Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community

Brenda J. Child
Amazon book (Link)

Over the holidays, I've been rereading this superb book. 

This from the chapter on Women of the Great Lakes and Mississippi:

"Historically, Ojibwe gardens developed in microclimates where water along the Lake of the Woods and Rainy River worked to prevent early frost.  These sites comprised a fertile belt of islands where corn had been planted for generations beyond memory.  Though nineteenth-century rhetoric downplayed the prevalence of indigenous agriculture in an attempt to bring Indians into line with Western ideas about yeoman farming, in fact, it was Ojibwe farmers who sold seed potatoes to the new European settlers arriving in Anishinaabewaki.  This was at a time when Canadian officials remarked on "magnificent" Objibwe fields of potatoes and corn.  The Ojibwe and other Anishinaabeg in the Great Lakes region may have farmed even more during the years of the fur trade, because their surplus could be used in the market as women sold and exchanged food and supplies to fur traders and lumbermen.

"Microhabitats produced small fruits that were a priority to Ojibwe women.  Gathering strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, low- and high-bush cranberries, and other ground vegetation was another significant summer economic activity essential to year-round nutrition and survival, since these foods could be easily dried and stored.  As important as berries were to Ojibwe subsistence, stories associated with certain plants always gave priority to their life-giving and spiritual essence over their nourishment.  Berry season was such an essential and pleasant time for Ojibwe families and communities that summer months were named after the berries that ripen within those days.  The heart berry, ode'imin, or strawberry was first to mature, and many Ojibwe identified June as the heart berry moon for its shape.  Depending on the area of the Great Lakes region, July or August was considered miinikegiziis, the blueberry moon.  Surplus fruits were increasingly a source of income, because they could be sold or bartered to traders, lumbermen, and settlers who arrived in Anishinaabewaaki.

"One early lumberman in central Minnesota was impressed by the sheer extent of wild rice-related labor taking place as he passed through six miles of lake where women had bound the crop before harvesting, forcing him to take his canoe ashore.  Prior to harvest, women went out to the rice lakes in small canoes and tied the stalks into sheaves with strips of basswood fiber, marking their territory, protecting the crop from high winds and birds, and creating paths for canoes.  Indigenous people have harvested wild rice for a thousand years or more in the Great Lakes region, where it grows naturally in gentle, mineral-rich lakes and river headwaters.  Ojibwe people called wild rice manoomin, "the good seed that grows in water," and the seasonal grain was sacred food as well as a dietary staple.  The work of harvest began early in the spring with the selection of the Oshkaabewisag, community ricing committees whose members carefully observed water levels and the weather for signs that the wild rice was ripening.  These men and women signaled the beginning of the fall harvest.

"The wild rice harvest was the most visible expression of women's autonomy in Ojibwe society.  Binding rice was an important economic activity for female workers, who within their communities expressed prior claims to rice and a legal right to use wild rice beds in rivers and lakes through this practice.  Ojibwe ideas about property were not invested in patriarchy, as in European legal traditions.  Therefore, when early travelers and settlers observed indigenous women working, it would have involved a paradigm shift for them to appreciate that for the Ojibwe, water was a gendered space where women held property rights.  Perhaps Ojibwe women's ceremonial responsibility for water derives from these related legal traditions and economic practices.  Men held a ceremonial responsibility for fire.  Men traveled with their wives and female relatives to set up seasonal rice camps near the water, but they later departed to take part in the complementary occupation of hunting waterfowl or fishing."

Ojibwe women harvesting wild rice, 1853 (Link)

