Writers and Lovers Lily King

The hatchet falls on... Writers & Lovers

The news of an upcoming Italian translation of "Writers & Lovers" by Lily King, brought back the memories of the terrible day and a half I spent reading this novel (and also a few reflections on the criteria on which Italian publishers chose what to translate and not to translate, but let's not well on that... for now).

My quite strongly negative opinion on this novel seems to clash with the many 5 star comments on web platforms (e.g.: Goodreads), therefore, for a while I thought I just hadn't understood the deep meaning that Lily King wanted to convey with her writing. Then, fortunately, in July, the Times Literary Supplement published a review that shared most of my negative thoughts (by Evelin Toynton), and I finally felt understood.

Now, the following review will contain a number of spoilers: therefore, if you really really want to read "Writers & Lovers" you might want to stop here. If you want to save yourselves a rather pathetic experience, please feel free to carry on.

When I bought this book in early 2020 I should have known that a fancy title and a nice cover were going to be misleading...

Writers and Lovers Lily King
The book cover of Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. Photo credit: Winky Lewis

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DNA antico Caraibi

Ancient DNA retells story of Caribbean’s first people

Ancient DNA retells story of Caribbean’s first people

DNA antico Caraibi
Long Journey's End, (c) Merald Clark, for SIBA: Stone Interchanges in the Bahama Archipelago

The history of the Caribbean’s original islanders comes into sharper focus in a new Nature study that combines decades of archaeological work with advancements in genetic technology.

An international team led by Harvard Medical School’s David Reich analyzed the genomes of 263 individuals in the largest study of ancient human DNA in the Americas to date. The genetics trace two major migratory waves in the Caribbean by two distinct groups, thousands of years apart, revealing an archipelago settled by highly mobile people, with distant relatives often living on different islands.

Reich’s lab also developed a new genetic technique for estimating past population size, showing the number of people living in the Caribbean when Europeans arrived was far smaller than previously thought – likely in the tens of thousands, rather than the million or more reported by Columbus and his successors.

For archaeologist William Keegan, whose work in the Caribbean spans more than 40 years, ancient DNA offers a powerful new tool to help resolve longstanding debates, confirm hypotheses and spotlight remaining mysteries.

This “moves our understanding of the Caribbean forward dramatically in one fell swoop,” said Keegan, curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History and co-senior author of the study. “The methods David’s team developed helped address questions I didn’t even know we could address.”

Archaeologists often rely on the remnants of domestic life – pottery, tools, bone and shell discards – to piece together the past. Now, technological breakthroughs in the study of ancient DNA are shedding new light on the movement of animals and humans, particularly in the Caribbean where each island can be a unique microcosm of life.

While the heat and humidity of the tropics can quickly break down organic matter, the human body contains a lockbox of genetic material: a small, unusually dense part of the bone protecting the inner ear. Primarily using this structure, researchers extracted and analyzed DNA from 174 people who lived in the Caribbean and Venezuela between 400 and 3,100 years ago, combining the data with 89 previously sequenced individuals.

The team, which includes Caribbean-based scholars, received permission to carry out the genetic analysis from local governments and cultural institutions that acted as caretakers for the human remains. The authors also engaged representatives of Caribbean Indigenous communities in a discussion of their findings.

Two waves of people, thousands of years apart

The genetic evidence offers new insights into the peopling of the Caribbean. The islands’ first inhabitants, a group of stone tool-users, boated to Cuba about 6,000 years ago, gradually expanding eastward to other islands during the region’s Archaic Age. Where they came from remains unclear – while they are more closely related to Central and South Americans than to North Americans, their genetics do not match any particular Indigenous group. However, similar artifacts found in Belize and Cuba may suggest a Central American origin, Keegan said.

About 2,500-3,000 years ago, farmers and potters related to the Arawak-speakers of northeast South America established a second pathway into the Caribbean. Using the fingers of South America’s Orinoco River Basin like highways, they travelled from the interior to coastal Venezuela and pushed north into the Caribbean Sea, settling Puerto Rico and eventually moving westward. Their arrival ushered in the region’s Ceramic Age, marked by agriculture and the widespread production and use of pottery.

Over time, nearly all genetic traces of Archaic Age people vanished, except for a holdout community in western Cuba that persisted as late as European arrival. Intermarriage between the two groups was rare, with only three individuals in the study showing mixed ancestry.

