The Lives Behind Plant Documents

In the county of Uasin Gishu, Kenya, a recent article in Ethnobotany Research and Applications, local plants have many uses for fodder, medicine, food, and building material, but today this knowledge is threatened by increased pressures on the land. While the list of plants and their uses provides valuable basic knowledge, the article heightened my interest in a completely different realm of inquiry.

Medicinal plants in particular have very social, dynamic lives, from their administration by healers or healthcare personnel, to the everyday person collecting for personal health needs, to the younger generation or those from industrial centers actively pursuing the reclamation of knowledge. Who are the predominant users of these plants, and who are the administrators? Are there pushes for cultural revitalization, as there are efforts to revitalize perceived losses in knowledge in much of the world? I would be interested to learn the deeper stories of the list of plants.

For example, in Finland, efforts to revitalize traditional knowledge span from rural to urban areas. However, revitalization in rural areas appears to carry more discourses of “traditional” knowledge, while urban areas tend to focus on plants as products, for which remedies become absorbed into field guides devoid of cultural origins in an encyclopedic list. Do similar processes exist in Kenya and Uasin Gishu?

Meanwhile, a similar documentation of plant uses was published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. They found that 90 wild species are used in north-eastern Sicily. The group used a cultural importance index to determine which plants were most crucial to local pharmacopeias. It is important to highlight the most ubiquitously used plants, because often it is these plants that carry the most cultural weight. For example, in Finland the clinker polypore has recently enjoyed widespread commercial fame, but the success only rides the tale of a long history. It is these histories that breathe life into plants.

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39,000 Year Old Cave Art from Sulawesi, Indonesia


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Photo by Kinez Riza

Photo by Kinez Riza

This hand stencil was discovered in one of the caves of the Maros region of the island, Sulawesi in the 1950s. A paper published in Nature now describes the dating of the sediment on top of the stencil, which makes it more than 39,000 years old and now the oldest painting in the world. Adjacent to this stencil a painting of a babirusa or pig-deer which is 35,400 years old, which makes it among the earliest figurative depictions.

The oldest dated hand stencil in the world (upper right) and possibly the oldest figurative depiction in cave art—a female babirusa (a hoglike animal also called a pig-deer)—were found in Leang Timpuseng cave in Sulawesi, an island east of Borneo. NGM ART. SOURCE: M. AUBERT, ET AL., 2014, NATURE.

The oldest dated hand stencil in the world (upper right) and possibly the oldest figurative depiction in cave art—a female babirusa (a hoglike animal also called a pig-deer)—were found in Leang Timpuseng cave in Sulawesi, an island east of Borneo.

The researchers of this study investigated the 10mm mineral layer covering the images. These minerals had trace amounts of radioactive uranium. The minimum age of the mineral coating the stencil is 39,000 years old making it thousands of years older. Spain’s El Castillo cave is at least 40,800 years old according to this same dating method, making it the oldest known cave art. El Castillo has a hand stencil there is 37,300 years old. The Sulawesi cave paintings rival these finds in age and appear to belong to a tradition that persisted there as recently as 17,000 years ago.

Art was emerging all over the world during the Pleistocene. We previously thought that the oldest known paintings and stencils were in Europe, which had given rise to the Eurocentric idea that perhaps art was born in that area, but this study shows that this concept is false,

We show that rock art traditions on this Indonesian island are at least compatible in age with the oldest European art. The earliest dated image from Maros, with a minimum age of 39.9 kyr, is now the oldest known hand stencil in the world. In addition, a painting of a babirusa (‘pig-deer’) made at least 35.4 kyr ago is among the earliest dated figurative depictions worldwide, if not the earliest one. Among the implications, it can now be demonstrated that humans were producing rock art by ~40 kyr ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world.

Lions, and Tigers, and Mushrooms?

In a new article from the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology, researchers in Chihuahua, Mexico discuss the selective use of mushrooms in Sierra Madre. The municipalities of Bocoyna and Urique are the only areas in Northern Mexico where residents pick mushrooms, but even then only five of over 20 edible species make the list. Attitudes toward our fungi prey vary across cultures, beckoning a reexamination of that seemingly ubiquitous fear.

