Study Claims No Single Birthplace for Humanity

As reported by The Guardian, an international multidisciplinary team led by Oxford archaeologist Dr. Eleanor Scerri has claimed that a comprehensive survey of fossil, archaeological and genetic evidence shows humans “mosaic-like across different populations spanning the entire African continent”. Thus, modern humans did not come from a specific area — namely East Africa, where the oldest confirmed Homo Sapiens fossils have been found — but are the end result of millennia of interbreeding and cultural exchange between semi-isolated groups.

The telltale characteristics of a modern human – globular brain case, a chin, a more delicate brow and a small face – seem to first appear in different places at different times. Previously, this has either been explained as evidence of a single, large population trekking around the continent en masse or by dismissing certain fossils as side-branches of the modern human lineage that just happened to have developed certain anatomical similarities.

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The latest analysis suggests that this patchwork emergence of human traits can be explained by the existence of multiple populations that were periodically separated for millennia by rivers, deserts, forests and mountains before coming into contact again due to shifts in the climate. “These barriers created migration and contact opportunities for groups that may previously have been separated, and later fluctuation might have meant populations that mixed for a short while became isolated again,” said Scerri.

The trend towards more sophisticated stone tools, jewellery and cooking implements also supports the theory, according to the paper in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Scerri assembled a multidisciplinary group to examine the archaeological, fossil, genetic and climate data together, with the aim of eliminating biases and assumptions. Previously, she said, scientific objectivity had been clouded by fierce competition between research groups each wanting their own discoveries to be given a prominent place on a linear evolutionary ladder leading to the present day. Disputes between rival teams working in South Africa and east Africa had become entrenched, she said.

“Someone finds a skull somewhere and that’s the source of humanity. Someone finds some tools somewhere, that’s the source of humanity,” she said, describing the latest approach as: “‘Let’s be inclusive and construct a model based on all the data we have available.”

Like any study, the claims will need to be confirmed, but from my layman’s perspective, it makes sense. What are your thoughts? (Especially if you have a background in this area.)

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The World’s First Atlas

Today’s Google Doodle is a particular treat for a map lover like me: it commemorates the publication in 1570 of the world’s first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

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As Forbes explains, Ortelius’ work was an unusual concept at the time: an expertly-crafted book of similarly-sized maps neatly organized by geography. Continue reading

What Every Country is Good At

Everyone is good at something, and that goes for countries, too. The following map from Information is Beautiful features most of the world’s nations and their top claim to fame as of 2016.

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You can see how they reach these results by clicking here. The link also explains some of the more curious-sounding “achievements” — for example, Belgium is number one in “cashless payments” in terms of the percentage of transactions not involving cash, while Latvia is number one in “women” in the sense that it has a higher female to male ratio.

While it is mostly meant to be tongue in cheek, there are definitely some grim conclusions here, from Honduras’ record murder rate, to Swaziland’s morbid distinction of having the highest percentage of people with HIV.

The World’s Most Canny Politician

Running an emerging global power and vibrant democracy would be hard enough without having one of the world’s most oppressive, erratic, and brutal states next door.

Yet South Korean leader Moon Jae In, less than a year into his presidency, has not only governed his prosperous country fairly well (if his stellar approval ratings are any indication), but he’s pulled off an amazing feat virtually no one though possible (much less any world leader): getting North Korea to tone down its bellicose rhetoric, suspend its nuclear program, and express willingness to participate in an historic summit between his nation and the North’s archenemy the United States — the two nations are even setting up a direct hotline between their leaders, which will not only mitigate the likelihood of an escalating conflict, but is a big symbol of the potential for normal relations (and one would hope, eventually reunification). Continue reading

Germany: The World’s Most Liked Country

According to the latest Nation Brands Index (NBI) published last December, Germany has the best “brand image” of 50 surveyed countries, unseating the previous titleholder, the United States. As reported in DW:

The Nation Brands Index (NBI) survey, carried out by German-based market research firm GfK and the British political consultant Simon Anholt, measured public opinion around the world on “the power and quality of each country’s ‘brand image.'”

Germany moved up to first place after coming in second in 2016. The US dropped from top to sixth, with France, Britain, Canada and Japan taking spots two to five.

The study calculated the final NBI score by researching how well people viewed a country across six categories: its people, governance, exports, tourism, investment and immigration, and culture and heritage.

