Music: Jon Hassell — ‘Dream Theory’

 

Jon Hassell: “Dream Theory in Malaya is titled after a paper by a visionary anthropologist, Kilton Stewart, who in 1935 visited a remarkable highland tribe of Malayan aborigines, the Senoi, whose happiness and well-being were linked to their morning custom of family dream-telling—where a child’s fearful dream of falling was praised as a gift to learn to fly the next night and where a dream-song or dance was taught to a neighboring tribe to create a common bond beyond differences of custom.

“The Semelai are another tribe not far from the Senoi but who live in the largest swamp area of Malaya. A recorded fragment of their joy-filled watersplash rhythm was re-structured and became the generating force for the composition, Malay, as well as providing a thematic guide for the entire recording.”

Kilton Stewart wrote:

If you should hear that a flying saucer from another planet had landed on Culangra, a lonely mountain peak in the Central Mountain Range of the Malay Peninsula a hundred years ago, you would want to know how the space ship was constructed and what kind of power propelled it, but most of all you would want to know about the people who navigated it and the society from which they came. If they lived in a world without crime and war and destructive conflict, and if they were comparatively free from chronic mental and physical ailments, you would want to know about their methods of healing and education, and whether these methods would work as well with the inhabitants of the earth. If you heard further that the navigators of the ship had found a group of 12,000 people living as an isolated community among the mountains, and had demonstrated that these pre-literate people could utilize their methods of healing and education, and reproduce the society from which the celestial navigators came, you would probably be more curious about these psychological and social methods that conquered space inside the individual, than you would about the mechanics of the ship which conquered outside space.

As a member of a scientific expedition traveling through the unexplored equatorial rain forest of the Central Range of the Malay Peninsula in 1935, 1 was introduced to an isolated tribe of jungle folk, who employed methods of psychology and interpersonal relations so astonishing that they might have come from another planet. These people, the Senoi, lived in long community houses, skillfully constructed of bamboo, rattan, and thatch, and held away from the ground on poles. They maintained themselves by practicing dry-land, shifting agriculture, and by hunting and fishing. Their language, partly Indonesian and partly Non-Kamian, relates them to the peoples of Indonesia to the south and west, and to the Highlanders of Indo-China and Burma, as do their physical characteristics.

Study of their political and social organization indicates that the political authority in their communities was originally in the hands of the oldest members of patrilineal clans, somewhat as in the social structure of China and other parts of the world. But the major authority in all their communities is now held by their primitive psychologists whom they call halaks. The only honorary title in the society is that of Tohat, which is equivalent to a doctor who is both a healer and an educator, in our terms.

The Senoi claim there has not been a violent crime or an intercommunal conflict for a space of two or three hundred years because of the insight and inventiveness of the Tohats of their various communities. The foothill tribes which surround the Central Mountain Range have such a firm belief in the magical powers of this Highland group that they give the territory a wide berth. From all we could learn, their psychological knowledge of strangers in their territory, the Senoi said they could very easily devise means of scaring them off. They did not practice black magic, but allowed the nomadic hill-folk surrounding them to think that they did if strangers invaded their territory.

This fear of Senoi magic accounts for the fact that they have not, over a long period, had to fight with outsiders. But the absence of violent crime, armed conflict, and mental and physical diseases in their own society can only be explained on the basis of institutions which produce a high state of psychological integration and emotional maturity, along with social skills and attitudes which promote creative, rather than destructive, inter-personal relations. They are, perhaps, the most democratic group reported in anthropological literature. In the realms of family, economics, and politics, their society operates smoothly on the principle of contract, agreement, and democratic consensus, with no need of police force, jail, psychiatric hospital to reinforce the agreements or to confine those who are not willing or able to reach consensus. [Continue reading…]

Tiny brains of extinct human relative had complex features

The New York Times reports:

What makes humans so smart? For a long time the answer was simple: our big brains.

But new research into the tiny noggins of a recently discovered human relative called Homo naledi may challenge that notion. The findings, published Monday, suggest that when it comes to developing complex brains, size isn’t all that matters.

In 2013 scientists excavating a cave in South Africa found remains of Homo naledi, an extinct hominin now thought to have lived 236,000 to 335,000 years ago. Based on the cranial remains, the researchers concluded it had a small brain only about the size of an orange or your fist. Recently, they took another look at the skull fragments and found imprints left behind by the brain. The impressions suggest that despite its tiny size, Homo naledi’s brain shared a similar shape and structure with that of modern human brains, which are three times as large.

