Category Archives: Anthropology

Four Stone Hearth #101 – The Phoenix Edition


This is the Phoenix edition of the Four Stone Hearth.  It’s 100th installment saw the relinquishing of power of the original editor in chief, Martin Rundkvist of aardvarchaeology.  I want to extend my thanks to Martin for turning the Four Stone Hearth into the shining example of what is possible with a Blog Carnival.

We now have a new head-honcho, Aferensis.  Most readers will know him, and know he’ll do a great job at keeping the flame burning for a long time coming.

We’re heading into a new age, and it seems like it is appropriate that this is the 101’st edition.   It’s been speculated that Blog Carnivals are going out of fashion – as evidenced by the demise of a few great ones like The Tangled Bank and The Skeptics Circle.

I think, however, that the blog carnival has an important place in the dissemination of science information to the general reading public.  If nothing else, it provides a hub through which lots of great info can be read that might not have crossed ones radar.  But, it also is a way for bloggers to interact, have fun, and keep the flame of science blogging burning bright – no small issue since most science bloggers are not paid for their blogging.

So, with that in mind here’s the 101’st collection of great blog posts in anthropology:

We’ll start with a hat tip to the previous editor of this blog carnival, Martin Rundkvist, with Archeology 101: Chronology, or, How Can I Get a Date? A good chunk of Creationists base their refusal to believe in human evolution on their total lack of understanding of how scientists date things.  Martin breaks it down for us.

Over at we have a post entitled, “A Curious Look At The 3.39 Million Year Old “Stone Tool Markings” From Dikika, Ethiopia.”  Here’s a quote:

I don’t know who this is worse for, the editors & reviewers over at Nature or the authors of the article who can’t tell the difference between crocodile teeth markings and stone tool modification.

Them sounds like fightin’ words!

You think your neighborhood is bad?  Welcome to Texas:

The family says their dog scared up the monkey under the backyard patio and the creature then chased the woman into her garage – trapping her for over an hour.

Bonvito has two posts.  The first discusses the counterintuitive idea that male primate rank has little to do with reproductive success:

Rhesus females also prefer novel males for mating. This female mate selection is thought to be one of the primary factors why males migrate out of their natal group. The migrating males, who are at the very bottom of the hierarchy, have to be in constant high alert, especially so during the mating season when high ranking males are on guard (i.e., those who are on top are particularly protective of their position on this period).

The second is about Jane Goodall’s connection with Gary Larson’s Far Side.  Is the famous primatologist able to take a joke?

One of the biggest mistakes we make as humans is our tendency to glorify the past and sanitize it.  For instance, we look up to Napoleon and Caesar and totally ignore the horrific violence and death they caused in their selfish pursuits of power.  Judith of Zenobia: Empress of the East takes a hard look at the Peloponnesian War and it’s consequences. A quote:

The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.

Anthropology is not just about long dead people or exotic tribal societies in Africa.  It’s also about modern cultures and modern living.  Krystal D’Costa, of Anthropology in Practice, has a post about the struggle of keeping the faith during Ramadan and still running a successful food cart business.

While many Muslims choose to slow down during this period, for those who make their livelihood as food cart vendors, it can present a personal challenge: They are surrounded by foods that they themselves cannot eat all day long. It creates a challenge for the individual, but also for the business as they have to rely on sight and smell to gauge flavors

She also has a great post about the odd fact that Nescafe is so popular in coffee producing countries!

… why does Nescafe seem to be popular among coffee producing countries that theoretically have access to their own supply of coffee beans? Anthropologist Kevin Birth offered some suggestions that cover the expenses associated with grinding and brewing beans, but today we’ll look a bit more closely at the relationship between local consumption and consumer identity.

You think the life of an Archaeologist is easy?  Watch out for moose! Magnus Reuterdahl of Testimony of the Spade gives us a glimpse into his world.

For those who don’t know, Eric Michael Johnson, formally of the Primate Diaries on, is in exile.  Well … he’s in blogging exile.  And he decided he was going to go on tour.  His most recent stop is at Anthropology in Practice where he talks about the cultural divides of Myspace and Facebook, functional racism, and class. Great stuff.