Many present-day Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are the descendants of Ceramic Age people, as well as European immigrants and enslaved Africans. But researchers noted only marginal evidence of Archaic Age ancestry in modern individuals.

“That’s a big mystery,” Keegan said. “For Cuba, it’s especially curious that we don’t see more Archaic ancestry.”

Changes in pottery styles not linked to new migrations

Some archaeologists pointed to dramatic shifts in Caribbean pottery styles as evidence of new migrations. But genetics show all of the styles were created by one group of people over time. These effigy vessels belong to the Saladoid pottery type, ornate and difficult to shape. Credits: Corinne Hofman and Menno Hoogland

During the Ceramic Age, Caribbean pottery underwent at least five marked shifts in style over 2,000 years. Ornate red pottery decorated with white painted designs gave way to simple, buff-colored vessels, while other pots were punctuated with tiny dots and incisions or bore sculpted animal faces that likely doubled as handles.

Some archaeologists pointed to these transitions as evidence for new migrations to the islands. But DNA tells a different story, suggesting all of the styles were developed by descendants of the people who arrived in the Caribbean 2,500-3,000 years ago, though they may have interacted with and taken inspiration from outsiders.

“That was a question we might not have known to ask had we not had an archaeological expert on our team,” said co-first author Kendra Sirak, a postdoctoral fellow in the Reich Lab. “We document this remarkable genetic continuity across changes in ceramic style. We talk about ‘pots vs. people,’ and to our knowledge, it’s just pots.”

Ancient DNA Caribbean Caribbeans
Archaeological research and ancient DNA technology can work hand in hand to illuminate past history in the Caribbean. This vessel, made between AD 1200-1500 in present-day Dominican Republic, shows a frog figure, associated with the goddess of fertility in Taino culture. Credits: Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

Genetics reveal family connections across islands

Highlighting the region’s interconnectivity, a study of male X chromosomes uncovered 19 pairs of “genetic cousins” living on different islands – people who share the same amount of DNA as biological cousins but may be separated by generations. In the most striking example, one man was buried in the Bahamas while his relative was laid to rest about 600 miles away in the Dominican Republic.

“Showing relationships across different islands is really an amazing step forward,” said Keegan, who added that shifting winds and currents can make passage between islands difficult. “I was really surprised to see these cousin pairings between islands.”

Uncovering such a high proportion of genetic cousins in a sample of fewer than 100 men is another indicator that the region’s total population size was small, said Reich, professor of genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard.

“When you sample two modern individuals, you don’t often find that they’re close relatives,” he said. “Here, we’re finding relatives all over the place.”

Revising estimates of Caribbean population size

A technique developed by study co-author Harald Ringbauer, a postdoctoral fellow in the Reich Lab, used shared segments of DNA to estimate past population size, a method that could also be applied to future studies of ancient people. Ringbauer’s technique showed about 10,000 to 50,000 people were living on two of the Caribbean’s largest islands, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, shortly before European arrival. This falls far short of the million inhabitants Columbus described to his patrons, likely to impress them, Keegan said.

 

Later, 16th-century historian Bartolomé de las Casas claimed the region had been home to 3 million people before being decimated by European enslavement and disease. While this, too, was an exaggeration, the number of people who died as a result of colonization remains an atrocity, Reich said.

“This was a systematic program of cultural erasure. The fact that the number was not 1 million or millions of people, but rather tens of thousands, does not make that erasure any less significant,” he said.

For Keegan, collaborating with geneticists gave him the ability to prove some hypotheses he has argued for years – while upending others.

“At this point, I don’t care if I’m wrong or right,” he said. “It’s just exciting to have a firmer basis for reevaluating how we look at the past in the Caribbean. One of the most significant outcomes of this study is that it demonstrates just how important culture is in understanding human societies. Genes may be discrete, measurable units, but the human genome is culturally created.”


Daniel Fernandes of the University of Vienna and the University of Coimbra in Portugal was also co-first author of the study. Other co-senior authors are Alfredo Coppa of the Sapienza University of Rome, Mark Lipson of HMS and Harvard and Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna.

This work was funded by the National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Paul Allen Foundation, John Templeton Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

 

Press release by Natalie van Hoose, from the Florida Museum of Natural History on ancient DNA shedding light on the first people in the Caribbean.


