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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America’s Baffling Opposition to the WHO’s Breastfeeding Resolution

It seems that any institution that is global or multilateral in nature or name elicits visceral opposition by huge swathes of the American public. While there has long been an undercurrent of insularity and outright hostility in America towards the rest of the world, it goes without saying that under the present administration — which came to power on a platform of nationalism, protectionism, and revanchism against foreigners — the sentiment has been worsened to the point of absurdity.

The most salient recent example is our strange response to a sensible resolution at the World Health Organization (WHO) that no one would have imagined was controversial. Continue reading

The Decline of U.S. Global Approval

According to a Gallup poll published in January, 65 out of 134 countries surveyed saw a decline in U.S. leadership approval ratings by 10 points or more between 2016 and 2017. This includes many longtime allies and partners.

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Portugal, Belgium, Norway and Canada led the declines worldwide, with approval ratings of U.S. leadership dropping 40 points or more in each country. In contrast, U.S. approval rating increased 10 points or more in just four countries: Liberia (+17), Macedonia (+15), Israel (+14), and Belarus (+11).

Americans typically brush off, if not disparage, what the rest of the world thinks of us. But in a rapidly globalizing and multipolar society, with many rising rivals, global public opinion matters. It also matters that the majority of fellow democracies — as well as countries with longstanding political, economic, historical, and cultural ties — have a lower opinion of us than dysfunctional and/or authoritarian regimes. We should want approval by fellow ostensible democratic-minded societies, not authoritarian ones.

What are your thoughts?

 

Americans: Don’t Forget to Thank Mr. Ding This Fourth of July

Since I’m pressed for time today, I figured I would stick to something light and cheeky: while most people know that the Chinese invented fireworks over a millennia ago, they may not realized that China (perhaps ironically) remains the main source of the fireworks most Americans will be using to celebrate their nation’s independence.

In particular, as the LA Times points out, it is one otherwise obscure Chinese businessman who accounts for the vast majority of fireworks imported into the U.S. Continue reading

The World Cup’s Classiest Countries

Senegal and Japan would seem as far apart culturally as they are geographically: the West African nation of 15 million is poor, highly diverse ethnically and linguistically, and predominately Muslim; the East Asian island nation of 125 million is among the wealthiest and most homogeneous societies in the world, and is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought.

Yet this year’s World Cup brought to light one unlikely but endearing similarity: both cultures share an appreciation for cleanliness and etiquette, even amid the highly competitive (and often very messy) environment of federation football.  Continue reading

India’s Ambitious Democracy

In the spring of 1947, the eve of India’s independence from the U.K., the leaders of its independence movement made the fateful decision for their new country to be a secular, constitutional republic with suffrage for every adult citizen: more than 170 million in total. Overnight, India became the world’s largest democracy, a distinction it retains to this day, with an incredible 900 million eligible voters (nearly three times the total U.S. population).

The logistics of Indian democracy were daunting: at the time, some 85% of its electorate were illiterate, requiring political parties to get clever with the use of pictographs and symbols to communicate their platform. Tens of thousands of civil servants worked for two full years just to compile the rolls for India’s first general election, conducted in 1951; the voter lists would be 200 meters (656 feet) thick. Today the list is five times that amount. Continue reading

The Amazing Tulou of China

I have always been fascinated by the architectural ingenuity of humanity, especially in periods or places where resources seem lacking. One case in point is the tulou, a type of large, multi-storied communal home built with wood and fortified with mud walls. Built between the 15th and 20th centuries in China’s subtropical Fujian province in the south, these structures were not only durable — 46 survive to this day — but they conformed with feng shui principles and are cleverly sited to be close to tea, tobacco, rice fields, and lush forests, giving their denizens access to crucial resources and livelihoods.

tulou-fujian-province-china-adapt-885-1 Continue reading

Africa’s Great Green Wall

Africa does not come to mind when one thinks of audacious public works projects. But the continent’s growing wealth and political stability, combined with the pressing challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, is driving its leaders to come together and concentrate their efforts into forging bold new solutions.

Among them is the Great Green Wall, an incredible idea to create a wall of vegetation across the width of the Sahara to stave off rapid desertification and improve agricultural output (which most Africans depend on for survival). It would be around 4,000 kilometers in total, making it the largest “living structure” in the world, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. Continue reading

Scandinavians Are the World’s Happiest People

When I visited Scandinavia via a cruise with my fiance last summer, we were both struck by the pleasantness of the Nordic people and how beautiful and well organized the country seemed to be. While we only spent a day or so in each country, it corresponded with everything I had read about their high rankings in all sorts of international metrics, from quality of life to good governance.

Thus, I wasn’t too surprised when the New York Times reported that Norway was recently found to be the world’s happiest country last year, followed closely by its Nordic neighbors. Continue reading

The Middle East’s First Particle Accelerator Turns One Year Old

Here’s a rare bit of good news coming out of the Middle East: last year saw the inauguration of its first and still only synchrotron radiation facility,  a large, complex, and powerful machine that, in layman’s terms, acts as an exceptionally keen microscope. (The largest and most well known example is the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN, a European research organization.) According to the BBC:

Its name is Sesame – Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

The facility hosts a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that acts as a powerful microscope.

Researchers including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians – who would never normally meet – will now use the machine together.

Sesame is a play on the famous phrase “Open Sesame” and is meant to signal a new era of collaborative science.

By generating intense beams of light, synchrotrons provide exceptionally detailed views of everything from cancerous tissue to ancient parchments to plant diseases.

Sesame’s vast white building, located amid dusty hills some 35km north of the capital Amman, makes a stark contrast to the olive groves around it.

Jordan was chosen because of its relative political stability and the fact that it is the only country in the region with diplomatic relations with all the other members of the initiative: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey.

Nevertheless, as to be expected with trying to start an expensive international collaborative project in a place like the Middle East, there were many obstacles. Again from the BBC:

For most of the past decade, a British physicist, Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, has chaired the project through a series of obstacles.

  • For a start, Israel and Iran do not have diplomatic relations with each other and nor do fellow members Turkey and Cyprus
  • Iran has been unable to pay its share because of international sanctions on banking
  • Two Iranian scientists were killed in what the Iranian government said were assassinations by the Israeli secret service — one was a delegate to the Sesame Council, the other had visited Sesame
  • After a freak snowstorm, the Sesame roof collapsed leaving key components exposed to the elements

Now, standing in the centre of the completed — and tested — main ring of the Sesame synchrotron, Prof Llewellyn Smith admitted that he was “a bit surprised” that the venture had got so far.

“The real problem has been finding the money — the countries in this region have science budgets that you can hardly see with a microscope,” he said.

Indeed, neither multinational collaboration nor particle accelerators come to mind when one thinks of the Middle East, and yet it now hosts a facility that is just one of sixty in the whole world, funded, staffed, and maintained by nations that still distrust, if not outright despise, one another. It was quite an inspiring feat to pull off, and one that is still tenuous — as it passes its one year anniversary without a hitch, will it survive worsening circumstances in the region (including renewed tensions between Israel and Iran).

Imagine how much scientific progress could be made if our species could get past the ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, greediness, and fearfulness that continue to divide us. This project is just a small and unlikely indicator of that. Here’s hoping there will be more to come there and elsewhere.