Showing posts with label Aborigines. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aborigines. Show all posts

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What science is saying

These days, the general public is being offered countless presentations of scientific conclusions concerning the origins of human beings. The tone of some of these presentations is so clear, and their contents are so striking, that most people should grasp what is being said, and be impressed by the scope and depth of such explanations. I would imagine that most young people react seriously to such presentations, whereas many adults probably find ways of shielding themselves from the impact of revolutionary facts capable of disturbing them.

Near the start of The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins presents readers with a spectacular thought experiment: that's to say, a virtual project carried out, not in a laboratory, but in your imagination. You're asked to stack up portraits of your father, your father's father, your father's father's father, and so on: that's to say, all your paternal male ancestors. The huge stack of images—extending backwards in time—might be laid out on bookshelves, enabling you to browse through them in an orderly fashion to examine the portrait of any specific male ancestor.

If you browsed back to the portrait of your 4,000-greats-grandfather, you would discover a bearded dark-skinned fellow not unlike men you might see today, say, in a Moroccan village. If you browsed back much further, to the portrait of your 50,000-greats-grandfather, you would come upon an individual who looks like the proverbial caveman. Dawkins then asks you to browse all the way back to your 185-million-greats-grandfather. What might he look like? With the help of brilliant illustrations from Dave McKean, Dawkins supplies an answer, which might shock certain readers:

This portrait of a grandpappy is far removed from the typical paintings of distinguished oldtimers in the portrait galleries of aristocratic families. The ancestor who most impressed me was our long-snouted 45-million-greats-grandfather, shown here having a snack:

To appreciate these ancestral illustrations and explanations, you really must get a copy of this splendid Dawkins book, which is packed with all kinds of fascinating tales (including myths) and science stuff.

A few evenings ago, on the Arte TV channel, I watched an interesting documentary on population genetics. Viewers were introduced to the fabulous possibilities of examining DNA specimens to determine the genealogy of various ethnic communities. Personally, I prefer to acquire my knowledge of population genetics and large-scale genealogy through reading books, articles and Internet stuff rather than depending on TV. I would imagine however that this documentary must have been an eye-opener for viewers who were unaware of state-of-the-art findings and thinking in this complex domain.

The subject was tackled in a controversial style (rightly, I believe) by insisting on the fact that the old-fashioned concept of human races is totally rejected by modern research. All human beings who exist today on the planet Earth are the biological descendants of a small group of Africans who were probably similar to the community known today as South African Bushmen. In a sense, therefore, we are all Africans! This poetic declaration charmed 80-year-old Desmond Tutu.

Certain facts are likely to amaze white-skinned Europeans and citizens of the New World, and maybe make us more humble. For example, there is no doubt whatsoever that our prehistoric ancestors were black-skinned, and that our present whiteness is a freakish new-fangled affair brought on by the physiological fact that fairer ex-Africans survived better in cold climates. So, alongside "black is beautiful", we might proclaim that "negro is normal", whereas "white is weird".

These days, research in population genetics is advancing so rapidly that certain major breakthroughs have occurred in the short time since the French TV documentary was completed. For example, there have been amazing revelations concerning the early date at which the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines left Africa. In the 1920s, a lock of hair was taken from an anonymous young Aboriginal male near Kalgoorlie. Well, this DNA specimen was sufficient to enable, recently, an analysis of the subject's genome. And it became obvious that the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines had in fact left Africa at least some 50 millennia ago: that's to say, well before the exodus that gave rise to communities of Homo sapiens in Asia and Europe.

A tribal elder described this DNA-based breakthrough as "just a white-fella story", and said he would continue to believe in the tribe's mythical creation legends.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Play your didgeridoo, Blue

An unexpected advantage of owning an old automobile is that it often needs to be repaired, or at least undergo its obligatory annual checkup, and this means that the owner is forced to wander around for an hour or so in various dull urban environments where he wouldn't normally set foot. Consequently, one often makes interesting discoveries.

Yesterday afternoon, at St-Marcellin (home town of the famous cheese), I wandered down an unfamiliar lane in order to visit a big nondescript warehouse that is totally specialized in the sale of cheap and nasty goods made in Asia. If I understand correctly, the lady behind this enterprise had been an enthusiastic tourist in lands such as Indonesia. One day, she decided to pay cash for a container of assorted merchandise that would be delivered to St-Marcellin. That must have been several years ago. Since then, has she purchased further containers full of this stuff, or is she still trying to find buyers for the initial delivery? I really don't know… but I find it hard to believe that many of the sturdy local folk would be tempted to track down this out-of-the-way warehouse and buy goods there. But I may be wrong. After all, I've never been inside the homes of many citizens of St-Marcellin. Maybe, if we were to conduct a rigorous survey, we would discover that there's an amazingly large proportion of Asian junk decorating the local living rooms.

