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.

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.

The ICEBERG had nothing to do with it.

After extensive study of metallurgy, shipbuilding methods of the time, and the records of Harland and Wolff, the company that built the Titanic, Timothy Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty have published a new book, What Really Sunk the Titanic.  In this book (I have not yet read it), they claim inferior iron rivets are to blame for the sinking of the ship.  The article review I read leads me to believe the shipbuilding company used some iron rivets of inferior quality due to the necessary speed of construction and the high demand for rivets at that time.  Since I have not read the book or done any similar research myself however, I remain unconvinced.  My favorite quote: “The company knowingly purchased weaker rivets, but I think they did it not knowing they would be purchasing something substandard enough that when they hit an iceberg their ship would sink.”  I know there has been debate about the design of the ship, and if it would’ve remained floating if it had hit the ‘berg straight on, but either way, it’s like running aground on a reef or wrapping your car around a telephone pole.  Even if you don’t die outright, you’re not going to just walk away from that.  And while I can understand that the authors are not trying to prove that the weak rivets alone didn’t sink the Titanic, the idea that it would have sunk more slowly if the rivets had been stronger seems obvious and unnecessary.  If the whole ship had been made of alien super-metal, it probably would’ve just crushed the iceberg to bits and gone on its merry way.

What tickled me most about the whole situation really has nothing to do with the Titanic or the Atlantic at all.  It’s about the retired naval engineer from Harland and Wolff.  he’s the one who handles technical questions about the Titanic, I guess as a personal hobby.  His name?  David Livingstone.  So far though, he hasn’t found the church or explored a largely unknown continent, as far as I can tell.  Still, it makes me wish I were named Stanley…