The land of sausages, Merkel and “Made in Germany” was in the top five in all but one category. Only in “tourism” did Germany fall outside the top five, coming in 10th.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel welcomed the results, saying: “Germany’s image no longer rests on our economic strength. People think we’re capable of much in the world.”

Germany’s overall score improved partly because of better perceptions among Egyptians, Russians, Chinese and Italians. This suggests the country has widespread appeal for its various achievements in areas like governance, economic growth, and quality of life — all the things most governments would want to emulate.

Coming in behind Germany is France, which has also seen its star rise precipitously, climbing three places since last year. This is due mostly to better performance in “governance” and “investment / immigration”, which in turn reflects the high-profile effort of its new president to make the country more economically competitive and attractive. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, France remained No. 1 in culture.)

The United Kingdom remained steady at third place, dispelling fears that Brexit would cause a significant dint to its image. Its firm position reflects the continued potency of its culture, heritage, and diplomatic influence.

Canada and Japan both tied at fourth place, each performing well in governance, culture, and immigration / investment. (Notice a pattern here?) The U.S. dropped to sixth place, a respectable yet greatly diminished position. The reasons aren’t difficult to glean:

Foreigners’ views of the US worsened considerably compared to 2016, particularly in the category “governance,” where it slipped from spot 19 to spot 23.

The “Trump effect” explains the fall, according to Anholt.

“The loss of the US’s image in the governance category is indicative of the Trump effect, which was triggered by President Trump’s policies and his ‘America First’ message,” he said.

Americans themselves nevertheless viewed their country more positively than in 2016.

What are your thoughts about these results?

Africa’s Greatest Success Story

Few people have ever heard of the island nation of Mauritius, located 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa. Perhaps its sole claim to fame, if any, is that it was the only habitat of the extinct dodo. But as op-ed in the Daily Maverick reveals, this tiny country of just 1.3 million is a regional heavyweight in social, economic, and political development:

Mauritius’ average score in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business indicators is 77.54, ranking it 25th worldwide, compared to the sub-Saharan average of 50.43, or the score of its Indian Ocean neighbour Madagascar in 162nd position at 47.67. The next highest sub-Saharan African country, Rwanda, is in 41st slot. Kenya is at 80, South Africa 81st, and Botswana 82nd.

On the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, defined as the provision of the political, social and economic public goods, Mauritius again tops the African rankings, scoring 81.4 in 2017. Seychelles is second with 73.4, with Botswana completing the top three with a score of 72.7.

Mauritius’ GDP per capita is $9,630, well above the sub-Saharan African average ($1,464), that of Madagascar ($401), and South Africa and Botswana ($5,284 and $6,924). Only in this key regard does it rank below Seychelles where, with a population of just 95,000, it’s over $15,000. The average life expectancy of Mauritians in 1960 was 58; now it’s 74, whereas sub-Saharan Africa has gone from 40 to 59 over the same period.

Indeed, Mauritius’ economy has enjoyed average annual growth of 5 percent since its independence from the U.K. in 1968. This is a rare distinction both regionally and globally, and speaks to the country’s stable and effective governance despite its humble and unpromising beginnings. Continue reading

Map: Internet Prices Around the World

What do Moldova, Tunisia, Russia, Iran, and  Kazakhstan have in common? Apparently, these disparate (and not particularly prosperous) countries have some of the cheapest broadband Internet in the world, with an average package cost of less than $20 a month.

By contrast, citizens of the West African nation of Burkina Faso top the list with the most expensive Internet, paying an an average of $924 for a monthly broadband package. Folks living in Namibia, Papua New Guinea, and Haiti far slightly better, but still need to shell out a few hundred dollars for the typical broadband package.

Americans are in the middle range, paying around $66 for the average broadband service; our neighbors to the north and south pay about $54 and $26, respectively.

These results are from a joint study by two British consultancies, which analyzed over 3,500 broadband packages worldwide from August 18 to October 12 of 2017. You can read the results here, which have been helpfully visualized by HowMuch.Net.

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See here for a more detailed visual breakdown by region and price.

The results show an interesting and often unexpected mix of cheapest and most expensive. Who would have thought that the likes of, say, Iran and the former Soviet Union would offer world-beating Internet access? Or that some African countries outperform far wealthier and more digitally connected nations?

