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Controversial Topics in Anthropology in 2008

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Useful Mating Habits over Time

According to a report published in the March 19, 2008 edition of New Scientist online statistics show that monogamous males have the most children if they marry women younger than themselves. Optimal age differences were found to be about five years. Let it not go unsaid however that the age of the mother was actually more important than the age difference since older women tended to have fewer babies.

That study represents conditions in contemporary Finnish society. Martin Fieder at the University of Vienna and Susanne Huber of the University of Veterinary Medicine, also in Vienna, went further back in time and reviewed demographic records from the 17th to 19th centuries. They discovered that for one group of people called the Hami in Northern Finland the optimal age difference approached fifteen years.

These days it is not uncommon for suitably rich elderly gentlemen to marry much younger women, even girls. In most situations both parties in such a relationship are probably inclined to think that theirs is a win-win situation. Who am I to argue?

The Case for a Nomadic (sort of) Neanderthal

Anthropology dot net published an article on February 10, 2008 about the roaming habits of the Neanderthal. The writer links to a paper titled "Strontium isotope evidence of Neanderthal mobility at the site of Lakonis, Greece using laser-ablation PIMMS." In short, different regions have specific strontium isotopes in trapped sediment. It follows that the isotope is taken up into the food chain and absorbed into the body. Studies of a 40 thousand year old tooth belonging to a Neanderthal indicated that the early human (Neanderthals are now extinct) remained pretty much in whatever region he was indigenous to throughout his life. That is, if you consider remaining within a 20 kilometer radius for one's entire life to be a static existence.

Arguments were made for some partial mobility based on the fact that an exact match of the isotope to the specific area where the tooth was found could not be made, but matches were found some tens of kilometers away. However, at the risk of inciting even more controversy (as if), I would think that it should be considered normal that in the quest for food, wanderings were bound to cover some territory - for example, in the search for berries or specific leafy greens which would predominate in certain areas some distance from where the subject lived. In my opinion, what the study encourages is a generalized perception that Neanderthal culture was based on a basically static community-based existence and an adventurous spirit leading to the search for novel and rarer foods not available in their immediate environment but with the people never venturing too far from home.

Anthropologists considered the results to be controversial probably for no other reason than that no evidence exists for the Neanderthal's migratory habits, if he had any. The general consensus is that humanity did not engage in agriculture that long ago and that he must have been a hunter gatherer. The earliest evidence that we have of early cultivation is about 11,500 years old. But the very evidence that Neanderthals existed at all is on its own controversial as their demise is considered puzzling given that all the evidence that we do have indicates that they had a high potential for survival. We'll probably never know the truth.

Homo floresiensis - Hobbit or Pygmy?

Perhaps the biggest controversy in modern anthropology is that concerning the discovery in 2003 of some very peculiar fossils on the Indonesian island of Flores. Anthropologists studying the remains of a number of tiny bipedal creatures declared them to belong to a whole new previously unknown species of human.

In March, 2008, a discovery was made in some burial caves on the Pacific island of Palau. These were definitely fossilized Homo sapien remains but they shared some physical characteristics with H. floresiensis, not the least of which was their diminutive size.

The brain of H. floresiensis was about one-third the size of the human brain, more along the lines of that of a chimpanzee's. One group of forensic anthropologists decided that the small brain and size of this little creature must be the result of a pathology leading to a physical deformity but then again maybe not. Others said that the small size of this early human was perfectly normal in keeping with the process of evolution on a small island. This is a very attractive conclusion to staunch evolutionists.

The discovery on Palau might confirm the evolutionary hypothesis, but adherents to the "Hobbit" theory, ie. that H. floresiensis is a unique species, stubbornly refuse to accept it. They will point to the obvious similarities to "Lucy", the tiny Australopithecus found in Africa and who is 3 million years older, thereby justifying a whole new classification for the find. Well, that figures. No one wants to be told they're wrong and we can never be really sure anyway. One can easily get hung up on an idea.

Darwin was Wrong About the Chicken

On the origins of the domesticated chicken Charles Darwin proposed that they are all descended from a common bird, the red jungle fowl. The Natural Association for the Practice of Anthropology reports in a March 7, 2008 news item that genetic research from Uppsala University in Sweden now proves that the common hen has less subtle beginnings.

There are two basic kinds of chickens. One type has yellow skin and the other type has white skin. Researchers looking for the yellow-skin gene in the red jungle fowl found only the gene for white skin. Their continued research led them to a completely different species of bird, the Grey jungle fowl whose genes do code for yellow skin. It turns out that while most of the genes in chickens do indeed come from the red jungle fowl they must at some point have interbred with the Grey jungle fowl because billions of chickens across the globe have yellow skin.

Darwin would be turning over in his grave if he knew what we know now. He thought that the dog had origins in many different species of wild canine and that all domestic chickens had evolved from a single common ancestor, whereas in both cases the exact opposite is true. Still, you have to admire the man for his ingenuity and his fastidious nature. They didn't have DNA testing in those days.

More about this author: Steve Lussing

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