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Dogs, Domestication and Dumps.


The publication today of some significant  genetic research suggesting dog adaptation to eating starchy foods  is a good excuse to expand on last week’s post on the evolutionary relationship between humans and mammals.  More than the horse, the dog has the longest and strongest relationship with humans, born out by fossil evidence which might put the origins of dog domestication possibly as early as 33k BP.

Aside from the implication for palaeodieters (if dogs have adapted to eating plant-derived starches isn’t it highly likely we have too?), the coverage caught my eye for further discussion of the mechanism for early overlap between humans and dogs which led to domestication. The argument goes that as humans started to develop more stable and intensely used habitation sites, peripheral accumulations of food debris would have attracted wolves, which became over time habituated to humans and opened up a context for domestication.  It’s a neat, passive explanation that fits our perception of the wild being at the margins of our “domesticated” social place and bleeding into it. I’m also interested in the explanation as it sets a human behavioral construct, The Rubbish Dump, at the center of a process of social interaction, self organisation and genetic change.  In this sense it fits very well with my perspective of human behavioral signatures as being drivers of evolutionary change in terms of niche construction/allogenic engineering.

I do have three  questions about it which I’m just going to raise here as food for thought.

Firstly, if we are leaving food debris dumps conspicuous enough to attract wolf packs, what else are they attracting? With bear and other dangerous predators in the environment, leaving accessible food is a recipe for disaster. We know hunter gatherers groups are smart about disposal in landscapes with other predators, so we should think smarter about this too or find the archaeological evidence.

We have a much deeper history of leaving food traces in the landscapes, providing food sources for larger social predators like foxes and smaller scavengers for millenia.  Why then does complex social interaction with the wolf happen so late? It would seem to me that, in the absence of a clear behavioral change in human food waste disposal, it is more likely to be driven by processes of human social or cognitive change. In the context of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic I think we should look to the changes in human behaviour relating to animal and human/animal hybrid portrayal in the exceptional record of art that appears after 40k BP.  Whether driven by cognitive or cultural processes, the art suggests a important perspective on the relationship between the animal and human world, one which is routinely blurred to powerful effect.  Is it possible that this blurring sets the stage for integration of some mammal species into human society?

This leads me onto my last point. The hypothesis which see the wolf as scavenging on the margins of human settlement,  is a very passive explanation that robs the process of an immediate, emotional as well as functional/economic basis for domestication. The relationship between humans and domesticated animals has a far more deeply rooted basis than simply utility and food. Canines embed themselves in human societies because wolf pack behavior matches our primate social structures enough for a functional relationship. If we accept this fact then we must also accept that human and dogs are active agents in these dog-human hybrid societies, negotiating biological, hormonal, resource sharing and social dominance dynamics to constantly maintain position and cohesion   The complexity of this incredible process is rather reduced by the dog on the dump hypothesis.

Ultimately I think we have to look at how we conceive and use the term domestication. It’s far more than a taming of the wild through conscious manipulation,  humans as a force of natural selection and genetic engineers. We need to think about the transformations at work within our own brains and societies.  Perhaps  viewing  the integration of wolf into human societies as a significant addition to the Late Pleistocene package of behavioral modernity, rather than a prequel to Holocene domestication of livestock.


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They Eat Horses Don’t They?


Us Brits love a good food scandal, whether it’s salmonella in eggs, spinal cord in our beef products or killer food colourings, the media doesn’t have to work hard here to whip us up into a frenzy. It’s rather ironic given the average British appetite for mass produced junk food, but there are, apparently, lines we are not prepared to cross when it comes to eating.

So the first great food shock of 2013 was the revelation that up to 30% of meat in various budget burger brands was not good old British beef but foreign horse meat. Yes, meat from actual horses, with hooves and manes and long swishy tails. I kid you not!

I’m actually totally indifferent to this non-scandal. I’ve eaten horse a few times (horse sushi is the only way to do it justice) and I think its no better or worse than eating any other mammals. I’ve also spent some time looking at the half million year old horse butchery site at Boxgrove (GTP17) and more widely considered the long term predator-prey relationship between our two species before domestication.

From this perspective, the revelation that the mechanically reclaimed sludge that goes into a burger had originated from one large mammal and not another didn’t strike me as one likely to provoke outrage, but it turns out us British are very particular about the genetic origin of our meat sludge. While the cheeks and arseholes of a cow or pig are considered a treat when reshaped and slapped between two pieces of bread, bits of horse are definitely off the menu on our island. And yet other cultures, including our nearest European cousins, the French, are rather partial to an equid steak.

