What an Ancient Broken Femur Says About Civilization

There is an apocryphal story about the anthropologist Margaret Mead that has a timeless and universal message, though it’s relevant now than ever.

Years ago, she was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.

But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

Many thanks to my friend Arthur K Burditt for sharing this.

International Mother Language Day

In honor of International Mother Language Day—created to promote linguistic diversity and preservation—check out this beautiful and very detailed chart of the world’s languages. A lot of the data might surprise you!

It’s too big too fit here, but below is a little snapshot to give you an idea.

Here are some fun and colorful language infographics that do fit here!


As the name suggests, the massive Indo-European family includes every language from northern India through Iran and nearly all of Europe between Portugal and Russia (with Hungarian, Estonian, and Finnish being notable exceptions).

The language with the most speakers is, probably not surprisingly, English; about 15 percent of humanity can speak!

However, the vast majority of people who speak English learn it as a second language (as you might have noticed with the top infographic). Here are the languages with the most native speakers compared to second language (2L) speakers:

Here’s an interesting breakdown from the source:

Nearly 43% of the world’s population is bilingual, with the ability to switch between two languages with ease.

From the data, second language (L2) speakers can be calculated by looking at the difference between native and total speakers, as a proportion of the total. For example, 66% of English speakers learned it as a second language.

Swahili surprisingly has the highest ratio of L2 speakers to total speakers—although it only has 16 million native speakers, this shoots up to 98 million total speakers. Overall, 82% of Swahili speakers know it as a second language.

Swahili is listed as a national or official language in several African countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s likely that the movement of people from rural areas into big cities in search of better economic opportunities, is what’s boosting the adoption of Swahili as a second language.

Indonesian is another similar example. With a 78% proportion of L2 speakers compared to total speakers, this variation on the Malay language has been used as the lingua franca across the islands for a long time. In contrast, only 17% of Mandarin speakers know it as a second language, perhaps because it is one of the most challenging languages to learn

Tragically, the U.N. has good reason to dedicate a day for the preservation of languages: The 100th most common language is “Sanaani Spoken Arabic”, spoken primarily in Yemen by around 11 million people. Yet there are a total of 7,111 languages still spoken today, meaning the vast majority of them—all but 100—have less than 11 million speakers.

In fact, approximately 3,000 all languages (40 percent) are at risk of being lost, or are already in the process of dying out today. (By one estimate, a language dies every two weeks.) Fortunately, growing awareness and advanced technology are helping to document and preserve these unique aspects of human existence, and all the unique ideas, stories, and concepts they each contain.

Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives

The Economist recently featured a new book that aims to present a more nuanced and encouraging picture of the history of Islam and its innumerable, if now often understated, intellectual and cultural achievements. Chase Robinson’s Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years encapsulates Islamic history through the perspectives and experiences of thirty figures, who represent a cross section of Muslim society.  Continue reading

The World’s Cultures, Mapped

Utilizing the results of the World Values Survey (WVS), one of the world’s leading sources on human beliefs and values, political scientists Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan and Christian Welzel of Germany’s Luephana University created the following “culture map”, a unique attempt to categorize and understand the world’s many unique cultures and societies.

In addition to categorizing countries by shared religious, linguistic, or cultural attributes, the map takes into account four sets of values: Continue reading

How Human Sacrifice Created Modernity

The title doesn’t just refer to the tens of millions of faceless laborers who, over the centuries, quite literally built, maintained, and fought for everything that makes up modern civilization. I am talking about ritual and religious human sacrifice, wherein individuals — and sometimes masses of people at a time — are killed to serve or petition some sort of higher divine source.

While this once near-universal practice has thankfully been left behind (for the most part), a recent study makes the provocative suggestion that religiously sanctioned killings helped lay the sociopolitical groundwork of modern society. As The Washington Post reported: Continue reading

Graph: The World’s Most Religious Societies

The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes survey measured the degree to which people around the world value religion in their personal lives.  The results show that poorer and less stable countries tend to be more religious, although there are some interesting outliers to this pattern.

Religious Conviction Around The World

Courtesy of The Telegraph

The above data is drawn from over 45,400 interviews from adults spanning the forty subjection nations. (You can learn more about the methodology here.) Continue reading

The Western Hemisphere Before Columbus

While everyone knows that the “New World” had long been inhabited prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492, most of us Westerners do not give the matter much thought. The people living here — who spanned a vast and culturally diverse assortment of tribes, kingdoms, nations, and advanced civilizations — have been as casually swept aside in present consciousness and historical memory as they were in actuality following the mass arrival of Europeans.

The Atlantic has an interesting piece that touches on what life was like in the Western Hemisphere before Europeans “discovered” it. Although it is a long read — albeit insufficient to capture the entirety of indigenous experience across two continents — I highly recommend it, for it fleshes out the pre-Columbian Americas in a way most history books fail to.