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Starwalker, Buffy Sainte-Marie
I've loved Buffy Sainte-Marie, and all that she stands for, since I was a child.  I especially love her sustained vibrato and the drums in this song.  In addition to being a gifted singer, Buffy also has advocated continuously since the early 1960s to raise awareness of Native American identity and is the author of the Cradleboard Teaching Project, a project to help teach young people about Native Americans.  Over the years, I've followed with interest various initiatives to teach the history of Native Americans in schools.  While my own school education on the topic [in Canada] wasn't stellar, we did study books such as I Heard the Owl Call my Name and Paddle to the Sea.  I had assumed, given all of the anthropological and archaeological work that has recently focused on indigenous Americans, that the curriculum would have improved on this topic.
It then comes as a surprise to me as I observe what is being taught in elementary school, that today in California, there still seems to be very little taught about Native Americans.  I was listening to a San Francisco (California) school board meeting a few weeks ago.  A group of Native American parents came to present to the Board the fact that their children and others are still taught that Columbus was the first discoverer of the Americas.  They are concerned that other children cannot identify what a Native American person might look like and that their children are often treated as being not native to the Americas.   Treaty rights are often not honored because teachers are not aware of the legal obligation to honor them.  The parents' group said they have been promised a library and meeting place in a San Francisco Unified School District Facility, but a workable space had not been provided.
If that weren't dismaying enough, I checked the elementary school California curriculum to find out when Native American history is supposed to be introduced.  Apparently, this should be in fourth grade, but it is bundled in with a requirement to teach the California Gold Rush and the building of the Union Pacific Railway.  Perhaps in this small slot, one might hope that they would teach the story of Ishi and the Yahi or the history of the Chumash.  More often than not, however, the text that is chosen is the Island of the Blue Dolphins or a rather warmed over history of the California Mission system and their relationship with Native Californians.  The Island of the Blue Dolphins has been discredited by native groups as having little to teach about Native American history.  It is not written by a native person, historian or anthropologist.  It also conveniently has as the perpetrator of a massacre, Aleuts.
Which brings me back to genetics.  I've been shuffling through some of the recently published papers which in various ways use Amerindian genetic samples.  I'm not, per se, opposed to using genetics to understand the prehistory of Native Americans.  Some of the findings are enthralling.  As I read yesterday that Native Americans have a slightly higher percentage of "Neanderthal" than Europeans, I have to admit that I found that interesting.  Given all the positive press regarding Neanderthals recently, I was even a little proud for them.
Even so, something seems off.  Everywhere I look, the research programs in which the prehistory of Native Americans are being studied do not include Native Americans.  Why would that be? 
A good friend of mine, who lives here in the Bay Area, is a Wampanoag, from Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Like most other Wampanoags, her family are not affluent.  Her reserve in Plymouth is rather isolated, economically speaking.  While she did well academically in high school, it was not an option for her to attend university.  I have also looked at student aid packages available for native persons.  Either I am not looking in the right place, or they do not exist.  My friend is in fact quite interested in the idea of using paleogenetics to study Native Americans, but it is difficult to see how she would ever finance her way to the required PhD.
I read these papers, many of them discussing Amerindian genetics.  There might be a potential upside to some of this research.  Perhaps there will be medical findings that are helpful.  But we already now know that Amerindians are a lot like Eurasians, so I doubt that there are any significant medical differences.  Possibly, some of these genetic studies might help native groups assert a land claim.  In Canada, there are still many unsettled land claims.  The recent cases in British Columbia where genetic data shows continuity of occupation might help to settle some land claims.
However, so many other potential pitfalls pop out at me.  How will this data be received by the general public?  Will this data be used to claim that Amerindians are simply primitive Eurasians?  Or might the recent genetic findings be interpreted more positively?
Some Native Americans still are not that interested in hearing about the fact that they came from Eurasia.  I stumbled on an Anishinaabe creation story website that specifically rejected this notion.  Other groups are clearly more open to the idea and have been actively pursuing relationships with indigenous people worldwide.  The recent collaboration among Pacific Rim native people comes to mind.  However, these collaborations are happening in and of themselves, simply by way of cultural commonalities such as canoing.  They probably don't need a genetic story of relationship to make them happen.
I don't see these genetics studies doing anything to resolve the fundamental challenges of economic isolation, lack of access to capital and education and substance addiction issues that are the core challenges for Native Americans.
Meanwhile, it looks like I will have to be the one, not the genetics community, nor the school system, to teach my daughter about Ishi.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Weir on the River Koeye

The Northwest Coast Archaeology blog has a nice post, Weir on the River Koeye, on a Koeye River Society project of the Heiltsuk People (near Bella Bella, British Columbia, Canada).  This project focuses on the building of a traditional fishing weir.  There's a short documentary associated with the project and a number of beautiful photos.

The Heiltsuk People are also featured in the short documentary film The Last Wild Wolves of British Columbia's North Coast which aptly captures the connection between salmon, people, and wolves on the BC coast.

First Fish, First People

First Fish, First People:  Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim
Editors:  Judith Roche, Meg Hutchison

First published in 1998, this exceptional book documents the first person accounts, political struggles, art, technology, ecological awareness and culture of indigenous salmon fishing peoples of the North Pacific Rim, including the Ainu (Hokkaido, Japan), the Nyvkh (Sakhalin), Ulchi (Siberia), Salish (Coast and Interior British Columbia, Canada),and Makah (Columbia River, Washington and Oregon State, United States). For anyone interested in indigenous peoples or the environment of the Pacific Rim, this is a must read book.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Baffling 400,000-Year-Old Clue to Human Origins

Carl Zimmer
New York Times

“It’s extremely hard to make sense of,” Dr. Meyer said. “We still are a bit lost here.”

It's worth reading palaeontologist John Hawks' article regarding this announcement:

From the article:

"For more than a hundred years, scientists have been drawing straight lines connecting different fossils, to try to understand the human family tree. Those straight lines always diverged over time, leading toward increasing specialization and extinction of fossil groups. And for more than twenty-five years, geneticists have been assuming that the lines connecting the genealogy of mtDNA should be the same as the lines connecting the fossils. When those lines were different, geneticists have been happy to toss the fossils out of the human family tree, content to accept the story that the fossil people had become too specialized, too peripheral to be ancestors of today's people.

"But the last five years have made clear that both groups -- the fossil scientists drawing straight lines of diverging fossil populations, and the geneticists drawing straight lines of diverging -- were wrong."

Reading further:

"Maybe the Denisovans were west Asian Neandertals. It does seem like known genetics of Neandertals may represent something like an earlier iteration of the origin of modern humans -- more African than earlier hominins like the Sima sample, less influenced by Eurasian mixture than the Denisova genome, only a subset of the diversity of surrounding contemporaries. But we have no idea what the Neandertals of the Levant or southwest Asia may have been like genetically -- maybe they were more like Denisovans. This is all basically speculation, which indicates how little we still understand about the dynamics of these populations."

"They were complicated. Their relationships cannot be described by drawing straight lines between fossil samples. There were multiple lines of influence among them, small degrees of mixture and large-scale migrations. Europe was far from a slowly evolving population "accreting" Neandertal features over time. The Neandertals we know did not lumber into their doom; they expanded rapidly, multiple times, from non-European origins. They were as dynamic as the Middle Stone Age Africans who would later mix with them and expand across the world."

Good, John.

