The Origin of the Zombie

The now ubiquitous and popular concept of the zombie (first spelled “zombi”) originated in the fusion of African folklore with the particularly brutal form of slavery practiced in French-ruled Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue). The precise genesis of the concept is unknown, but as one could imagine, its emergence is a long and painful story.

The life of a Haitian slave was one of never-ending fear and suffering. Hunger, extreme overwork, and cruelty were everyday occurrences. Slaves did not eat enough to have children, and those few who were born usually died. The sheer labor intensity required to cultivate and produce sugar – one of the most profitable commodities in the 17th and 18th centuries – required literally working people to death. In the cold logic of plantation masters, the breeding of slaves was a waste of resources: it was better and more cost-effective to work them to death and just bring in more from Africa.

[Note that this is why people of African descent living in former Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies – from Louisiana and Haiti to Cuba and Brazil – have generally retained more of their African heritage, in the forms of Creole, Voodoo, Santeria, and so on. Unlike in the English colonies, where deaths rates were comparatively lower and birth rates higher, new Africans kept being brought in to replenish the labor force. Thus, by the time these colonies became independent, there were enough African-born individuals who retained some form of their language, folklore, religion, and so on.]

Given the constant agony of slave life, many slaves sought solace in the idea of going back to their homeland, which they called lan guinée – literally “Guinea” or “West Africa”. It says a lot that in Haitian Creole, this phrase is now synonymous with heaven, since the only conceivable way out of slavery was death. Though African slaves feared death like anyone else, they also wished for it. Suicide was common, as it not only offered an escape, but served as the sole means of asserting freedom – to take back control over the body your master owned and exploited. It was also the only way the slave could defy their master, through deprivation of their labor, without punishment.

[Slaves generally committed suicide through homemade poisons, and this handiness with toxins made some plantation masters fearful of being targeted in this covert manner. The cultural trope of the African or Voodoo witch doctor may have stemmed in large part from this concern.]

This is where the zombie mythos emerges. In traditional Vodou belief, the zombie is a dead person who cannot go to lan guinée. Rather, the zombie is fated to remain mindless and without control – a slave for eternity. To get to the final resting place of Africa, you needed to be transported by Baron Samedi, a loa, or spirit, of the dead. Among his roles is to dig a person’s grave and welcome him to the other side. But if for some reason one has offended Baron, the god will not allow that person to reach guinea upon death, thus leaving them behind as a zombie (which in some variations can be controlled by someone else, such as a bokor, akin to a witch or sorcerer).

Needless to say, becoming a zombie was a slave’s worst nightmare: it meant that the only path to liberation was gone, and you would continue to be enslaved. It is believed that Africans developed this concept to instill hope: keep being a good and pious person, and avoid offending Baron and other spirits, and soon you would be free. However, many slave drivers also exploited this fear, invoking it to keep slaves motivated and to discourage them from acting out or committing suicide.

Though it originates in the folklore of Haitian Vodou (which itself is a descendent and variation of the original African religion of Vodou), contrary to popular belief, zombies are not part of any formal religious practice.

Moreover, the idea of reanimating corpses or wandering souls is fairly common in mythologies and religions around the world. But the zombie concept that has become popularized in the West seems to stem mostly from Haitian and Louisianian Vodou (which in the former’s case was to the transmitted to the U.S. through our occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century).

Source: New York Times

The Art of Bus Stops

The Soviet regime might have been repressive and stultifying in a lot of areas, but one place where it exercised a considerable amount of boldness and innovation is public infrastructure — including the humble bus stop.

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

The photos were taken by Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig, who has spent over a decade travelling through most of the former Soviet Union to document these neglected architectural marvels. You can see a larger version of each photo by clicking here.