Iran offers the world’s cheapest broadband, with an average cost of USD 5.37 per month. Burkina Faso is the most expensive, with an average package price of USD 954.54.

Six of the top ten cheapest countries in the world are found in the former USSR (Commonwealth of Independent States or CIS), including the Russian Federation itself.

Within Western Europe Italy is the cheapest with an average package price of USD 28.89 per month, followed by Germany (USD 34.07), Denmark (USD 35.90) and France (USD 36.34). The UK came in 8th cheapest out of 28, with an average package price of USD 40.52 per month.

In the Near East region, war-ravaged Syria came in cheapest with an average monthly price of USD 12.15 per month (and ranked fifth overall), with Saudi Arabia (USD 84.03), Bahrain (USD 104.93), Oman (USD 147.87), Qatar (USD 149.41) and the United Arab Emirates (USD 155.17) providing the most expensive connectivity in the region.

Iran is the cheapest in Asia (as well as cheapest globally) with an average package price of USD 5.37 per month, followed by Nepal (USD 18.85) and Sri Lanka (USD 20.17), all three countries also ranked in the top 20 of the cheapest in the world. The Maldives (USD 86.08), Laos (USD 231.76) and Brunei (UD 267.33) provide the most expensive package price per month.

Mexico is the cheapest country in Central America with an average broadband package cost per month of USD 26.64, Panama being the most expensive with an average package price of USD 112.77 per month.

In North America, Canada offers the cheapest broadband on average (USD 54.92), coming in 21 positions ahead of the United States globally (USD 66.17). Bermuda provides the most expensive packages in the region with an average price of USD 126.80 per month.

Saint-Martin offers the cheapest broadband in the Caribbean, with an average package price of USD 20.72 per month, with the British Virgin Islands (USD 146.05), Antigua and Barbuda (USD 153.78), Cayman Islands (USD 175.27) and Haiti (224.19) at the most expensive end both regionally and globally.

Sub-Saharan Africa fared worst overall with almost all countries in the bottom half of the table. Burkina Faso will charge residential users a staggering USD 954.54 per month for their ADSL. Meanwhile Namibia (USD 432.86), Zimbabwe (USD 170.00) and Mali (USD 163.96) were among the 10 most expensive countries.

All 13 countries in Oceania were found in the most expensive half of the global table. Generally, larger landmasses such as Australia and New Zealand were cheaper than smaller islands in the region. Fiji, however, was actually the cheapest in Oceania with an average cost of USD 57.44. Vanuatu (USD 154.07), Cook Islands (USD 173.57) and Papua New Guinea (USD 597.20) are the most expensive in the region, the latter second-most expensive in the world.

I would be very curious to know what accounts for these results. Is it government policy? Geographic location or size? An abundance of competing ISPs? Perhaps a combination of all three? Or maybe it depends on the specific country?

What are your thoughts?

 

The World’s Oldest and Smallest Republic

Perhaps one of the most interesting and unusual countries in the world today is the Republic of San Marino. Spanning a little over 23 square miles (roughly equal to one-third the size of Washington, D.C.) with a population of around 33,000, it is one of the smallest independent countries in the world, and is located entirely within Italy. Yet despite its size (or perhaps because of it), San Marino is one of the most successful nations in the world. Continue reading

Where Half the World Lives

With the world’s population now around 7.5 billion, and projected to grow by another 4 billion or so within a century, one could be forgiven for imagining the world as already swelling to the brim with people.

Yet as the following map designed by Max Galka shows, much of the world is fairly empty, and will likely remain so given the pace of urbanization (wherein more people live and work in less land). 

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That means roughly 3.75 billion people live in an area constituting just one percent of the world’s total landmass. Continue reading

America’s Novice Approach to World Affairs

Although the United States remains the world’s sole superpower, this preeminent status is beginning to count for a lot less than it used to, as other nations — rivals and allies alike — begin to quickly catch up.

Our recent (though far from unprecedented) embrace of nationalism and populism is only hastening this relative decline, as Mark R. Kennedy argues in Foreign Policy. In a globalized world, even the greatest powers still need friends and allies, and our increasingly blustering attitude towards the rest of the world risks weakening the foreign ties on which we depend for economic and national security. Continue reading