Don't forget the butterflies!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Megafauna Extinctions in Japan

The nature of megafaunal extinctions during the MIS 3–2 transition in Japan

Christopher J. Norton, Youichi Kondo, Akira Ono, Yingqi Zhang, Mark C. Diab
Quaternary International 211 (2010) 113–122
The nature of late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions has been the subject of intense debate since the 960s. Traditionally, scientists cite either climatic changes or human predation as the primary reason for worldwide megafaunal extinctions. In many island cases (e.g., Madagascar, New Zealand), scientists have had a tendency to lean towards humans as being the direct or indirect dominant cause for the relatively quick extirpation of indigenous megafaunas. This study evaluates the record for megafaunal (e.g.,Palaeoloxodon, Mammuthus, Sinomegaceros) extinctions in the Japanese islands and draw the tentative conclusion that: (1) humans directly and/or indirectly influenced the extinction of some large herbivores;and (2) the megafaunal extinctions likely began earlier than originally proposed; during the marine isotope stage (‘‘MIS’’) 3–2 transition (w30–20 ka) rather than during the MIS 2–1 (w15–10 ka) shift that roughly coincides with the advent of the Jomon period in Japan. However, we temper our findings due to the current paucity of sites in Japan that have associated archaeology and vertebrate paleontological materials that date to the MIS 3–2 transition.


Timing of megafaunal extinction in the Late Pleistocene on the Japanese Archipelago

Akira Iwase, Jun Hashizume, Masami Izuho, Keiichi Takahashi, Hiroyuki Sato
Quaternary International 255 (2012)

In the late Late Pleistocene (lLP), Japanese terrestrial large mammals consisted of two main groups; the Palaeoloxodon-Sinomegaceroides complex and the mammoth fauna. The former inhabited temperate forests and the latter were adapted to patches of taiga and grassland in cold environments. Among the two groups, almost all large mammals became extinct in the Late Quaternary. The lLP extinction is one of the most interesting topics currently debated in Japan.
    This paper evaluates previously reported radiocarbon dates of mammal fossils to determine the timing of lLP megafaunal extinctions on the Japanese Archipelago. Unreliable specimens which were dated by conventional 14C decay counting, samples obtained from poorly preserved fossils, samples inconsistent with geological context, and samples dated by combining bone fragments of several species and whose exact provenances are unknown are rejected. The timing of extinctions was compared with the vegetational changes. As a result, the present paper indicates that the extinction of large mammals in the Palaeoloxodon-Sinomegaceroides complex roughly coincided with the onset of the last glacial maximum (LGM: from ca. 25,000 BP to 16,000 BP) and subsequent domination by subarctic conifers. In contrast, the mammoth fauna survived the LGM and became extinct or migrated northward when the climate started to ameliorate. The lLP extinction on the Japanese Islands occurred in two pulses. These results imply that the main causes of lLP extinction on the Japanese Archipelago were changes of the ecosystem driven by climatic changes rather than “overkill” by human hunters.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Being Caribou

  Being Caribou is a 2005 documentary film that chronicles the travels of husband and wife Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison following the migration of the Porcupine Caribou herd to explore the Arctic Refuge drilling controversy. The journey lasted 5 months, starting from the community of Old Crow, Yukon on April 8, 2003 and ending September 8. The film is produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

From the Yenisei to the Yukon:

Interpreting Lithic Assemblage Variability in Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene Beringia

Ted Goebel, Ian Buvit

Chapter 1:  Introducing the Archaeological Record of Beringia

"The reasons for choosing Siberia over other areas of northeast Asia are twofold.  First, Beringia and Siberia shared very similar late Pleistocene environments, both being important components of the mammoth steppe during full glacial times and shrub tundra during late glacial times.  Humans in Siberia and Beringia had similar experiences - facing some of the same environmental challenges during the last glacial cycle of the Pleistocene, 23,000-10,000 C14 BP (27,000-12,000 cal BP) and solving these problems with similar technological repertoires.  Second, studies in molecular genetics have recently identified the greater Lake Baikal region of south Siberia as the "genetic homeland" of the first Beringians and Americans (Derenko et al. 2001; Starikovskaya et al. 2004; Zegura et al. 2004), so there is reason to predict that a strong historical connection existed between the early peoples of the Yenisei and Yukon basins.  This connection has not been lost on archaeologists.  Their experiences with Paleolithic collections from across greater northeast Asia have repeatedly pointed to the greater Baikal area of south Siberia as a likely source of Alaska's earliest cultural complexes (Dikov 1979; Dumond 1977; Graf 2008; Holmes 2001; Mochanov 1977; Powers 1990).

"Certainly other areas of northeast Asia are critical to our understanding of the dispersal of humans to Beringia and the Americas.  Some early Beringians may very well have come from the maritime regions of temperate Asia-Japan or the Russian maritime provinces of Primorye, Khabarovsk, or Sakhalin.  Craniometric studies of Pacific Rim populations imply such an event (Brace et al, 2001), the enigmatic early Ushki assemblage from Kamchatka could have had its roots in the Upper Paleolithic of the Japanese Archipelago (Dikov 1979; Goebel and Slobodin 1999), and similarities in microblade core technologies imply connections between Alaska and temperate east Asia (Chen 2007)."

Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Hokkaido Jomon skeletons:

Remnants of archaic maternal lineages at the southwestern edge of former Beringia

Noboru Adachi, Ken-ichi Shinoda, Kazuo Umetsu, Takashi Kitano, Hirofumi Matsumura, Ryuzo Fujiyama, Junmei Sawada, Masashi Tanaka

American Journal of Physical Anthropology
Volume 146, Issue 3, pages 346–360, November 2011

To clarify the colonizing process of East/Northeast Asia as well as the peopling of the Americas, identifying the genetic characteristics of Paleolithic Siberians is indispensable. However, no genetic information on the Paleolithic Siberians has hitherto been reported. In the present study, we analyzed ancient DNA recovered from Jomon skeletons excavated from the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido, which was connected with southern Siberia in the Paleolithic period. Both the control and coding regions of their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) were analyzed in detail, and we confidently assigned 54 mtDNAs to relevant haplogroups. Haplogroups N9b, D4h2, G1b, and M7a were observed in these individuals, with N9b being the predominant one. The fact that all these haplogroups, except M7a, were observed with relatively high frequencies in the southeastern Siberians, but were absent in southeastern Asian populations, implies that most of the Hokkaido Jomon people were direct descendants of Paleolithic Siberians. The coalescence time of N9b (ca. 22,000 years) was before or during the last glacial maximum, implying that the initial trigger for the Jomon migration in Hokkaido was increased glaciations during this period. Interestingly, Hokkaido Jomons lack specific haplogroups that are prevailing in present-day native Siberians, implying that diffusion of these haplogroups in Siberia might have been after the beginning of the Jomon era, about 15,000 years before present.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Loss of Genetic Diversity Means Loss of Geological Information