With their unusual colors, shapes, and themes, these otherwise functional structures look more like art installments than bus stops. As Foreign Policy explains:

The Soviet Union ascribed an outsized importance to public transportation. Buses, trains, and metro lines were a sign of progress; they were also a powerful symbol of connection and unity, as the Politburo worked to build a communist society throughout 15 ethnically diverse republics that covered a landmass stretching from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Pacific. Perhaps the most famous legacy of this Soviet fixation on transport is the Moscow Metro system, with its glittering chandeliers and its elaborate murals depicting scenes of proletariat glory. But Moscow was dressed up in order to be shown off — to serve as a demonstration of socialist power and might for visiting foreign dignitaries. Most citizens lived outside the capital, and for them, buses were the predominant means of transportation, accounting for nearly 44 percent of traffic throughout the country by the mid-1980s. What makes the extravagant, eye-catching nature of the common Soviet roadside bus stop all the more surprising is that these were often tucked away in hidden corners of the empire, far from the eyes of foreigners.

Soviet architecture is best known for its overpowering conformity and functionality: The term conjures up images of rows of low-slung buildings and mass-produced apartment blocks. These bus stops, however, were an unlikely outlet for creative expression. Local artists were given unprecedented freedom to experiment with design, color, and material. Many of the designs were commissioned at the local level, which allowed for artists and architects to reflect the character and history of their individual republics. What came about was thousands of unique creations, covering a range of shapes and sizes.

Artists still worked within the confines of Soviet art, employing communist imagery of peasants in wheat fields and relying on austere, minimalist structures. But the more flamboyant bus stops reimagined this aesthetic, twisting standard outlines and incorporating local elements into their design. For instance, a bus stop modeled after the Silk Road-era Arystan Bab mausoleum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan sports a minaret and crescent moon, while one in the Black Sea coastal town of Gagra takes the shape of a breaking wave, decorated with purple mosaic tiles.

These are just some of the amazing examples from Herwig’s collection. You can find more in his newly published “Soviet Bus Stops“.

You Think Today’s Politics Are Bad?

Amid the understandable growing public disgust with the nasty and petty behavior of our public servants, the Baltimore Sun helpfully reminds us that politics really hasn’t changed all that much — if anything, it is a lot tamer.

Consider our first contested presidential election, in 1800, which pit two of our most famous statesmen — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — against each other. It’s tempting to envisage them as wig-clad philosopher-kings, deliberating high-minded ideas in a calm and reasoned campaign.

It’s also false. Jefferson’s supporters said that Adams had secretly plotted to have one of his sons marry King George III’s daughter, to bring America back under the British crown. But if Jefferson were elected, Adams’ camp charged, the young nation would descend into anarchy and violence.

“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced,” one anti-Jefferson newspaper predicted, “the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

Another editorialist painted an even bleaker picture of life under a Jefferson administration. “Look at your homes, your parents, your wives, and your children,” he warned. “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, hoary hairs bathed in blood, female chastity violated, or children writhing on the pike?”

To think that Adams, one of the most vociferous patriots of the American Revolution, being accused of selling out the country to the British? It must be hard to imagine our enlightened and gentlemanly founders resorting to such crude and provocative language. To be sure, much of this was being directed by supporters rather than the candidates themselves, but neither of the men seemed to have done much to reign in on such inflamed passions. Politics is politics, even for otherwise seemingly intelligent people.  Continue reading

Is The Constitution What’s Wrong With America?

The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum makes the provocative case that what ails the United States’ political system is the very document it is founded upon. Put another way, the problem with America today is not that it has deviated from the Constitution, but on the contrary, its politicians and citizens remain too true and reverential to it.

This is idea is drawn from The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding, a 2014 book written by Harvard political theorist Eric Nelson. The argument begins by tracing the roots and sentiments of the American Revolution to Britain’s own historical debate about executive versus legislative power. It is a long excerpt, but it is well worth reading, since this is an often-overlooked context and influence for the Patriots.  Continue reading

Mural of the Mexican Independence, by Juan O’Gorman. Courtesy of

Mexico — Rising Global Power?

In honor of Mexican Independence Day, a hard-fought achievement that absolutely did not happen on Cinco de Mayo, I present some facts to counter the country’s warped and narrow image in the United States (most resoundingly apparent in the cycle of hysteria around illegal immigration).

