31 July 2010


I haven't talked about Sassanian women for ages (actually not since Sassy Sassanians in January 2008) and then it was really the story of the goddess Anahita, not any mortal women. So, it's more than time for Zenobia to come down to earth -- if only at an appropriately elevated, imperial height.

Right on cue, Prof. Haleh Emrani (University of California) published "Like Father, Like Daughter: Late Sasanian Imperial Ideology and the Rise of Bōrān to Power."*

That's Bōrān, as in Queen Bōrān (left), who became the King of Kings.


A little historical background.

Bōrān's father was Khusrau II (590-628 CE), also called 'the Victorious'. In a series of campaigns, he led his armies against the Byzantines, and, for a short time, expanded the limits of the Sassanian Empire to the greatest extent it had ever reached.

He managed, in effect, to destroy the might of Byzantium, first breaking its military power in a long war of attrition and then taking over all its rich Middle Eastern provinces. The king conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Libya.

The conquest of Jerusalem in 614 had more serious consequences than just the destruction of the city (once again!): this time, the relic of the True Cross fell into Persian hands. They carried it off to their capital, Cteisiphon (near modern Baghdad), where it became a further casus bellum.

Khusrau's armies went on to invade Anatolia and in 615 (or possibly 626), their advance guards halted only a mile from the walls of Constantinople. The city was put under siege. The King of Kings had reached the zenith of his power, and it seemed as though the Persians would finally conquer their ancient foes.

Pride Goeth Before a Fall
Khusrau became puffed up with vainglory because of the vast amount of wealth and all kinds of jewels, utensils, equipment, and horses he had accumulated. He had conquered so many of the lands of his enemies. However, he was filled with conceit and boastfulness, and was horribly avaricious....

[He] had in his palace 3,000 women with whom he had sexual relations and thousands of slave girls employed as servants, for making music and singing, and such. He also had 3,000 male servants, 8,500 riding beasts on which he could travel, 760 elephants, and 12,000 mules for conveying his baggage.
The Persians had found little opposition in their conquests because of internal conflicts within the Byzantine empire. Now, however, a new emperor, Heraclius, struck back. He sailed with an army into the Black Sea while the Persian army was still on the shores of the Bosphorus. Landing in the Caucasus, he marched into Armenia and Azerbaijan striking into the heart of the Sassanian empire. Capturing Ganzak, the most important Zoroastrian fire-temple in Azerbaijan, he defeated the Persian army sent against him.

In 628, Heraclius was near Cteisiphon where he captured Khusrau's royal residence. This was a palace worthy of a King of Kings. Heraclius looted the astonishing riches that Khusrau had accumulated over the years, to the tune of 600,000,000 silver coins plus 'purses' of treasure worth another 68,571,42, as well as, as al-Tabari helpfully explains, "various kinds of jewels, garments, and the like, whose grand total God alone could enumerate." [1042]

Despite this turning of the tables, Khusrau still refused to make peace. The landed and military aristocracy, though, had had enough of his ruinous taxes and bloody wars. Persian generals revolted and, led by Khusrau's son, Kavad II, the aging King of Kings was seized, tortured, and slain.

To secure his throne, Kavad killed all male descendants of the royal house, including 16 (or 18) of his brothers. A wise precaution but it turned out to be of little use: after a mere eight months, Kavad died, either of the plague which was spreading during his short reign, or by poison: So a man may reign for seven months, and in the eighth he finds that his crown is made of the camphor with which the dead are anointed [Shahnameh].

His son, Ardashir III, seven years old, succeeded to the throne to be a short-lived puppet of the nobility. Within a few months, the young king was murdered by an army commander, Shahrbaraz, who was not of royal blood. The regicide thus committed the additional enormity of usurping the throne when he was not from the Sassanid house. He reigned for 40 days before being killed in turn by disgruntled nobles. His body was tied to chains and dragged through the streets of the capital.

9 June 629 CE Queen Bōrān, eldest daughter of Khusrau II, was crowned 'Great King'

In the long history of the Sassanian empire, no woman had ever been sole ruler of Persia (though queens had acted as regents).