The Endangered Japanese Crayfish Exhibits Remarkable Historical Footprints

Current lands of Japan and the neighboring countries (greenish area with black contour).Presumed past land boundaries are indicated by brown-white area (white denotes 120–140 m) when sea levels decreased by 140 m during the last glacial maximum estimated from a bathymetric map (A). Top right and bottom right panels are magnified maps around the Tsugaru Strait (B) and Tsushima Strait (C), respectively, which are about the threshold levels for the existence of land bridges.

Mentions: The Japanese archipelago exhibits a high endemism in fauna and flora in which speciation has occurred in isolation after colonization from the eastern Eurasian mainland [18]–[20]. Because of the lack of freshwater fishes and considerable topological changes due to volcanic activities, past environments of Japanese archipelago and the colonization patterns of animals and plants are less well-known compared to Europe and North America. Land bridges are particularly important for understanding the mode and pace of species divergence in Japan; the Tsushima Strait (130–140 m in depth), Tsugaru Strait (130–140 m in depth) and Soya Strait (50–60 m) would have been land bridges during lower sea levels and the main colonization routes to the archipelago (Figure 1). Fauna and flora in Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku islands have probably been colonized via the Korean Peninsula through the Tsushima Strait, whereas those in Hokkaido arrived from Sakhalin Island through the Soya Strait [18]–[20]. The Tsugaru Strait has acted as a significant barrier, creating the two Japanese bioregions (i.e. Hokkaido and the other main islands).

Koizumi I, Usio N, Kawai T, Azuma N, Masuda R
PLoS ONE (2012)

Bottom Line
"Over the native range, most populations consisted of unique 16S mtDNA haplotypes, resulting in significant genetic divergence (overall F(ST) = 0.96).This study provides one of the best examples of how phylogeographic analysis can unravel a detailed evolutionary history of a species and how this history contributes to the understanding of the past environment in the region.Ongoing local extinctions of the crayfish lead not only to loss of biodiversity but also to the loss of a significant information regarding past geological and climatic events."

"Intra-specific genetic diversity is important not only because it influences population persistence and evolutionary potential, but also because it contains past geological, climatic and environmental information. In this paper, we show unusually clear genetic structure of the endangered Japanese crayfish that, as a sedentary species, provides many insights into lesser-known past environments in northern Japan. Over the native range, most populations consisted of unique 16S mtDNA haplotypes, resulting in significant genetic divergence (overall F(ST) = 0.96). Owing to the simple and clear structure, a new graphic approach unraveled a detailed evolutionary history; regional crayfish populations were comprised of two distinct lineages that had experienced contrasting demographic processes (i.e. rapid expansion vs. slow stepwise range expansion) following differential drainage topologies and past climate events. Nuclear DNA sequences also showed deep separation between the lineages. Current ocean barriers to dispersal did not significantly affect the genetic structure of the freshwater crayfish, indicating the formation of relatively recent land bridges. This study provides one of the best examples of how phylogeographic analysis can unravel a detailed evolutionary history of a species and how this history contributes to the understanding of the past environment in the region. Ongoing local extinctions of the crayfish lead not only to loss of biodiversity but also to the loss of a significant information regarding past geological and climatic events."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Beringia: Life's Ancient Island in the Ice

Aaron L. Grostal

"During the last ice age, massive glaciers covered much of our planet. However, a region of Alaska, Siberia and the Canadian Yukon remained ice-free. This region, known as Beringia, supported unique organisms and was an important haven for evolution. Now, scientists may have uncovered how Beringia supported such diversity at a time when conditions for life were harsh."

Upper Palaeolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans

Maanasa Raghavan, Pontus Skoglund et al.

There has been a lot of discussion on this recently announced paper.  First, I will say that I think the title is a little unfortunate and I am surprised that Nature let this one get by them.  We don't really know how many migrations into the Americans there were.  We also don't have a good understanding of back migrations from Beringia into Eurasia.  Many hunter gatherers were migratory and highly mobile groups, so I really disagree with the "dual ancestry of Native Americans" phrase in the title.

Beringia was a huge area, now submerged, 20,000 thousand years ago.  It would have supported animal and human diversity.  The paper I posted a few days ago on The Black Dog at the River of Tears myth well illustrates that migrations in Siberia, Beringia and into the Americans were comprised of people of different backgrounds and cultures.

That being said, I think the result is interesting in that it shows that people carrying both Y-chromosome R and mtDNA U were present in Beringia during the last Ice Age.  It's likely that the boy from which the main sample was taken, had freckles. 

The link with this sample and paleo Amerindian populations is also interesting, but it should be said that many more ancient DNA samples of Ameridian, Beringian, and Eurasian populations would be needed to understand the timing and dynamic of these population movements.

One further effect of having only one reliable ancient DNA sample is that the sample in this paper is likely subject to genotyping error.  That's according to Joe Pickrell who developed the software package Treemix, as shown in this Twitter exchange:

The comment refers to the long arm of the Siberian sample in the Treemix diagram in the paper.

When I hear geneticists who are expert in the field discussing the source of error in a paper, and they are clearly unsure of the source of error, it's a concern that the conclusions of the paper title are overstated.

