Open Thread for November

This month you get extra likes for mentioning Eartha Kitt, the Oratorio di Vicolo del Cedro and hard cheese (no Brie).

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

92 thoughts on “Open Thread for November”

  1. Newsbiscuit: “World cries out for the tragic assassination of Donald Trump”
    Mummy blogger struggling to drink wine and swear at her kids every day
    Attenborough admits latest series is all just CGI. “Sir David Attenborough has admitted using CGI in his latest nature series because the earth is actually now just a giant industrial anus.”
    Beto voter struggling to refocus her sexual fantasies on Ted Cruz
    Pistachio-eating man achieves ‘flow’ state

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    1. Reconstructing the Deep Population History of Central and South America.

      When in doubt, read the paper; at least the discussion section.

      When the first Europeans arrived in Central and South America, the Native Americans appeared to be remarkably disease free, with the possible exception of syphilis, which was unknown in Europe prior to the Spanish conquests – evidence suggests it was strictly a New World disease that was carried back to Europe. Native Americans didn’t remain disease free for very long after the arrival of the first European explorers, obviously. Rampaging contagion would not be too strong an expression for what happened.

      These were the lands of the Inca, Maya and Aztecs, none of whom qualified as nice neighbours. ‘Sinister’ is almost humorous in the context. Prima facie, there is no reason I can think of why people in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe would have been much different, except that a lot of anthropologists seemed to wish that it was so.


    2. Different paper:
      Early human dispersals within the Americas.

      Full paper pay-walled.

      Pontus Skoglund is excited, because they refer to a Late Pleistocene Australasian genetic signal, because a few years ago he found a puzzling genetic signal shared between (some) people in the Amazon and Australasia. Various people implied he was nuts or tried to dismiss the evidence in various ways, so he now feels vindicated.

      It’s still a bloody big mystery, though. How did a late Pleistocene Australasian presence get to South America? I think we can rule out early Aboriginal Australians sailing all the way across the Pacific. Just grateful that Thor Heyerdahl is not still around.


      1. I think the linguistic centum/satem division of indo-european languages is analogous.
        It was incorrectly believed the languages were divided west/east with the word for “one hundred ” serving as a marker. Then the scripts left behind by the Tocharians in Sinkiang showed they apparently were part of the “western” centum group. It emerged that the “satem” word for hundred was a linguistic innovation that had pushed out “centum” homologs in the east. ..except the most easterly outliers. “Centum” was the ancestral form, not a marker for east/west variants.
        What if the “amazonian” variants are ancestral, but disappeared from the genomes of most amerindians for some reason?
        I do not know enough statistics to say wether ordinary random genetic drift could do that.
        Maybe some quirk selected against those particular genes in that region.


    1. Bloomberg: “Trump Proves Again He’s Not Fit for Office. Wednesday’s news conference made little sense and was full of denials, lies and deflections. We should stop expecting anything else.”


  2. Of interest to those of us who have family members with teeth shaped like shovels (aside from our distant Neanderthal ancestors, I mean).

    Selection for rs3827760 at EDAR (“shovel-shaped” incisor SNP) during Holocene around the “Ring of Fire”.

    So finally, someone has come up with a plausible and likely explanation for the EDAR gene variant in East Asians (and Native Americans, selected for contemporaneously on both sides of the Pacific). I’ve been head-scratching about this for a lot of years – my personal crackpot theory was that it must have something to do with lactation, which seemed to have been confirmed recently by some other authors previously, theorizing that it arose in Beringia during the ‘Beringian Standstill’ and then spread in both directions due to migration when that became possible, but that theory now seems to have been nixed. Fine, I’m very happy to be proven wrong, given that I’m a moron.

    Of course, one of the usual army of idiots pops up in the comments and says “It must have been sexual selection!” despite Razib saying “I don’t think it was sexual selection.” You can’t get away from these idiots – they see sexual selection as the reason for everything. Are you reading this, Helbig?

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    1. Yes.

      Not just breast size, but distribution of milk ducts (and I think possibly also composition of milk – East Asian women produce a smaller volume of milk than European women, but the nutrients are more concentrated; there may be other differences that people don’t yet know about. I know a little bit about human milk because my daughter researched it as an undergrad for her honours thesis – she had some willing Chinese donors but had to turn them down because most of her donors were of European ancestry, and using samples from the Chinese mothers could have introduced confounding factors).