Augsburg Art Cabinet games

Parlour games 400 years ago – almost like today

In a new thesis from Uppsala University, art historian Greger Sundin studied 16th and 17th century games that have been preserved in princely collections for example. Right at the end of his work on the thesis, he and a colleague were able to solve an over 300 year old riddle about a game in the Augsburg Art Cabinet.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
Carved chess pieces on a board of ebony, mother-of-pearl and inlaid silver in Philipp Hainhofer’s Pomeranian Art Cabinet (Berlin). Photo: Greger Sundin

In these times of self-isolation, as people spend a lot of time indoors with only a few others, many Monopoly games and Ludo sets have probably seen the light after many years lying forgotten in a drawer. There is nothing modern about playing board games and parlour games for entertainment and to pass the time. Many of the games we play today go back to at least the latter part of the 16th century. Chess is an example of a game that has been around for a very long time. The same is true of draughts and backgammon. Various forms of the Game of the Goose, in which players move their pieces along a track according to the total number shown on dice, also have a long history.

Everyone played these games, in every social class. Often the same types of game too, although chess was fairly expensive given all the pieces that needed to be carved. Card games, on the other hand, were easy to come by after the introduction of the printing press, and their use exploded in the 16th century (at the expense of games of dice).

“Studying games is a way of really getting close to the people who came before us. The frustration of unco-operative dice would have been as strong in 1620 as in 2020,” says Dr Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
The Augsburg Art Cabinet at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Credit: Mikael Wallerstedt

The collections of the University Museum include the Augsburg Art Cabinet, which was finished in 1631. It is the best preserved, most famous art cabinet commissioned by the Augsburg merchant and art dealer Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647). He filled his art cabinets with objects from around the world – everything from shells, minerals and animal parts to scientific instruments, relics and art objects. And games.

The Augsburg Art Cabinet was a gift to King Gustavus Adolphus from the City of Augsburg in 1632 and it contains a large number of games and pastimes. In his thesis, Greger Sundin used these games as a springboard for exploring what various board and card games looked like and how they were used in princely collecting in the early 17th century. Were they used as games in the same way as today? Were games in art cabinets intended to be used or were they intended to represent games instead, in a context in which so much was just for show?

After having closely studied the games preserved from Hainhofer’s cabinets around Europe, Greger Sundin drew the conclusion that the games were not only viewed. They were also used, presumably by the owners of the cabinets and their guests. He also noted that all the games were very accessible in the cabinets so that they could easily be taken out and played.

Gilded balls to roll through the arcades in a Tafelspiel. The points you score are shown in Roman numerals above each arcade. Games from the Augsburg Art Cabinet in Uppsala. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

After having studied hundreds of games, Greger Sundin was able to reconstruct both how they were used and how contemporary attitudes affected their design, materials and rules. He was also able to deduce from the games included in the art cabinets that Hainhofer not only listened to his clients but also chose them based on his own great interest in games.

In the very last weeks before the thesis was to go to print, Greger Sundin and a colleague in Germany were able to solve a riddle about a mysterious game in the Augsburg Art Cabinet, the name and rules of which had already been forgotten when it was first described in Sweden in 1694.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
‘Unfaithful neighbours’ or perhaps ‘Go to Hell’ (Höllfahren in German). The board was used for moving pieces while the players played cards. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

They established that the imaginatively decorated game was ‘Unfaithful neighbours’ or perhaps ‘Go to Hell’ (Höllfahren in German). The board was used for moving pieces while the players played cards. Depending on where you landed, different rules applied. For example, you had to be quiet or address someone in a specific way. If you failed to follow the rules, you moved a step closer to the centre, where people were being cooked in a pot. If you ended up there, you lost. The last player left was the winner and took all the money. Hainhofer, the creator of the art cabinets, used to play this type of game on his travels.

Dr Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Credit: Frida Klang

Full bibliographic information

Greger Sundin (2020) A Matter of Amusement: The Material Culture of Philipp Hainhofer’s Games in Early Modern Princely Collections, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2020.

Press release from the Uppsala University on games in princely collections and the Augsburg Art Cabinet.


Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Yet another great announcement for the classicists who love LEGO. The well-known Australian historical archivist Liam D. Jensen, AKA The Lego Classicist, is informing us about the revealing of the 100th entry in this rich and precious collection of classicists.

This time, the coveted acknowledgment will go to the world-famous British star Stephen Fry.

Fry has starred in theatre plays, full length pictures and TV series; besides, all throughout his career he's been a film director and scriptwriter, a TV host, a journalist and a book author.

An important part of his writing activities is indeed focused on the subject of mythology; we had the honour of interviewing Stephen Fry on this occasion.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

You wrote many books on the subject of myth. Where does this interest start, and what inspires you?