There is probably additional error because the sample is old.

I don't have much to say except that I wish the genetics community would do a more considered job conveying the limitations of these results to the curious public.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Black Dog at the River of Tears

Some Amerindian Representations of the Passage to the Land of the Dead and their Eurasian Roots

Yuri Berezkin
No. 2 Forum for Anthropology and Culture
Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences/European University at St Petersburg
(Link (PDF))

"The New World was peopled at a late date.  While there is an abundance of sites dating back to 10,000-11,500 (and even possibly 12,000) BP, reports of earlier finds have invariably turned out to be either manifestly inauthentic, or at the very least unreliable.  10,000-12,000 BP is the Terminal Pleistocene, when in the Far East people had begun manufacturing ceramics, while in the upper reaches of the Euphrates they were erecting stone stelae with images.  Among peoples who took part in the initial colonization of the New World were groups that not only possessed different cultures, but also had a varied physical appearance.  Craniological and ontological studies carried out in the past decade point to the fact that the first humans to have reached the New World were protomorphic groups resembling less the modern Amerindians, and more the Upper Paleolithic populations of Eastern Asia, and even the modern Melanesian and Australian aborigines.  In the Holocene era these populations started to be displaced and supplanted by other, more pronouncedly Mongoloid groups.  The racial type does not determine culture, but racial and cultural boundaries often coincide:  these were distinct populations with few outside contacts. One can assume that already in the early stages of the peopling of the New World, complexes of folkloric motifs, which the settlers brought with them, also varied to a considerable degree.

"The folkloric traditions of the peoples of the New and the Old World have many mutual parallels.  Some motifs common to both traditions could have emerged independently; others could have been brought over to the American continent across the Atlantic in the last five hundred years; many motifs were introduced from Siberia via Alaska at different stages in the colonization of the Americas.  Separating these distinct groups of motifs is not simple, but if one uses a substantial amount of ethnographic material and processes this data by modern statistical methods, the task becomes achievable.  Once these results are correlated with those reached by other disciplines, one should eventually be able to trace the pattern of colonization of the New World and determine in which parts of Eurasia this resettlement began.

"This article is devoted specifically to representations of the passage to the realm of the dead in the folklore of the peoples of America and Eurasia.  Much in these representations is universal and is determined by the factual irreversibility of death and by the obvious differences between living and dead matter.  This is what the idea of the dichotomy between our own world and the world (or worlds) of the dead is based upon - a dichotomy that entails representations of mirror-like reversals between the two, of a diametrical opposition between some of their key traits, of parallelisms in the way these worlds are sub-sectioned, and finally, the idea that one needs to go down a certain path in order to pass from one world to the other.  Alongside this general idea of the world beyond the grave, there are local and regional idiosyncracies, which are precisely the ones that are the most interesting.

"The format of this paper does not allow detailed discussion of why a historic approach to the study of folklore and mythology is preferred. Le me simply state here that the common flaw of all universalist approaches (structuralist and psychological) is that they cannot explain the profound and systemic differences in the distribution of large sets of folklore motifs across the world.  Commentators either ignore the very existence of such global patterns, or are not aware of them in the first place.  The functional approach to myth has a sounder basis, but its concern is the interpretation of tales in a given culture, not their content as such.

"Among 1200 motifs whose area of distribution and linguistic links have been examined by me thus far, the majority are independent from economic activity, social organization, and environmental factors.  Therefore it is not likely that they emerged recently.  The emergence of some other motifs may very well have been favoured by environmental and economic conditions;  I have attempted to record any such correlations that seem to be of importance.

Folkloric Material

"In 1991, Elizabeth Benson published an article in which she surveyed data concerning the role of the dog in representations of the other world among Amerindians.  The article was clearly influenced by Roe - the principal proponent of structuralism among the US ethnographers studying the native people of South America.  Benson strove to show the general association of the dog with the other world in the ethnography of Amerindians as it was realized in different, yet homologous, forms among different groups.  Intentionally or not, Benson demonstrated an uneven regional distribution of such representations.  For example, the dog did not appear as a guide to the other world throughout the American continent, but only in the area between Mexico and Peru, while in the east and far south of the South American continent this motif could not be found.  This absence cannot be explained by the poverty of ethnographic material in these regions, because we do, in fact, possess detailed descriptions, reconstructed from testimonies of Amazonian shamans, of the realm of the dead and of the path that is meant to lead to it."

(Read more)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wolf Worship and the Ainu

The Lost Wolves of Japan
Brett L. Walker

pages 83-85

"Wolf worship was not confined to ethnic Japanese but occurred in certain Ainu communities as well.  The Ainu, the native inhabitants of northeastern Honshu and Hokkaido, knew the wolf as the high-ranking god Horkew Kamuy (literally, the "howling god").  No doubt it was as part of their ethno-biological understanding of the world that Ainu realized that their hunting habits resembled those of the Hokkaido wolf, and such recognition fostered reverence for the animal.  Over time, Ainu chiefdoms came to feature the Hokkaido wolf in regional creation myths, place-names, epic poetry, folklore, and selected ceremonial events.  Ainu hailed the wolf as a deity, or kamuy (much as Japanese hailed the wolf as a kami or a divine messenger of the Daimyojin), and Ainu sacrificed wolves, as they did bears and owls, in "sending-away" ceremonies called iomante.