The Persian conception of royalty was strictly masculine. The king was the chief of the priests and of the Zoroastrian church, which did not have any female clergy. His physical perfection was necessary for his high function (and that must have included his sexual organs): any mutilation was sufficient reason for excluding a prince from the succession. The king's religious, military and political authority was based on the god-given 'Divine Glory' (khvarrah) which, it goes without saying, descended in the male line from the mythical first king, Sāsān. The polygamous family of the king and his rights over the harem and his relatives do not seem to support any independent source of power for queens or princesses. In fact, like any other women, they were presumably always under the authority of a guardian -- whether father, husband, son, or other male relative.

So what happened in on 9 June 629 CE to change four hundred years of royal tradition and raise a woman to the throne?

The nobles and priests, who were the pillars of the Sassanian monarchy, would not accept as king anyone who was not a member of the royal family. So, in the name of defending the house of Sāsān, they killed Persia's best general and put a princess on the throne. In short, a woman from the royal house was considered a more legitimate king than a general who, although of noble birth, was not descended from the blood of Sāsān.

Al-Tabari writes that the nobles were compelled to accept Bōrān as king because of the lack of legitimate male candidates. Certainly, Kavad II had tried to exterminate all possible competitors. But, with his father having had 3,000 sex objects in his harem, there's only so many descendants you can murder in eight months. Just as they later found, hidden here and there, some minor male relatives who had escaped the slaughter and raised them, briefly, to the throne, the lack of males could not be the whole reason for their unexpected choice. Rather, we may imagine that the coronation of Bōrān was a political decision made by the council of nobles. It's certainly not beyond possibility that she herself was involved in the plot against the usurping general.

In any case, her first challenge was to prove she was the rightful holder of the khvarrah. And so she invoked her father's legacy by imitating his crown (left) and coins. Remember, every Sassanian ruler had his own individual crown (that's how we can tell them apart even when their names are not given). Khusrau II had worn the symbol of Wahrām, the god of war and victory, spreading his wings. Bōrān's adoption of this deity can be seen as a symbolic tie to her father -- who was, and in memory remained -- a great warrior-king.

Besides her crown, her coins displayed (upper left, near her chin) the sun, moon, and stars, as well as the crescent moon and stars in the margin of her coins (middle left; below left). The reverses were exactly like those on her father's coins, with a Zoroastrian fire altar attended by two standing figures, surrounded by astral signs in the margins (right). The presence of these signs on her crown and coins backs up her claim to rule with divine sanction. In case of any lingering doubt, a gold coin reads, "Bōrān, restorer of the race of the gods".

Her appearance, too, conformed to kingly standards. In a now-lost book depicting Sassanian kings, Bōrān was shown seated on a throne wearing male royal dress, including a green tunic over sky-blue trousers -- strikingly different from the very long dresses that covered the legs and feet of royal women. Accessories included a sky-blue crown and a battle-axe held in her hands.

So Bōrān was no longer seen as a princess but as a monarch in her own right, dressed in proper kingly attire, and confirmed by the legends on her coins and her crown. These symbols rendered her gender irrelevant. She was, in fact, the king!

xwadāy zan-ēw bawēd "A woman will be king"

The main tasks of a legitimate king was to protect the people of Persia and maintain its religious laws. How did Bōrān handle the duties that justified her khvarrah?

First, she concluded a treaty of peace with the Byzantines. A preliminary agreement had already been reached between Heraclius and General Shahrbaraz or perhaps even earlier with Kavad II. Persia had lost the long war and they knew it. Except for the important city of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, near the Turkish-Syrian border), all of her father's conquests were returned to Byzantium. Bōrān swallowed the bitter pill and signed.

A prominent part of the peace negotiations was about the True Cross. Although al-Tabari [1064] tells us that Bōrān restored it to Heraclius, it was probably part of an earlier deal: the Cross was back in Jerusalem by spring 630 or, at the latest, Easter 631: in any event, Heraclius and his second wife Martina secured its triumphant return to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Bōrān's reign is said to have been marked by benevolence. She behaved kindly and justly to her subjects. She remitted for the people the arrears of land tax due. Nor did she lack energy: she ordered the rebuilding of stone bridges and bridges made of boats in order to improve the catastrophic economic situation in the empire. She fulfilled her religious duties and established at least one new fire-temple near the capital city.

