The Fertile Crescent, the Yangtze basin, Meso America, South America: those are the places that spring to mind as birthplaces of agriculture. Evidence is accumulating, however, to strengthen eastern North America’s case for inclusion. Among the sources of evidence, coprolites, or fossil faeces. Fossil human faeces. And among the people gathering the evidence Kris Gremillion, Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University. She was kind enough to talk to me on the phone, and I made a silly mistake when I recorded it, so please bear with me on the less than stellar quality. I hope the content will see you through. And I’ll try not to let it happen again.
You’ve got to love an episode of a food podcast that starts out with the line:
It’s astonishing what you can learn from a dried up piece of feces.
The story of human evolution has fascinated us like no other: we seem to have an insatiable curiosity about who we are and where we have come from. Yet studying the “stones and bones” skirts around what is perhaps the realest, and most relatable, story of human evolution – the social and cognitive changes that gave rise to modern humans.
In Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior, Robin Dunbar appeals to the human aspects of every reader, as subjects of mating, friendship, and community are discussed from an evolutionary psychology perspective. With a table of contents ranging from prehistoric times to modern days, Human Evolution focuses on an aspect of evolution that has typically been overshadowed by the archaeological record: the biological, neurological, and genetic changes that occurred with each “transition” in the evolutionary narrative. Dunbar’s interdisciplinary approach – inspired by his background as both an anthropologist and accomplished psychologist – brings the reader into all aspects of the evolutionary process, which he describes as the “jigsaw puzzle” of evolution that he and the reader will help solve. In doing so, the book carefully maps out each stage of the evolutionary process, from anatomical changes such as bipedalism and increase in brain size, to cognitive and behavioral changes, such as the ability to cook, laugh, and use language to form communities through religion and story-telling. Most importantly and interestingly, Dunbar hypothesizes the order in which these evolutionary changes occurred-conclusions that are reached with the “time budget model” theory that Dunbar himself coined. As definitive as the “stones and bones” are for the hard dates of archaeological evidence, this book explores far more complex psychological questions that require a degree of intellectual speculation: What does it really mean to be human (as opposed to being an ape), and how did we come to be that way?
A few weeks ago I had communicated a bit with paleoanthropologist John Hawks. I wanted to take a moment to highlight the fact that he maintains an excellent blog primarily concerning his areas of research which include anthropology, genetics and evolution. Even more specifically, he is one of the few people in these areas with at least a passing interest in the topic of information theory as it relates to his work. I recommend everyone take a look at his information theory specific posts.
I’ve previously written a brief review of John Hawks’ (in collaboration with Anthony Martin) “Major Transitions in Evolution” course from The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series of lectures. Given my interest in the MOOC revolution in higher education, I’ll also mention that Dr. Hawks has recently begun a free Coursera class entitled “Human Evolution: Past and Future“. I’m sure his current course focuses more on the area of human evolution compared with the prior course which only dedicated a short segment on this time period. Given Hawks’ excellent prior teaching work, I’m sure this will be of general interest to readers interested in information theory as it relates to evolution, biology, and big history.
I’d love to hear from others in the area of anthropology who are interested in information theoretical applications.
Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eatby Bee Wilson was one of my favorite Christmas presents this year. It covered my loves of history, gadgets, food, technology, entomology, popular culture and even evolution and anthropology. The major broad themes were very interesting and enlightening while being very well researched.
There were a few short sections on individual technologies which did feel a bit throw in almost as afterthoughts or which were related to the bigger topics, but just didn’t stand up on their own. Fortunately these didn’t detract from the overall work, though I did feel a bit more on these could have been written.
This is one of the most interesting books on food which I’ve had the pleasure of reading.