“We’ve now seen that you can package the complexity of a large brain in a tiny packet,” said Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at Wits University in South Africa and an author of the paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Almost in one fell swoop we slayed the sacred cow that complexity in the hominid brain was directly associated with increasing brain size.” [Continue reading…]

Warning signs: how early humans first began to paint animals

File 20180425 175058 1g3w6sv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Painting from El Castillo cave (Cantabria, Spain). Early Upper Palaeolithic or older.
Photo Becky Harrison and courtesy Gobierno de Cantabria., Author provided

By Derek Hodgson, University of York and Paul Pettitt, Durham University

Visual culture – and the associated forms of symbolic communication, are regarded by palaeo-anthropologists as perhaps the defining characteristic of the behaviour of Homo sapiens. One of the great mysteries of archaeology is why figurative art, in the form of the stunningly naturalistic animal depictions, appeared relatively suddenly around 37,000 years ago in the form of small sculpted objects and drawings and engravings on cave and rock shelter walls.

Since the discovery and authentication of such Palaeolithic art more than a century ago, theories have abounded as to what this meant to its Ice Age hunter-gatherer creators. But theories often say more about modern preconceptions regarding the function of art – how can we tell if we’re on the right track to understanding the remote and alien societies that created the first images?

In a radical new approach to the issue, we applied recent findings from visual neuroscience, perceptual psychology and the archaeology of cave art, that begin to make sense of the intriguing representations and forward what we hope can be tested scientifically.

[Read more…]

China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world

By Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




Read more:
How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

[Read more…]

Ancient humans settled the Philippines 700,000 years ago

Science reports:

In what some scientists are calling a “one-in-a-million find,” archaeologists have discovered a cache of butchered rhino bones and dozens of stone tools on the Philippines’s largest island, Luzon. The find pushes back the earliest evidence for human occupation of the Philippines by more than 600,000 years, and it has archaeologists wondering who exactly these ancient humans were—and how they crossed the deep seas that surrounded that island and others in Southeast Asia.

“The only thing missing is the hominin fossil to go along with it,” says archaeologist Adam Brumm, of Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. He’s the one who set the odds for what he calls a “very exciting discovery,” but he wasn’t involved with the work.

Researchers found 75% of a fossilized rhino skeleton—ribs and leg bones still scarred from the tools that removed their meat and marrow—lying in ancient mud that had long since buried an even older river channel. To determine the site’s age, researchers dated the enamel in one of the rhino’s teeth, as well as quartz grains embedded in the sediment layers above and below the bones, using electron spin resonance (ESR), which measures the buildup of electrons as a material is exposed to radiation over time. The team dated the bottom sediment layer to about 727,000 years old, the rhino tooth to about 709,000 years old, and the top sediment layer to about 701,000 years old. Several independent experts say they were impressed by the team’s careful use of the technique. “They’ve nailed it,” says Alistair Pike, an archaeological dating expert at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

So who were these ancient people? They couldn’t have been our own species, Homo sapiens, which evolved in Africa hundreds of thousands of years later. The most likely bet is H. erectus, an archaic human species that first evolved nearly 2 million years ago and may have been the first member of our genus to expand out of Africa, the team writes today in Nature. [Continue reading…]

Person of the forest

To communicate with apes, we must do it on their terms

Rachel Nuwer writes:

On August 24, 1661, Samuel Pepys, an administrator in England’s navy and famous diarist, took a break from work to go see a “strange creature” that had just arrived on a ship from West Africa. Most likely, it was a chimpanzee—the first Pepys had ever seen. As he wrote in his diary, the “great baboon” was so human-like that he wondered if it were not the offspring of a man and a “she-baboon.”

“I do believe that it already understands much English,” he continued, “and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.”

Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA, but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species. Is that by necessity of nature, though, or simply a question of nurture?

“It could be that there’s something biologically different in our genome, something that’s changed since we split from apes, and that’s language,” says Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But another possibility is that they might have the cognitive capacity for language, but they’re not able to physically express it like we do.” [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Neandertals, Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean

Science reports:

Odysseus, who voyaged across the wine-dark seas of the Mediterranean in Homer’s epic, may have had some astonishingly ancient forerunners. A decade ago, when excavators claimed to have found stone tools on the Greek island of Crete dating back at least 130,000 years, other archaeologists were stunned—and skeptical. But since then, at that site and others, researchers have quietly built up a convincing case for Stone Age seafarers—and for the even more remarkable possibility that they were Neandertals, the extinct cousins of modern humans.

The finds strongly suggest that the urge to go to sea, and the cognitive and technological means to do so, predates modern humans, says Alan Simmons, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas who gave an overview of recent finds at a meeting here last week of the Society for American Archaeology. “The orthodoxy until pretty recently was that you don’t have seafarers until the early Bronze Age,” adds archaeologist John Cherry of Brown University, an initial skeptic. “Now we are talking about seafaring Neandertals. It’s a pretty stunning change.”