Be that as it may, the part of the warehouse that fascinated me most of all was a tiny corner holding an upright pile of objects that appeared to be Australian didgeridoos… which normally look like this:

Now, the didgeridoos on sale in the warehouse at St-Marcellin didn't really look much like that. First, they were almost perfectly cylindrical, from one end to the other, rather than tapered. Next, when I picked up one of them, I found that it was quite light: not at all what you would expect in the case of a hollowed-out eucalyptus sapling some 2 meters in length. Then, the decoration had a glossy plastic look, as if it were composed of sheets of industrially-printed fake-Aboriginal graphic designs that had been glued onto the surface of the cylinder. Finally, the price of these objects was more-or-less standard, no matter what the size and decoration: a couple of dozen euros. It was then that I noticed, on a price tag, that these didgeridoos were in fact made out of bamboo and manufactured in Indonesia. As the lady at the sales counter put it, they were purely decorative didgeridoos. Instantly, I started to wonder whether there were many families in the St-Marcellin area that boasted the presence, hanging on a wall, of a fake decorative didgeridoo.



An unexpected advantage of not having many local friends (in my case, not a single individual living in St-Marcellin) is the negligible likelihood of receiving this kind of object as a gift from a kind-hearted person thinking that it would bring me warm memories of my distant land of birth. Today, of course, if such a calamity were to hit me, I could always hand the object over to my dog Fitzroy. All I would need to do, then, is to leave the chewed remnants of the instrument on the kennel roof, and inform my kind-hearted friend that a slight but unfortunate accident had occurred when I was teaching Fitzroy to play the didgeridoo…

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Laptops to lead Aussie kids "out of poverty"

I was surprised by a recent article in the Australian press with a shock title: "Looking to laptops to lead Doomadgee children out of poverty". A photo showed a group of kids, mostly Aboriginal, holding up their machines for a corny staged shot.

There were several reasons for my surprise:

• It shocks me to see a newspaper headline stating explicitly that certain Aussie kids are apparently living in poverty. That's a strong word, which outside observers don't generally associate with citizens of Australia.

• The notion that laptops might be capable of "leading children out of poverty" is outlandish, and hard to believe.

• I'm familiar with the project entitled One Laptop Per Child, conceived by the US computing academic and visionary Nicholas Negroponte. I wrote a blog article on this subject, entitled Fabulous educational project [display], back in October 2007. I had always imagined that the children to be assisted by Negroponte's wonderful mission belonged to so-called developing nations. It's an almost unpleasant surprise to find scores of Australian children, throughout the land, included in the bunch of recipients of these low-cost laptops.

Readers should visit the website of the excellent Australian organization handling this project. You'll be able to reach your own conclusions concerning this project in Australia… and I'm aware that you won't necessarily react negatively, as I have done. I'm not suggesting for a moment that there's anything wrong with this plan to hand out cheap laptops to kids in Australia. I'm merely pointing out that it's a charitable enterprise, initially designed for Third-World inhabitants, and that it's weird to see my native land falling back upon international US-inspired charity in order to solve internal educational problems.

The spirit of such an initiative is surely the celebrated Chinese proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." What shocks me, I guess, is that it's not directly the Australian ministry in charge of education—assisted, maybe, by philanthropists and industry—who's teaching these under-privileged kids to "fish" with computers (and the Internet).

ADDENDUM: In my initial post on this subject, I suggested that, in Third-World villages in places such as Africa, electrical power for the laptops could be generated by cyclists. I'm happy to see that there's now a device on the market to meet this challenge.

Admittedly, if poverty has reached the point at which, due to malnutrition, it's impossible to find a sturdy cyclist, then we're stuck with a real problem. I must talk with Lance Armstrong, one of these days, to see if he has any worthwhile ideas on this question...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Seafarers

In my article of 2 December 2007 entitled Reenactments [display], I mentioned a Norwegian adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl [1914-2002], who was a hero for young people of my generation.

