“And how would you like that cooked?” [The Ancient History of Cooking]

If we take a look at the current lineup of possible human ancestors and distant relatives, one can pick out several lines of change. Compare some of the earliest hominids, like Ardipithecus ramidus with a modern human and the differences are obvious. Living about 4.4 million years ago, Ardipithecus was a tall, tree-climbing and bipedal fellow. They were omnivores, eating a mix of plants, meat and fruit.

Modern humans are omnivores as well, although there are many people choosing to eat only vegetable matter. Some early human relatives, such as Neanderthals may have been top-level carnivores. Anthropologists and especially paleoanthropologists, have studied diet among early humans for a long time. Two events had a major impact on human diet: the mastery of fire and the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. Of these two milestones, mastery of fire came well before agriculture. While some argue that early hominids mastered fire in Africa as early as 1.5 million years ago, others place it at perhaps 400,000 to 500, 000 years ago. With a range like this, it should be obvious that it remains hard to pinpoint when exactly this happened, especially when one relies on archaeological evidence. One might wonder: “what other evidence is there then?” Read on and find out.

The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry is a much more recent phenomenon, and therefore relatively more easy to date. Experiments involving plants may have been underway some 12,500 years ago. Cattle was domesticated in Egypt by 9000 BC.

Traditionally, the mastery of fire was seen as a catalyst for a series of evolutionary changes in early humans. With fire, it was argued, one could not only stay warm, keep predators at bay, even engage in art in the back of dark caves, but also cook one’s food. The latter then permitted rapid brain growth and before one knows it, we are off to the races, with rapid changes in technology leading to humans becoming more and more in charge of their environment.

Recently, new voices have been heard in this debate. In studies followed around the world, Dr. Richard Wrangham argues that cooking started at 1.9 million years ago, much earlier than traditionally assumed. With cooked food, we could chew and eat our food in an hour, instead of the six hours chimps need to chew theirs. With cooked food, we no longer needed a large gut, and with a reduction in size of our intestinal track, there was a reduction in energy spent on maintaining our gut. These savings could then go toward fueling our brain growth. The appearance of Homo erectus, the first hominid species with our body form, and the appearance of mastering fire drove human evolution to where we are today, according to Dr. Wrangham. In Dr. Wrangham’s words: “Cooking was not invented by humans; it was invented by pre-humans and it made us human.”

untitled
Dr. Richard Wrangham will speak at HMNS on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

According to Dr. Wrangham, mastering fire and getting used to cooking food led to further changes in social behavior among early humans. To see what these are, join us for Dr. Wrangham’s lecture at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, sponsored by The Leakey Foundation on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
“Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human”
Richard Wrangham, Ph.D., Harvard University
Tuesday, February 28, 6:30 p.m.
Sponsored by The Leakey Foundation
Click here to purchase tickets.

Ever since Darwin and “The Descent of Man,” the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. Renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Dr. Wrangham will show that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.

When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began.

Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be sued instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, Dr. Wrangham sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A path-breaking new theory of human evolution, Dr. Wrangham will fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins or in our modern eating habits.

Dr. Richard Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. He is co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the long-term study of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. His research culminates in the study of human evolution in which he draws conclusions based on the behavioural ecology of apes. As a graduate student, Dr. Wrangham studied under Robert Hinde and Jane Goodall. He also helped the late Dian Fossey establish her eponymous Gorilla Fund to protect and research the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda.

 

Le Monde des Aztèques [The World of the Aztecs]

This blog entry is different from any of the ones I have ever written before.

It contains a book review and commentary on the current state of book reviews in the US. 

A while back, I was asked by a friend and former museum colleague to review a French-language book on the Aztecs. I agreed, read the book, wrote the review and then started looking for a place that would accept it. And that is where things went awfully awry. Between my reading and reviewing of the book and the day I am writing this, about two years have passed. Granted, I have not been pursuing this project on a daily basis, but I have been pretty persistent about finding an outlet for this review. As I have not been successful, I am posting it onto the museum’s blog. This is a first; I hope to follow up with more such reviews.

Drama angle
Aztec calendar stone
Creative Commons License photo credit: gorriti

I am not the only one who has noticed this “book review crisis.” As it happens, Dr. Michael Smith, an archaeologist working on Aztec sites, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a prolific author has made the same observation. He has blogged on this topic on several occasions, like here, here, here and here.

You get the picture. There is a problem out there in the world of publishing. So, here it goes. You will get the book review first, followed by details on the book itself.

Le Monde des Aztèques is a collaborative volume.