The extraordinary thing is that all our sources seem to emphasize the positive qualities of this female king. None object to her because of her sex, nor do they reflect any controversies in her rise to the throne.

Too Good To Last

Her coins, of which she minted many, give us this progress
  • Year 1 (top left) began just after the Sassanian New Year on 17 June 629 - 16 June 630.
  • Year 2 (middle left) ran from 17 June 630 - 16 June 631.
  • Year 3 (lower left) would have started on 17 June 631 ... and then she died.
Perhaps it was a natural death. Perhaps she was strangled by a dissident general, as Christian sources tell us. We just don't know.


Bōrān may (or may not) have been followed on the throne by a man called Jushnas Dih, who (if he existed at all) lasted less than a month; then got the chop.

The next certain ruler was Bōrān's own younger sister, Azarmidokht (meaning 'daughter of the honoured one').

Yes, another woman.

Nobles and priests apparently thought the experiment with a female monarch was worth repeating. When she assumed the royal power, she proclaimed in a tougher tone than ever used by her sister:

Our way of conduct will be that of our father, Khusrau, the victorious one, and if anyone rebels against us, we will shed his blood.

On the left is one of her rare coins.

Do not adjust your computer: Azarmidokht is not a bearded lady; at least I don't think she is** -- though minted with her name, the coin depicts a bearded man, presumably her father (compare his crown with Khusrau's crown above).

Her reign is portrayed favourably, shedding light on all because of her remarkable beauty and intelligence. She was 'vigorous' and, in the little time granted her, built a fire-temple.

The only other story told about her is decidedly peculiar. One of the great men of Persia asked for her hand in marriage:

She wrote back, "Marriage to a queen is not permissible. I realize full well that your intention in what you are proposing is to satisfy your own [sexual] needs and lust with me. So come to me on such-and-such a night." Azarmidokht ordered the commander of her guard to lie in wait for him on the night they had agreed to meet together and then kill him. The commander of her guard carried out her orders...; and at her command, the corpse was dragged out by the feet and thrown down by the open space before the palace.
The trap arranged by Azarmidokht suggests a rather strong refusal to submit to any man. She would have no husband and no guardian, certainly not one who was not of royal blood. She clearly planned to rule alone. The concept of the royal and divine khvarrah, restricted to the descendants of Sāsān, was enough to block any attempt at usurpation of power. The fate of her would-be 'lover' was thus a political act.

A clever plan. But perhaps unwise.

The great man's son, Rustam, came with a mighty army to avenge his father. After just six months on the throne, Azarmidokht was raped, blinded, and then killed.

Five years later, in 636 CE, this Rustam was the Persian general who lost the battle of Qādisiyyah to the newly united Muslim Arabs. Trying to flee the battlefield, he was caught and beheaded by an Arab soldier.

Who says there is no justice?

The collapse of the Sassanian Empire followed hot on his heels.

* H. Emrani, "Like Father, Like Daughter...." at e-Sasanika 9 (2009). I have also made much use of A. Panaino, "Woman and Kingship..." in J.Wiesehöfer, P.Huyse (eds.) Eran ud Aneran (2006) 221-239.

** Prof. Emrani, however, does think that the beard is meant to emphasize that Azamidokht was not a woman but a king
(p. 9); that would be rather, I imagine, in the mode of bearded Hatshepsut.


All coins from Coins of the Sasanian Empire

Drawing comparing crowns of Khusrau II and
Bōrān, from Emrani, at e-Sasanika 9 (2009), p. 11.

21 July 2010


It's Anthropology Carnival Time!

This isn't really my kind of thing.

Anthropology stretches itself to cover everything and everyone from pre-pre-history right up to yesterday's news. I'm not used to writing about people who are alive ... and even kicking.

Being an archaeologist, I prefer my subjects long dead. And, if possible, buried by volcanic ash.

Fortunately, the beginning of summer brought news ghoulish enough to satisfy any archaeologist, however fussy. So, first, the blood and guts.