Mythology, but specifically Greek myth, gripped me from the first. I had liked fairy stories well enough when young, as most children do, but I sensed straight away that myths were somehow different, they came from a different place, they could be “taken to be true” in a certain kind of way that was stronger than fantasy. I think it was the personalities in Greek myth that so beguiled me. Without being conscious in any way of what myth is – where it comes from, who thought the stories up – I think it was clear to me that they had a truth and a depth too them that was more imperishable and somehow more important than, for example, Snow White and Rapunzel on the one hand, or the Hobbit and Narnia on the other. I have no wild objection to author-created fantasy worlds, but they could never reach me the way stories of myth could and still do.

What does it mean for Stephen Fry to popularize and/or retell a subject?

Goodness, I am not sure. I suppose in my wildest moments of self-belief and optimism I might hope that I combined enough of an ability to animate and entertain with enough authority and knowledge too - such a combination allowing people simultaneously to enjoy what I write but also to feel in some sense enriched by the confidence that they were (perhaps for the first time, or at least for a long time) drawing from the same narrative waters that so many generations of our ancestors had drawn. I get such pleasure when people tell me that they finally felt able to connect dots between — for example — Apollo and Hermes or the Titans and the Olympians, or that they feel familiar with characters whose names had often seemed remote and forbidding, Clytemnestra, say or Antigone. What once had been rather academic sounding names were at last knowable. Most of all, I hope to have taken away the scent of chalk dust and the stuffy school room...

 

The cover of the book Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold - Stephen Fry's Greek Myth, Penguin Books (2020)

How have your studies on English literature influenced your choices and your activities?

It’s impossible to say: I suspect that the traces of a lifetime’s love of reading will have left their mark in all kinds of ways that I cannot necessarily know or define. I think that a sense of irony (by which I mean something more than mocking irony, sarcasm or a sense of cosmic irony) is crucial to full human social development. An ironic mind is one that understand how to adopt another point of view, how to substitute (like a kind of social algebra) different ways of thinking, how to lay the patterns from one form of discourse on another (I know that doesn’t sound very clear, but I hope you get what I mean). The opposite of a ironising mind is a literalist mind, a dangerous and all too common presence in our world as larger and larger proportions of society rise in the world in new generations, sadly it seems unequipped with the ability to think ironically (such an ability presupposes the gift to think logically and imaginatively for you cannot be an ironist without a rigid sense of logic coupled with the ability to penetrate the knowledge and experience of others). My friend Matt D’Ancona put it very well when writing about another friend, the late Christopher Hitchens: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind … unlike rigid ideology and fundamentalism, irony – saying one thing while meaning another – helps us to recognise complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity.” And nothing, I would suggest, allows for this facility more than an exposure to literature and drama.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

In your book Heroes: Mortal and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, you wrote again about classical mythology, and of vices and virtues of the Gods. How do you imagine a fictitious Olympus?

Well, I am sorry to have to break it to you, but an Olympus peopled by quarrelling and fractious gods is a fiction. When you climb Mount Olympus in Greece you will find nothing but a very cold, damp, cloudy and rocky empty space. No gods there at all. The idea that there ever were gods there is … well, if not fictitious then mythical. We can think about what we mean by the difference. A fiction is fabricated by an individual mind, or occasionally a group of collaborating minds. A myth is fabricated by a whole society. Myths can be called, as Joseph Campbell did, “public dreams” or, if you prefer Carl Jung’s phrase, they are expressions of a “collective unconscious”. The collective unconscious of the Greeks, in my view, is so appealing because it understands that if the world is majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring, noble and beautiful (as it clearly is) then the gods must be all those things …. BUT, the Greeks also knew that if the world is brutal, cruel, capricious, unjust, ugly and savage then the gods must be all those things too. Therefore, for the first time in human story-telling, the Greek pantheon is presented as one of personalities who are several things at once: mean but beautiful, cruel but fair, noble but capricious, etc etc etc. In other words, unlike so many other mythic cycles, the Greek one is filled with the ambiguities, inconsistencies and multiplicities of character that we find in our real lives. The very complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity that I mentioned earlier. They are the first mythic cycle in our human history to have been shaped and reshaped by poets and dramatists to become a perfect blend of the religious, the literary, the dramatic, the visionary, the comic and the symbolic. They are, I think one can say therefore, a work of art.