In the wake of many teens departure Boyd describes what was left behind as the formation of a digital ghetto. Abandoned Myspace profiles “often fell into disrepair, covered in spam, a form of digital graffiti [as] spammers took over like street gangs.” In contrast, Facebook was seen as a virtual gated community with the “same values signaled by the suburbs.” The class bias represented in this was extremely telling in 2009 when Facebook and Myspace converged with roughly equal numbers of visitors. A New York Times story about this convergence was titled “Do You Know Anyone Still on Myspace?” This confession by the author is extremely revealing. Given data showing equal traffic his preference was to make assumptions based on his network of friends, a trend that is likely to be pervasive throughout the mainstream media on stories that are much more important.

A Primate of Modern Aspect has a piece about ape sex, the human inability to stay objective, and evolutionary psychology.

Here’s the thing that gets me all riled up when I read these sorts of op-eds: Lots of people study primate sexuality.  It’s a fascinating field.  And who the primates are having sex with is only part of the fun.  We know about stress, group dynamics, cognition, and general evolutionary theory because of the good, hard work of these people who are driven by curiosity. But for some reason, the only time primate sexuality gets any attention is when we turn it into a debate about how humans should be having sex.

We never say, “Hey, those muriquis are too promiscuous.  Don’t they know that all of their close evolutionary cousins are polygynous?  If they just did what came naturally to them, they’d have a lot less psychological stress.”  Or, “Those gibbons are so sexually repressed.  If they just gave in to their natural predilection for promiscuity, I bet those nasty gibbons would have fewer territorial disputes and gibbon society would be much more peaceful.”

Help! These Baboons need a name.

A Hot Cup of Joe deconstructs the PseudoArchaeology of Glenn Beck.

It should be no surprise that, since he has little grasp on the rest of reality, that Glenn Beck would fare any better at understanding archaeology.

Anna of Anna’s Bones adds the third installment to her “Stripped” series:

I felt the blood rush towards my head. Everything was upside down. I adjusted my hands according to yoga instructions I had been given many years ago – “you have a very long back” I had been told. I tilted my head to the side to meet 50 pairs of very confused eyes staring intently at me… I was, after all, doing downward dog in a Paleoanthropology workshop.

In DIY Knapping, at A Very Remote Period Indeed, we get a nice video showing how hard this practice really was.

Kris Hirst discusses Gary Feinman’s photo essay on on a Regional Survey in China:

Mick Morrison has a post about the teaching of Archaeology, digital learning, and blogging (rather relevant to a blog carnival, I dare say!).

Finally, here is a picture of John Hawks, a Paleoanthropologist who clearly loves his job:

Calling for Submissions – I’m Hosting the 101st Four Stone Hearth


The 101’st Four Stone Hearth Anthropology Blog Carnival is being hosted right here, by yours truly.  We’re looking for submissions of blog posts/articles in the following topic areas:

  • archaeology
  • socio-cultural anthropology
  • bio-physical anthropology
  • linguistic anthropology

If you’re a blogger, you’ve written a recent post in one of the topic areas above, and you’d like to get some extra traffic to your site make sure to submit your post to either me at


or to aferensis.

You can also nominate others, of course.

Also, please feel free to leave comments below about what you’d like to see, and if there is anything I can do to make you more likely to get interested in not only reading the Four Stone Hearth every fortnight, but participating in it as well.

100th Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival


What happens when you stuff an Orangutan jaw into a human skull?  You get a great hoax to perpetuate on the scientific community that lasts for 30+ years! 

The Piltdown hoax is only one of the many great articles featured in this 100th “episode” of the Four Stone Hearth anthropology blog carnival

98th Four Stone Hearth – Anthropology Blog Carnival


In this, the 98th Four Stone Hearth, there are a number of cool articles.  But, I think this one takes the cake: Stone Age Dildo Found in Sweden.  Wow …

Natufian Villages, Wisdom Teeth, and Probability


Some of the earliest villages ever discovered were from the Fertile Crescent (modern day middle east).  The culture that inhabited these villages has been dubbed Natufian, and dates to around 12,500 BC.  Two of these villages, Hayonim and ‘Ain Mallaha were relatively close to one another.  At first it would have been reasonable to presume that these villagers bred with one another.  They were close and each one had relatively small populations.  But, it turns out they didn’t, and the reason has much to do with simple probability.

