Khoisan mDNA and Africa’s Eve

There are a few things we know about the ‘original’ man of Africa. Genetics have traced our roots to a specific set of mDNA markers existing 200,000 years ago, a sort of genetic Eve for modern man. Archaeological evidence has traced the outpouring of man across the other continents to about 60,000 years ago (though this outpouring is still a theory only). A variety of methods and tactics have been employed to trace the relations of various groups of people from that point on, both through physical remains and modern biology, and through cultural markers such as language, tradition, history, and religion. But there’s still quite a bit we don’t know.

Quite a bit of what is left unknown is from that time span prior to the diaspora. The stone age began at some point before the diaspora. Such toolmaking has long been interpreted as the advent of civilization and a result of language, but the evidence is spotty at best. Conflicting theories of development (such as the idea, also largely unsupported, that Neanderthals had spoken language) are just as reasonable. Of particular interest are ideas of how one species may have replaced or interbred with another in a specific area.

Through studying the mDNA of Khoikhoi and San peoples, new theories are being posed for this early developmental time in Africa.  Maybe we were all meant to die out 70,000 years ago.  Maybe the speakers of that wonderful clicky language diverged from us genetically earlier than we’d previously thought.  Maybe they’re all closer to our genetic Eve mother and how we’re all ‘supposed’ to look.  Maybe after cheating death for thousands of years, our time as a species has come.  Maybe mDNA Eve is only one instance of the genetic change that was taking place across the globe all at once, and this whole diaspora idea is baloney.  Who knows?  But if we as a species were near extinction way back there in Africa, how would the world have developed without us?  It’s worth thinking about.

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The Renaissance Woman.

Sometimes I wish I did more.  My general life is filling and rewarding as it is for the most part.  However, occasionally I see something or hear about someone so cool that I wish I had already dedicated my life to following in their footsteps.  Like Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I want to be truly accomplished.  I want to play more musical instruments (probably the harp, banjo, guitar, hammered dulcimer, and tuba) and practice the piano and viola skills I already have.  I want to learn more about music (popular and otherwise) and try my hand a bit more at composing.  I want to learn Swahili, probably in association with a fully Bantu language, and brush up on my French, Arabic, and Mandarin.  I would like to learn more about anthropology and archeology, and possibly volunteer for a dig somewhere.  I would like to design or invent a variety of poverty ameliorating devices that would properly showcase my flare for problem-solving.  I’d like to work in some sort of space-creation again – landscape architecture, set design, interior planning, urban sculpture.  I’d like to paint more, and really practice with oils, which I only just minimally understand.  I’d like to have a garden to putter around in and learn about.  I want to read, write, and play.  Mostly though, I’m a Jack of all trades and master of none.  I start on something ambitious, and my own standards of perfection lead me to quit before I’m anywhere close to ahead.

However, there are occasional little glimmers that draw me back into the tasks I’ve momentarily set aside.  Sarah‘s freelancing career was one of these.  I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I’m a writer, I could do that!’  And I did talk about it with her over email, and check out a book and look at some things online.  But the interest slowly waned.  Then, in reading Shape and Colour, I saw the post on Erika Janunger and hurried to check out her website.  I thought to myself, I’m a designer (of sorts), I can sing.  I could so do cool stuff like that!  Heck, I first started playing the viola just because other people were learning stringed instruments for fun.

I wonder if this momentary burst of enthusiasm is just admiration, or if it’s something else.  I am intrigued by the idea of following your fancies or passions.  I’m intrigued by the idea of people moving from one area of study to the next: Da Vinci, Franklin, Le Corbusier.  It has been said that with today’s extensive specialization, no one can acquire the knowledge to be a true polymath anymore.  We’re all lost somewhere between choosing a specific path  and becoming mediocre at everything.  With women now balancing work and family life in an increasingly competitive economic environment, mediocrity is not allowable.  But while I’m not going to realize greatness in everything, I still intend on shooting for the moon.  If I don’t jump quite that high, I still hope to come down with 4 or 5 greatnesses, at least in my own personal life.

Owing the Taliban

In recent history, anger and revolution have destroyed a number of great monuments to the work and beliefs of mankind. The Cultural Revolution comes to mind, and its destruction and defacement of a variety of religious monuments, including some of the early Buddhist temples along the Silk Road. The book burning in Nazi Germany is another example. The symbolic burning of Old Glory to support a specific cause is an example of representative destruction, as was done during the Vietnam War. The Taliban and their destruction of various non-Muslim religious spaces is another example.