Scholars long thought that the capability to construct and victual a watercraft and then navigate it to a distant coast arrived only with advent of agriculture and animal domestication. The earliest known boat, found in the Netherlands, dates back only 10,000 years or so, and convincing evidence of sails only show up in Egypt’s Old Kingdom around 2500 B.C.E. Not until 2000 B.C.E. is there physical evidence that sailors crossed the open ocean, from India to Arabia.

But a growing inventory of stone tools and the occasional bone scattered across Eurasia tells a radically different story. (Wooden boats and paddles don’t typically survive the ages.) Early members of the human family such as Homo erectus are now known to have crossed several kilometers of deep water more than a million years ago in Indonesia, to islands such as Flores and Sulawesi. Modern humans braved treacherous waters to reach Australia by 65,000 years ago. But in both cases, some archaeologists say early seafarers might have embarked by accident, perhaps swept out to sea by tsunamis. [Continue reading…]

Earth’s mammals have shrunk dramatically, and meat-eating hominids are to blame

The Washington Post reports:

Life on Earth used to look a lot more impressive. Just a little more than 100,000 years ago, there were sloths as long as a giraffe is tall, monstrous bears whose shoulders were six feet off the ground, and Bunyanesque beavers that weighed as much as an NFL linebacker. But over time, all of these creatures disappeared in a manner so rapid and so mysterious that scientists still can’t fully explain what went down.

Did an asteroid discharge the mega-beasts, similar to the one thought to have snuffed out the dinosaurs? Or was it widespread climatic change or a plague of new diseases? Did our penchant for hunting play a role?

It’s likely that a combination of factors led to a planet-wide demise in sizable mammals as the Ice Age came to a close. But a study published Thursday in the journal Science provides evidence that the major drivers were humans and other hominids.

“We looked at the entire fossil record for 65 million years, in million-year increments, and we asked the question, ‘Is it ever bad to be big?’ ” said lead author Felisa Smith, a paleoecologist at the University of New Mexico. For most of evolutionary history, the answer was no — larger body mass did not make an animal more likely to go extinct, she said. “For 65 million years, it didn’t matter what size you were.”

That is, until a new kind of predator arrived on the scene: Homo erectus. Around 1.8 million years ago, hominids that had long been dependent on plants became hominids that were “heavily and increasingly dependent on meat as a food source,” Smith said.

As these tool-wielding team hunters spread out from Africa, large-mammal extinctions followed. If you’re going to spend time and energy on a hunt, these early humans and their ancestors probably believed, it’s go big or go home.

“You hunt a rabbit, you have food for a small family for a day,” Smith said. “You hunt a mammoth, you feed the village.” [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Who first buried the dead?


Paige Madison writes:

A mysterious cache of bones, recovered from a deep chamber in a South African cave, is challenging long-held beliefs about how a group of bipedal apes developed into the abstract-thinking creatures that we call “human.” The fossils were discovered in 2013 and were quickly recognized as the remains of a new species unlike anything seen before. Named Homo naledi, it has an unexpected mix of modern features and primitive ones, including a fairly small brain. Arguably the most shocking aspect of Homo naledi, though, concerned not the remains themselves but rather their resting place.

The chamber where the bones were found is far from the cave entrance, accessible only through a narrow, difficult passage that is completely shrouded in darkness. Scientists believe the chamber has long been difficult to access, requiring a journey of vertical climbing, crawling, and tight squeezing through spaces only 20 centimeters across. It would be an impossible place to live, and a highly unlikely location for many individuals to have ended up by accident. Those details pushed the research team toward a shocking hypothesis: despite its puny brain, Homo naledi purposefully interred its dead. The cave chamber was a graveyard, they concluded.

For anthropologists, mortuary rituals carry an outsize importance in tracing the emergence of human uniqueness—especially the capacity to think symbolically. Symbolic thought gives us the ability to transcend the present, remember the past, and visualize the future. It allows us to imagine, to create, and to alter our environment in ways that have significant consequences for the planet. Use of language is the quintessential embodiment of such mental abstractions, but studying its history is difficult because language doesn’t fossilize. Burials do.

Burials provide a hard, material record of a behavior that is deeply spiritual and meaningful. It allows scientists to trace the emergence of beliefs, values, and other complex ideas that appear to be uniquely human. Homo sapiens is unquestionably unlike any other species alive today. Pinpointing what separates us from the rest of nature is surprisingly difficult, however. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.