Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Deep History

The elephant-human relationship dates back into prehistory

Tim Flannery writes: In January 1962, on my sixth birthday, I was taken to Melbourne Zoo, where I rode an elephant. We children climbed a scaffold and perched on rough wooden benches atop the elephant’s back, where my fingers furtively reached for a feel of its wrinkled skin. A few months later, elephant rides were discontinued, for safety reasons, at most zoos in Australia, Europe, and the US. I was

What we could learn from our cave-dwelling ancestors

Barbara Ehrenreich writes: In 1940, four teenage boys stumbled, almost literally, from German-occupied France into the Paleolithic Age. As the story goes, and there are many versions of it, they had been taking a walk in the woods near the town of Montignac when the dog accompanying them suddenly disappeared. A quick search revealed that their animal companion had fallen into a hole in the ground, so—in the spirit of

Britons who built Stonehenge were product of ancient wave of migrant farmers

The Independent reports: The ancestors of the Britons who built Stonehenge were farmers who had travelled from an area near modern Turkey, arriving around 4000BC, and who rapidly replaced local hunter-gatherer populations, according to new research. Scientists investigating the origins of farming in Britain have said they have found overwhelming support for agriculture being introduced to Britain by a surge of continental migrants from Anatolia, bringing farming techniques, pottery and

Technology in deep time: How it evolves alongside us

Tom Chatfield writes: Plenty of creatures can communicate richly, comprehend one another’s intentions and put tools to intelligent and creative use: cetaceans, cephalopods, corvids. Some can even develop and pass on particular local practices: New Caledonian crows, for example, exhibit a “culture” of tool usage, creating distinct varieties of simple hooked tools from plants in order to help them feed. Only humans, however, have turned this craft into something unprecedented:

Pro-social religions didn’t kick-start complex social systems

Scientific American reports: About 12,000 years ago human societies went big; tribes and villages grew into vast cities, kingdoms and empires within just a few millennia. For such large and complex societies to take root, people needed to maintain social cohesion and cooperation, even among complete strangers. What enabled this, many researchers have argued, was religion. Such a religion, the idea goes, would work particularly well if it established standards

The rise of farming altered our bite and changed how people talk

Science News reports: Humankind’s gift of gab is not set in stone, and farming could help to explain why. Over the last 6,000 years or so, farming societies increasingly have substituted processed dairy and grain products for tougher-to-chew game meat and wild plants common in hunter-gatherer diets. Switching to those diets of softer, processed foods altered people’s jaw structure over time, rendering certain sounds like “f” and “v” easier to

Neanderthals were people no less evolved than us

Rebecca Wragg Sykes writes: Who were the Neanderthals? Even for archaeologists working at the trowel’s edge of contemporary science, it can be hard to see Neanderthals as anything more than intriguing abstractions, mixed up with the likes of mammoths, woolly rhinos and sabre-toothed cats. But they were certainly here: squinting against sunrises, sucking lungfuls of air, leaving footprints behind in the mud, sand and snow. Crouching to dig in a

Brittany’s seafaring hunter-gatherers were the first to build Europe’s ancient megaliths

Big Think reports: The origin of the roughly 35,000 ancient monuments that dot Europe and the British Isles has long been a haunting mystery. From the Ring of Bodnar in the Scottish Orkney Islands to Stonehenge in the English countryside, to the Carnac stones in France, these ancient monuments have fascinated people for as long as they’ve been known. Remarkably, there’s never been a serious effort made to date all

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

After a volcano’s ancient supereruption, humanity may have thrived

Shannon Hall writes: The Toba supereruption [about 74,000 years ago] expelled roughly 10,000 times more rock and ash than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. So much ejecta would have darkened skies worldwide, causing scientists to speculate that it might have plunged the Earth into a volcanic winter whose chill could be felt far from Indonesia. Climate models suggest that temperatures may have plummeted by as much as 30 degrees

Across human history, there’s little evidence large-scale social organization necessitates enduring inequality

David Graeber and David Wengrow write: Stonehenge, it turns out, was only the latest in a very long sequence of ritual structures, erected in timber as well as stone, as people converged on the plain from remote corners of the British Isles, at significant times of year. Careful excavation has shown that many of these structures – now plausibly interpreted as monuments to the progenitors of powerful Neolithic dynasties –

Britain left Stone Age 4,500 years ago as early Britons were replaced by metalworking migrants

BBC News reports: The ancient population of Britain was almost completely replaced by newcomers about 4,500 years ago, a study shows. The findings mean modern Britons trace just a small fraction of their ancestry to the people who built Stonehenge. The astonishing result comes from analysis of DNA extracted from 400 ancient remains across Europe. The mammoth study, published in Nature, suggests the newcomers, known as Beaker people, replaced 90%

Paleolithic parenting and animated GIFs

The creation of the moving image represents a technical advance in the arts comparable with the invention of the steam engine during the industrial revolution. The transition from static to moving imagery was a watershed event in human history, through which people discovered a new way of capturing the visible world — or so it seemed. It turns out, however, that long before the advent of civilization, our Paleolithic forebears

Britain First and the first Britons

  The white supremacists who chant “blood and soil” (borrowing this phrase from the Nazis’ Blut und Boden) think white-skinned people have a special claim to the lands of Europe and North America. This is an arrogant and ignorant belief to hold on this side of the Atlantic where every white person has immigrant ancestry originating from Europe, but European whiteness in terms of origin (not superiority) is a less