pledges (its that time for my local NPR station, ugh...), I heard the following story: Scientists Make Rare Find in S. African Cave.

What was that find, you ask? A petroglyph or pictograph depicting an early human with tongue affixed to a rock while fellow hunter-gatherers look on? Not quite. Admittedly, I've taken some literary license with my blog-take on this story. But throughout the broadcast, one thing kept coming to mind: who was the first person to look at a clam or oyster after prying open the shell and think to himself, "I wonder what this tastes like?"

You see, the scientists above are anthropologists who explored a cave on Pinnacle Point in South Africa on a rocky bluff near the ocean. In this cave, the anthropologists (among them Curtis Marean of Arizona State University) discovered evidence of shellfish and whale used for food, small stone blades, and red ochre with grinding marks where it had been used to create powder to mix a paint. All dated to over 164,000 years ago.
Not only do we see them eating shellfish, but there is a whale barnacle, a special species of barnacle that only appears on the skin of a whale," Marean said. "So that's a clear piece of evidence that they brought in a chunk of whale skin and blubber and ate it at that site, so what we have is the earliest dated systematic use of marine resources.
I missed it during the broadcast, but the online, text version of the story quotes Jonathan Swift's line, "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster" and I'm happy to discover I'm not the only person that was pondering the motivations of the first person to slurp an oyster from its shell.

It's humorous to think of people standing around, 164,000 years ago, bodies painted red from the ochre paint, urging a peer holding a half an oyster shell to "do it!" Perhaps the first person to slurp an oyster was also the first in his clan to paint his body red. I'll never look at an oyster bar or hors devours during happy hour the same again.

But the true motivation behind that first oyster was likely hunger. Perhaps someone in antiquity observed a sea bird or a starfish dining on an oyster (or other shellfish) and realized its potential as a food source seeing an abundance of bedded oysters or dug for clams or mussels in shallows during low tide. I've heard arguments from several anthropologists and archaeologists that a move to shellfish and seafood in the human diet during antiquity may have contributed greatly to our evolution to homo sapiens due to increases in Omega-3 fatty acids and various proteins. Terra Amata near Nice in France is said to have evidence of shellfish consumption by hominids at around 300,000 years ago, so the Pinnacle Point find may not be the first human shellfish use, but it is certainly among the earliest sites where we have evidence for it.

Jonathan Swift's "bold man" may not have been among these early humans, but whoever he was, I'm glad he took that Double-Dog-Dare! I've been a fan of oysters and clams my whole life and I try to have a fried oyster sandwich or steamed clams whenever I return to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia where I grew up. If you've never tried an oyster or clams, I recommend butter sauce after steaming. Dee-lish!


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