Category Archives: Anthropology

The Knight vs. The Snail

Image from the Gorleston Psalter (14th Century)

This is a doodle from a medieval manuscript. Such manuscripts were written by monks (who, other than nobles and clergy, were really the only ones that could even read after all) and usually included some sort of doodle or artwork in the margins. But some are pretty strange. Like this one. Do you know why the knight is fighting a snail? Because if you read enough 14th century literature this image turns up everywhere. And nobody knows why.

Perhaps its a weird joke – the knight finally facing an equally-armored foe – or maybe it’s a metaphor. Some people have proposed that the snails are references to biblical passages, or political groups, or sex. Here’s a tip – if you don’t know what something represents, sex is always a good guess. Maybe the monks just really hated snails, but then why do the knights always look so worried?

Maybe they know something we don’t. I’m not saying knights battled giant snails in medieval Europe. But I’m not not saying it either.

To see more images, go to the Medieval Manuscripts blog at the British Library. Thanks to and reddit for the heads up.


Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Anthropology, History


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Native American Dog Breeds Survived European Invasion

Imagine a viking dog – long, lean, grizzled like its masters. It’s nestled down in the bow of a boat, curled on top of a thin blanket. It’s fur is matted with brine – it’s ears ring with the seagull’s cries. The boat ride has been long and harsh – a dog has to have already proven it’s worth many times over to be worth the bread and water. But this one was. The crew is happy to have it with them. Their destination is Vinland, across the North Atlantic, at the very edge of North America. And, if the gulls are any indication, they’re close.

Imagine the boat grinding onto a shoal – the men jumping out, hauling ropes through the waist-deep spray. The dog jumps out with them. They slowly drag their ship onto the pebble beach. Waiting at the treeline are a group of men. They are thinner than the vikings, quick-witted and cautious. The vikings call them skraelings. They are the native people of Vinland. The vikings: trespassers. Or merchants. Or invaders. It’s not always clear.

Imagine the viking dog at it’s master’s side as he walks towards the native group. And at the native leader’s side – another dog. Different, yes, perhaps a bit smaller, or a different color, but still recognizably a dog. Two groups of humans and two groups of dogs, separated by over 10,000 years of divergence, meeting again on the rough Vinland shores.

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We know that Native Americans had domestic dogs long before the arrival of Europeans. The Taínos of Jamaica hunted conies with small, silent dogs called alcos. Darwin himself noted that the tribes of Tierra del Fuego had small dogs trained to hunt otter. Dogs were pets, hunters, even pieces of art long before any Europeans stepped foot in the new world.

Ceramic Mexican Dog Figure from 200 BC – 500 AD

Unfortunately, most of the native breeds disappeared along with their resident cultures. The alcos are long extinct. And what breeds didn’t go extinct were assumed to have quickly interbred with the invasion European dog breeds.

However, recent DNA analysis hints proves that this isn’t true. A handful of new world breeds can trace their genetic origin back to Pre-Columbian times. Purebred Inuit, Eskimo and Greenland dog, Chihuahua, xoloitzcuintli and perro sín pelo del Peru are all show strong resistance to European interbreeding. These are native dogs. Two other stocks, Alaskan Malamutes and Carolina dogs also show intriguing results.

It’s interesting to see living examples of heritage. That viking must have been proud of his dog to bring it all the way across the ocean. The native leader must have been just as proud of his. We often think the trappings of culture are all material, but people often define themselves not just by ideas and goods, but also by what animals they choose to spend their lives with.

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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Anthropology, Natural History


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Aroldis Chapman stared over his glove at home plate. The Cincinatti Reds were playing the San Diego Padres. Chapman was pitching. After a moment, he gave the catcher a small, almost imperceptible nod then turned, swinging his body into a pitching stance. He regarded the hitter one last time, then tensed, folded, and, in one fluid motion, exploded outwards, throwing the ball faster than could be seen.

It was like nothing the natural world had ever seen.

There are a lot of strong animals. A draft horse can easily pull four thousand pounds of weight and a fully-grown male chimpanzee can rip your arm out of your socket. But no other animal can throw like a human being. That same chimpanzee can throw a baseball at a measly 20 miles per hour. Chapman’s record-setting pitch was over five times as fast. Nothing in the world even comes close.

A recent study by Neil Roach of George Washington University investigated just how a human evolved to throw that fast. Dr. Roach used motion capture cameras to record and analyze college pitchers as they practiced throwing fastballs. A video of their work in motion can be found here.

They found that the human shoulder evolved to work like a giant slingshot. As a person cocks their arm back the tendons and ligaments in their arms stretch and lock, storing a massive amount of potential elastic energy. When that energy is released it rockets the arm forward in the fastest motion the human body can produce.