For starters, overall immigration from south of the border has, as of 2013, declined by 80 percent since 2007, the lowest at any point since 1991. Not only does the number of Mexicans returning home outnumber those leaving the country, but more Americans have left for Mexico than the other way around, an underreported trend that has surged since 2005. (Subsequently, our southern neighbor hosts over one million U.S. citizens, the most of any country in the world.)

Moreover, this trend is likely to be permanent, since Mexico is actually doing far better than most people realize, despite its many pressing social and political problems. Following the recession, the Mexican economy has grown twice as fast as America’s, and was among the fastest growing in the world in some years (albeit from a much lower base). Depending on the metric used, Mexico has the 11th to 15th largest economy in the world, and is predicted by groups like Goldman Sachs and the World Bank to become the fifth to seventh largest economy by 2050 – around the level that France, Germany, and the U.K. are at today.

A few analysts have gone even further by suggesting that Mexico could become an influential global power in its own right. This is not as far fetched as it may initially sound: in many areas, such as infrastructure and business climate, the country is at least comparable, if superior, to Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other identified emerging powers; it has even earned coveted classification as one of several economic powerhouses to look out for — see the MINT group or the Next Eleven.

These accolades are well deserved. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Mexicans have joined a rapidly growing middle-class, warranting the county’s official classification as a newly industrialized nation (NIC), a distinction only a handful of developing countries have achieved. Mexico’s average life expectancy and poverty rate is comparable to the U.S. (thanks in part to its universal healthcare system), while one-third of Mexican states have a violent crime rate equal to or even less than that of many U.S. states.

To be sure, Mexico is still enduring many problems, namely one of the worst rates of violence and income inequality in the world. Its political system, while free and robust by developing-world standards, is nonetheless rife with corruption and venality. Many intractable challenges face the country, but it is not the dystopia that popular culture and news media make it out to be, and it certainly has a lot of potential.

So Mexicans have a lot to be proud of this independence day. Despite the grim present circumstances, their long and rich history demonstrates a seemingly boundless capacity for perseverance, resourcefulness, and hope. Here is hoping that our good neighbor to the south continues steadily along the path to progress.

Photo courtesy of and

How English Sounded Five Centuries Ago

As a reminder of English’s Germanic roots and profound French and Norse influence, enjoy the following reading of a 16th-century poem, spoken in the common language of the day, Middle English. (You can find a transcript here.)

You likely recognize certain words and pronunciations from modern English, as well as the distinctively sing-songy Nordic accent. It is pretty fascinating to hear firsthand how much the language has changed.

Via Encurious.

Why Can’t Men Cry

Like so many men across generations and cultures, I was made to believe, by both culture and social conditioning that crying in all forms was “unmanly” and something only girls and babies do (which also says a lot about our warped views and expectations towards women). Whether it was inconsolable sobbing or merely shedding a tear, any manifestation of weeping was to be discouraged, ridiculed, or even shamed.

But as Sandra Newman of Aeon writes, this largely unquestioned norm is highly anomalous by historical standards. From the accounts of the Ancient Greeks and the Bible, to Medieval European romances and Japanese epics, men cried on every occasion and circumstance.

Historical and literary evidence suggests that, in the past, not only did men cry in public, but no one saw it as feminine or shameful. In fact, male weeping was regarded as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history.

Still more remarkably, there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears. No one pretends to have something in his eye. No one makes an excuse to leave the room. They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.

As a love of history, it used to always surprise me how many powerful male figures — generals, kings, and conquerors — were reported to openly weep without shame or criticism. It was pretty much a given that crying was something all people did, period, and none of the manly men of history were an exception.