Greg Laden's Blog brought out the lethal thermal impact of pyroclastic surges on the people of Pompeii. He asks, How did the victims of the Plinean Eruption of Vesuvius die? The temperature was 250 to 300 degrees C, and the time of exposure was about 30 seconds or so:
Even at the most extreme edges of the flow of stuff out of the volcano, Pompeii, at the far edge of the mud and ash that came from the volcano's explosion, the heat was sufficient to instantly kill everyone, even those inside their homes.... They did not suffocate. They did not get blown apart by force. They did not die of gas poisoning. They simply cooked. Instantly.
More reality analysis than you may possibly want at Culture as Science - Science as Culture.

Of course, not every newsworthy death is buried in ash. Some are covered up by wicked conspiracies.

Who Stole King Tut's Crown Jewels? The Case of the Disappearing Royal Member.

Tutankhamen's mummy has been plagued by claims that his penis was stolen in order to cover up its small size.

Some scholars, we were told, believed that Tut had a hormonal disorder that causes underdeveloped genitalia. Thus, when his penis was found detached from the rest of him, it spread about the internet that the "penis was swapped sometime after his body was embalmed, suggesting a conspiracy to save him from embarrassment."

Sadly for conspiracy theorists (and headline writers), Jo Marchant of Decoding the Heavens, who had inadvertently launched the story, came out swinging: not only was the penis well-developed, she explains, but it indeed belongs to Tut ...
as it was attached to the body when the mummy was first unwrapped. It must have broken off in modern times, probably during an early autopsy.
Read her report of how the pseudo-story of That Tut conspiracy went viral.

Not yet done tutting about Tut?

There's still no rest for the worn and torn mummy.

King Tut's DNA is Western European

No sooner was his manhood restored than headlines screamed that Tut was of European descent: it seems his haplogroup is R1b, one of the most common Y-chromosome haplogroups in Europe, especially the United Kingdom.

So, was Tutankhamun Scottish (right)?

"On balance personally," says Kate Phizackerley of News from the Valley of the Kings, "I think the genetic evidence points against it."
Even if Tutankhamun's haplogroup is R1b that doesn't mean his paternal ancestors were R1b as well. They might have been a different haplogroup but have diverged from it by genetic mutation. At the least, the analysis would need to show that Tutankhamun couldn't be any other haplogroup, or at least that it would be statistically unlikely. Showing that R1b is possible is not the same as showing that other haplogroups are not possible.
Even if you believe that Tutankhamun and his ancestors had a haplogroup of R1b, would that make him European? In short, not necessarily and, I believe, once other factors are taken into account, almost certainly not.
Her own proposal is much more elegant ... and historically anchored.

Read the whole post at Was Tutankhamun European? (Considerations of Haplogroup)

Just as we can't get enough of Tut, it seems that not a week passes without a Neanderthal scoop either.

Steroid-fuelled Neanderthals

Rosemary Joyce at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, neatly skewers the newspapers (and Discovery News) for sexing up reports which deal with the upper body musculature and asymmetry between the left and right arms of male Neanderthals:
Prehistoric man apparently boasted a rock-hard body, including an overdeveloped right arm that would make Popeye jealous.

... Simply put, the Neanderthal body was brimming with natural steroids.
Rather, the story itself appears to be "brimming with steroids".

But not anywhere near as much as the original article in Discovery News, that starts:

Remains of an early Neanderthal with a super strong arm suggest that Neanderthal fellows were heavily pumped up on male hormones, possessing a hormonal status unlike anything that exists in humans today

"All of which begs the question: how do we know about that rock-hard flesh, and those steroids fuelling it?

No surprise here: we don’t."

The vision of Neanderthal as a muscular Popeye on the steppes is based on study of a single arm bone that Discovery News specifies is a humerus. The method of sex determination is not cited in either article. In fact, female Neanderthals were strong, too, and more evenly muscular in both arms.

So much for gendering a humerus. Imagine what they could have done with a hip!

Hips Don't Lie!

Hop over to Anthropologist in the Attic for a report on a new technique to determine the sex of skeletal remains. A three-dimensional imaging technology now effectively quantifies the characteristics of the os coxa that differentiate males from females with far better results than any visual identification. This means that the sex of a body can be ascertained even if only a small fragment of the pelvis can be found. Clearly, this technique is not only useful for studying ancient remains but may have significant impacts in the wake of disasters and in the criminal justice system.