I was born in Russia, a land of mycrophiles, before moving to America, the land of mycrophobes. My mother once found a cornucopia of Boletus mushrooms at the village playground in the suburbs of New York. She was dumbfounded. This would have been an unprecedented sight in Russia, where any mushroom that managed to poke its head into a public playground, would instantly be picked, fried, and eaten with sour cream. In America we leave the mushroom collecting to the supermarkets, and stay far away from the forest. My American husband has always kept wild mushrooms at arm’s length ever since his mom told him that mushrooms killed Euell Gibbons. As it turns out Gibbons died of an aneurysm, but the tale remained the pivot of a lifelong mistrust.

Of course the fear is not completely irrational. There are those capped persons that cause severe stomachache, diarrhea, and sometimes death. Our less-cautious ancestors suffered these consequences to provide the warning lists in mushroom field guides. With the availability of other food it makes sense to steer clear of potential toxins. But in Chihuahua efforts have been made to teach children how to identify edible species. Especially in low-income areas, mushrooms provide free, nutritious food options. In northern Mexico residents eat only what they know with certainty, only those species that they never learned to fear. There are many delicious species that have no poisonous look-alikes, and yet differences in preference persist across ethnic groups within the same region. For example, in Sierra Madre, Raramuris avoid those Boletus mushrooms that mestizos eagerly consume. What molds a mushroom culture, its loves and its fears?

I am currently doing anthropological research in northern Finland, where mushrooms the size of dinner plates dot the forest. When I arrived the American mushroom fear was my hiking companion. But eventually the fairy-tale forest won me over, and I ran to the nearest nature center to ask for help with identification. The young woman was amused: “Just don’t eat the red ones…It’s not that hard.” Since then I have been taking the days mushroom by mushroom, only picking when certain, relearning the knowledge of millennia past.

40,000 Year Old Neanderthal #Hashtag Engravings from Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar


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Engravings believed to have been made by Neanderthals more than 39,000 years ago is pictured in Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar, in this handout photo courtesy of Stewart Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum.

Engravings believed to have been made by Neanderthals more than 39,000 years ago is pictured in Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, in this handout photo courtesy of Stewart Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum.

Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal and his colleagues have found a 40,000 year old pattern scratched in into the floor of a cave in Gibraltar.

Is it a doodle, a message or a work of art?

We’ve found Neanderthal art before, such as red ochre handprints on cave walls. But this new discovery is some sort of a tic-tac-toe pattern, to which the New Scientist cheekily dubbed them a “hashtag”). The team found the carving in near to many Neanderthal tools, about 300 or so. The researchers ruled out the possibility that the engravings were accidental or from cutting meat or animal skins. Instead, they were made by repeatedly and intentionally using a sharp stone tool to etch the rock, reflecting persistence and determination: one line required at least 54 strokes and the entire pattern as many as 317.

Findings like this make me wonder how symbolism developed among humans. Often, abstract expression like this cross-hatched pattern developed earlier than representational figures of animals and humans. Even later, in 9,000-year-old neolithic settlements of early agricultural people, we see far more abstract art than figurative. William Rendu of the French National Center for Scientific Research, who was not involved in the work said,

“It is a new and even stronger evidence of the Neanderthal capacity for developing complex symbolic thought” and “abstract expression,” abilities long believed exclusive to early modern humans.

The researchers, led by , will release their paper later this week. A release from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sums up,

Ruth Blasco and colleagues discovered an abstract pattern engraved in the rock of Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar. The cross-hatched pattern was overlain by undisturbed sediment in which Neanderthal artifacts had previously been discovered, suggesting that the engraving pre-dated the 39,000-year-old artifacts. Further geochemical analysis of the mineral coating on the engraved grooves suggests that the rock art was created before deposition of the overlying sediment. The authors took microphotographs of the tool marks within the engraving, compared the marks with experimental marks made with various tools, and determined that the abstract cave engraving was likely created intentionally by repeatedly passing a robust cutting tip over the rock in the same direction, and not by incidental cutting associated with other activities. The results add to evidence at other sites that Neanderthal intellectual capacity may have previously been underestimated, according to the authors.
This discovery may be the final piece of evidence that scholars need to convince the entire scientific community that Neanderthals were as intelligent as other humans on the Earth at that time.

You can read the entire paper here, A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar and watch a YouTube clip here:

Lagunita and Tamchén, Two Newly Discovered Mayan Sites


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2.maya-cities-laguinitaTwo large Maya sites in the Yucatana have been (re) discovered by Ivan Šprajc from the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. The sites in the northern part of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve which is are in the southeast part of Campeche, close to the towns of Xpujil and Zoh Laguna.