We have a long evolutionary relationship with meat, possibly extending back to our last common ancestor with chimpanzees, 6 million years ago and certainly from 2.5 million years ago. Back then our Australopithecine ancestors were fuelling their evolutionary path with meat scraps, which can be seen by the marks left by their Oldowan stone tools on animal bones. So given we’ve had several million years to sort it out, shouldn’t it strike us as odd that  there is no universal consensus on what constitutes an acceptable animal to eat? On the contrary we have a fairly universal propensity to holding all sorts of taboos over which poor animals it’s ok (or not) to kill for food and which, for reasons of sacred status, ethical concern or perceived uncleanliness should be left off our plate.

That the British disdain for horse meat is quite deeply ingrained is equally surprising.  After all we revel en masse in racing our horses to death over lethal hurdles and only abandoned their use in warfare less than a century ago, having ridden them previously at regular intervals into hell and shellfire.  But despite our willingness to sacrifice our horses at Aintree, the Somme and the Crimea, damn it man, we’d never eat the beasts.  So where does this red line in culinary acceptability stem from?  It’s hard to make a case that our taboo against horse meat is ingrained in any issue of sacred value or uncleanliness, it’s a far more personal issue than that. The truth is, in British society, horses have a social status and position within our culture, which simply makes eating them unacceptable.

It has struck me for a long time that human propensity for complex social engagement with the animal world is very paradoxical, and nowhere does this manifest itself more starkly than in our attitudes to which animals we hunt, kill or eat.  The social brain paradigm has proposed that a large degree of our cognitive abilities stem from our abilities to establish, maintain, invest in and manipulate social relationships with each other. But I believe this ability goes much further than just interaction with each other. Humans are of course very capable of forming social relationships with individuals from other species at a deep personal level. This extends to integrating certain animals, at a cultural level, within human societies.  It is often considered that there is a fault line between human understanding of animals as agents and animal products as things. If we consider that fault line in terms of human social capabilities it is potentially far more complex, animals can be viewed as agents but also as kin, colleagues, slaves, friends, spirits or gods;  our attitudes to the ‘things’ we can derive from animals varying greatly accordingly to this perception.

It has been at least 6000 years  since we regularly hunted wild horses in Britain and for much of the later Holocene we see horses turning up in the record rarely as food and more generally as beasts of burden of one form or another.  Through out our history the cultural relationship of the British with horses is just as exploitative as any other nation on the planet, but somewhere along the line horses were able to claim a stake (along with a restricted range of other domestic animals, notably the dog) as part of our extended social network.

The social basis of our relationship with animals when considered in this way is important but rather bleak. The human basis of social interaction with animals is, at a meta-cultural level, wholly sociopathic. We recognise and engage in meaningful social interaction with some species and yet subject others of equal objective social ability to extermination on an industrial scale. Hunter gatherer societies aren’t an exception,  they exploit their social understanding of animal behaviour to effect greater predation success. Our evolutionary development as a species is  partly predicated on our ability to intimately understand other organisms in social terms. We use that knowledge to predate, harness or bond with animals according to our cultural norms, ecological need and personal make up,

The horse is safe from the plate in Britain because it has been a relative winner in the inter species social drama of our prevailing culture.  Modern urban societies have a problem enough being confronted by the living animal they consume in a bun, pie or pasty; let alone it being revealed as an animal considered part of our extended society.  The issue opens up a paradoxical chink in our social integrity, one that I believe is both innately sociopathic and also an evolutionary necessity.  Considering the arbitrary nature of human dealings with each other, understanding the paradox in our social intelligence could take us to darker places than the slaughterhouse.


After Thoughts: Two things have struck me since writing this yesterday. Firstly that the real upraor should have been about the traces of pig DNA found within the burgers, this wasn’t the result of a corrupt food chain but apparently just part and parcel of reusuing processing plants over long time periods. The implication are that, unless you are buying from a Halal or Kosher butcher, its probably impossible to guarantee what DNA you are ingesting. Food taboos are currently near on impossible to maintain within the framework of urban mass consumption.

Secondly, from the  social hunting paradigm I’m starting to develop here, is it coincidence that the first clear examples for claimed hunting come from archaeological site associated with horses: Boxgrove GTP17 and Schöningen?

Did the unique social behaviour of the horse leave it exposed to han intelligent predator developing abilities to read and manipulate it’s social behaviour to lethal effect?