Click the photo to see original footage of the balsa-wood raft Kon-Tiki on its 1947 voyage from South America to Polynesia. Heyerdahl and his companions were trying to demonstrate that the Pacific islands could have been colonized by seafarers who drifted westwards from the American continent.

Today, we're practically certain that Heyerdahl's theory was wrong. Recent linguistic research suggests that ancestors of the future Polynesians probably sailed from the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan) around 3,000 BC. As indicated in the following diagram (with French captions), these seafarers ended up settling in such scattered islands as the Philippines, Fiji, Madagascar, Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island.

[Click the above diagram to obtain a more readable version.]

Many millennia before these long voyages across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, intrepid dark-skinned seafarers from Asia had reached the Australian continent. These ancestors of Australia's Aborigines made this voyage well before the time of the Homo sapiens sapiens individuals whose remains were found in 1969 and 1974: Mungo Man [see photo] and Mungo Woman, who lived out in western New South Wales, not far from Mildura, probably some 40,000 years ago.

Besides the various tests aimed at dating these bone fragments and the geological context in which they were found, DNA testing of modern Aborigines confirms beyond doubt the "out of Africa" origins of this indigenous people. Haplogroup C4 is the most common Y-chromosome result among indigenous Australians, and it has not been found outside of that continent. For an R-haplogroup individual such as myself, this means that the latest common ancestor of today's Aborigines and me lived in southwest Asia around 60,000 years ago. Genetically, his haplogroup is known as CF, but not the slightest trace of such a human being has ever been found yet.

Incidentally, if there are any Aborigines reading the Antipodes blog, I take this opportunity of letting them know that I've got into the habit of referring to my Old Stone Age CF-haplogroup ancestor by a tender nickname: Dreamtimer. It goes without saying that, if anybody were to find traces of him, I wouldn't be personally offended in any way whatsoever if present-day Aborigines were to take photos of old Dreamtimer (they don't need to ask my permission), or if his remains were to be put on display in a museum.

At the time of these epic voyages, there were land links between Asia and Australia that have since been submerged, but the seafarers were no doubt obliged to sail across an expanse of at least a hundred kilometers. Consequently, the ancestors of the Aborigines have been considered, up until now, as the greatest navigators of prehistory.

A month ago, the seafaring supremacy of the sons and daughter of Dreamtimer was subjected to a rude shock, of Titanic proportions, when a report from the the American School of Classical Studies in Athens was made public. Apparently, archaeologists have found the following prehistoric stone implements on the island of Crete:

[Click the image to access the original story in the New York Times.]

They're at least 130,000 years old. At that time, there were no land links inside the Mediterranean. Consequently, prehuman seafarers must have been able to leave the European mainland and sail to the distant island of Crete.

This new discovery pleases me immensely, because I like to think that there were ancient mariners in the Mediterranean at that early date. It's hardly surprising that this great sea, in the middle of planet Terra, went on to acquire a reputation as the home of illustrious navigators such as Ulysses. Obviously, Ulysses and our Antipodean Dreamtimer were distant "genetic cousins" of these Cretan sailors... who might have been smart Neanderthals. (Naturally, we cannot exclude the possibility that they might have been dumb Neanderthals who fell asleep in the branches of a tree that got struck by lightning and then washed out to sea. By the time they realized what had happened to them, they found themselves on a delightful beach in Crete.) It's imaginable that the sailing skills of the archaic Aborigines, which enabled them to reach Australia, were inherited indirectly from these prehuman Cretan seafarers. Maybe these skills were assimilated, much later on, by navigators from Phocea in Asia Minor, enabling them to colonize Marseille. Then a fellow named Pytheas, from that same city, used similar skills to go on a sea excursion up to England, around 325 BC, where he visited Stonehenge as a tourist. As for myself, I'm sure that all these illustrious ancestors and archaic prehuman relatives would have been proud of me when I worked for a month or so, back in 1963—in the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea—at the helm of a Greek tramp steamer, the Persian Cyrus.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blacks, blanks

Even my comments must be blanks... in the sense that I don't have much to say about this fellow Australian: a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl—shown alongside her father—who was gang-raped by a bunch of guys who claimed absurdly and horridly that this innocent child was a "consenting partner"! Consequently, they were acquitted...

We white colonialists never managed to understand you: you, the original Australians... and invent an intelligent system of harmonious collaboration between you and us. This has been our fault, not yours. All I would like to say today, personally—in a vain attempt to attenuate your ancient pain, distress and anger, for which my ancestors were responsible—is a single simple word: Sorry!