The cover of the book Heroes. The myths of the Ancient Greek heroes retold, by Stephen Fry, Penguin Books (2019)

Stephen Fry will be the 100th Lego Classicist, did you know the project already?

I had heard of it, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I might be the Lego Centenarian.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Liam D. Jensen and Alessandra Randazzo talking about the 100th LEGO Classicist

All Lego Classicist pictures courtesy Liam D. Jensen, The Lego Classicist.


Actress Anne Enright

Actress by Anne Enright: between biography, autobiography, fiction and autofiction.

The exquisite pen of Anne Enright, one of the most talented Irish writers, strikes again thanks to her latest literary enterprise, the novel Actress.

Actress is not simply an objectively “good novel”, in a canonic way – because of the undeniable elegance of the writing and because of the story which, though flowing nicely, requires an attentive reading – but is also and most importantly an interesting novel in the light of the dense and sophisticated experimentation the author did on the literary genre. Anne Enright has indeed wisely merged fiction, autofiction, biography, autobiography, memoir, and essay writing in one engaging and well-balanced literary pastiche.

The actress in the title is the protagonist of the novel and mother of the co-protagonist, who is the narrator of this story. Therefore, a first intersection appears to happen between the voice who tells the story and the person who acts in those stories. Katherine O’Dell, a star of Irish theatre (and not only) in the post-war Ireland, lives a life of torments that inevitably end up mirroring themselves in the life of her daughter Norah – just a mistake, but very much loved. Norah is also a writer, who chooses only late in her life to dedicate her energies to the narration of her mother’s life, as a consequence of some appalling attempts from other journalists and writers, morbidly interested in the indecent details of Katherine’s love life. This story is fiction, but it is rather easy for a reader to forget, after a few pages, that Katherine O’Dell never existed and never was a great actress, and that Norah non is not Anne Enright. The novel is written in a style which is more similar to autofiction than it it is to a biographical account. What makes it even more outstanding is that Norah, in unraveling the events of her mother’s biography, ends up digging deeply into her own personal one, making it the core of her narration, at least as much as Katherine’s life. All this is then made even more unique by the unusual choice of narrating the whole story in the second person: Norah is writing to her husband, one of the characters in this double (auto)biography.

Anne Enright
Anne Enright (2008). Picture by Hpschaefer, CC BY 3.0

At times, the writing style appears almost journalistic, if not academic: some of the events of which Katherine is the protagonist are news stories and are told accordingly (in particular, her aggression to a colleague, which was all over many newspapers); others appear told through an academic filter, a scholarly filter, the filter of a historian, interested in what the great actress represented for Irish theatre in a specific historical moment. At other times, instead, Norah’s humanity outclasses the somewhat aseptic necessity of providing an objective and impartial account that biographies often require. Norah cannot resist her need for analysis and auto-analysis. Therefore, she builds a reflection on herself, on the events of her life, the life of a child cast away, of a teenager surrounded by her mother’s friends and lovers, of a young college student discovering and practicing sex in a Catholic and bigot Ireland but also in a family without taboos (Katherine never represses and never hides), of a woman tormented by her love for her mother and future husband, and from the difficulty of not having a father and nor the chance to discover who he was. At the same time, through the pages, another reflection takes place: one on her mother’s choices, on her morals, on the reasons for her eccentric behaviour, on her role and on her skills as a parent. Crucial are finally Norah’s accounts of the History in which she’s involved, the “civil war” in the ’70s, which she narrates through her personal experience of the conflicts.

Actress is a dense and compact book, well-orchestrated and full of reflections. Reflections on parenthood, childhood, adolescence, adult age; reflections on love, sexuality, morals, habits, costumes; reflections on solitude, on recklessness and responsibility; on jealousy, envy, admiration; reflections on theatre, on playing a role on a stage and in life. But above all, Actress is a book that is not afraid to reinvent a genre or more genres, of experimenting with narrative voices, with the concept of protagonists, with styles.