"In certain Ainu communities, particularly those in the Tokachi and Hidaka regions, there flourished alternative versions of the origin myth about a white wolf that mated with a goddess; the offspring from this union became the ancestors of the Ainu people.  Sarashina Genzo and Sarashina Ko, who collected stories of the plants and animals connected to Ainu village life, pointed out that several regional versions of this origin myth exist and that some feature a white dog rather than a white wolf.  This difference appears to have been unimportant to the Ainu because both dogs and wolves inhabited much the same space in their classifying imagination.  One version of this myth, from Shizunai, in the Hidaka region of southeastern Hokkaido, explains that Retaruseta Kamuy (White Wolf God), the god of Poroshiridake Mountain, could not find a suitable mate, even though he searched the entire island.  So Retaruseta Kamuy summoned his divine powers to peer all the way to lands across the sea, and in time he spotted a mate in a distant country.  Again drawing on his divine powers, he coerced the woman to get into a small boat and cross the sea; once on the island, she became his wife.  From this union the Ainu people were born."

"In Ainu folklore, not only do male wolves take human brides, but sometimes female wolves become the wives or concubines of Ainu chiefs."

"With so many wolf gods inhabiting the mountains, it is not surprising that legend had it that if Ainu hunters left behind portions of their kill, wolves came and ate the leftovers".

"Interestingly, in Ainu lore, wolves usually were friendly toward people, as in one story from Tokachi in which a wolf saved an elderly Ainu woman from an evil bear god while she picked wild plants."

"Rarely did Ainu prioritize distinctions between wolves and dogs when making natural identifications or classifications; nor did they prioritize distinctions between artifice and nature when crafting identities for themselves."

"Ainu see the two kinds of canines as similar and their distinction, when one was needed, as largely situational.  When in the village aiding people the canines were dogs; when in the mountains hunting deer they were wolves."

"In an earlier Ainu world, a world yet to be disrupted by the Japanese intrusion from the south, the landscape was alive with wolves, busily hunting deer, raising their young, and, at magical times, aiding people and descending from the heavens to inhabit sacred moutains and forests, much as wolves did in the tradition of some Japanese villages."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Legend of the Wolf of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation

The following story of the wolf is told by Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh
(Link) (page 3)

“When the Chief [of Tum-ta-mayh-tun] died, his wife — knowing she was doomed — wrapped her little boy in a cedar blanket and took him as far as she could from the death-place and placed him in the bush. A mother wolf roaming with her cubs picked up the little bundle and took it to her lair. She dropped it down and went to nurse her cubs and the little boy wiggled out and crawled over to feed with them. From then on, he grew-up as a wolf.  As he grew, he learned by instinct to make a bow and arrow and the wolves had great respect for him. So they became companions in the hunt.  When he was sixteen, he sought a mate of his own kind. Traveling up the Indian River, over the mountains to the canyon of the Fraser River, he found a bride among the people there. They came back to the Inlet and started to build a tribe. Our people have respected the wolves always. My great-great-grandfather Watsukl always walked with a wolf.” – Dan George

Myths and Traditional Beliefs about the Wolf and the Crow in Central Asia

Examples from the Turkic Wu-Sun and the Mongols

Namu Jila
Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 65, 2006: 161–177

"In the Chinese chronicles Shi ji and Han shu there is a story about Kun-mo, the ruler of the Wu-sun, who was abandoned as a child but survived by being fed by a wolf and a crow. This story can be found among peoples of the Altaic language group, but it also clearly resembles the story of Romulus and Remus in ancient Rome who were said to have been taken care of by a wolf and a woodpecker. There is a possibility that the motif of a child fed by an wolf and a bird may have traveled from the Near East via Rome to Central Asia to the Wu-sun, although this may not be the case for modern versions of the story among the Mongols. However, the special aspect of the Central Asian tradition is that it always features the wolf and the crow as one set. It is, therefore, suggested that this may be due not only to cooperation between the two animals as is observable in nature, but also to religious beliefs related to these animals."

Friday, November 15, 2013

National Geographic on the Latest Dog Domestication Paper

Carpathian Shepherd Dog, Carpathian Mountains, Romania

Lapphund, Finland
Dutch Shepherd Dog, Netherlands
Border Collie, Borders, Scotland
Aidi, Morocco

National Geographic covers the ancient mitochondrial DNA dog domestication paper which was published yesterday.  (Link)

There have been other papers indicating that dogs originated in East Asia, Southeast Asia and possibly, even Africa.  It's been a matter of contention for several years now and will likely not be entirely resolved by this paper.

In any case, it's fun to look at various European dog breeds that retain some of their wolf like characteristics.  Among European breeds, the tendency to retain these characteristics is especially noticeable in shepherd dogs.  Perhaps it's those dogs, most left to their own, not bred for tracking, appearance, docility, or fighting, that retain their wolf intelligence, sociability, tenacity, and bravery.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Today is Remembrance Day in countries of the British Commonwealth.
"Return to the Front:  Victoria Railway Station" by Richard Jack, 1916

Robert Austin Cunningham, great uncle
        Métier before the war:  plasterer
        73rd Battalion, Royal Highland Regiment (Infantry)
        Born:  Huntingdon, Quebec, Canada
        Volunteered in 1915
        Date of Death:  March 21st, 1917
        Age at Death:  23
        Buried:  Etaples Military Cemetery, France
Wilfred Grant Dunsmore, grandfather
        Métier before the war:  student, graduated McGill Agriculture, 1917
        66th Field Battery, 14th Brigade, 5th Divisional Artillery, RCA (Montreal)
        (Heavy Artillery)
        Born:  Huntingdon, Quebec, Canada
        Volunteered in 1916
        Survived the war
Gordon Clark Bradley, great uncle
        Métier before the war:  administrator, life of the party
        103 Royal Air Force Squadron
        Warrant Officer First Class (Air Gunner)
        Born:  Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
        Volunteered in 1939
        Date of Death:  August 3rd, 1943
        Age at Death:  36
        Buried:  Commonwealth Cemetery, Ohlsdorf, Hamburg, Germany

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Minds of Stone Age Toolmakers

How did Stone Age toolmakers make the leap from stone flakes to a sophisticated hand axe?  Emory archeologist Dietrich Stout recreates prehistoric stone tool making techniques to study the evolution of the human brain and mind.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

If All the Ice Melted

National Geographic has a new interactive exhibit showing what the coastlines would look like if all of the glaciers melted.  (Link)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Dmanisi Skull

UK Guardian (Link)

The UK Guardian does its usual great job on science coverage, here detailing the initial findings and implications of the Dmanisi Skull publication, which came out yesterday.