Reindeer feature early in the record of mass hunting. Both animals go on to become closely associated with humans in symbiotic roles beyond consumption. Could addressing the origins of predation as a social phenomena throw light on how we came to develop such a complex interdependancy with other mammals?


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Hardwired To The Gun

I started the blog because I wanted to find a space to explore the relationship between people, places and objects outside of my day-to-day work as an archaeologist.  I always wanted to find the contexts where aspects of the deeply rooted human past cross over with experiences and issues in the present . Then try to develop new perspectives on our current relationships with each other, the environment and technology.  It’s with some trepidation that I tackle the issue of gun crime and gun culture, but in the two weeks since the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings the subject has rattled around in my brain. Perhaps it’s because so many children the same age as my daughter were slain, or the proximity to Christmas or the fact that there is a real chance this tragedy will mark a watershed in western attitudes to guns but I haven’t been able to ignore it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that our cultures relationship with the gun is an immediate and urgent issue to address and if the wider discipline of anthropology really has nothing useful to say on it then we are failing the society which supports our subject and careers.

So what have I got to say, as a mud-scraping archaeologist interested in early stone tools, which could be of any use? Well not much and certainly I don’t have any answers. What I do have is an inkling of perspective which comes directly from my own experience of gun culture and from my work considering the relationship between early humans and technology.  I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to adopt and promote a radical and perhaps rather esoteric perspective into the mainstream if we are to collectively change cultural behaviour towards these lethal artefacts.

So to begin requires something of my own personal perspective. As a kid I was obsessed by guns and the military. I spent the ages from 5 to 10 pretty much dressed in camo, was rarely without a plastic replica firearm and utterly consumed every war movie, comic or coffee table book on weapons and warfare I could lay my hands on. German weaponry in particular captured my imagination: from the futuristic looking Luger to the sleek lines and folding stock of the MP40 submachine  gun.  The MG42 and Twin-magazined Oerlikon were modeled in detail on the hundreds of toy soldiers and model aircraft I amassed and I longed to own a real weapon of my own, which finally at about 11 I achieved, in being given my first Airgun.  But until that moment I had only interacted with the simulacra of the gun, rendered in Hong Kong factories in brittle plastic, without any real knowledge of the weight or feel of the real thing.  But having watched so many hours of glorious Technicolor footage of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Michael Kane, Steve McQueen and other obvious heroic role models wielding guns, it seemed that by simple mimicry I was able to emulate the movement and ergonomics of handling the lightweight plastic objects as if they were made of wood and metal. I would hold them as if they had weight, slow my movements down when raising  the object, hold the object tightly and precisely when taking aim and after vocalising the report of the bullet fired execute a perfect kick up or recoil of the weapon.  Despite having never held a real gun, somehow my brain had mapped the experience of using a firearm through repeated exposure to media portrayals of gun use and my own mental and play-acting rehearsals of the use of these weapons. By the time I was six I firmly believe that the gun was hard wired into my brain and represented an object fairly central and of especial significance in my personal inventory of material cultural.

Now all this appeared to have happened despite the fact that I grew up in the UK. My parents didn’t own guns, nor did any immediate members of my family, no one in my town ever showed me a gun and before I was 14 and joined the cadets I never held a firearm. Even the police didn’t carry firearms when I was a kid.  However, the gun still permeated 1970’s culture enough to embed itself deeply in my pre-adolescant brain, reinforced largely by positive role models including the war stories of my Nazi-fighting grandfathers or the SS/Bandit/imperial Stormtrooper-killing heroes of Hollywood.

When I finally became an adult the nascent obsession had thankfully waned, I left the cadets, grew my hair, and began to find new heroes, one’s who wielded guitars, pens and poetry. But I still continued to find excitement in movies in which guns occupied central totemic positions, from Leone to Tarantino: Scar Face, Taxi Driver or Dirty Harry the central characters of pivotal cultural reference points were augmented by that most powerful of personal accessories: the gun.

Now I could conclude here and add to the long running argument that guns are just fetishised too much in western culture though tv, movies and video games. But that argument has been forwarded too many times to carry any real weight and I think we need to look deeper to find any real hope of a solution. There is another glib logical progression which starts with the liberal thesis “Gun’s kill people”, the realist/conservative antithesis “No People Kill People” and the more enlightened synthesis “People with guns kill people”, I’m not sure really that any of these statements get us anywhere on their own but what they do is open a chink of useful light in the relationship between humans and objects that I feel might really be use here.