So when and why did this change? Well, as with so many other dramatic changes in social and psychological norms, it is not entirely clear, but there is one interesting leading theory. Continue reading

Assessing The U.N. 70 Years Later

An article by  of The Guardian offers a refreshingly in-depth and nuanced view of the world’s premier international organization. Founded, as third Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld said, “not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell”, the United Nations is one of humanity’s boldest experiments — and to many, one of its most damning failures. The product of a world devastated by war, it was designed largely to ensure a stable and peaceful international system, one that would never again fall into barbaric and wide scale conflict (a directive that its predecessor, the hapless League of Nations, had also been founded for).

Unlike the hapless League, which had lacked global support (most notably from the United States), the U.N. has managed to remain the largest global body in the world, expanding its membership to encompass most of the world’s nations, as well as an increasing number of activities and goals.

How much of a part the UN played in holding nuclear armageddon at bay divides historians. But there is little doubt that in the lifetime that has passed since it was set up in 1945 it helped save millions from other kinds of hell. From the deepest of poverty. From watching their children die of treatable diseases. From starvation and exposure as they fled wars made in the cauldron of ideological rivalries between Washington and Moscow but fought on battlefields in Africa and Asia.

The UN’s children’s organisation, UNICEF, provided an education and a path to a better life for millions, including the present UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. The UN’s development programmes were instrumental in helping countries newly freed from colonial rule to govern themselves.

And yet. In its 70 years, the United Nations may have been hailed as the great hope for the future of mankind – but it has also been dismissed as a shameful den of dictatorships. It has infuriated with its numbing bureaucracy, its institutional cover-ups of corruption and the undemocratic politics of its security council. It goes to war in the name of peace but has been a bystander through genocide. It has spent more than half a trillion dollars in 70 years.

“Like everybody says, if you didn’t have the UN you’d have to invent it”, said David Shearer, who served the organisation in senior posts in Rwanda, Belgrade, Afghanistan, Iraq and Jerusalem. He is now New Zealand’s shadow foreign minister. “But it’s imperfect, of course it is, and everybody knows that it is”, he said.

Contrary to popular belief, the U.N. is far from useless; indeed, its World Health Organization (WHO) was responsible for spearheading the first effective vaccine against Ebola. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals helped catalyze national governments across the globe to improve their citizens’ social and economic well-being. A multitude of U.N. research, covering everything from the global population to agricultural outputs, helps inform national and international policymaking. Even U.N. Peacekeeping, perhaps the most ballyhooed of the organization’s many activities, is actually comparatively more effective for mitigating conflict than any alternative (including interventions by countries like the U.S.).

Still, even for a world citizen and internationalist like myself, there is no denying the U.N.’s many faults. It is hard enough to keep any human institution clean of corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency, but imagining doing so for a group comprised of literally an entire world of special interests, cultures, and power dynamics? After all, despite an annual expenditure 40 times greater than in the 1950s, including a doubling of administrative costs just over the last decades, the U.N. still has a smaller budget than the City of New York — not a lot to work with when it comes to responding to disasters, facilitating conflict resolution, and addressing a multitude of global problems.

“There is no single institution that I found more exhilarating at its best, yet more debilitatingly frustrating at its worst, than the United Nations,” said Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia and strong critic of the way the UN is run. He said his efforts to advance reform of the UN “were about as quixotic and unproductive as anything I have ever tried to do”.

That’s a sentiment widely shared among diplomats and UN officials.

Valerie Amos, Britain’s former international development minister, described the UN as a valuable ally in delivering UK aid but lamented its inefficiency.

“There were concerns about the UN being overly bureaucratic and slow in the way it dealt with development issues. I think that’s one of the criticisms of the UN that remains until now, that since it was formed it has become bigger and bigger. Many organisations have overlapping mandates. It’s become an organisation that’s quite unwieldy in lots of respects,” Lady Amos said.

The article goes on to note several accounts from U.N. employees, past and present, who have experienced first hand the many challenges faced by the organization, both internal and external: a tug of war between wealthy and poor countries; undue influence by certain governments over particular posts and agencies; a reliance on begging governments to fund resource-strapped projects; a lack of coordination and assessment for initiatives; and a sclerotic culture of reform owing to vested special interests.

