Eurasia’s Oldest Words

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It is hard to imagine that the world’s many distinct and disparate languages, such as those highlighted above, share a common ancestor. But a new study reported in Foreign Policy  has ostensibly identified several words shared by at least three major Eurasian language families.

In research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade attempt to identify words shared between Eurasia’s major language families — implying that they may be relics of an older common tongue. Most words have a “half life,” meaning there’s 50 percent chance they’ll be replaced by a new noncognate word every 2,000 to 4,000 words. But some words — particularly numerals, pronouns, and adverbs — tend to last longer.

Using a database of hypothesized ancestor words, the authors looked for words related by sound within the language groups in the map above. (An example: The Latin pater is obviously related to the English father.)  They found “188 word-meanings for which one or more proto-words had been reconstructued for at least three language families”.

Among the shared words are the following:

  • Thou
  • I
  • Not
  • That
  • We
  • To give
  • Who
  • This
  • What
  • Man/male
  • Ye
  • Old
  • Mother
  • To hear
  • Hand
  • Fire
  • To pull
  • Black
  • To flow
  • Bark
  • Ashes
  • To Spit
  • Worm

The researchers have concluded that these common words prove the existing of linguistic “superfamily” that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 years ago. Interesting stuff.

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

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses by Vincent van Gogh. It was painted in 1890 while Van Gogh was preparing to leave the asylum in Saint-Rémy for the quiet town of Auvers-sur-Oise.

As his departure neared, he became increasingly optimistic about his future, as reflected in his choice of subject and colors: Van Gogh had a love for flowers of all kinds, and tended to paint them in his brighter moments. Vivid colors similarly reflected a more positive mood. Continue reading

The Peasant Wedding

Today’s featured picture on Wikipedia — which represent the highest quality and most valuable images publically available on the site — is a personal favorite of mine: The Peasant Wedding, a Renaissance-era oil painting by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (The Flemish people live primarily in the Flanders region of what is now Belgium.)

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What I love most about this painting is its slice-of-life subject matter: at a time when most well-known paintings were of merchants, aristocrats, or religious figures and events, Bruegel’s trademark was depicting various aspects of peasant life in the 16th century. (Indeed, he was known as the “Peasant-Bruegel” for his unconventional, though still often symbolic portrayal of the common person.)

You can read more about the painting, including speculation as to who the groom is, here. (The bride is sitting in front of the green textile hanging on the wall, right below what has been identified as a paper crown.)

The World’s Most Emotional Countries

While there is no shortage of international data on things like GDP, military expenditure, and employment, it is only recently that the more intangible aspects of a society, as life satisfaction and happiness, have been subject to similar collection and analysis. Obviously, the inherent subjectivity of such factors make them difficult to quantify, but polling a representative sample of a given population can still offer a good enough picture of how the average person of a given society feels about their lot in life.

Gallup is contributing to this effort by gathering data on, of all things, “how often residents feel positive or negative emotions on a day-to-day basis”. The Global Emotions Report is a survey of almost 153,000 people conducted across 148 countries, asking questions such as how often a person laughs or smile, and how often they are angry. Continue reading

A Tree of World Religions

Humans today practice around 4,200 religions in total, albeit only a handful of which can be classified as major “world religions“, with followers in the tens of millions or more.

Throughout history there may have been tens of thousands of other distinct religious traditions, the vast majority of which are no longer followed. (The complex and often nebulous definition of “religion” makes it hard to get a solid count.)

Someone named Dzvenislava Novakіvska from what looks to be a Ukrainian consulting firm has created a gorgeous and extensively detailed “tree of world religions” (which is nonetheless labeled in English). Continue reading

We Will Soon Get a Window Into Two Ancient Civilizations

The passage of time and ravages of war have together destroyed literally thousands of years worth of culture and knowledge from ancient civilizations across the world. We are often left with little more than fragments or the unverified and often biased accounts of outsiders and conquerors, depriving us of a fully fleshed out understanding of how ancient people lived, loved, thought, or struggled with day to day.

Now, two different archaeological breakthroughs have gleaned previously inaccessible information on two of humanity’s most enduring and influential civilizations: the Aztecs and the Egyptians. In the case of the former, they also reveal the horrific ease with which almost an entire culture can be eradicated in just a few years.

According to The Guardianan international team from the U.K. and the Netherlands, utilizing advanced imaging technology usually applied to geological research, discovered an extremely rare pre-Columbian manuscript hidden within another rare colonial era book. Continue reading

Bolivia’s Remarkable Neo-Andino Style

While there remains tens of millions of people of indigenous descent throughout Latin America, much of their culture has been forgotten, deliberately repressed, or socially marginalized by the Spanish-influenced mainstream. Thankfully, a vast corpus of native languages, customs, folk beliefs, music, and visual art remains influential in many Latin American countries, and in some cases are even thriving. But architecture was generally absent from the long list of indigenous influences that, to varying degrees, remain prevalent (knowingly or not) in Latin American culture.

Hence my surprise, and subsequent delight, at a recent article in Remezcla that explores a fascinating new architectural movement in Bolivia inspired by the indigenous Aymara (who make up the majority of the country’s population, yet have long been marginalized). Centered in the sprawling metropolis of El Alto, which is located over 13,000 feet above sea level, this Andean or “Neo-Andino” style is like nothing else I have ever seen, combining modernist geometric patterns with the ornate and colorful motifs of the Amarya.

The leader of this eclectic architectural revolution — the “Aymara version of Michelangelo”, as some publications have called him — is a mostly self-taught forty-one-year-old architect named Freddy Mamani, who was inspired to “inject some color” into El Alto’s drab cityscape. The popularity of his style, especially among the rising middle class, reflects a cultural renaissance among indigenous Bolivians, who until recently were largely marginalized both socially and politically despite their numbers.

Remezcla has an illuminating interview with Mamani, whose works have already been the subject of a book, song, and several news reports, and can be seen in other cities in Bolivia, as well as in Peru and Brazil. It is great to see something new emerge in a global architectural scene that has largely become monocultural, with cities across the globe adopting more or less similar Western modernist motifs. It is even more exciting to witness a resurgence in one of the world’s richest and hitherto repressed cultures. As more Latin Americans of indigenous descent finally get their due economic, social, and political opportunities, we can expect to see more of their long-neglected culture gain a platform.

How Altruism and Cooperation Help Us Survive

Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:

The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of [Charles Darwin’s] evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.

Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing: Continue reading