First off, the sensational news of the first cuneiform tablet ever found in Jerusalem, the well-dubbed Jerusalem 1.

Several blogs have been closely following the story (Abnormal Interests [here, here, and here], RollstonEpigraphy.com, ServingTheWord).

The fragment of a Late Bronze Age cuneiform tablet (left) discovered on the Ophel, close to what may have been the acropolis of LBA Jerusalem, has just been published in the Israel Exploration Journal (E. Mazar et.al.).

The readable text consists of the left hand portions of three lines on the obverse and three lines of the reverse. No line has more than five readable or partially readable signs.

Obverse: 1. [ ]; 2. “You were…[ ]; 3. “a foundation/after for. […]; 4. “to do. […]; 5. [ ].
Reverse: 1. [ ]; 2. [ ]; 3. “they [ ]; 4. [ ];

Not much to be going on with, you would think. But, as the authors rightly say, “The main significance of this new find does not lie in what we can learn by reading the tablet, but in the historical and archaeological context of the tablet itself.”

Of course, within the Amarna corpus of tablets from Egypt, dating from the 14th century BCE, several cuneiform letters addressed to the pharoah were sent by a certain Abdi-Heba of Urusalimu (EA 285-290). So we already knew that there were trained scribes in Jerusalem during the Amarna Period (i.e., the reigns of the Egyptian Pharoahs Amenophis III and Akhenaten). The Jerusalem 1 tablet is special, however, because it was found in Jerusalem and appears, on mineralogical ground, to have been written there rather than sent in from elsewhere. So, it corroborates an LBA scribal apparatus in Jerusalem, arguably under royal aegis.

According to Dr. Mazar, the discovery provides “solid evidence of the importance of Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age” and “lends weight to the importance that accrued to the city in later times, leading up to its conquest by King David in the 10th century B.C.E.”
[T]here is good reason to believe that the letter fragment does, in fact, come from a letter of a king of Jerusalem, mostly likely an archive copy of a letter from Jerusalem to Pharaoh.
Let the fireworks begin.

1. Is it a letter?

Not necessarily. It could be, for example, an epistolary text, a legal text, an administrative text, or a literary text. There are just too many unknowns and uncertainties.

2. Was Abdi-Heba a king?

Not really. Abdi-Heba describes himself as a 'soldier' rather than a 'king' and not even a 'mayor' of Jerusalem.
Behold, I am not a mayor; I am a soldier of the king, my lord. Behold, I am a friend (?) of the king and a tribute-bearer of the king. It was neither my father nor my mother, but the strong arm of the king that placed me in the house of my father. (EA 288:9-15)
Abdi-Heba repeatedly begs for a single unit of archers to defend Jerusalem, which will otherwise be lost to bandits and the treachery of other local rulers. It's interesting that the only known ruler of Jerusalem in the 14th century BCE was perhaps of Hurrian descent (his name means 'servant of Heba', a Hurrian goddess). He seems to have been a local mercenary leader or from a local family with a claim to power who considered himself a military commander, on par with mayors and village headmen.

Given that we have no idea of the extent of the settlement at the time (physical remains are scanty, to put it mildly), the claim that this letter (if a letter) comes from a 'king' and that Jerusalem was a 'major center' in this period is premature.

Claims and counter-claims will run and run and run .

Sounds from Silence

Much easier to swallow is a tablet recording a 'Hymn of Supplication', hummed on TheDigGirl blog as a classic example of contemporary artists being inspired by archaeological objects or ancient history:
Syrian musical scholar Ziad Ajjan composed eight poetry and musical pieces from the musical archaeological cuneiform tablet known as "Hymn of Supplication" H6 discovered in Ugarit in the early 20th century. Ajjan composed three musical pieces based on the musical notes in the tablet which dates back to 1400 BC, naming the pieces "Sunrise," "Sunset" and "Holiday in Ugarit." This marks the recording of the oldest music notation in the history of the world.
If you want to hear the actual hymns and not contemporary interpretations, you'll have to go back in time 30 years to a recording entitled Sounds from Silence -- songs produced from lyres modelled on examples excavated in southern Mesopotamia. The producer Bit Enki ('house of Enki,' the god of the sweet waters) is still selling copies of the original vinyl and CD on their website at Bella Roma Music.