Actress Anne Enright
The cover of the book by Anne Enright, Actress. A Novel, published by W. W. Norton

premi letterari inclusività diversità literary prizes inclusivity diversity fiction

From Booker to Strega: diversity and inclusivity in literary prizes

As I was reading, a few weeks ago, the names in the Booker Prize 2020 shortlist, I was caught by a fleeting yet well-defined thought: how depressing can it be to make a comparison between this shortlist and those of the most prestigious Italian prizes for fiction?

premi letterari inclusività diversità
Literary prizes, inclusivity, diversity. Picture by Roberta Berardi


The answer is quite simple: very depressing. Not because the literary quality of those English novels which ended up being finalists for the Booker Prize is necessarily higher than the quality those written in Italian and selected by the committees of the Strega and Campiello prizes– I haven’t read them all, I wouldn’t know how to judge – but for the disturbing dominance, in Italian prizes, of the writing phenotype of the “white male”.
Italy saw some mild turbulence in the debate on this topic, when Valeria Parrella, the only woman in the Strega shortlist, reacted in an understandably resented way, when, during her interview on the award ceremony, had to sadly realise that a debate on the relationship between the #MeToo movement and literature would happen between two men: “e lei ne vuole parlare con Augias? Auguri!” (“and you want to discuss that with Augias [editor's note: a man]? Good luck!”, said Parrella to the journalist, manifesting a resentment which would be easily shared by many female writers, or simply many women.

Valeria Parrella’s resentment deserves to be charged with further significance if we look at the names of the finalists in the three abovementioned prizes.

For the Strega, all six writer were white and five out of six were men. The longlist was not more encouraging, if we think that besides Valeria Parrella, there were only two more women, Marta Barone e Silvia Ballestra. For the Campiello, the situation was quite similar: once again, all writers were white, and only one was a woman. Moreover, she was not even a novelist. We are talking about Patrizia Cavalli, an undoubtedly illustrious author, but in truth a poet attempting to turn to prose only now, at a later stage of her career, almost as a form of self-celebration. The Booker Prize, instead, among its six finalists, presents four people of colour of which only one is a man. The longlist was equally widely populated with talented women.

If about racial issues, someone might be naive and object that in Italy most writers are in fact white, on gender issues Italy seems to have no excuses. Contemporary Italian fiction has a panorama abounding in women, with a long- or short-lived career. Female writers with talent and original ideas.
The problem seems to occur with similar practices also in other realities of continental Europe: in France, the Goncourt prize has currently only four women out of fifteen in the longlist.

It appears that anglophone prizes, on the contrary, have decided to invest on the principles of diversity and inclusivity, making sure that their selection mirrors the actuality of the society literature represents. The choices of the Booker committee are well matched with those of the American National Book Award, whose longlist is extremely variegated both in terms of genders and of writers’ cultural backgrounds. Needless to remind that the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year was assigned for the second time to Colson Whitehead, a black writer.

It’s easy to brand these choices as banal and comfortable publicity moves. It is undeniable that they are political choices, but their necessity in undeniable in this historical moment. They act as signals, as messages aimed at a mentality change, which is not only desirable but also compelling. They are signals that must arrive from those who hold the power in publishing and media in general. Signals that other countries, like Italy, persists to give only in a fictitious form, relegating them to a surface level, when to a the duty and the honour to debate female literature is given to a man, in the reassuring certainty that the problem of being politically correct can now be filed, and that we can finally go back - without too many subtleties – to awarding the prize to a male writer.


details courtyard Alhambra

Unknown details identified in the Lions' Courtyard at the Alhambra

Through drawings, researchers from the University of Seville, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland) and the University of Granada have identified details hitherto unknown in the muqarnas of the temples of the Lions' Courtyard at the Alhambra in Granada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
templetes Patio de los Leones Alhambra Granada, España
Lions' Courtyard at the Alhambra, Granada (Spain)

In order to better understand and facilitate the conservation of these fourteenth-century architectural elements, following a review of numerous repairs performed over the intervening centuries, a novel methodology was followed based on three complementary graphic analyses: first, outstanding images from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries were reviewed; then new computer drawings were made of their muqarnas, following the theoretical principles of their geometrical grouping; and finally, a three-dimensional scan was made to ascertain their precise current state from the point cloud obtained.

The comparison of drawings has allowed us to verify for the first time that the muqarnas of the two temples have a different configuration and different number of pieces. In addition, geometric deformations have been detected in the original Nasrid design, identifying hitherto unknown pieces, plus other deformations due to the various repairs from major threats that the temples and their muqarnas have survived for centuries, despite their fragile construction.

"For the first time, this article documents and analyses details that were hitherto practically absent from the scientific literature", says Antonio Gámiz, professor at the University of Seville and co-author of this work.