      I and a lot of people far better qualified than I am have been puzzling for a lot of years now what that something else is. None of those far better qualified people believed the glib and untestable theory that it was all about sexual selection, any more than I did. To me, lactation seemed like a possible candidate – something that makes a real difference to survival (infant mortality rate makes a really big difference), such that the genetic variant was so strongly selected that it went to fixation in both East Asian and Native American populations – as we now know, after those populations became separated by the broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean, with Beringia under water. So, the same genetic variant was selected for twice, on different continents. It might be credible to some people that East Asian men or Native American men would prefer to reproduce with women with coarse glossy black hair and smaller breasts who smelled nicer to the exclusion of other women, but to believe that men in both populations exercised the same choice to such an extent that the genetic variant was driven to fixity on two different continents isolated from one another is approaching ridiculous. Well, it is ridiculous – human males are notoriously not that fussy about who they mate with.

      It seems like they might finally have nailed it, and it seems like it’s not lactation. I don’t remotely mind being proven wrong – what the hell would I know anyway? I’m just glad someone has found a plausible explanation that stands up to scientific scrutiny.


      1. …Once again I am reminded of those siberian foxes that were domesticated and display increasingly doglike traits because of pleiotropic effects. We are all siberian foxes.


      2. Wrong headedness of ‘paleo living’ advocates. Vast majority of humans have evolved a lot since the late Pleistocene, and have domesticated themselves. Plus misunderstanding of evolution – there has never been a time when humans were ‘perfectly adapted’ to their environment.


  3. I will attempt to write to “In Range/Forgotten Weapons” and get them interested in some stuff around Stockholm.
    Apart from the failed 1623 weapons platform (the Wasa ship ) there is the tech of the decomissioned forts of the cold war coastal artillery (Martin is familiar with a book on that subject) et cetera. Anglophone readers tend to have an anglocentric view of history. Not everything was about the Eight Army or the USMC.


  4. The Extremely Fast Peopling of the Americas.

    Ed Yong gives a reasonably good explainer about two of the recent papers on the peopling of the Americas. But then he goes on an extended rant about how indigenous people should have control over research into their origins, with which I have little sympathy. I do not believe that there are “different ways of knowing the world.” That’s magical thinking. There is only the Truth, and no one has the right to dictate what that is. Something is either true or it isn’t – if it contradicts your cherished origin myth, hard luck. If science crushes your hope that some stupid alternative therapy can cure your cancer, hard luck. Truth doesn’t care about your delusions. I admire Eske Willerslev’s ability to get indigenous groups onside in order to do science, but only because his skill with people enables science and understanding to advance. If the science can be done with indigenous peoples’ willing consent and involvement, because they want to know the truth too, then that’s great, and it should always be sought. But to give them control over what constitutes the truth – no, absolutely not.

    Native Americans famously tried to block DNA testing of Kennewick Man and ‘reclaim’ his remains for burial in some mystical magical way, when their claims to ancestral links to that individual were tenuous at best – they delayed the work for a very long time. They were being very dumb – when they lost, and his remains were subjected to DNA testing, it proved that he had close genetic affinity to modern Native Americans (despite obvious craniometric differences, so the testing served another useful purpose as well), not to some imagined European-like early settlers of North America, so it turned out that it was in their interests to allow the research to proceed and the truth of the matter to be established. I am suspicious about their motives for trying to block it – maybe they were concerned that the testing would prove otherwise. I hope they now realize that what they did was a mistake, but I am not optimistic about that.

    No one is trying to prevent Native Americans, or Aboriginal Australians, or native Hawaiians from becoming geneticists and engaging in the science themselves. Most active geneticists I know about would actively welcome their involvement. I see no valid argument for giving those groups absolute control over what science is and is not done, or for having absolute power to control the narrative about what constitutes the Truth. In the West, the Church did that for many centuries, and it was a long hard struggle to wrest that power away from the priests. I see no benefit to anyone, including indigenous people themselves, in handing that power over to them.

    A couple of years back I had a long online one-to-one discussion with Agustín Fuentes. He is a notably nice, reasonable, friendly and polite person, erudite, knowledgeable in his field, I like him, and it was a calm, reasoned, warm and friendly discussion – we agreed to agree on a lot, but there are some things where we simply have to differ, and this is one of them.

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  5. What I’ll be watching on Netflix once I’m done with those strange Finns. I am after all directly descended from Robert the…oh never mind. (He was of Norman ancestry, so Robert the Bruce was just a rather dumb anglicization of Robert de Bruis – today’s piece of uninteresting trivia.) I have a dislike of battle scenes where you can’t see what is going on, I like my blood and gore nice and clearly discernible so I can keep score, but they almost certainly were a frantic jumbled bloody mess like that in reality.