My, is it already 30 years ago? A mere archaeological moment: I still have the original record in my music collection.


Do Animals Keep Pets?

What is a pet and how would you define one? A recent study defines a pet as a member of another species that is being kept for an extended period of time for enjoyment. Although cross-genus animal-animal 'pets' are documented -- some gorillas and orangutans are known to have kept cats -- these are not judged to be true pet relationships since it only seems to occur in captive or semi-captive settings.

While it is impossible to define what a pet is from an animal standpoint, The Prancing Papio blog wonders if the adoption of an infant marmoset by wild capuchin monkeys nonetheless fits the bill.

Left: a young marmoset taking food (cracked palm nut) from its adoptive mother’s (capuchin) hand.

The marmoset was first observed clinging to an adult female capuchin and then watched for over a year. To all intents and purposes, it was socially integrated into the wild monkey group, travelling and feeding with the others.

True, these capuchins live in a site where food is provided daily. So, you could still argue that the capuchins are not real pet owners under the strictest definition.

Or, I suppose, you could wonder if humans only started making pets of animals once their own food supply was relatively secure....

Liberian Lady Rules the Roost

Well, it's little use observing wild animals while we're pushing them to extinction; is there?

Finally, some good news for our primate cousins. DNApes spreads the word that Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has banned the exportation of wild animals and bush meat from Liberia.
A Foreign Ministry press statement issued here Monday says the ban shall remain in force pending the passage of a proposed legislation to be submitted to the national legislature for enactment. The statement said President Sirleaf is accordingly warning all those involved in the illegal exportation of bush meat and wild animals to desist with immediate effect or face the consequences.
DNApes now asks us all to send a nice note to her (info@emansion.gov.lr) on behalf of all Liberia’s monkeys and chimpanzees, who, like other primates throughout Africa, are threatened with extinction from unregulated trade and other human hazards.

Zenobia has just done so. Now, readers, it's your turn. Stop reading. Quick, send an email now!

Behavioural Economics Behaving Badly

Behavioural Economics is fashionable. Surely, it makes sense to understand how and why people behave irrationally, using elements from psychology to examine deviations from rational choice. On the Neuroanthropology.net, however, dlende writes about its limits -- and frets that it is being used is being used as an avoidance mechanism when traditional economic solutions would be better, though politically more difficult.

Does BE help in addressing the epidemic of obesity, for example? Surely, better information should lead to better consumer behaviour. If you can influence consumers through things like calorie labelling, the self-evident answer is to require restaurant chains to post the number of calories in their dishes. Done that! And it feels good; doesn't it? Unfortunately, studies show it doesn't work:
Obesity isn’t a result of a lack of information; instead, economists argue that rising levels of obesity can be traced to falling food prices, especially for unhealthy processed foods.
The real answer then may be to change the relative price of healthful and unhealthful food.

Read the whole post for lots more about why the pay-off from behavioural economic solutions is not that great.

Would You Repeat That? I Don't Understand

Mark Liberman on Language Log discusses an intriguing study showing that "Many English speakers cannot understand basic grammar":
The findings — which undermine the assumption that all speakers have a core ability to use grammatical cues — could have significant implications for education, communication and linguistic theory.

The experimental subjects were of two types: "High Academic Attainment" (basically graduate students) and "Low Academic Attainment" (at most 11 years of formal education: shelf-stackers, packers, assemblers, or clerical workers). The HAA subjects never made a mistake. You may or may not be surprised to learn that the LAA subject often got things wrong, and that their error rate varied systematically with the type of sentence.

Is this credible ... or could it indicate a dreaded "paper airplane effect"?
[A result], noted in a population of high-school-student subjects, was replicable; but observing one group of subjects more closely, we observed that a similar fraction spent the experiment surreptitiously launching paper airplanes and spitballs at one another.
Read the details to find out, and the follow-up, More on Basic Sentence Interpretation, which considers why passive sentences might be harder to understand than the active ones and whether the passive examples were basic (or natural) enough to test ‘core ability’.

