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.
On this day in 1945, Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took the iconic photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.
The U.S. had invaded Iwo Jima four days prior as part of its island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan. The island was located halfway between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station. Capturing the island would weaken this warning system and also provide an emergency landing for damaged bombers.
As the highest point on the island, Mount Suribachi allowed the Japanese to spot and target American forces, and was thus the tactical priority. There was never any question the U.S. would win—the Americans had overwhelming numerical and logistical superiority, plus complete air supremacy—while the Japanese were low on food and supplies nor could retreat or reinforced. Yet the battle was nonetheless brutal, grinding on for over another month after the photograph was taken.
In fact, half the marines later identified in the photo were killed shortly after: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley.
Uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, total American casualties (both dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese, though Japanese combat deaths were three times higher than American fatalities. (Of the 21,000 Japanese on the island, only 216 were ultimately taken prisoner, with many fighting to the death, often through various cave systems.)
This was actually the second time the U.S. flag was raised on the mountain; the first instance had occured earlier in the morning, but in the early afternoon, Sergeant Strank was ordered to take Marines from his rifle squad to bring supplies and raise a larger flag on the summit.
“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication. It is perhaps just as well known for its the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954, which honors all Marines who died since the founding of the Continental Marines of the Revolutionary War in 1775.
For me, one of the more compelling stories from the episode was that of Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American from Arizona who, like so many indigenous Americans, volunteered readily to fight for the county. He disliked the fame he received, feeling survivor’s guilt for the marines who didn’t make it back, descended into alcoholism, most likely due to what we now know as PTSD.
Johnny Cash, known for his advocacy for Native Americans, dedicated a song to him that remains one of my favorite.
Today is the anniversary of a largely forgotten episode that reminds us how the U.S. has always struggled with messy politics and ambiguous or flawed electoral rules.
It was on this day in 1825 that the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams to be president, after no candidate received a majority of electoral votes in the previous year’s presidential election.
There had been four candidates on the ballot: Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford. Pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, only the top three candidates in the electoral vote were admitted as candidates, eliminating Henry Clay.
Many were surprised that Adams was elected over Jackson, who still had the most electoral votes. The representatives of all the states that had gone for Clay in the Electoral College supported Adams.
Clay was the Speaker of the House and arguably the most powerful person in Congress. It was widely believed he used his influenced to convince Congress to elect Adams, who then made Clay his Secretary of State (then and now considered the most prestigious and influential office after the presidency itself). Jackson’s supporters denounced this as a “corrupt bargain” and launched a four-year campaign of revenge, claiming that the people had been cheated of their choice.
In a now familiar refrain, these “Jacksonians” attacked the Adams administration at every turn as illegitimate and tainted by elitism and corruption.
More to the point, as the son of the second president, John Adams, the election of John Quincy to only the sixth presidential office began a discussion about political dynasties that recently came up with the Bush and Clinton candidacies.
On this day in 1879, at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, Scottish-Canadian engineer and inventor Sandford Fleming proposed the idea of standard time zones based on a single universal world time. He suggested that standard time zones could be used locally, but would follow a single world time, which he called “Cosmic Time”. The proposal divided the world into twenty-four time zones, each one covering 15 degrees of longitude. All clocks within each zone would be set to the same time as the others but differed by one hour from those in the neighboring zones.
We take time zones for granted today, but for most of human history, time was kept locally, based on how people in each town or city measured the position of the sun. Most humans did not travel beyond their community, and the few who did would takes days or weeks, so it never really made a difference whether one city was hours off from another one.
But the development of rail travel in the late 19th century posed a huge challenge. For the first time in history, people were crossing through multiple towns in the span of hours, leading to the absurd practice of having to continually reset clocks throughout the day.
As the first country to industrialize, Great Britain was the first to deal with this problem on a large scale; in response, it established Greenwich Mean Time, which was the mean solar time on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England. (Ironically, this had been developed to resolve the same issue with respect to ocean navigation. Each country had its own prime meridian in its navigational charts to serve as something of a starting point; it usually passed through the country in question, until the navally dominant British developed the Prime Meridian that most others would soon follow.) Clocks in Britain were set to this time irrespective of local solar noon.
Anyway, Fleming’s proposal gave way to a flurry of international discussion about how to address this issue. The British government even forwarded his work to eighteen foreign countries and several scientific bodies to determine a solution. The United States called an “International Meridian Conference” in 1884 that gathered delegates from around the world to set up a universally recognized basis for time. It was announced the Greenwich Mean Time would be used, for the simple reason that by then, two-thirds of all nautical charts and maps already used it as their prime meridian
By 1972, all major countries adopted time zones based on the Greenwich meridian (since 1935, called “Universal Time”). The saga of universal time is yet another example of our species’ move towards a more global and interconnected community.
On this day in 1968, the photo known as “Earthrise” was taken by the Apollo 8 crew, consisting of commander Frank Borman, navigator Jim Lovell, and rookie Bill Anders.
Better known as the first time humans had visited the moon, via ten lunar orbits, the mission led to an unexpected iconic photograph. “We have astronauts on a spaceship in another place, looking back on this beautiful planet with another heavenly body in the foreground—it’s stunning. It checks all the boxes.”
After looping around the moon three times and taking several photos of its surface, the crew famously greeted citizens of Earth during a Christmas Eve broadcast. On their fourth loop later that evening, they encountered something that totally surprised them: A striking view of home sliding out from behind the moon like the sun over Earth’s horizon.