Danièle Dehouve is affiliated with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the Université de Paris VIII. She has written several books on Mexico, most recently, Offrandes et sacrifices en Mésoamérique. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer is also affiliated with the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. She specializes in central Mexican writing systems and has authored Xipe Totec, Notre Seigneur l’ écorche, étude glyphique d’un dieu aztèque.

Each of the authors wrote about half of the volume. Danièle Dehouve contributed six chapters, dealing with the history of the Aztecs, the city and its king, the calendar, the day count, the concepts of time and space in Mesoamerica and bloody rituals. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer penned chapters on the Aztec pantheon, worldviews, man in the world, pictographic manuscripts and the writing system.

An introductory chapter sets the stage, defining the concept of Mesoamerica and outlining the physical and cultural geography of this region. The authors link past to present when they mention that out of the hundreds of indigenous languages that existed before Contact, there are more than fifty that have survived until today. In a nod to research conducted in South American rock shelters, human presence in the Americas is set to 33,000 BC, a date that most specialists in the field still find hard to accept.

The chapter on Aztec history addresses topics such as the origins of the Aztecs, how to read Aztec documents, the empire at the time of contact. Information related to the excavations at the Templo Mayor includes discoveries made up to the year 2006.  In the chapter on the city and the king, Dehouve teases apart the fabric of Aztec society. Starting with the office of the ruler, the author covers nobility, warriors, judges, priests, traders and artisans and farmers.

Quetzalcoatl
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Jami Dwyer

Three chapters deal with the calendar and the perception of space and time all contain common threads: our fragmentary understanding of these aspects of Aztec society is due in large part to the fragmentary nature of our sources.  The author does provide an easy to follow discourse on what could be a difficult matter to comprehend. The author also very effectively uses illustrations to help clarify her points, for example on p. 119, where the tonalpohualli calendar is discussed. One detail slipped though the cracks however, on p. 96, where the location of the Maya site of Copan is incorrectly listed as Guatemala; that site is just across the border in Honduras.

In her final chapter, dealing with bloody rituals, Dehouve argues that one ought to approach this subject from the Aztec point of view. This reviewer believes that references to the scholarly work by Eric Taladoire and Ted Leyenaar with regard to the Mesoamerican ballgame would have made this section more complete.

Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer starts off her section with a discussion of Aztec deities.

The chapter has three parts, with detailed discussions of what we know about these gods. Illustrations from colonial-period documents are used with great effectiveness.  The following chapter deals with the creation of the world. Again, the use of illustrations allows the reader to follow the story in two complementary formats. For example, the author reviews the first page of the codex Fejervary-Mayer in multiple segments; each of these steps is accompanied by an image of the codex highlighting the very topic discussed in that portions. In the chapter on the creation of humans, Vie-Wohrer points out that there are many versions of the creation story and that some of them are contradictory.

In the final two chapters, Vie-Wohrer covers materials very familiar to her: pictographic manuscripts and writing systems. Those who are interested in these topics will find the references to the holdings at the Fonds Mexicain at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France very interesting. We can all agree with the sentiment expressed by the author regarding the tragic loss of so many prehispanic documents during the conquest and early colonial days.

This is a lavishly illustrated book on Aztec culture. Although there are many more topics on the Aztec world one could write about, I found the chapters well-written and well-illustrated. The bibliography presented at the end of the book presents a good starting point for those interested in things Aztec. One final remark, because the volume is written by two very qualified French researchers, one gets insights that occasionally differ from those offered by North American counterparts (be they Mexican or American). In order to appreciate these contributions, a working knowledge of French is a must. Sadly, this reviewer has noticed that all too often, this is missing among North American researchers.

Publication details:
DANIELE DEHOUVE, ANNE-MARIE VIE-WOHRER. 2008. Le Monde des Aztèques. Rineuve, Paris. 336 pp., ISBN-978-2-914214-51-3.
Book reviewed by Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of anthropology, Houston Museum of Natural Science.
One can find more information on this book here and here. Just like the volume, these reviews are written en français.

Zut alors.

Modern Maya, flying kites and Day of the Dead celebrations.

Volcan de Agua
Volcan de Agua (Photo by Dirk Van Tuerenhout)

In the Highlands of Guatemala, about 15 miles north of the city of Antigua, great things are about to happen on November 1st. Every year, on this day, there is a celebration known as the Feria del Barrilete Gigante, or the Giant Kite Festival. Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez, the two towns located north of Antigua, are the focus of this festival.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemalan Highlands
Lake Atitlan, Guatemalan Highlands (Photo by Dirk Van Tuernhout)

The Highlands of Guatemala and neighboring Chiapas, Mexico, are exceptionally beautiful, full of history – some of it enchanting, and some extremely full of sorrow.

