Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Quick Hits

* The mtDNA atlas blog has only five posts so far, but the content and comments on those posts are thoughtful and well worth reading.

* Geocurrents has a fascinating post on regional variation in religious beliefs in Japan with comparisons to the South Korean situation.  These regional variations appear to reflect the deep historical roots of modern Japan and include animist practices in one area that may reflect pre-Yayoi religious beliefs.

The situation in Japan is complicated by the fact that religious traditions normally considered to be entirely different faiths are followed by the same individuals in different domains of life. Syncretism is pervasive.  Hence, a typical Japanese person may, for example, simultaneously have a Buddhist funeral and pray at Shinto shrines from time to time during life, while following a basically secular Confucian set of social norms.  Query how much this reflects a more general strategy with which Japanese culture has historically chosen a path of selective assimilation in language, culture, and genetic admixture with indigenous populations as well.

This may seem anomalous, but it is less so when one considers analogous instances of Americans who simultaneously consider themselves to be Christian while observing folk traditions with deep "pagan" roots.  For example, most American Christians celebrate both the resurrection of Christ and "pagan" Easter Bunny traditions at Easter, and celebrate both the birth of Christ and Santa Clause traditions at Christmas.

South Korea, generally speaking, is less syncretic.  A person's identity as a Christian, a Buddhist, or a secular person is more distinct at the individual level.

Historically, both Christian identification was not present in meaningful numbers until the 20th century during which it became the most Christian country in Asia due to Christianity's role as an institution facilitating positive political change.

Before that, Korean history tells the story of epic battles that have seen one side and then the other ascendant, between metaphysically secular Confucianists and the intrusive institutions of Buddhist missionaries which have been welcomed during some Korean regimes and persecuted in other regimes, that goes back many, many centuries.

The article does not mention the role of "pagan" practices akin to animistic Chinese folk religion in Korea,[1] perhaps because few people today now self-identify in that way religiously. But, I know from my own extended family lore that these practices were common place and were taken very seriously at least as late as the 1960s at least among Korea's senior citizens, even by people who self-identified religiously as Christian or Buddhist, and that some practices which are on the line between "superstition", "tradition" and "religion", for example, consulting soothsayers and astrologers when naming children, persist in Korea even today, even among people who self-identify as Christian.  So the extent to which Korea is syncretic may have more to do with state of mind than it does with actual practice.

[1] I am making some assumptions in the analogy to Chinese folk religion based upon geography and the source of the once prevailing Confucian belief system in Korea.  But, an alternative hypothesis is that the "pagan" Korean practices of which I am aware have a cryptic source in Japanese Shinto and folk religious belief, rather than Chinese folk religion, and that they became a part of my own extended family's belief system and traditions during the period of Japanese occupation of Japan, but are not actually widely shared among Koreans outside my extended family.  The existence of cryptic Japanese genetic ancestry in this part of my extended family would be consistent with this alternative hypothesis.  But, I lack sufficient information about this part of the family lore, and I also lack sufficient information about syncretic religious practice plays out in daily life for other ordinary Koreans, to evaluate the relatively likelihood of these alternatives very accurately.  Finally, of course, it is entirely possible that Japanese Shinto practice is itself a direct elaboration of Chinese folk religion at some point in early Japanese history that did not persist in the same way in China, in which case the distinction that I am making in this footnote between the two may be something of a category error.

* Scholarly conjectures on the language abilities of Neanderthals are considered.  John Hawks also has a nice piece on the bigger picture of ancient admixture among our ancient ancestors and are more recent ancestors belong to our own species.  He is a bit more more vague that I would like, however, in his discussion of "ghost populations."  He references one of his 2006 journal articles in support of some of the concepts in his post.

* Humans who lived in Florida ten thousand years ago responded to changing sea levels.

* Anthropologists have securely dated traces of human occupation in Australia to at least 53,000 years ago at a new site in a cave on Barrow Island which is now off the Australian coast but would have been part of the continent at the time.

* There are large stone wheels in the Middle East from Syria to Saudi Arabia first sited by airplane pilots in 1927 that appear to be observatories or calendars of some sort and are made with varying degrees of precision.  The oldest have now been dated to 8,500 years ago (6,500 BCE) and continuing in use until at least 5,500 years ago (3,500 BCE) if not later, at a time when the local climate was more favorable. Realistically, in that area and given the climate at the time, these dates suggest that they were built by farmers in the early Neolithic era, rather than by hunters and gatherers in the pre-farming Mesolithic era (even though other finds demonstrate that Middle Eastern hunter-gatherers did have permanent outdoor temple-like structures before domesticated plants were farmed anywhere on Earth).

* First there was a growing awareness of gut bacteria communities.  Now, we know that even expresso machine waste bins develop stable bacterial communities (that are quite distinct from machine to machine) over time.  More generally, this points to another place where scientists can look for genetic evidence about the human past.  While it seems far fetched to be able to recover ancient gut bacteria, scientists have already recovered ancient disease bacteria from well preserved mass plague burial sites.

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