In other words, most of the challenges one would find in any organization at any level of government…but further complicated by the vast disparity of wealth, culture, language, political culture, and geopolitical interests of the nearly 200 nations involved. Again, consider how difficult a project between even a handful of individuals is, let alone tens of thousands of people representing a multitude of very different countries.

This is by no means to make excuses for the U.N. or its failings. But 70 years is not a lot of time to improve, especially given how novel the concept of international law, let alone a sense of global consciousness, remains. Humanity has a long way to go before it develops the requisite values needed to cooperate on such a large scale. Trying to get billions of people onboard when it comes to resolving a plethora of pressing challenges is no easy feat. (Heck, it is hard enough to pull off on a national scale, speaking from the American experience.)

In any case, I recommend you read the rest of the article, as it covers a pretty wide breadth of issues and obstacles facing the U.N. now and well into the foreseeable future. It ends on a somewhat cautionary note, observing that despite quite a lot of evidence of what needs to be done and how — much of it gathered through the U.N.’s own internal investigations — widespread disinterest and stagnation remain entrenched.

As our ever more globalized world continues to face mounting crises in areas like security, food supply, environment, and more, will the U.N. prove capable of stepping up to the task? As the international system becomes increasingly multipolar, will humanity manage to create an institution that can pool its vast collective resources and expertise, and coordinate an effective response to the myriad of dangers that lie ahead? The track record seems mixed at best…but then again, there has never been anything quite like the U.N., let alone the global consciousness that has emerged and grown alongside it.

What are your thoughts?

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

When Brazil Briefly Became a Leading Naval Power

Wikipedia’s latest Featured Article highlights an unusual episode of the early 20th century: Brazil’s acquisition of two of the largest and most cutting-edge battleships in the world: the Minas Geraes and São Paulo (former pictured).

Brazil was only the third country, after the U.K. and the U.S., to have the revolutionary “dreadnought” class (called the Minas Geraes class in Brazil) — ahead of major powers like France, Germany, Japan, and Russia. Its high profile purchase not only reflected the country’s growing wealth and prestige, but its aspirations of becoming a respected world power.

The ships were an international media sensation, not only for their power and sophistication, but out of surprise that Brazil, of all places, should come to possess them. (In fact, it was initially widely speculated that Brazil was only purchasing the ships on behalf of another power, with each major power pointing fingers at one another as the true buyer.) Upon their completion and delivery in 1910, the U.S. and other powers began courting Brazil as a potential ally, no doubt giving the country the sort of national pride that had partly motivated this move.

This event sparked another lesser known event in the 20th century: the great South American dreadnought race, wherein rivals Argentina and Chile — among the richest and most powerful countries in Latin America — worked to acquire powerful battleships of their own (other participants included Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Like Brazil, each country acquired two powerful dreadnoughts of their own, but ultimately these behemoths would remain as white elephants: symbolically impressive, by strategically unnecessary. After seeing little action, all the ships built in the race would end up being sold or scrapped by the mid-20th century — but not without giving their respective countries a significant, though costly, boost in global prestige and status.

New Human Ancestor Discovered

From the New York Times.

The new hominin species was announced on Thursday by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.

In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Further, the scientists said, that sample is probably a small fraction of the fossils yet to be recovered from the chamber. So far the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage”, Dr. Berger said.

Besides introducing a new member of the prehuman family, the discovery suggests that some early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber, a behavior previously considered limited to modern humans. Some of the scientists referred to the practice as a ritualized treatment of their dead, but by “ritual” they said they meant a deliberate and repeated practice, not necessarily a kind of religious rite.

“It’s very, very fascinating”, said Ian Tattersall, an authority on human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was not involved in the research. “No question there’s at least one new species here”, he added, “but there may be debate over the Homo designation, though the species is quite different from anything else we have seen”.

Learn more about this seminal finding from National Geographicwith which Berger is associated (apparently, he is quite a prominent and accomplished figure in his field).