In preparation of the Day of the Dead, people in Latin America, and especially in Mexico and Central America, gather flowers, food, and candles. On the day itself, they bring all these items to the cemeteries to honor their loved ones. Food and prayer are the two most important components of this commemoration.

There are regional variations in the way in which these celebrations takes place. Among the living Maya in Yucatán, the Day of the Dead is known as hanal pixan “to feed the souls.” In the village of Pac Chen, Quintana Roo, the shaman starts off the proceedings by praying as he walks around an underground cooking oven, or pib. After the prayers, the food that has been cooking in the oven is moved to a small outdoor altar, decorated with brightly colored flowers.  The shaman further blesses the meal and then the food is served.

In neighboring Tabasco, the Chontal Maya go to church, pray the rosary, and burn candles and incense. At home, they prepare offerings for the dead. The men in the family place a bed of banana leaves on which they arrange food and other items in front of the permanent altar found in all homes. Chicken, tamales and turkey are offered to the ancestors, as they burn more candles and incense on the altar. Eventually, when the remembrance takes place in the cemetery, men play a central role in the ceremonies, as women are forbidden to attend.

In Guatemala, at the end of October, people set up altars with photos of the departed. Around these, they arrange an offering of water, flowers, votive candles and different kinds of food and drink: aguardiente (liquor made from sugar cane), bread, fruit and atole (a non-alcoholic drink made with water and corn flour). During the pre-dawn hours of November 1, members of the family place flowers in the doors of the house to welcome the departed souls. Then comes the rite of “dressing” the graves. The family goes to the cemetery and places flowers on the small hillocks, the last resting place of those who have gone before. They leave wreaths of wax-paper flowers at the head of the grave and then prepare the food which they will eat right there, in a symbolic breaking of bread with the dearly departed. The meal consists of fiambre, a type of Spanish stew made of meat or fish, vegetables, olives and capers; and canshul (based on regional vegetables) which the family eats by the grave.

Santiago Sacatepequez Kite Festival
Santiago Sacatepequez Kite Festival.

The regional specialty of Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez is that they fly kites. A tradition going back more than a century, some of these span 40 feet and are contraptions made of lashed bamboo and vibrant tissue paper held together with gallons of glue. The smaller ones are made of corn stalks and twine.

Maya women elected queens for the Day of the Dead celebrations
Maya women, elected queens for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

It takes a whole village to build these kites. Men travel to the south coast of Guatemala to collect canes for spars; wire and rope hold the kites together. Groups of Sumpango residents collaborate to make each kite. The standard size 10-foot kite takes up to 15 people up to a month and a half to design, create, and assemble, depending on how complicated the design is.

The kites serve as a means to communicate with the deceased, while at the same time also operating as a filter – removing any bad vibes that might exist in the cemeteries.

Gathering around the tombs of loved ones
Inhabitants of Santiago Sacatepequez gathering around
the tombs of their loved ones.

These kites with their vibrant colors, dashing through the sky above the cemeteries add an extra dimension to the gathering of the families around the tombs of their loved ones. An eyewitness account described the experience as follows:

“As the morning wore on, a team of boys and men tested the wind. They grasped a long rope attached to an 8-foot kite and ran into the gusting breeze. Spectators created a narrow corridor as the kite runners raced to pull their creation aloft before they ran into a wall – literally. With a final tug, the brightly colored disk rose steadily, then swooped down close to the heads of the crowd before sailing up again. The fickle winds couldn’t always hold the swerving kites, and they would come plunging down and scatter the crowds. More teams pulled their kites into the air in the afternoon. Some were all-women teams in traditional dress. Others were made up of children or students. Ropes got tangled and shouts went up as a kite dive-bombed.”

One can get a good feel for the excitement that runs through the crowd when some of the giant kites catch the winds and stand upright, by watching – and listening to – the following video.

At the end of the day, kites that were torn by the winds are burned inside the cemetery. The surviving kites are exhibited in the local Catholic Church during a novena for the deceased. Then they are burned, and the ashes are buried in the cemetery, completing the annual ritual for the Day of the Dead in Santiago Sacatepéquez. With the outside world discovering this wonderful festival, and with up to 15,000 international visitors descending to these two cemeteries, some of the kites are now sold to these visitors. This leaves the local Maya both delighted (as this generates extra income) and puzzled as to why one would want to acquire them (as these kites act as filters to remove negative sentiments from the cemeteries) (J. Maxwell, personal communication, February 16, 2011).