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?

When you divide experimental subjects into "High Academic Attainment" and "Low Academic Attainment", at least you're covering a potentially large part of humankind. Imagine, instead, restricting your data exclusively to the HAA's.

What kind of crazy, culturally bounded results would you expect?

Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic = ‘WEIRD’.

And that's what GregDowney on Neuroanthropology.net finds when he examines a remarkable review article that appeared in the latest issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences:

‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ establishes that most behavioural science theory is built on research that examines only a very narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates; more specifically, those in psychology classes) -- who are, in a word, WEIRD.

Equally distorting, research published in the top journals in six sub-disciplines of psychology relied on 68% of subjects from the US and fully 96% from ‘Western’ industrialized nations (European, North American, Australian or Israeli). Unsurprisingly, this skews our understanding of the empirical foundation for claims being made, either explicitly or implicitly, about human nature.

And we say that these patterns hold true around the world. They don't.
WEIRD subjects tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits.
"If you have one blockhead colleague who simply does not get that surveying his or her students in ‘Introduction to Psychology’ fails to provide instant access to ‘human nature,’ this is the article to pass along."

Read the whole thought-provoking post at Neuroanthropology.net.


Anti-Dutch Predictopus

I have a bone to pick with Paul, the octopus.

Holland is my adopted country so you will understand my dismay when Paul picked Spain to beat The Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup football final.

Paul's prescient picks -- 100% correct match predictions -- have propelled him to international fame in an aquarium in the German city of Oberhausen.

TV stations in Germany, Great Britain, Taiwan and elsewhere broadcast live pictures, complete with breathless commentary, of his final decision for the tournament. Millions watched as the world-famous octopus descended upon on a tank marked with a Spanish flag, sitting for only a few minutes before grabbing a mussel and devouring it, while completely ignoring the Dutch tank -- indicating a Spanish victory in the finals.

And it turned out to be right. The Spanish team won the World Cup.

"So, the mollusc wins again," writes Heresy Corner. "The cephalopod's reputation for oracular infallibility is maintained. Scientific rationalism wobbles. Richard Dawkins must be quaking in his smug atheistic boots. I know I am."

The wobbly Heresiarch wonders, "Is there - can there be - a scientific explanation?"

Chance may explain it, of course - though with every correct prediction it becomes more likely that something other than chance is involved. So what, other than the existence of a genuine oracular octopus, might that be?

In a word, voodoo.

If not voodoo, the simplest explanation is found in his Update #1 -- and I'm preening myself that I reached the same conclusion the moment the spineless octopus chose Spain over Holland.

Then I went to the BBC to look for tasty octopus recipes:

Octopus can be tough if not tenderised before cooking. The traditional way to tenderise the meat is to hurl it against rocks; an easier method is to simmer it for an hour.

I rather think Paul merits the traditional method; don't you?

On the subject of Dutch football, if you watched the World Cup final (or semi-final or quarter-final or any match played by the Dutch team for that matter), you would have noticed that the once-stolid Dutch had been transmuted into a riot of day-glo orange glitter.

The Orange Carnival

Dutch football fans don't just wear orange, they embrace it. They jazz up their orange jerseys with blinding orange pants and orange socks and orange face paint and orange wigs and funny orange hats.

You can't miss the Dutch fans. They do want to be seen. If you are Dutch you are loyal, you are stout, and you are unwavering. You wear orange.

Why orange?

It's a nod, of course, to the monarchy, the House of Orange. There has always been orange bunting displayed on Queen's Day (April 30th). But the orange carnival associated with sports is a much more recent phenomenon. As Martijn tells us on CLOSER (Anthropology of Muslims in Europe):
The orange carnival appeared to have emerged in the 1970s, in particular after the Dutch lost the World Cup final in 1974 from the Germans, which still serves as a national trauma. In 1988 ... it reached next level when everything that can be made orange was turned into orange and in the last years a new hype of making the street where you live or even whole areas orange.
He points to an interesting correlation between Orange Fever and the introduction of colour television to the Dutch market in 1974. Without that vivid spur, would the colour orange have made it as a national colour?