Well, that and wisdom teeth, or the third-molars. The Hayonim people had ‘agenesis’ of the third molar – that is, they never grew in.  But, the ‘Ain Mallaha group nearly all had their third molars. 

If it had been true that the two groups interbred, then we’d get a mixing of types – those that had wisdom teeth, and those that didn’t – in about equal proportions.   Therefore, since we don’t have that, there must not have been significant interbreeding.

Sounds reasonable enough.  But, how can I be so sure that IF there was interbreeding THEN the proportion of third molars would in fact be about equal in both groups (or at least spread around a bit more)?

To answer that question we need to go over what an “allele” is.

Alleles as Soda-Pop

allele-frequency Genes are complicated little buggers.  It isn’t so simple as “this gene codes for that trait”.  Any single gene comes in a number of variations. We call those variants ‘alleles’.

Think of 2 soda cans.  One of them is flavored cherry, the other is flavored grape.  What they have in common is that they are both soda.  The gene is the soda.  But, this gene comes in one of two flavors – or we can say it has two alleles – grape and cherry. 

So, an allele is like a flavor.  Sometimes, as is the case with eye color, a change in alleles is no big deal.  It really is much like a flavor in that it causes you no harm to have blue vs. brown eyes.  But, there are times when having a different flavor (allele) does matter, like in the case of polio. 

Humans are diploids.  That means that we all have two chromosomes.  We get one from our Father and one from our Mother.  Each of them gave us one allele of each gene, and our ‘genotype’ for that gene (that is, what type of that gene we got) is a pairing of the alleles.  But, here’s the rub.  Our parents each had two alleles of the gene, and we end up with two.  How many possible choices were there for what we could have ended up with?  That all depends.

Let’s say the two allele variants for gene X are A and B.  If Dad had an AA pairing and Mom had a BB pairing, then our only possibility was an AB pairing.   However, if our Dad was AB and our Mom was BB, then we’d have 2 possible choices:  AB or BB.  And it would be a 50-50 chance that we got either one. 

Now, if both our parents were AB, then we’d have 3 choices (note that AB=BA) but they are not all equally likely.   There’s only 1 AA and only 1 BB, but there are 2 AB’s.  So there is a 25% chance of AA, a 25% chance of BB, and a 50% chance of AB.  

If it turns out that the A allele is dominant, then from the outside we’d not be able to tell the difference between someone with AA vs. someone with AB.  Only the BB’s would show any signs.  Again, this is no biggy with something as silly as eye color or handedness, but when it comes to diseases or something life threatening, it certainly is.

Times Have Changed

Back in ye-olden days, sometime after Darwin did the damage, it was thought that a dominant gene variant, or allele, would, given enough time, simply wipe out a recessive one.  It seemed reasonable at the time.  If there is a negative selection value for a particular trait, evolution should select it out.  That’s how Natural Selection works, right?

Well, no.  As the above calculations show, life ain’t that simple.  If two members of a population have that AB type, where B is a deleterious (or “bad for you”) allele.  Then, there is a 1/4 probability that they will have a child with the negative BB variation. 

In other words, no matter how bad a trait can be, it can never be wiped out unless you killed off all of the AB’s along with the BB’s.   But, since the AB’s don’t exhibit the negative trait, nature won’t “know” to select them out.  They pass the test. 

Back to Wisdom Teeth

WisdomTeeth Given this new information, we can answer the question posed at the beginning with some confidence.  Even though it is totally true that having wisdom teeth grow in in a prehistoric village can spell death (via infection and impaction), it would not do so until after the person reached breeding age.  In fact, wisdom teeth often don’t show up until the early twenties or later.  By then, the person could have had multiple children.

So, if there was breeding going on between these populations (the one without wisdom teeth, and the one with them) then there would have been a lot of mixing.