It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that Apollo 8 — at that point the biggest rocket ever built — could have been a disaster. It was initially delayed due to hardware issues, but was pushed to December under the fear that the Soviets would beat the U.S. first (as they had seven years earlier when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space). The crew was basically “riding a controlled bomb that had not been completely checked out, inside a spacecraft that had not been tested to everyone’s satisfaction.”
But not only did it go off without a hitch, but it produced an image that dramatically highlighted “the paradoxical context in which we exist: Our planet is simultaneously cosmically insignificant, and the most important thing we share as a species.”
National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry describes it as “the most important photograph ever made” and likens it to humanity seeing itself in a mirror for the first time.
“When something happens like that, it speaks to us on a level that we don’t maybe fully understand You can’t—as an artist, as a photographer, as a writer—you can’t necessarily predict it. It just happens. And that’s kind of the magic of art, isn’t it? We create things as human beings that speak to people in different ways.”
On this day in 1777, after offering to serve the United States without pay, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution allowing French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette to join American revolutionary forces as a major general.
Barely two years before, when he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause of liberty—hence his willingness to fight for the Patriots for free, and to even purchase his own ship to cross the Atlantic.
While Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers,
Lafayette was by far among the most promising. He learned English within a year
of his arrival, had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bounded well with George
Washington, to whom he was a close advisor.
During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British
force, he was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly
retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command
of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (some of which bear his name) before
sailing back home in 1779 to lobby more French support.
Lafayette returned a year later to a hero’s welcome in
Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and
supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army, and was so popular among Americans that
Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to
In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive
Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command in Virginia blocked forces
led by Cornwallis until other American and French forces could position
themselves to strike. This victory—which involved almost as many French as
Americans—is credited with ending the war.
After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of
liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French
Revolution, with Jefferson’s help contributing to the drafting of the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest
republican and civil rights documents in history. He was opposed to slavery,
the murderous excesses of the revolution, and the subsequent autocracy of
Napoleon. He was invited by James Madison to visit all 24 states of the
Union—to which he still received popular praise and love—and he turned down
calls to be the head of France.
Because he was foreign. did not live in the U.S., and fought
across all regions out of ideology rather than money, Lafayette was seen as a
unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented colonies. His legacy in
both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds.”
On this day 1919, the German Workers’ Party, the forerunner to the Nazi Party, was founded in Munich by Anton Drexler.
Contrary to its name, the DAP (to use its German acronym) was far from leftist: It was officially anti-communist—many members were drawn from the paramilitary “Freikorps” that fought communist uprisings in the east—but also anti-capitalist, reflecting fascism’s pretensions as a political “third way. However, German nationalism and Antisemitism were the cornerstone of the party, just as they would be for its successor.
While an otherwise obscure figure at the time, let alone today, Drexler played a pivotal role in Hitler’s rise: It was he who approached Hitler and encouraged him to join the DAP, supposedly seeing potential in the man’s oratory. (Hitler claimed the party’s platform reflected his existing ideas.) Hitler was only the 55th member to join, yet his ability to draw a crowd with his speeches quickly grew the party’s numbers—and his reputation and influence.
As his stature grew, so too did the DAP, which managed to organize its biggest meeting yet in 1920 in a Munich brewery. It was here, before a crowd of 2,000 people, that Hitler articulated the party’s 25-point manifesto, which he had authored with Drexler and Gottfried Feder, another key founder whose speech is what first drew Hitler into Drexler’s orbit. The platform gave the DAP a bolder vision: abandon the Treaty of Versailles, recapture and reunite former German territories, expand into Eastern Europe, and exclude Jews from German citizenship. It also included otherwise unobjectionable ideas, such as expanding social security, establishing universal education, banning child labor, enshrining equal rights for all citizens, and defending freedom of religion.
It goes to show that fascism, then and now, always had ideas that, in isolation, were good or nonpartisan, but in practice was intended to win over desperate recruits and limit the benefits only to the “right” ethnicity, race, religion, tribe, or other identity group.
Indeed, on the very same day, the German Worker’s Party was renamed the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), better known as the Nazi Party”. Along with the 25-point manifesto, this was done with the explicit purpose of broadening the party’s appeal: It opposed socialism and communism—which were officially internationalist—so instead proposed a nationalist version. At the same time, the term socialism denoted a dislike of capitalism, except of course the big businesses that could serve Nazi interests.
Drexler was eventually pushed out of the newly minted party as Hitler’s falling into obscurity before his death in 1942–living just long enough to see the monster he helped create.
I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.
This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)
Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.
Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.
Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.
Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.
It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.
Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.
(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)
Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.
Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution contains the obscure but significant “Offenses Clause“, which empowers Congress to “define and punish … Offenses against the Law of Nations.” The law of nations was the 18th century term for what we now call international law.
As the time, these “offenses” would have included “attacks on foreign nations, their citizens, or shipping;” failing to honor “the flag of truce, peace treaties, and boundary treaties” (including unauthorized entry across national borders); and mistreating prisoners of war. The law of nations also obliged states to prosecute pirates, protect wrecked ships and their crew (regardless of their nationality); and protect foreign dignitaries and merchants in their territory.
Thus, the Framers clearly sought to convey to the world that the U.S. would be a responsible actor among the global community, enshrining in its highest legal instrument a commitment to safeguarding foreign nationals, property, and interests, even if it means ostensibly prosecuting American perpetrators.
Some jurists have argued that this provision, in theory, permits Congress to criminalize private conduct in the U.S. that violates international law.