Friday, June 25, 2010

Rapa Nui: A warning from history

One of the last islands to be inhabited/conquered/settled in Polynesia was Rapa Nui. So interesting in several ways. Though DNA shows islanders had Polynesian blood, masonry and the existence of sweet potato make it very likely that they either traded with South Americans (Peru) or voyaged there.

I don't care for anthropological theories that discount that possibility. Anything is possible with human willpower. Even the extreme theory that it was seafaring Chinese traders who brought sweet potato to Rapa Nui (I don't believe it, but...) is possible.

What's most interesting, though, is how Rapa Nui destroyed itself, prioritizing its behemoth stone structures so high that the land was deforested and society crumbled. Basically, a parallel of modern Western society in the making.

Genographic or xenophobic?

On the surface, it seems odd that anyone would oppose a study of mankind's footprints and paths. 

But National Geographic's Genographic Project will probably always face the element fear. There are tribes, particularly in Alaska, who fear potential consequences of the project. My interest is, of course, solely as a very curious individual who has always been interested in origins and migratory routes. Almost all my childhood friends are descendants of immigrants, if not immigrants themselves. Even Native Hawaiians were once new to these islands. We all came from somewhere else. But this New York Times story notes how the concern about discovering DNA denominators that cross oceans and mountains could have political repercussions, inadvertent as they may be in purpose. 
"What if it turns out you're really Siberian and then, oops, your health care is gone?" said Dr. David Barrett, a co-chairman of the Alaska Area Institutional Review Board, which is sponsored by the Indian Health Service, a federal agency. "Did anyone explain that to them?"

There are all kinds of points and counterpoints to be made. It's unfortunate that the project may not proceed without obstruction. But ideals are simply temporary. Reality always kicks the gall out of idealists, and there is red tape — and sensitivity to an issue like health care — to weave through. A more recent word from the project's leader, Spencer Wells:
"Many of the crises we see in the 21st century, I would argue, have their roots in the dawn of the Neolithic," he says. "We spent an enormous amount of time as hominids and as primates living as hunter-gatherers. That is the natural way for us to live, and we're suddenly living in this profoundly unnatural way, and we're still in the process of adapting to it and working out how to live with it."

(See the series here.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Origins of the Japanese

This is probably one of the most readable and succinct pieces I've seen online about Japanese origins. I write that as plural because there is more than one major group of DNA in Japan. 
During the last Ice Age, which ended approximately 15,000 years ago, Japan was connected to the continent through several land bridges, notably one linking the Ryukyu Islands to Taiwan and Kyushu, one linking Kyushu to the Korean peninsula, and another one connecting Hokkaido to Sakhalin and the Siberian mainland. In fact, the Philippines and Indonesia were also connected to the Asian mainland. This allowed migrations from China and Austronesia towards Japan, about 35,000 years ago. These were the ancestors of the modern Ryukyuans (Okinawans), and the first inhabitants of all Japan.

I love how the Ainu dude with the mouth harp is playing along with the Hawaiians (at the 4:15 mark).

Some interesting documentary footage from Japan about the Ainu.

This video is more about the warfare between the Ainu and later settlers of Japan. Lots of cultural information, photos, music.

I can't think of another ethnic group that actually hunts (or used to hunt) bears. Gnarly!