Read what Martijn has to say on Orange Fever: Notes on the World Cup, football, nationalism and Deep Play in the Netherlands.

You just wear something orange and you're part of the community.

Does orange truly transcend ethnic minority identities?

Right: Turkish flag in Orange by Turkish Dutchmen (Theocornelissen.sp.nl)

Bodies Out of Place

After winning the women's 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics, sprinter Caster Semenya (on the left) returned to a hero's welcome in her native South Africa -- while critics charged that she should be disqualified for not being a woman at all: 'You could tell she was a man just by looking at her.'

Accordingly, the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) ordered gender testing to determine whether Semnya was eligible to compete as a woman. In November 2009, they announced that she would be allowed to keep her gold medal, but did not say whether she could compete in future events, and refused to discuss gender testing.

Finally, just this month, the IAAF cleared Semenya to return to competition immediately, but again avoided details of the gender verification procedure.

This girl has been castigated from day one, based on what?

As the Linguistic Anthropology Roundup # 9, notes:
Sports officials are now able to examine athlete’s chromosomes, hormones, androgen receptors and the like, but they have not decided what any of that information means in a realm where athletes are classified as men or women.

It seems that [they], like many people in the world, are unprepared to deal with the problematic nature of normative gender binaries. Bodies that cannot be easily classified result in crisis.
How very true. Early this year, the International Olympics Committee recommended that gender ambiguity be treated as a medical issue, and that athletes with 'sexual disorder,' presumably including any body that cannot be easily classified, receive treatment.

I can hardly wait to see the results!

That's all for 4 Stone Hearth # 97. The next edition appears at The Prancing Papio on 4 August.


Top left: plaster of paris cast of Pompeiian victim from Awesomestories.com

Official photo of the mummy of Tutankhamun taken at its discovery, via The Ancient Egypt site created by Jacques Kinnaer

King Tut Scottish? Credit Sandro Vannini at Heritage-Key.com

Paul, the octopus. Credit: Reuters

Dutch fans celebrate in Cape Town. Credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Caster Semenya at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, August 2009, in Berlin. (Creative Commons photograph by José Sena Goulão/LUSA.)

All other photographs from or via the blogs cited.

08 July 2010

Save the Date for Anthropology!

Blogging About Humankind

To kick off a new season of blogging, the 97th Carnival Edition of Four Stone Hearth -- the bi-weekly showcase for top anthropology blogging -- will appear right here at Zenobia: Empress of the East on 21st July.

What's a Four-Stone Hearth? Well, anthropology is the study of all humankind -- from the very beginning until yesterday's news has wrapped up fish & chips, from the sublimest to the daily grind, from obsidian cores to digital pixels. Anthropologists claim all times and places as their meat & drink. We can narrow that down just a bit: the carnival focuses on four pivotal lines of research:
  • archaeology
  • socio-cultural anthropology
  • bio-physical anthropology
  • linguistic anthropology

Each of these pivots is 'a stone in the hearth' (left). As an archaeologist, I might see them rather as menhirs in a field or stellae set on tombs. No matter. The metaphor, like the field, is wide open.

So start sending me notices of the best humankind blogging that you've read so far this summer. And keep up the good work as you come across particularly fine, insightful -- or just plain provoking posts as they appear over the next two weeks.

Feel free to nominate even [or especially!] your own writings as well.

You can email me directly at judith@judithweingarten.com or leave a comment on this post.

If you're not familiar with the anthropology carnival, pop over to the main page of Four Stone Hearth where you'll find some recent carnivals (and the whole kit-and-caboodle dating back to October '06). Did you know, for example, that the 96th edition now up at Testimony of the Spade has everything from the Americans' effort to blast the Van Allen Belts out of the sky (the H-bomb explosion in space could be seen across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand) to a French professor's lecture on "the interiorizing lens of mental illnesss" interrupted by a decidedly external THWAP!! followed by Bang! Bang! Bang! and the demise of a furry bumble bee?

Undoubtedly we, too, shall cover the gamut of groovy activities -- plus whatever else takes Zenobia's fancy -- for the humankind worlds on 21st July. Hold this date!

Illustration (above left): Banda Vigna Vulgaris

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