I referred earlier to the tradition of kite flying going back more than a century. I am basing this primarily on the observation of the texts written on the kites as shown in the photographs above. This chronology is echoed in some sources. However, it should be noted that some sources peg the origins of the giant kites to the 1940s.

The hanal pixan ceremony mentioned earlier, while occurring on the days of the Day of the Dead celebrations in the Catholic liturgical calendar, has its roots in pre-Columbian ancestor veneration.

Redfield and Rojas (1934) studied the Maya village of Chan Kom including their beliefs in the afterworld, and their burial customs. They reported that the Maya believed in demons, okol pixan, who would waylay a person’s soul the moment it left the body on its way to paradise. To prevent this from happening, the Chan Kom Maya employed a maestro cantor to recite prayers, thus keeping these “soul thieves” at bay. Diego de Landa mentioned the existence – in the 16th century – of demons that swooped in to abduct the soul of the deceased. Scholars wonder if these 16th century demons might be the okol pixan of early 20th century Yucatán. The same Chan Kom Maya were also convinced that animals, rather than humans, were able to see human souls attempting to leave the body, moments before death. Thus, when dogs barked all night, they were convinced that a death was imminent. A soul returned to its home for up to seven days after death. During this period, a house should not be cleaned, as the deceased is thought to return to collect what is his or hers, especially its sins so that it can be judged in the afterworld.

Sometimes souls are stuck. When a person dies a violent death, either by accident or by murder, they are trapped in the place where the person died. This sometimes means that the souls are caught under a rock or in a tree until they are liberated (by someone moving a stone, for example). The sounds made by trees during windy weather are seen as signs of these trapped souls.

Customs observed during the early Colonial period by Diego de Landa reflected the customs in place during the final portion of the Late Postclassic period, just before the arrival of the Spaniards. de Landa described how among the upper echelons of the elite, the custom was to cremate the remains, rather than bury them. The ashes were then placed in great ceramic burial urns. As far as the “regular” elite were concerned, their ashes were placed in wooden statues, which were then kept and venerated. We see here in both cases clear attempts to keep the remains of the deceased in order to pray to them later.

We learn that among the upper crust, there was a firm belief and desire that the statues resemble the appearance of the deceased, especially the facial features. Moreover, these statues were brought out during ceremonies when people wanted to appease the souls of the deceased. People shared meals during such ceremonies and offered food to the statues (Tozzer, 1941:131).

The customs described above are recent examples of Maya people honoring the dead. What do we know about the pre-Columbian roots of these customs? As far as I know, there is no evidence of pre-Columbian Maya flying kites. In one instance, Tozzer (1941:131, n. 612-613) provides us with an answer dating back to pre-European times. Archaeologists found wooden statues and human skulls painted and modified to look lifelike at the site of Chichen Itza in northern Yucatán. It is tempting to see in the statues seen by Tozzer the most recent descendants of the pre-Columbian statues.

The ancient Maya also honored their dead by burying their dead underneath the floors of their dwellings. There is good evidence that after an interment the house and its contents was burned to the ground and a new house was then constructed on top of it. Such acts of destruction and reconstruction, acts of rebirth and renewal, correspond with the cyclical view of life and nature that the Maya held. Predictably, the tombs of the rich and powerful were separately built affairs, filled with valuable grave goods.

The burial customs of the ancient Maya elite inform us best about ancestor worship. Temples built on top of pyramids, some of which enveloped royal tombs, were decorated with art and text referring to the ancestors of the ruling dynasty. These temples were the place where ancestor rituals took place and, as such, they constituted a portal between the world of the living and the afterworld (Foster, 2002, p. 211).

Tikal Altar 5
Tikal Altar 5.

A unique carved Maya monument allows us a fleeting glance at ancestor worship among the Classic period Maya elite. Tikal Altar 5 shows Tikal Lord Jasaw Chan K’awiil I and an unknown lord from the site of Maasal. One can see a skull and long bones depicted between them. These remains are identified as those of Lady Tuun Kaywak. The hieroglyphic text refers to an act of consecration, in conjunction with the word “knife.” The monument is dated to AD 711, a period when Tikal and Calakmul were at war. It has been suggested that we are witnessing the removal of human remains, likely an ancestor of the ruler of Tikal, for reburial at Tikal, at a moment in time when the original burial site, Maasal was threatened by Calakmul. Rather than risk the tomb of his ancestor be desecrated, the ruler of Tikal exhumed the remains and brings them back to his capital. A cranium and long bones were recovered by archaeologists near this altar (Fitzsimmons, 2009, pp. 164-165). This is a touching example of the close ties between the living and the departed, as they were felt in pre-Columbian days.