I used the phrase rediscoveries because one of the sites was visited by Eric Von Euw in the 1970’s He documented the extraordinary façade which I pictured below. He described it as an earth monster with its open and drew it out. His drawings are at the Peabody Museum. The exact location was lost, but Von Euw called it Lagunita. Up until a few weeks ago, it remained a lost site, in spite of several attempts at relocating it. Šprajc found Lagunita.


Lagunita, zoomorphic portal, right side, looking southeast. Image: ZRC SAZU

Šprajc explains,

“We found the site with the aid of aerial photographs, but were able to identify it with Lagunita only after we saw the façade and the monuments and compared them with Von Euw’s drawings, which the renowned Maya expert Karl Herbert Mayer made available for me.”


At Tamchén, dozens of chultuns are scattered in two plazas; some are partly collapsed or filled-in with material accumulating through centuries, but others are even today 10 or more meters deep. Whereas chultuns are common at Maya sites, their depths and high concentration within the civic and ceremonial centre of the ancient settlement represent a peculiarity of Tamchén. Image: ZRC SAZU

The other site has never been reported. It was located during the recently accomplished and it has been baptised with the name Tamchén, which means “deep well” in Yucatec Maya. Deep well refers to the more than 30 chultuns, which are effectively wells or bottle-shaped underground chambers, largely i intended for collecting rainwater. Some of these chultuns are as deep as 13 meters.

Earlier this year I visited Guatemala and toured some of the ancient Mayan sites. In the thick jungle you can be as little as 600 feet from a large temple and not even know it. There are mounts all over the place and can be mistaken as a hill, but underneath all the jungle there may be an urban center or a temple. Lagunita and Tamchén are situated in a portion of a vast, archaeologically unexplored territory in central Yucatan lowlands. Except for Chactún, the large Maya city discovered by Šprajc’s team in 2013, no other site has so far been located in this area.

Human Fossil Databases & Data Theft


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Hominid fossil databases are a very difficult undertaking to curate and create. One of my mentors and colleagues, Dr. Henry Gilbert created a very impressive database. He organized the fossils based upon geography, phylogenetics, history, species, and geochronology. I consider it a one of a kind database. Screenshot

Evolution of Man

It troubles me to see that Hans Peter, author of the German website, The Evolution of Man, has taken all of Dr. Gilbert’s data and used it in his own database without any citation. This is is blatant data theft and it is disrespectful. Gilbert has a liberal copyright toward his database for the structure, design and content. He effectively has released the data under a Creative Commons noncommercial attribution only license; making easy for one to use his data as long as its appropriately cited. When someone makes it so easy to share data with just a citation, it prompts me to wonder what is Hans Peter trying to accomplish?

I’ve sent an email out to Hans Peter to ask him what his motivations are and request he appropriately site I am waiting to hear back from him and will update once I do.

I also wanted to ask you,, readers how you feel about this phenomenon among colleagues. Does it bother you? If not, why? If so, how can we prevent it from happening?

Why Do Young Earth Creationists Only Know Of Lucy?


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Adam Benton from EvoAnth has published an interesting paper where he tries to understand why Young Earth Creationists are consistently ignorant of other fossil hominids. To help answer his question, he analyzed how three prominent creationist websites are represent the hominin fossil record. Benton searched for mentions of five other hominid species that are just as important as Lucy and ideally should be represented just as in-depth. The results of his study are shown in the table below. It shows how many times these websites refer each of the fossils under consideration. You can clearly see the bias they represent.

Ta b l e 1. The number of pages from the ICR, AiG, and CMI websites discussing each of the  fossils under consideration.

Ta b l e 1. The number of pages from the ICR, AiG, and CMI websites discussing each of the fossils under consideration.

His conclusions:

It is apparent that Answers in Genesis (AiG), the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), and Creation Ministries International (CMI) are presenting a distorted view of human evolution, glossing over critical fossils and creating the false impression that there is little evidence for human evolution. In fact, the evidence is voluminous.

I do not mean to argue that this distortion is intentional deception; writers at these organizations may simply be unaware of the vast majority of paleoanthropological literature, or perhaps prefer to discuss Lucy, as it is the example with which they are most familiar.

Regardless of the ultimate cause, the end result is clear: people who rely on AiG, CMI, and/ or the ICR for information on human evolution will wind up woefully underestimating the hominin fossil record.

Integrating Health


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When dealing with the term “medicine,” there is no single definition, static through space and time.  Many of the world’s medImageical systems illustrate diverging, sometimes opposing, stories of health and healing, and each culture invariably believes in its own medicine.