This special power likely began to evolve millions of years ago as our primitive ancestors transitioned from a herbivorous to omnivorous diet. “We think that throwing was probably most important early on in terms of hunting behavior, enabling our ancestors to effectively and safely kill big game,” Dr. Roach said. “Eating more calorie-rich meat and fat would have allowed our ancestors to grow larger brains and bodies and expand into new regions of the world—all of which helped make us who we are today.”

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Posted by on June 30, 2013 in Anthropology, Natural History


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Ancient Weapons Reveal Lost Shark Species

The Gilbert Islands had amazing fights. The Gilbert Islands are a remote chain, now part of Kiribati, and the natives, starved for space, chose champions to fight it out. Dressed them in special armor, the champions threw them at each other with the hopes of gaining or defending territory. The fights didn’t look very much like Europeans battles, however. The Gilbert Islands don’t have natural sources of metal. These were no knights in plate armor – the islanders had to make due with natural materials. What armor they wore was made of shark skin and coconut cord. Weapons were vicious inventions of wood and bone. Shark teeth were common – woven into razor-sharp knuckle dusters or inlaid into wooden swords.

The islanders used pretty much everything they could find in these fights. A recent analysis showed that more than seventeen different species of sharks were used to create these vicious weapons. Which is interesting, since two of those species – the spotfin shark and dusky shark – aren’t found near the islands, at least not today.

“Had we never done this work, nobody would have ever known that these things ever existed there. It had been erased from our collective memories that these sharks once plied these waters,” said J. Drew, one of the study authors. No historical or cultural records of these species survived to the present day.

The complete study can be read here at PLOS One.

Source: National Geographic

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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Anthropology, Natural History


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Cherrapunji Root Bridges

Cherrapunji, India has a problem with rainfall. The winter is dry, very dry, and most of the plants have had to adapt to drought-like conditions. But the rest of the year more than makes up for it. Nearly forty feet of rain fall on Cherrapunji every year, making it the second wettest place on Earth – only it’s neighboring state Mawsynram has a higher average downpour. The constant rain makes Cherrapunji’s mountain streams turn from creekbeds to raging torrents every year.

These hillsides are covered in life adapted to this constant stress, including it’s people. The War-Khasis are the residents here, a matrilineal set of tribes. Agriculture is hard due to constant erosion. Travel is difficult too – anyone who’s had to cross a strong river knows how dangerous it can be. The rivers are a constant barrier. But instead of giving up or relying on expensive artificial bridges of steel and concrete, the War-Khasis have found a unique solution.

As you can see in the video, one of the local trees, Ficus elastica, anchors itself against the force of the rivers with hundreds of strong, grasping roots. It’s these roots than the War-Khasis use to create their bridges, turning trees into highways. The bridges are immensely strong, easily taking the weight of dozens of people and they only get stronger every year. One particular tree even supports a double-decker bridge.

The bridges seem to have become an emblem of the War-Khasis, ensuring survival of both the people and their culture.

Sources: AtlasObscura

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Posted by on January 6, 2013 in Anthropology, Natural History


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A Short Survey of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a tricky subject for me. One the one hand, it often stands apart from western medicine and science, roughly in the same area as homeopathy or other alternative medicines. Untested cures based on tradition, rather than evidence. On the other hand, not a lot of study has flown the other way, either. With such an array of history, it’s quite likely that some if not many of the cures are actually effective in some manner, but not a lot of research has been done with regards to Traditional Chinese Medicine and a number of interesting compounds are now being discovered thanks to these cures. That said, I think I’ll stick with vaccines and vitamins.

But Traditional Chinese Medicine also has a societal aspect to it too, one that is just as complex as the scientific aspect. Demand for rare animal parts has fueled decades of poaching and destruction. A major fraction of tiger and rhino poaching goes directly into the black markets of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But on the other hand, this is a rich tradition that goes back thousands of years and the philosophies it has been based on have long been a cornerstone of how China viewed the world.

Tricky. Tricky.

Well, enough of opinions and hard thought. It’s time to point out some of the more interesting ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Now, most of the time you’ll see things like ginger or ginkgo. Maybe a lotus root or two in there somewhere, but these ingredients are substantially weirder.