John Hawks on "Hunting the Denisovan Belt"


"What remains to throw a wrench in this problem is the possibility that Denisovan ancestry has been incorrectly estimated. The estimation of Denisovan ancestry for any individual requires an elaborate correction based on the assumption that Denisovan and Neandertal genomes can be cleanly separated; and that sub-Saharan Africans have neither. This procedure requires a population model that is probably wrong."

Thanks, John, for this very well written, accessible, yet nuanced article.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Paleolithic Cave Painters Were Often Women

Hand prints from the El Castillo caves

Nidhi Subbaraman, NBC News, Full Article (Link)

"Alongside drawings of bison and horses, the first painters left clues to their identity on the stone walls of caves, blowing red-brown paint through rough tubes and stenciling outlines of their palms. New analysis of ancient handprints in France and Spain suggests that most of those early artists were women."

"This is a surprise, since most archaeologists have assumed it was men who had been making the cave art. One interpretation is that early humans painted animals to influence the presence and fate of real animals that they'd find on their hunt, and it's widely accepted that it was the men who found and killed dinner."

"But a new study indicates that the majority of handprints found near cave art were made by women, based on their overall size and relative lengths of their fingers."

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How Our Stone Age Bodies Struggle To Stay Healthy In Modern Times

Fresh Air interviews Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman on his new book.

Fresh Air audio and text highlights


"Our immune systems evolved to be active. Just like our muscles and skeletons evolved to be used and stressed, our immune systems evolved to cope with all of those germs in the outside world. We've now created environments that are very sterile, that are extremely clean; we have very few pathogens that we have to deal with. And if we do get them, we nuke them with antibiotics. In so doing, we are now affecting how our immune system functions; it's still there, and it's primed and ready and waiting to attack all those germs and worms that used to make us sick, but now those pathogens are absent, so it sometimes by chance finds the wrong targets. So that's the hypothesis for why so many allergies and autoimmune diseases are on the rise — is that our immune systems are essentially not being used properly, and as a result they go into overdrive; they attack ourselves."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hunter-Gatherer Calendar Discovered in Scots Field

Vince Gaffney, Professor Archaeology at Birmingham, describes evidence of a 10,000 year old calendar constructed in a field in Scotland:  "The evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year and that this occurred nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars known in the Near East."

BBC (Link)

NPR (Link)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Radio New Zealand Interviews Benny Wenda

Benny Wenda, West Papuan independence leader and founder of the Free West Papua Campaign, was interviewed on Radio New Zealand by Chris Laidlaw this Sunday.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Can You Trust Jared Diamond?

Bryn Williams
Slate Book Review

"Jared Diamond is a master of cultural and historical bricolage. His books weave epic stories about the human condition from the disparate cultural practices of a wide range of people living in different environments. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond used this eclectic empiricism to tell a story about the role of geography in human history. In Collapse, he used the same approach to stage a morality play about the dangers of disregarding those geographic conditions. In his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, Diamond probes the differences between modern cultures and traditional societies that subsist through hunting and gathering, and he comes to several bold conclusions about their relative merits. His examples are evocative and his narration is powerful, but Diamond ultimately fails to substantiate his arguments. By the end of the book, it is impossible to tell if one has finished reading a masterpiece of rigorous analysis or a masterfully written collection of just-so stories.

(read more)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Nigeria's Oil Disasters Met By Silence


"In 2010 the world watched in horror as the Gulf of Mexico filled with 5m barrels of oil from an undersea leak caused by the careless handling of equipment on the part of BP and its partner Halliburton. Shocking images of uncontrolled spillage erupting from the ocean floor travelled around the world for weeks, sparking a media frenzy, a range of stern governmental responses and a huge amount of public outrage. BP has spent millions on the clean-up and millions more on a public relations campaign, all in an effort to repair the damage it caused to the Gulf but also to its image and, perhaps more importantly for BP, to its share price.

"Last month, on the other side of the Atlantic, the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell's operation caused from 1m to 2m gallons of oil to spill into the ocean off the coast of Nigeria, also as the result of an industrial accident. It was the worst spill in Nigeria in 13 years in a part of that country where the oil and gas industry has been despoiling the environment for more than 50 years, on a scale that dwarfs the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico by a wide margin. Shell claims it has completely cleaned up the mess, but villages counterclaim the oil has been washing up on their coastline. The world's media seem to be uninterested in checking the facts.

"You may wonder where the outrage against Shell is? To say that it is nonexistent except for a few responses from the environmental community would be an understatement. The simple fact is that Shell and its "sisters" in the West African oil patches are rarely scrutinised except in the most egregious cases – which this one surely is – and the world seems to simply expect that the people of Nigeria should live with these sorts of occurrences because they unfortunately lack the political and media clout to do otherwise.

"In any other region of the world the behaviour of the companies involved would result in major sanctions and criminal prosecutions. Hundreds of square miles of sensitive coastal wetlands have been poisoned, perhaps forever. Fishing areas have been turned into toxic waste zones. Village life has been grotesquely refashioned as a result of flaring gas fumes and pipelines that sometimes run through people's homes. Disease, birth-defects and chronic illnesses are all part and parcel of an unregulated industry that operates outside the range of global media but with the full complicity of the Nigerian government that wants nothing whatsoever to upset its unctuous cash-cow.