The muqarnas are one of the most unique architectural episodes of the Nasrid Alhambra and of medieval Islamic art because of their sophisticated three-dimensional geometrical construction. They are small prisms that are grouped together and create a great diversity of spatial configurations, adapting their composition to very diverse architectural situations in cornices, arches, capitals and vaults. They reached a virtuous zenith during the reign of Muhammad V (1354-1359 and 1362-1391) when crucial works were undertaken in the palaces of the Alhambra.

This research was supported by the Patronato de la Alhambra and Generalife.

Full bibliographic information

Antonio Gámiz Gordo; Ignacio Ferrer Pérez-Blanco; Juan Francisco Reinoso Gordo (2020): The Pavilions at the Alhambra's Court of the Lions: Graphic Analysis of Muqarnas. Sustainability, 12 (16), 6556 (Special Issue Cultural Heritage and Natural Disasters) MDPI, Switzerland. ISSN 2071-1050. DOI: 10.3390/su12166556

Press release from the Universidad de Sevilla and the Universidad de Granada on the study that has identified details hitherto unknown in the muqarnas of the temples of the Lions' Courtyard at the Alhambra in Granada.


molar size hominins

New study of molar size regulation in hominins

New study of molar size regulation in hominins

The Dental Anthropology Group at the CENIEH has tested the inhibitory cascade model to see whether it explains the size relationships and differences in shape between the different kinds of teeth, in the molar sample from the individuals identified at the Sima de los Huesos site in the Sierra de Atapuerca.
Mandíbula AT-1 de la Sima de los Huesos. Credits: Mario Modesto

The molar size relationship is one of the peculiar characteristics of the different species of hominins and various theories have been proposed to account for this, as well as the differences in shape between the different kinds of teeth (incisors, canines, premolars and molars). The latest theory, called the inhibitory cascade model, arose out of experiments with mice embryos, and in 2016 it was applied theoretically to fossil hominins, with satisfactory results.

It appeared that all hominins satisfy the inhibitory cascade model. In a paper by the Dental Anthropology Group at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la evolución Humana (CENIEH), published recently in the Journal of Anatomy, this model was tested on the molar sample from the individuals identified at the Sima de los Huesos site, situated in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos).

The results match the model generated in mice extraordinarily well, thus confirming the theory's utility once more. “Nevertheless, our conclusions have brought out an anomaly in the model, when it is applied to the oldest species of the genus Homo”, explains José María Bermúdez de Castro, Paleobiology Program Coordinator at the CENIEH and lead author of this work.

Increasing and decreasing patterns

In the genera Ardipithecus, Australopithecus and Paranthropus, as well as in Homo habilis, the size pattern is increasing and fits the premises of the inhibitory cascade model perfectly. The same thing happens in Homo sapiens, except that the pattern is decreasing, with the first molar larger than the second, which in turn is bigger than the third one (wisdom tooth).

Application of the inhibitory cascade model had led to the assumption that the switch from increasing to decreasing pattern would have arisen a little under two million years ago, perhaps coinciding with the transition between the genera Australopithecus and Homo. “However, in our work we noticed that this change could have required at least a million years to take place”, states Bermúdez de Castro.

The hominins from the Sima de los Huesos, which are around 430,000 years old, are a good example of that transition, whereas most specimens of Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo antecessor and Homo heidelbergensis, as well as other species, do not fit the inhibitory cascade model. “Our idea is to continue our research to determine which genetic mechanisms lie behind this anomaly in the model”, says Bermúdez de Castro.

Full bibliographic information

Bermúdez de Castro et al. 2020. Testing the inhibitory cascade model in the Middle Pleistocene Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain) hominin sample. Journal of Anatomy. DOI: 10.1111/joa.13292
Press release from CENIEH.

The temporal lobes of Homo erectus were proportionally smaller than in H. sapiens

The temporal lobes of Homo erectus were proportionally smaller than in H. sapiens

The CENIEH has contributed to a paleoneurological study published in the journal Quaternary International, on the brain of Homo erectus, which analyzes its temporal lobes and compares these with other species like H. ergaster and H. sapiens
temporal lobes erectus sapiens ergaster
Pearson at al.

Emiliano Bruner, a paleoneurologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has participated in a study published in the journal Quaternary International, on the anatomy of the temporal lobes in the brain of Homo erectus, which establishes that they were proportionally smaller than in modern humans.

In H. sapiens, the temporal lobes are relatively more highly developed than in other primates, although little is known about their anatomy in extinct human species, because they are housed in a very delicate region of the cranium known as the middle cranial fossa, which is often not conserved in fossil individuals.