Unfortunately, our globalized world has been slow to recognize the medicine of the “other.”  Last month the Prince of Wales was dismayed by delay tactics of the government in creating a register of healthcare practitioners that would include alternative, complementary, and holistic professionals alongside their biomedical counterparts. On the heels of widening usage of complementary healthcare, Prince Charles has advocated regulation and evaluation of alternative routes to health beyond those readily sanctioned by the state. However, the plan set out two years ago to create a more inclusive register of healthcare services has yet to be implemented. Such a register would ensure regulation of herbal, Chinese, and other alternative medical practitioners that would elevate both safety and access.

Reluctance to include alternative medicine in standard healthcare evaluation compromises the safety of patients. Similar problems with regulation have been found in the herbal supplement industry, where a lack of oversight has resulted in false advertising of ingredients, and occasionally the addition of harmful substances.

Recently, researchers published a study about the benefits of Chinese medical treatments in preventing diabetes. The findings in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism showed that the herbal mixture Tianqi lowers the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes among individuals with damaged glucose tolerance. Medicine like Tianqi may represent logical alternatives or additions to pharmaceutical treatments, and it is research and regulation that will allow patients to benefit.

There are models of integrated medical treatment already in place, and we can learn much from the long road that converging medical systems took to reach this meeting point. In Bolivia, many patients initially avoided the primary healthcare clinics that arrived asserting biomedicine’s authority on all matters of well-being (see Joseph Bastien’s book Drum and Stethoscope: Integrating Ethnomedicine and Biomedicine in Bolivia). Those who did visit the alien doctors described the treatments as ineffective, and for all intents and purposes the patients did not improve. Thus biomedicine was dethroned in rural Bolivia.

There is a cultural component to this phenomenon. At first, a pre-natal tetanus vaccination campaign failed completely when the foreign doctors and nurses brandished their vaccines and claimed panacea. The local and indigenous communities had ideas as concrete as the biomedical gospel of the doctors—they believed the primary cause of tetanus to be malignant spirits and not microscopic pathogens. Furthermore, mistrust abounded as healers and shamans questioned the purpose of such “vaccines.” It appeared as though the doctors were stealing precious “fat” with these contraptions, “fat”embodying a source of life and health for people in this region. Nobody imagined that the primary health clinics would fail, but as the doctors distanced themselves further and further from the people, insisting on the infallibility of their views and the archaic beliefs of the villagers, the doctors and their sterile, white lab coats were alienated entirely.

It was not until later, when the doctors engaged a dialogue with local healers and shamans, hiring them as equals in the health clinics, that more and more infants lived past the first few weeks of life. Today many Bolivian health clinics host biomedical doctors and nurses, community healers, herbalists, and even shamans in a network of healthcare support that caters to the individual, instead of the preferences of the few who create the healthcare guidelines. The results have been impressive, boasting overall improvement in community health. Health is complex set of physical, psychological, and cultural processes, and therefore, the efficacy of treatment is not based solely on cut and dry pathology but also personal background, beliefs, and attitudes toward the healthcare itself.

How does this relate outside Bolivia? The integration of complementary and biomedical approaches to healthcare can produce optimal results in patient health. The individual comes from a wide variety of experiences and world views, all of which influence response to treatment and consultation. Moreover, there are methods from diverse medical systems that are gaining widespread acceptance.

Through regulation of all of these different options for safety and efficacy, healthcare can be more than a mass product—a finely tailored treatment, fitting like a glove around every inflammation and concern. Perhaps it is time to clear away the delay tactics and move toward the formation of a healthcare system that heals the individual, not the system.

By Natalia Magnani


Dr. Yonatan Sahle and the African Origins of Human Intelligence

yonatan-sahleDr. Yonatan Sahle now holds the Glenn Isaac Postdoctoral Seat in the Human Evolution Research Center at UC Berkeley. He recently gave a talk at my alma mater on the African Origins of Human Intelligence at CSU East Bay. You all may know that our early ancestors diverged from sub-Saharan populations approx 100,000 – 250,000 years ago. Our technology during this transition was prolific. Dr. Sahle discusses this, along with what he has recently found, the earliest projectile points in the worldHis entire talk is listed above…. Take time to check out this excerpt from the Q&A session where he schools a racist commenter.

Sahle Y, Hutchings WK, Braun DR, Sealy JC, Morgan LE, et al. (2013) Earliest Stone-Tipped Projectiles from the Ethiopian Rift Date to >279,000 Years Ago. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78092. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078092


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