Even if the first was all AA’s which coded for NO wisdom teeth, and the other was all BB’s which coded for them.  And we allowed the A to be dominant, then we’d still see a ton of variation in both villages.  AA x BB = AB at least half the time.  And then AB x AB = BB 25% of the time.  In just 2 generations you’d have signs of wisdom teeth.  In a few more it would grow since AB x BB = BB 50% of the time. 


I want to just make one last point.  When I’ve been using the word gene, I mean that almost metaphorically.  It could be that there’s a single gene for eye color (there isn’t), but that isn’t the point.  The point is that there is a gene, or a collection of genes, that code for a trait.  And that there are variants of that gene, or collection of genes, called alleles.  These different alleles combine to give us an array of possibilities.  Whether the trait we’re looking at is coded for by a single gene or a collection is often glossed over because it doesn’t actually make much of a difference from that standpoint.  But, it can seem confusing sometimes to hear “gene” but really be thinking of a collection of genes that work together. 

Native American Rights to Anthropological Finds

The North American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGRA) is being amended.  This is the act, set in 1990, that made it possible for Native American tribes to exert claims over human bones found that had “cultural” significance.  I put “cultural” in quotes because it’s been a point of contention as to what exactly we mean by that.

Following years of pressure from Native American groups, the new rule
would give them the right to claim specimens without a cultural link if
they had been found close to tribes’ historic lands. “This is a major
departure, going way beyond the intent of the original law,” says John
O’Shea, a curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology
in Ann Arbor, which has about 1,400 specimens considered culturally
unaffiliated. Overall, there are more than 124,000 culturally
unidentified ancient human remains in US institutions; although
estimates vary widely, at least 15% of these could be affected by the
new rule.

Now they don’t even need a cultural link.  If bones from someone living 2000 years ago are found near tribal historic lands, they can be claimed.  That’s like me stopping an excavation of a Roman site on the grounds of it being close to my “tribe’s” historic lands. 

I was against much of what is in this act all along, but now I’m just blown away.  I understand that if there is a clear and obvious cultural link to a set of remains, then a tribe should get rights over it (it’s like if someone wanted to dig up George Washington’s remains, lot’s of Americans would be mad).  If the remains are recent (last few hundred years), or are clearly from a still active culture, then leave them alone.

But, come on.  At some point, science has to be done.  My families roots are from Scotland.  This is where some of the more famous “Bog Bodies” have been found.  Should I file a complaint that someone dug up my ancestor and that it violates my cultural tradition?

In my opinion, anything beyond 200 years should be fair game, I don’t care what your culture is.  So, if you want to dig up George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson to see if you can get any DNA off of them, be my guest.  Similarly, the only way to know about the prehistory of the people of North America is to do science on what we find.  We can’t do that if the bones get reburied. 

[By the way, the picture at the top of the page is NOT a Native American.  It’s a bog body found “near” where my ancestral lands were.]

Art and Science: Sketches of Anthropology

Both John Hawks and Carl Zimmer discuss the tension and the rewards that come out of the necessary artists renderings of scientific discoveries.  Hawks post is here, and Zimmer’s is here.

Just think — how many reconstructions of Neandertals have you seen in the last few years that weren’t red-headed? Gurche’s new one isn’t, but almost all have been. The red-headed Neandertal clearly conveys the information about the genomics of MC1R,
and yet the color itself is just a hypothesis. As I discussed upon the
discovery, even if the variant has the postulated functional effect on
melanocortin reception by melanocytes, there may well have been
modifier genes that made Neandertal hair blonde. The convention
of the red-headed Neandertal follows the needs of museums and textbook
authors, all of whom need to tell the story about genetics. But in that
sense, it’s rather like the convention of a bearded Jesus — making the
Neandertal iconic triggers our recognition, but may subtract the need
to scrutinize closely, to experience the form anew.

Kennewick Man is a great example (see above pic).  Based on the skull morphology it is highly likely that he looked like Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise.  But, had the artist put a giant afro on his head, we may not have seen the connection.  The real Kennewick man could have had an afro, we don’t know for sure.  Maybe he had dreadlocks.  Long black hair?  It’s hard to say for sure.  But, the act of leaving the skull unadorned made him an icon.