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"Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales"

06.03.16

Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

 

 

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Gilgamesh lido no original

25.02.16

Podem ouvir aqui

 

 

 

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"The Legacy of Child Sacrifice in Early Judaism and Christianity"

03.01.16

 "In this post I want explore how, in the earliest strata of Israelite religion, it was understood that the Jewish god, Elohim, commanded sacrifice of the firstborn child from his followers—and this was not originally considered a heterodox rite, but indeed what we’d call an “orthodox” or official part of the Jewish religion of the time.¹

 

 

 

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Boys will be boys

14.06.13

 

The drawings from Novgorod that we have found appear to all come from a Russian boy named Onfim, who lived at the end of the twelfth century or beginning of the thirteenth century in the city of Novgorod. By the estimate of the archaeologists who unearthed his works, he was around seven years old at the time that he made these drawings.

 

 

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"Misguided Nostalgia for Our Paleo Past"

18.02.13

 

 Some of our nostalgia for a simpler past is just the same old amnesia that every generation has about the good old days. The ancient Romans fretted about the young and their callous disregard for the hard-won wisdom of their elders. Several 16th- and 17th-century writers and philosophers famously idealized the Noble Savage, a being who lived in harmony with nature and did not destroy his surroundings. Now we worry about our kids as "digital natives," who grow up surrounded by electronics and can't settle their brains sufficiently to concentrate on walking the dog without simultaneously texting and listening to their iPods.

Another part of the feeling that the modern human is misplaced in urban society comes from the realization that people are still genetically close not only to the Romans and the 17th-century Europeans, but also to Neanderthals, to the ape ancestors Holland mentions, and to the small bands of early hominids who populated Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is indeed during the blink of an eye, relatively speaking, that people settled down from nomadism to permanent settlements, developed agriculture, lived in towns and then cities, and acquired the ability to fly to the moon, create embryos in the lab, and store enormous amounts of information in a space the size of our handily opposable thumbs.

Given this whiplash-inducing rate of recent change, it's reasonable to conclude that we aren't suited to our modern lives, and that our health, our family lives, and perhaps our sanity would all be improved if we could live the way early humans did. Our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, the reasoning goes, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.

In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the renowned Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, called "paleofantasies."

(...)

The paleofantasy is a fantasy in part because it supposes that we humans, or at least our protohuman forebears, were at some point perfectly adapted to our environments. We apply this erroneous idea of evolution's producing the ideal mesh between organism and surroundings to other life forms, too, not just to people. We seem to have a vague idea that long long ago, when organisms were emerging from the primordial slime, they were rough-hewn approximations of their eventual shape, like toys hastily carved from wood, or an artist's first rendition of a portrait, with holes where the eyes and mouth eventually will be.

Then, the thinking goes, the animals were subject to the forces of nature. Those in the desert got better at resisting the sun, while those in the cold evolved fur or blubber or the ability to use fire. Once those traits had appeared and spread in the population, we had not a kind of sketch, but a fully realized organism, a fait accompli, with all of the lovely details executed, the anatomical t's crossed and i's dotted.

But of course that isn't true. Although we can admire a stick insect that seems to flawlessly imitate a leafy twig in every detail, down to the marks of faux bird droppings on its wings, or a sled dog with legs that can withstand subzero temperatures because of the exquisite heat exchange among its blood vessels, both are full of compromises, jury-rigged like all other organisms. The mantid has to resist disease as well as blend into its background; the dog must run and find food as well as stay warm. The pigment used to form those dark specks on the mantid is also useful in the insect immune system, and using it in one place means it can't be used in another. For the dog, having long legs for running can make it harder to keep the cold at bay, since more heat is lost from narrow limbs than from wider ones. These often conflicting needs mean automatic trade-offs in every system, so that each may be good enough but is rarely if ever perfect.

(...)

The "fish out of water" theme is common in TV and movies: City slickers go to the ranch, Crocodile Dundee turns up in Manhattan, witches try to live like suburban housewives. Misunderstandings and hilarity ensue, and eventually the misfits either go back where they belong or learn that they are not so different from everyone else after all. Watching people flounder in unfamiliar surroundings seems to be endlessly entertaining.

But in a larger sense, we all sometimes feel like fish out of water, out of sync with the environment we were meant to live in. If gnawing on that rib or jogging barefoot through the mud is therapeutic, enjoy. But know that should you wish to join us, the scientific evidence will gladly welcome you to the 21st century, in all its inevitable anxious uncertainty.

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"The Making of the Idea of Race"

18.02.13

 

 In my last post, on The Enlightenment’s “Race Problem”, I questioned the idea that the modern roots of the idea of race lie in the Enlightenment. The  relationship between race and the Enlightenment is, I argued, far more complex than much contemporary discussion allows for. It was the transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference. This is the story of that transformation.

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Cristo como o estrangeiro na velha Europa

18.01.13

 

 

My paper will analyse the role played by Judaism and its purity legislation in the charges levelled against Christians in Julian’s ‘Against the Galileans’. I will focus on two main strands of Julian’s argument: the similarity between Hellenism and Judaism, as perceived by Julian, and the impurity of the Christians resulting from their refusal of Jewish sacrificial practice and dietary regulations. Against a widespread view, I will argue firstly: that Judaism plays essentially a polemical role in Julian’s definition of boundaries between Christians and Hellenes; and secondly that although Neoplatonic influence, in the matter of sacrifice and purity, can neither be denied nor underestimated in Julian, Neoplatonism only supplies the intellectual-philosophical justification, and not the source, for ancient cultic practices shunned by ‘Christian atheists’. Finally, I will suggest that contrary to a leading opinion, as recently expressed by Guy Stroumsa in his La fin du sacrifice, defilement and purity in Late Antiquity should not be considered only in terms of a spiritual condition, but also in political and cultic terms.

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"The Zoroastrian Aži Dahāka: Death Dealing Dragon of the Apocalypse"

20.12.12

 

Does it seem so unreasonable to request a little creativity in the nature of the coming apocalypse?  Call me consumed with existential ennui, but it is a little tiresome for devotees of the deep weird to read about yet another prediction of an erstwhile messiah returning and judging us unfit, a comet sending us the way of the dinosaurs, pole shifts, tidal waves, earthquakes, demons loose on the earth, the occasional scientific accident creating a black hole that devours the planet, or igniting the atmosphere with nuclear detonations.  How about putting a little effort into Armageddon?  Plagues of locusts and rivers turning to blood are so 1st Century.  Rampant jaguars and household appliances turning on us?  Now we’re getting somewhere, but unfortunately, the details of the upcoming Mayan pre-Christmas apocalypse are a little fuzzy, and such things are merely modern accretions that were never discussed by actual Mayans.  No monsters, no fire and brimstone, no natural disasters we can examine are involved in the end of the Mayan calendar, at least not according to the Mayans themselves.  I won’t dwell on the Mayans since one can turn on the Discovery or History channel anytime in the next few days and be inundated with documentaries on the subject, replete with clinically fascinating interviews of crazy-haired “experts” discussing ancient aliens.  Allow me to summarize.  Boring.  When envisioning an apocalypse, one hopes for at least an interesting cast of nefarious characters.  Case in point – the Zoroastrian Apocalypse starring the serpent/dragon/general evil dude and snappy dresser Aži Dahāka.

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