    1. I decided to take a break from those tedious Finns and watch the film last night. I have to say that the film review I have referenced above is, having watched the film, one of the most stupid I have ever read – the reviewer got so much wrong that detailing it all would be tedious and bordering on obsessive, so I will settle for mentioning just one glaring piece of abject dumbness: the reviewer refers to the climactic battle in the film as the Battle of Bannockburn, when they even say in the film that the location of the battle is below Loudoun Hill, and it is a pretty reasonable depiction of historical Battle of Loudoun Hill, all things considered. Getting horses to do what they did in the film, allegedly without injuring any of them, is downright impressive.

      As for the film, they take some considerable liberties with history, as is to be expected I suppose, but they get quite a lot of the historical facts more or less right. In that sense, I found it less irritating than most films claiming to depict historical events. As for the depiction of the battle, I thought they made a pretty good job of trying to show what the Battle of Loudoun Hill really might have been like, with the 600 dismounted Scots heavily outnumbered by the 3,000 English, but scoring a decisive win largely due to Bruce’s selection of the battle ground, preparation of defences and placement of his troops, with the English retreating after losses of “hundreds” vs low casualties among the Scots. Heavily armoured knights, defensive trenches, pointy sticks and boggy ground don’t mix well, something the English failed to figure out repeatedly against the Scots, but had evidently learned by the time of Agincourt, unless that was just sheer blind luck, which I doubt.

      Lesson: when you’ve got the enemy heavily outnumbered and everything tells you that you will just be able to overwhelm and roll right over them, but they are standing their ground and willing you to come onto them instead of running away, stop and think about why. That’s if you haven’t had the brains to use advance scouts to spy out the battle ground and the preparations being made by the enemy.


  6. Shades of complexity: New perspectives on the evolution and genetic architecture of human skin.

    A decade ago, skin colour was thought to result from a few genes of large effect, because most study was focused on modern Europeans and what distinguished them from Africans with Bantu ancestry. It turns out that it’s very far more complex than that.


  7. Theorists Debate How ‘Neutral’ Evolution Really Is.

    Easy read. Worth it IMHO. In hindsight, with the aid of masses more data, neutral theory looks kind of dumb and counter-intuitive. But it had the attraction of being simple and elegant as a theory, in the absence of data.

    That’s the trouble with research in my experience – the more data you get, the more they bugger up your nice neat theory.

    I’m still deeply irritated about how, decades ago, after labouring for long hours in my soils testing lab, running tests that lasted for 36 hours, sitting puzzling over what the data meant for endless hours, I finally figured out that what I was testing was the properties of the test apparatus – because the ‘expert’ who had designed it simply didn’t understand what she was doing – she was just regurgitating what her supervisor in London, a ‘great’ professor, had taught her. Well, London clay isn’t Hong Kong saprolites derived from chemical weathering of igneous rocks. Her ‘expertise’ didn’t export well. A visiting Canadian prof. who dropped by my lab to see what I was doing opened my eyes to some of what was going on – not all of it, but he certainly helped. He was a fundamentalist Christian, but under the circumstances, I didn’t feel I could hold that against him. He understood soil testing, and he didn’t try to evangelize with me, so…don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

    So, after a very hostile reception from my alleged superiors when I told them about my conclusions and what they meant I had to do, they very reluctantly and with very bad grace agreed to permit me to redesign and rebuild the test apparatus, in effect throwing out the window all of the input that the English ‘expert’ lady had made that they had paid for, and writing off all of that wasted time and effort. So I did that, and then I had to start all of the testing programme again, getting real results.

    When the English lady dropped by the lab to see how I was going and saw that I had completely rebuilt the test apparatus to my own design, she said one word: “Oh.” I said “Yeah. It didn’t work, so I had to rebuild it.” She walked out, and didn’t come back again.

    And when my big boss realized what I had achieved, I suddenly became his blue eyed boy and could do no wrong. From useless villain to superhero in the space of a 45 minute presentation. It almost felt like being an astronaut, sitting on the pointy end of an Atlas rocket and then suddenly being shot into space.

    I’m still irritated, though.

    History repeats: my daughter had a similar experience during her honours year, which was a year of pure research, when her supervisor turned out to be a dud. That’s another story.

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    1. I can tell similar stories involving satellite instruments similar to ones I have worked with. Whenever something hits your particle detector, the detector will report the energy and arrival direction the particle would have had if it had entered the detector in the intended fashion. But all you really know is that something hit your detector. It might be a photon that bounced off the walls of the instrument a few times to reach the detector, or it might be a radiation belt particle that came through the side walls of the instrument, or it might actually be a particle with properties similar to what you expected to measure. Recognizing which of these possibilities is likely to be correct takes some experience. I have read published papers in which the authors incorrectly assumed that the particles were coming into the instrument in the intended fashion, and reported detecting particle populations that later researchers revealed did not exist.

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