(read more)

Jared Diamond vs. Reality

In case you haven't had a chance to read the rebuttal by Survivor International regarding Jared Diamond's most recent book tour comments, they're here.  It's sad that so much press is devoted to Diamond's book. Meanwhile, the political and economic struggles of so many of the world's people are largely ignored.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaida sharing money, explosives and training

in Johannesburg

Three of Africa's most dangerous Islamist militant groups are striving to co-ordinate their operations and represent a deepening threat to security on the continent, the US has warned.

General Carter Ham, head of the US military's Africa Command, said there were signs that Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb were sharing money and explosive materials and training fighters together.

"Each of those three organisations is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat," Ham told an African Centre for Strategic Studies seminar in Washington. "What really concerns me is the indications that the three organisations are seeking to co-ordinate and synchronise their efforts – in other words, to establish a co-operative effort amongst the three most violent organisations … And I think that's a real problem for us and for African security in general."

(read more)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

CIA tactic to trap Bin Laden linked with Polio Crisis

in Islamabad
The Guardian,

"An alliance of 200 US aid groups has written to the head of the CIA to protest against its use of a doctor to help track Osama bin Laden, linking the agency's ploy to the polio crisis in Pakistan. The country recorded the highest number of polio cases in the world last year, a health catastrophe that threatens to spiral out of control.

"In July the Guardian revealed that the CIA used a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, in the hunt for Bin Laden. In the weeks before the 3 May operation to kill Bin Laden, Afridi was instructed to set up a fake vaccination scheme in the town of Abbottabad, in order to gain entry to the house where it was suspected that the al-Qaida chief was living, and extract DNA samples from his family members.

"However the ruse has provided seeming proof for a widely held belief in Pakistan, fuelled by religious extremists, that polio drops are a western conspiracy to sterilise the population. "The CIA's use of the cover of humanitarian activity for this purpose casts doubt on the intentions and integrity of all humanitarian actors in Pakistan, thereby undermining the international humanitarian community's efforts to eradicate polio, provide critical health services, and extend life-saving assistance during times of crisis like the floods seen in Pakistan over the last two years," the InterAction coalition wrote to the CIA director, David Petraeus.

"The group, which includes the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps and Care, said that as well as damaging the drive against polio and other health problems in Pakistan, the CIA's tactics had endangered the lives of foreign aid workers. In recent months, at least five international NGO workers, including a British doctor, have been kidnapped by presumed Islamic extremists."

(read more)

For NZ Leaders, New Zealand-Indonesian Trade Relationship more important than Rights of West Papuan Indigenous People

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully refuses to meet with West Papuan Independence Leader Benny Wenda:

McCully Snubs West Papuan 
Isaac Davison
The New Zealand Herald

Earlier, Indonesia repeated its claim that Benny Wenda is a criminal in order to pressure the New Zealand government not to speak to Wenda.  The fact that Wenda is being blacklisted by the Indonesian government was covered in a UK Guardian article last summer:

Benny Wenda's plight has highlighted the misuse of Interpol
Alex Tinsley
UK Guardian

It is an all too familiar pattern where national leaders choose to value trade relationships over human and indigenous rights.  I can understand the importance of maintaining trade relationships, but it is short sighted to think that the rights of indigenous people are less important to the national self interest than the business interests of a narrowly held set of multinational corporations.  In the case of New Zealand, there are corporations involved in mining, oil and gas in Indonesia.  Protecting the wealth of these corporations are clearly more important to New Zealand's national leaders than the human rights of the West Papuan people.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The People of Papua New Guinea Speak for Themselves

Rebutting Jared Diamond's Savage Portrait

Paul Stillitoe and Mako John Kuwimb
International Media Ethics News
April, 2010

[Blog note:  This article was published in response to Jared Diamond's article in the New Yorker "Annuls of Anthropology:  Vengeance is Ours".]

"How do tribal communities in developing countries without functioning police, judges, law courts and prisons ensure social stability?  This question is of perennial interest to anyone familiar with tribal societies. It is difficult for those of us familiar with such state institutions of law enforcement to imagine how people in tribal environments create order, particularly in dense populations like that of the New Guinea Highlands which also prizes individual political autonomy. The popular image – traceable to Renaissance times, when Europeans first encountered tribal peoples – is of savages condemned to disorderly, even anarchic lives of constant violence and frequent bloodletting. A recent example of this image is portrayed and promulgated by Jared Diamond in “Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” published in the The New Yorker,April 21, 2008.

"We seek to refute this portrayal in general and Diamond’s article in particular, which we believe amounts to nothing less than a betrayal. We were prompted to do this by the defamation of friends and relatives in the Was Valley of the Southern Highlands Province (SHP) of Papua New Guinea (PNG) who have, in Diamond’s article, been cast in such a caricature of tribal life as inveterate murderers, plunderers and rapists living in virtual chaos.

"It is astonishing that media outlets still grant space to such a view of tribal life after a century of anthropological research has debunked it. Stateless or acephalous (headless – i.e. without authoritative officeholders) polities have long attracted attention and we have accounts of fascinating arrangements that substitute for central government. The Highlands of New Guinea have featured prominently in furthering our understanding of such tribal constitutions. So here we go, yet again, to rebut the savage misrepresentation.

"We are not contending that disputes, aggression and killing are unknown – tribal people do not, any more than Westerners, live in a utopia. But an informed understanding of what happens in such conflicts challenges any sense of state smugness. After all, when it comes to the mayhem of their violent disputes, “civilized” states outdo all comers, as the current sorry Iraq and Afghanistan tragedies show. And if you value liberty, tribal constitutions maximize individual freedom beyond anything imaginable under democracy’s elected governments . . .

(read more)