If I go back to my six-year-old self and think about my relationship with the gun as both a Platonic concept and plastic simulation, I get a very clear sense of how my relationship with that object transformed me as an individual. In the long-term my brain was hard-wired through play, imagination and handling to map the space the gun occupied and my ergonomic relationship to it. So much so that I could throw it from hand to hand, spin it on the trigger guard and flip it 360 and hold the gun in a firing position. This wasted ability could have easily been tracked on a musical instrument, paint brush or other creative tool but my object of choice was the gun. Instead of developing the neurological mapping of strings, piano or the QWERTY keyboard my brain mapped the geography of barrel, grip and trigger and the performance of drawing, raising, aiming and firing. Such mapping is not simply the acquiring of task specific skills, it represents the transformation of a young and malleable brain around an object. It is not simply a child learning to use a tool through play; it is the moulding of a nervous system around an extended part of its extended material culture.  The effectiveness of the interaction is so loaded with values and endochrinal reinforcement that it is far more than simple skill acquisition going on here. I found playing with toy guns fun and exciting, I dread to think what was going on in my brain and those of my friends when we lay in wait for each other and sprung up simulating the emptying of a clip into each other bodies until one of us pretended to go down. I do know it was fun and I enjoyed it, that makes me suspect the experience released endorphins and adrenalin, that our play was creating powerful peak experiences around the use of simulated lethal technology.

Are those same endorphins activated when we watch a movie gun fight or laugh at the wise-cracking humour of our gun wielding heroes? If so it is easy to imagine the possibility that our relationship to the gun is far deeper than cultural, we may in some respects have a biochemical relationship with it. Taking our cues from the theory of the Extended Mind, first developed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, I feel that if we are serious in wanting to unpick ‘gun culture’ we have to understand fully the relationship between our biology, cognition and technology and stop viewing them in separate ways. The Extended Mind paradigm sees cognition as not being limited to the mind or indeed the body but existing outside and separate or, more correctly, in the space between the subject-object duality that often separate us and the material objects of our culture.

If we can explore how individual consciousness is transformed permanently by exposure to or use of an object, and how that transformation is reinforced and accelerated by cultural values we may begin to see the gun from a different perspective. Not simply as a tool which can be either in the ‘right hands’ or the ‘wrong hands’. Not as an object which we should either have the ‘right’ or ‘no right’ to own, but as a powerful cultural virus which maps so perfectly to human fears, drive for empowerment and security that we are struggling to control. We might conceive of the gun as occupying almost a new class of object, one where ergonomics, evolutionary imperative and efficiency lead to its extended and deep embedding in the biotechnological human nexus. We might add the handaxe, sword, automobile and mobile phone into this class too but the guns lethality is what makes this embedding so immediately toxic.

The power of an object to transform the individual into something greater, something more than human, sits at the core of the Extended Mind approach. As a species and individuals we constantly reconfigure around technology as it extends our individual and collective tolerances and influence. While we have a pretty good handle on behavioural and chemical addiction we are perhaps only at the beginning of understanding the deep embedding of technological co-dependence. Until we stop viewing the Gunman as just a man with a gun, and start viewing the Gunman as an augmented organism, a resulting cyborg nexus of biology, cognition and technology, detoxifying societies riven by gun crime might be near to impossible.

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On Bigfoot

As a child I was terrified and fascinated by Bigfoot, the Yeti and their other hairy kin.  I grew up in the 1970’s where my access to knowledge beyond children’s  encyclopedias came exclusively from my parents and TV.  So I guess my first encounter with Bigfoot was through the Patterson-Gimlin movie being shown on TV alongside photographs of the Lock Ness Monster, Cottingly Fairies and UFOs.

The grainy, color, 8mm film simply rooted me to the spot.  Why the short footage should have scared me so much is puzzling. By the time I was 6 I knew what a Wookie was and had seen all the Planet of the Apes movies, so I was fluent in suspending disbelief when actors got into monkey suits. And while I didn’t have many critical faculties as a child I  knew a genuine looking home movie could easily be faked.  I can’t be sure, but I imagine on asking my father (all source of sober skeptical knowledge in my house) he told me it was probably a guy in a suit but, and here’s the rub, he couldn’t be 100% sure there weren’t really apemen still out there. The fear and wonder probably came from the possibility planted in my 6-year-old mind, that out there somewhere there just might be a real, live Sasquatch walking around and these adults (who I assumed had the world under control) can’t agree on whether they exist, where they are or if they are friendly.

Good science and the internet have largely done for Bigfoot in the past 35 years. Plenty of good academics have spent time considering the matter as seriously as the pathetic evidence warrants. Any talk that there is some conspiracy out there, not taking the matter seriously is bunk.  If any palaeoanthropologist, archaeologist, zoologist or geneticist thought there might be a chance Bigfoot was roaming Humbolt County, we’d all be going Yeti on each other to be the first to find it.