Take for example demographics. Though widely regarded by Europeans, and indeed their contemporary descendents, as having been a mostly empty and untouched place, scholarly research going back to the 1960s discovered that the hemisphere numbered more people than even Europe. Continue reading

The American Values Atlas

Keeping up with politics is tough, especially if you are going state by state. There are a wide range of issues, policies, and social attitudes spanning the nation’s fifty subnational entities, and things are changing all the time.

Thankfully, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has launched the unique American Values Atlas (AVA), an online tool that allows users to navigate the religious, political, and demographic landscape of the United States in real time, as well as Americans’ attitudes toward key issues like immigration same-sex marriage, and abortion. The details even go down to the local level, with most of the major metropolitan areas represented.

Here is a sample of what the AVA looks like:

You can see the breakdown by state (which includes a comparison to the nation as a whole):

Screen Shot 2015 02 23 at 3.14.23 PM 640x358 Introducing the American Values Atlas (AVA)

And can also view the breakdown by individual state:

Screen Shot 2015 02 23 at 3.00.08 PM 640x631 Introducing the American Values Atlas (AVA)

The PRRI explains how it gleaned such meticulous details about the cultural and religious landscape of the U.S.

[The AVA draws] upon data from 50,000 bilingual telephone interviews conducted among a random sample of Americans in 2014. Roughly 1,000 interviews were conducted every week, with 40,000 interviews on political issue areas. Because of the vast amount of data and large sample size, users have the ability to use the AVA’s dynamic online map to explore specific census regions, all 50 states, and 30 major metropolitan areas. The AVA also provides a rare look into smaller religious communities and ethnic groups, such as Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and more.

You can read more about the methodology here.

The AVA will be updated annually with 50,000 fresh interviews to reflect the changes in demographics, culture, social views, and political policy. It is an invaluable resource for policymakers, academics, and anyone else interested in these details.

Happy Languages

It seems that most humans are inclined towards pessimism and negativity: look at how we enrapt by the awful occurrences we encounter day to day (from gossip to car accidents), or how sordid and scandalous news spreads like wildfire (especially when compared to more positive developments, which are more likely to get no reporting in the first place).

But a recent study suggests that contrary to popular belief, or indeed to our frequent reactions to negativity, our fundamental means of communication is rife with a “universal positivity bias”. As The Atlantic reports:

This bias was first posited in 1969, when a pair of psychologists wrote a paper called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis,” named for the fictional orphan girlwith a propensity to look on the bright side. The original study had high school boys, who belonged to different cultures and spoke different languages, do word association tasks, and then ranked whether the pairs were positive or negative. More often, they were positive.

In the new PNAS study, researchers analyzed texts from Google Books, Twitter, the New York Times, a Google Web Crawl, subtitles from movies and TV shows, and music lyrics. They measured how frequently words were used in each language (English, German, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Indonesian), and had native speakers rate how negative or positive they felt upon hearing those words.

In every language, on every platform, the median happiness score was higher than five—five being a totally neutral word—as seen in the chart below. The yellow is the “above-neutral” portion, and the blue is the “below-neutral.”

Below is the aforementioned chart. In total, over 100,000 words spanning ten languages were examined.

Given that these languages cover a large proportion of the world’s population (especially when you count non-native speakers), it is safe to say that most humans communicate in a language that leans towards positivity. Moreover, there are some nuances between languages:

Spanish and Portuguese were the most happy, in this study. For some languages, it really depended what kind of text the researchers were looking at—in English, music lyrics were significantly less positive than books, the New York Times, or even Twitter.

So all the languages studied tended to use happy words more often, but overall, languages also contained more happy than unhappy words. The researchers also measured “average word happiness” and found it to be high, regardless of how frequently those words were used in the text. So even lesser-used words were more often positive than negative.

As someone who is not a scientist, let alone linguist, I am not sure what to make of these results or their implications. The responses to the article seem skeptical or at least neutral, with one commentator pointing out something that also came to my mind:

The study does not cover words used in everyday interpersonal speech by everyday people, only the mere existence of the word types and writing, which is done by professional and political individuals to show off in one way or another. Maybe the study proves language bias accurately, but not the bias of language users in everyday life.

I would be curious to know how positive languages are when used in an everyday, colloquial context among average people. Were such a study possible, it would yield more comprehensive results. But given the recentness of this study, perhaps we can expect that in the future. For now, I am inclined to agree with the article’s conclusion:

“Words, which are the atoms of human language, present an emotional spectrum with a universal, self-similar positive bias,” the researchers write. While individual texts—books, songs, tweets—may skew negative, all in all, it looks like language is a positive tool.

What are your thoughts on this?