An earlier study by the same team had shown that the size of the middle cranial fossa can be used to deduce the volume of the temporal lobes. In this new study, three anatomical diameters were analyzed in fossils of H. erectus and H. ergaster, and compared with the corresponding measurements for 51 modern humans. The results suggest that both fossil species had temporal lobes proportionally smaller than in humans today.

Moreover, “The Asiatic individuals, namely Homo erectus, had larger temporal lobes than in the African ones, Homo ergaster, although the scanty fossil record does not allow us to tell whether this is due to chance or a paleoneurological difference between the two species”, says Bruner.

As the temporal lobe is a brain region involved in the integration of many cognitive functions, such as memory, the emotions, hearing, social relations and language, any change in their sizes or proportions is of transcendent importance, as this could reveal variations in the development of their neurons or their connections, and therefore in the cognitive functions associated to this region of the cerebral cortex.

This study has been conducted by Alannah Pearson, a doctoral student of Emiliano Bruner at the Australian National University in Canberra (Australia), in collaboration with Professor David Polly, of Indiana University (USA).

 

Full bibliographic information

Pearson, A., Polly, P. D., & Bruner, E. (2020). Temporal lobe evolution in Javanese Homo erectus and African Homo ergaster: inferences from the cranial base. Quaternary International (0). doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2020.07.048.

 

Press release from CENIEH


cultura muerte neandertales humanos modernos Nohemi Sala culture death neanderthals humans

Does the culture of death predate the Neanderthals and modern humans?

Does the culture of death predate the Neanderthals and modern humans?

The CENIEH researcher Nohemi Sala has been awarded 1.5 million euros by the European Research Council through an ERC-Starting Grant, to scour the fossil record for the roots and evolution of our ancestors' funerary behavior.

cultura muerte neandertales humanos modernos Nohemi Sala
Nohemi Sala, ERC-Starting Grant proyect IP.Credits: N. Sala

All societies existing today possess some kind of funerary culture, and this is one of the behaviors that takes us closest to how complex the human mind is. However, the emergence of this behavior is one of the most controversial topics in the field of human evolution. When did our ancestors start to acquire a culture of death? How was this behavior manifested over time and space? Did this practice appear independently in different species?

There are different ways to tackle these questions, and the more specific one of whether the culture ofdeath precedes Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. To date, analyses in Paleolithic archaeology have centered on the archaeological context: that is, whether skeletons are preserved completely, the existence of a grave cut or whether objects that could be interpreted as symbolic elements or grave goods are present. This vision restricts funerary behavior almost exclusively to burials, something that was exceptionally rare before the Late Pleistocene, which began 127,000 years ago.

Thus, there is a need to find new methodological approaches so that what has been preserved up to our own time is right at the center: human bones. The European fossil record is a fundamental source of information due to the abundance of fossil skeletons. This is where forensic taphonomy, a discipline that can help to shed light on fundamental issues in this field, comes in. Applying this would be something like carrying out “autopsies” of human fossils to try to learn how they died and, above all, what happened to the remains of the individual between death and modern excavation.

This line of research has crystallized in a project entitled DEATHREVOL. The roots and evolution of the culture-of-death. A taphonomic research of the European Paleolithic record, which has been selected to receive financing under the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program, and which will be conducted over the next five years at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH).

“This is the first large-scale project centering on an exhaustive taphonomic study of the European fossil record”, explains the CENIEH taphonomy specialist Sala, a member of the Atapuerca research team and a researcher under the Juan de la Cierva-Incorporación program, who has obtained 1.5 million euros in funding for this project submitted to the 2020 call.

Carrying this out will require the participation of a large team of academics and a network of methods which include taphonomic analyses, virtual reconstructions for forensic analyses, studying spatial distribution patterns, the overall relations between different sites and mathematical models to interconnect the broad spectrum of data compiled.

Highly competitive projects

The European Research Council (ERC) projects known as “Starting Grants” are aimed at early-career researchers with post-doctoral experience of between 2 and 7 years, who have an outstanding research record and submit an excellent scientific project on the frontiers of knowledge. These are considered the most prestigious awards in the sphere of European research and, therefore, are highly competitive.

In the 2020 call, 436 researchers from 25 countries in the European Union and associated countries were selected, and 23 of the projects will be conducted at Spanish research centers. Of these 23, four are in the field of humanities and only one is centered on Paleoanthropology.

 

Press release from CENIEH on the Starting Grant for the research about the culture of death preceding Neanderthals and modern humans.