But all is not lost with these acts of violence. The monuments that were destroyed are often held in even more reverence at later times. The calls to destruction can attract new attention to significant historical locations and even sometimes lead to renewed study and preservation concerns for the past. Take the recent discovery that Buddhists near Bamiyan used oil-based paints in the 7th century for example. If the Taliban hadn’t attempted to destroy the caves and the two Buddha statues outside, conservationists would have been reluctant to study the composition of the painting materials. From restoration processes after the Taliban’s reign, we now know that people in the area were using oils centuries before the advent of oil painting in Europe.

What debt, then, do we have to those who attempt to destroy culture and end up preserving it even more firmly? Does it say something more about them, or about us, that we study only those things that are most endangered or at risk. What does it mean that a high percentage of the archaeological study taking place in North America only happens as a result of land development? What does it mean that we only have the resources to discover the past when the physical presence of that past is threatened?

I need 100 lbs of rice, PRONTO!

According to CNN, the international price of rice is skyrocketing. I was unaware, but it does make an odd sort of sense. Food prices are on the rise, and rice is a pretty basic food staple that’s used around the world. In addition, there’s been lots of talk about biofuels and traditional food crops being used for these fuels. I was unaware that rice could be turned into biofuel, but even the pressure on other crops such as corn or wheat may have consumers using rice as a cheap alternative. Still, when a discount giant like Sam’s Club decides to limit how much rice each consumer can buy, something is seriously afoot.  UPDATE – now it looks like Costco is in on the rice-limiting trend, too.  Alas, my fair Costco!  How well have I loved thee?  I may have to transfer my allegiance to BJs, teh current rice holdout.

It’s unclear what has lead the retailer to the 80-lbs limit per customer, other than soaring rice prices and a possible eventual shortage. A statement was also made that the limits will mostly affect businesses that buy their rice in bulk, though “A typical Sam’s Club Business Member does not buy more than 80 lbs of rice in one visit”. What is this, WWII? What about all the Japanese sushi places that can no longer afford to do business under the new rule? What if I happen to go through 150lbs of basmati in three short days? I can’t be going back to Sam’s Club every other day!

Actually, it’s been quite some time since I’ve set foot in a Sam’s Club, but that’s besides the point. It’s the principle of the thing. If I want to stockpile rice by the ton in a giant pit in my backyard, that’s my business. However, it looks like I’ll have to give up my rice-swimming dream, at least for the moment. There are starving kids in Oklahoma, you know.

News you can Use

Ok, so the title of this post should really be something more like “News you really like”, or “News people in rural Kenya or other poverty-stricken parts of Africa can use”, but those seemed not as catchy as my current title.

Via the MIT website and the MIT-Lemelson awards program, I discovered a great program called KickStart that is one of those great places where innovation, business, and development combine.  The ‘company’ (the organization itself is a nonprofit, but it works on a business model such that after initial development, publicity, and distribution, the system runs itself) develops and implements a variety of simple, handheld, or manpowered machines to increase productivity and income.  Current machines include a variety used for turning available materials (sand, dirt, cement, clay) into building materials like bricks or roof tiles, an oil seed press, and several forms of manual irrigation pump, ranging in size from portable by one man to permanent.

While initial funding for research and advertising comes from donations and grants, KickStart is really about developing a process, not just a technology.  For example, with the development of the oilseed press, KickStart first looked at what was in demand in the area.  With government price controls being lifted on cooking oil, prices were skyrocketing and tehre just wasn’t enough oil to go around.  KickStart developed a more sophisticated oilseed press from models in other countries, then trained four local engineering firms to build it.  Using advertising to market the press and its advantages over other models, everyone benefits.  The engineering firms sell more machines that have high quality and hence increase customer satisfaction.  The cooking oil presser is able to process more cooking oil at a higher quality, therefore turning a higher profit.  The consumer of the oil, which was previously in shortage, now has an assurance of enough product.

If you were as excited as me, you will be disappointed to note they have no internships or
volunteer positions available at this time.  There are some job openings, but nothing that really agrees with my current skill set.  Alas.  My dreams of following my sisters to Kenya and learning Ki Swahili will just have to wait a little longer.