The overview provided here shows that both modern and ancient Maya honored their departed loved ones. Though the sentiments may be the same, they chose different ways to express them.

Further reading:

Fitzsimmons, James L., 2009. Death and the Classic Maya Kings. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Foster, Lynn V., 2002. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Redfield, Robert and Alfonso Villa Rojas, 1934. Chan Kom, a Maya Village. Carnegie Institution. Publication 448, Washington, DC.

Tozzer, Alfred, 1941. Landa’s Relacion de las Coas de Yucatan: a Translation. Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, 18, Harvard University.

The Bear Necessities

If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting.
Benjamin Franklin

When I was younger, my parents would read to me before I went to bed.  I would hear tales of adventure and science from Tom Swift, Jr. and tales of mystery from the Hardy Boys, and the fantastical from The Hobbit.  They would also read the Berenstain Bears to me.  If you’re unfamiliar with this series, it’s about a family of bears that face situations that are likely to be faced by children and parents.  The Bear family consists of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Brother Bear, Sister Bear, and, since 2000, Honey Bear.  There have been more than 260 books in the series.  In the books, Brother and Sister bear learn many valuable lessons, like what happens when you watch too much TV (The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV), eat to much junk food (The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junkfood) (hurmmm American public), or about earning and saving money (Wall Street)… I mean Trouble with Money.

The one that made a lasting impression on me was The Messy Room (da, da, daa).  In that book, Brother and Sister have a messy room and can never find anything (they even forget that they have some things) and their parents come up with an idea for storage.  Clearly labeled boxes stacked in the closet.  And then their room is clean (I’m still working on it myself, is it messy if I know what’s in all the piles?).

The current (that pun again) electrical infrastructure is like that messy room.

Wind Energy
Creative Commons License photo credit: l.bailey_beverley

The current electrical grid operates on a “use or lose” bias.  Meaning that only the amount of electricity needed at any given moment is on the grid.  If an energy source, like a wind turbine in West, Texas produces more electricity than the grid can use, it is bled off as waste.  If the amount of electricity needed increases, then short start up generators go online and once the demand is over they shut back down.  That strikes me as a very dumb grid.

One of the large hurtles in making a smarter grid is electrical storage.  We are all used to some forms of electrical storage.  We have alkaline batteries lying about our houses (except AA, I can never find any, but I’m sure they’re just over there…).  These work by producing electricity through the reaction of zinc and magnesium dioxide. They make up 80% of the batteries in the United States.  People have also gotten familiar with the lithium ion batteries which are found in most mp3 players and some phones. Lithium ion batteries are rechargeable, but through many recharges slowly loose the ability to hold a charge.  Lithium sodium batteries are in the works that can hold more energy and be a little less expensive.  One way to get batteries for your home is to get the old batteries from your hybrid car.

Chemical batteries are not the only way to store electricity.

Engine & Flywheel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Howard Dickins

Another way is to store the energy as compressed air.  The excess electricity is used to compress air, and when the electricity is needed the air is let out and turns a turbine.  Compressed air has been used for energy since the 1870s in Paris, London, and other cities. Another way to store electricity is the use of fly wheels.  The excess electricity is used to power up a rotor in a spinning motion.  When electricity is needed, the movement of the rotor is converted back into electricity. The new Gerald Ford class super aircraft carriers will make use of flywheels to help launch planes.  One of the main technical concerns is friction.  Too much friction and too much energy is lost. One of the most efficient ways to store up electrical power on the large scale is pumped water. The excess electricity is used to pump water up in a holding chamber or reservoir.  Then when electricity is needed, the water flows back down.

Electrical storage is also important for renewables.  Solar power can be unreliable.  Because of the rotation of the earth, solar power can be reliably unreliable.  Solar power can only be gathered when the sun is out.  Most of the time the sun is out, I’m at work.  There are usually only a few days a week when I get to see the sun.  Therefore, most of my electrical needs happen when solar power is not an option.  If I had a way to store it while I was at work, then I would use it when I got home. The same is true for wind.  Despite the United States being full of hot air, wind does not always blow.  Wind generated electricity can sometimes be too much for the electrical grid.  If the excess were stored, it could be used when there’s no wind a blowin’.

Small scale electrical storage would also help small scale renewables.

If I have a small scale solar panel, a small wind turbine, and a small water pump all tied up with some sort of electrical storage, I can take the electricity I gather in and only use it when I need it.  That way if the sun shines, the wind blows, or the rain falls while I’m away, I can come back and have Mother Nature power my computer.