  • Ophiocordyceps sinesis A parasitic fungus that grows out of the heads of subterranean caterpillars high on the Tibetan plateau. The price of this aphrodisiac and cancer treatment has exploded. A pound can cost up to $50,000.
  • Dried seahorse – Seahorses tend to arrive on the market as bycatch from shrimp trawlers around the Phillipines and India, although some are specifically hunted by lamplight. Dried seahorse can be used for impotence and incontinence, aiding circulation, and relieving swelling.
  • Turtle shell – Invigorates the blood and attacks malaria.
  • Silkworm feces – Used to treat diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Also apparently keeps your stomach from growling.
  • Scorpions – Clears the liver and relieves headaches.
  • Cinnabar – A vibrant red ore, actually a natural form of mercury sulfate, ground into a powder. It’s taken to calm the heart and reduce anxiety. Just like in European alchemy, Chinese Taoists believed that mercury was essential in creating their elixir of immortality. Mercury is, of course, highly toxic and neurological symptoms can develop if taken incautiously.
  • Realgar – Also known as ruby sulphur, these bright red crystals are taken for sore throats, swellings, and to kill intestinal parasites. And it certainly will kill those, realgar is actually a form of arsenic and like cinnabar should be taken with care.
  • Cicada moultings – Clears rashes, relieves visual obstruction, and ‘disperses wind’.
  • Pangolin scales – Used to keep menses regular and prevent period cramps.
  • Hornets nests – Relieves pain and toothaches and clears up ringworm.
  • Centipedes – Prevents lock jaw and seizures as well as counteracting toxins.

Yeah, I don’t think I need any centipedes, thanks.

Sources: seahorse-australia, yinyanghouse

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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Anthropology, History, Medicine, Modernity


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Shackleton’s Third Man

“She’s going down!” the men yelled, scrambling away. Their ship, The Endurance, was sinking. Antarctic ice had entrapped her for more than ten months and finally, on the 21st of November, 1915, she slipped away for good. The expedition’s leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton, was forced to watch as his men’s last connection with the civilized world disappeared underneath the stark polar ice. Stuck on the winter ice pack, Shackleton could do little but order his twenty-seven men to march for the nearest land, Elephant Island, over 300 miles away. And even after they reached solid land, the nearest civilization was little more than a scattering of whaling stations on the island of South Georgia, another 800 miles distant.

Shackleton didn’t hide from the hard truth. If they were to save themselves, South Georgia would have to be their goal. Choosing a handful of skilled men to accompany him, Shackleton sailed, rowed, and hiked the last 800 miles. He survived starvation, frostbite, and polar hurricanes, but found the whalers and returned to Elephant Island four months later to rescue those left behind.

Save your Scotts and Roald Amundsen’s. I can think of nothing that embodies the spirit of polar exploration, in all its grim determination, boundless hope, and humanity more than the story of Shackleton’s hardship. Shackleton recorded his experience in the book South: The Endurance Expedition.

But South doesn’t just represent the explorer’s spirit, hidden within its pages is an evolutionary puzzle. This book, in fact, presents one of the first recorded instances of a bizarre psychological phenomenon known as the Third Man Factor. Read:

“When I look back at those days,” writes Shackleton, “I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snow fields, but across the storm-white sea… I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.”


The Third Man Factor is that feeling Shackleton describes, an unseen spirit or companion. Its often seems to happen to explorers and travelers who have reached the grimmest peaks of desperation. The mountain climber Reinhold Messner, aviator Charles Lindbergh, and the geologist Stephanie Schwabe all reported feeling a friendly and comforting figure guiding them out of impossible situations. Thousands of others have experienced it as well. Some have attributed to divine intervention or guardian angels.

Biologically, this poses an interesting question. It doesn’t seem to be a fluke – why should this one particular phenomenon crop up again and again in perilous situations? It could be dismissed as hallucinations or delirium, but if it was, why do the affected continue to maintain their grip on reality? Why don’t they fall into flights of fancy? Why are the visitors universally helpful? And why did every single one of Shackleton’s men all feel their phantom companion?

The answer may be a behavioral switch, long-buried in our own psyches. Scientists in Switzerland have replicated this same phenomenon by electrically stimulating the temporo-parietal junction of an epileptic woman. The junction is part of the brain that organizes sensory information. When they activated the switch, the woman became convinced of a benevolent, calming presence. When the switch was turned off, the spirit disappeared.

It’s been suggested that some of our emotional idiosyncrasies may actually be naturally evolved tools. An article from Scientific American points out that depression makes us self-reflective, analytical, and cautious in stressful situations, exactly the qualities you might want if your life was on the line. Perhaps the Third Man is another one of these evolutionary tools, a self-created guide for the conscious mind through the worst of hardships, pointing out advice that we had always known and simply forgotten.

If this is true I have a hard time thinking of anything more beautiful than a creature evolved to invent angels.


After the Endurance expedition, Ernest Shackleton went home to England and volunteered to serve in World War I. In 1921 he returned to exploration, but suffered a fatal heart attack less than a year later. He was buried on South Georgia island.

Of the crew the Endurance left stranded on Elephant Island, Shackleton did not lose a single man. All survived.

Sources: The Endurance Expedition, by Ernest Shackleton, Wikipedia


Posted by on July 29, 2012 in Anthropology, Biography, History, Modernity


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