For me, the absence of any convincing footage of any living Californian hominin on You Tube is just about all the proof you need in our digital media age.  The advent of near universal camera ownership on the U.S. West Coast and mass circulation of footage through the internet means that every biological and physical wonder possible is being captured everyday. Yet still our best footage still seems to be that from a 1960’s forestry worker who just happened to take a camera into the Redwoods during the 1960’s.  Should the Sasquatch be roaming the home state of the Googleplex, Microsoft, Silicon Valley and Apple Corp it would be tantamount to proof in the existence of  Gods with a delicious sense of irony.

So there’s a press release this week by Dr Melba S. Ketchum who claims to have sequenced the DNA of Bigfoot.  From a sample (origin unknown) she has determined that Bigfoot is a hybrid between a modern human and an unknown hominin.  The press release has been made ahead of any peer-reviewed paper or publication of the genome sequence itself, the only basis the scientific community would have for really engaging with the claims, and so we can anticipate another little whirlwind of sensational tabloid coverage and internet speculation. I will be astounded if this turns out to be anything other than more bunk.

But dismissing claims like this and rolling our eyes to Darwin every time these claims emerge isn’t perhaps the most constructive path.  As part of an academic community that studies the real evidence for hominins which lived alongside our species, and perhaps especially in the year we celebrate the centenary of Piltdown Man,  I think it’s time we examined our articulation with and responsibility for the public interest in crypto-hominins.  It would be easy and lazy to say that only role our science plays is in helping the public discern between fact and fiction, debunking the hoaxes and delivering the evolutionary truth but for two reasons I think this is simplistic and disingenuous.

Firstly we need to recognize that the public interest in our science in many cases stems from the same deep reasons that their exists a public appetite for Bigfoot stories. When we conjure from the dry dust a picture of a world in which our species walked alongside other human species, don’t we tap into those same parts of the human imagination that play with the idea that those species might just hang on in the remote corners of the planet?  The media narratives that get woven around our important scientific discoveries play into this hugely   When it is the discovery of a new species through fossils (Floriensis) or DNA (Denovisians), the impact of the story rest firmly on the element of surprise and often of the recent timing and overlap with our own species in time and space. Simply put it’s that we had no idea we were sharing the planet with species X until we made this discovery a few months ago that creates the strength of the narrative.  We also enjoy playing with the language of cryptozoology and fairy tale, affectionately naming our fossils ‘Little Foot” or “The Hobbit” but then expect the public and media to discern when someone on the fringe is shouting “Big Foot” or “Yeti”.

It would be an interesting subject for evolutionary or analytical psychologists to consider. For example, it would be interesting to know the degree to which evolutionary science of anthropology  from its beginning in the 19th century, fostered in the collective human psyche, in a Jungian sense, the space for the apeman to grow, alongside aliens, as one of the mythic forms of the modern industrial age.  From Enkidu, to the Satyr and Medieval Woses, the wildman has long existed as a powerful mythic archetype.  It’s unreasonable to assume that the science which delivered real evidence for  existence of other humans species might not also have sparked the resurgence of our own subconscious wildmen.  Going deeper, it would also be interesting to know the evolutionary value in our cognitive ability to invoke the presence of other humans species out of the darkness and unknown. Is it too fanciful to consider that, after a couple of million years sharing our landscapes with other species of Homo, we might not be cognitively preconditioned to read unknown environments for the presence of others and try to understand them. If so we might find that the drive and energy to discover our true evolutionary past might be born in the same dark corners of the subconscious that gives life to imaginary wildmen from a few strands of hair.

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Ceraunia (n): In folklore, stones, arrowheads, stone axes, and similar artifacts, believed to have fallen from the sky

Ceraunia was the name given to stone tools, fossils and other distinctive objects from the ground by classical and renaissance scholars. Ceraunia were originally thought to be natural in origin, caused by extreme natural processes such as lightning strikes. Eventually Ceraunia were recognized as the solid traces of humanity’s deep past and became foundation of our scientific understanding of human origins.

Stone tools, encountered in landscapes, archaeological sites or museum collections still hold the potential for connection with our evolutionary past. They represent durable traces of early technology and the radical development of our relationship with the planet. Tools and technology shaped us, our consciousness is extended through them, understanding our umbilical connection to technology brings into focus how we extend ourselves as individuals and connect with each other as a society.

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