National Geographic has occasional theme issues. This is one of them. The theme for this issue is “Firsts.”
First Artists by Chip Walter (Photographs by Stephen Alvarez)
This article, just as the name implies, is about the beginnings of artistic expression in humans. We start out at one of the best known early artistic sites, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, where artists starting at least 36,000 years ago made charcoal drawings on the walls. We then go to South Africa, where an even older form of artistic expression was found — pieces of ocher with geometric patterns carved into them dating back to at least 100,000 years ago.
There is no continuity to the artistic expression, however. It will flower in one place and then die out again only to resurface somewhere else. The development of art seems to track to times when there were more people, so the theory that Walter and, presumably those he’s spoken with, advances is that the art was a way for groups to communicate.
I wonder if it could be the other way around, though. Perhaps the default state of humanity is to be creative, but stresses on the population reduce that urge. Maybe the population increases were because times were relatively good, which allowed the natural creativity of our ancestors to show. We are, from all the research I have read, naturally wired to acquire a language, so it doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to think that maybe we are wired to express ourselves artistically as well.
And despite their reputation as brutish, there may be some evidence that there was a creative urge for Neanderthal humans. Archaeologists have found items with holes drilled into them as if for jewelry in a cache with some tools in France.
Along with the articles are the usual stunning National Geographic photos, including pictures of the earliest pieces of art (including one that is described as a flying bird, but which looks awfully phallic to me), of the archaeological dig in South Africa, and of two young women covered in ochre.
The First Year by Yudhijit Battacharjee (Photos by Lynn Johnson)
Technically this article should have probably been called The First Years because much of it relates to events in the second year of life and there are even some references to events beyond that point.
The article, for the most part, recounts studies being done on the brain development of children in the first years of life. We begin with Hallam Hurt’s study of children who come from poor backgrounds which showed that the damage our culture associated with prenatal maternal use of crack actually reflected the situation of poor families in the United States. From this, we developed programs to encourage bonding and mental development during infancy and early childhood.
We also see a glimpse into some of the imaging studies being done of the brains of babies, including studies that show how language development works.
There is also one study referenced that made me uncomfortable. Nicolae Ceausescu made birth control and abortion illegal, in service of increasing the population of Romania. It worked. It worked so well, that many families ended up abandoning their children, who then ended up in orphanages. The orphanages were understaffed and fifteen to twenty babies were generally taken care of by each worker, which meant that there was no time for the babies to be given any kind of personal attention, which harmed their brain development. A group of scientists saw that the children in these orphanages had irregular behavior patterns similar to those of children with severe autism. When the children’s brains were studied, it was shown that they had much lower levels of activity than would be expected from a child of that age. So they devised a study where half of the children would be put in foster home and half left in the orphanage. The brains of the fostered children under the age of two came to resemble those of children who had not been deprived, but the brain development of the children who remained in the orphanage remained abnormal.
Now, my own background is training as a medical librarian, so my frame of reference is clinical trials, but it is my understanding that if a treatment (which in this case is being put in a foster home) is shown to work (which it clearly did), the study is halted and all of the participants are given the treatment. To do otherwise would be unethical. Yet, there is no indication in this article whether the institutionalized children were put in foster homes in hopes of helping their brain development as had been done with the children put in foster care. I finally had to do some research on my own to find that homes were found for most of the children who had been left in the institution. Out of 68 institutionalized children in the original study, ten of the institutionalized children were still in the orphanage by the age of eight. So at least something was done for most of those children, but I’m still not happy about the ten who were still in the orphanage. On the good side, Romania now has a law forbidding placement of children younger than two in orphanages.
While the article itself is fairly dry, with lots of talk of studies and brain imaging, the “human element” comes from Johnson’s black-and-white photographs of families, many of them poor, taking the time to bond with their children, thus enriching their lives and helping their brains grow.
First City, by Robert Draper (Photographs by Robin Hammond)
In the case of this article, the word “first” is more a reference to rank rather than to chronology. The census for the country of Nigeria has trouble tabulating the population of Lagos, which has grown so fast that, at the moment it is somewhere between 13 and 18 million. The economy of Lagos is flourishing, as well. In the 21st century alone, consumer spending in Lagos has grown from 24.4 billion to 320.3 billion. The economy of Nigeria passed up the previous front-runner, South Africa, in 2012.
As with many National Geographic articles, this one features the stories of a number of Nigerians, from Onyekachi Chiagozie, an electrician who has big dreams, to Banke Meshida Lawal, a beautician with offices in Africa but who has representatives in other countries, including the United States, to Kola Karim, a multimillionaire who owns a conglomerate that employs more than 3,000 people.
The article also discusses the political climate of Nigeria, including the gap between the culture of Lagos and the upheaval of the rest of the country. Draper also discusses the corruption of the national government of Nigeria, which is a major exporter of petroleum but which doesn’t have enough gasoline for its citizens and which is unable to supply a steady level of electricity to any of its residents.
The photographs range from sitting portraits of residents to pictures of people going about their daily lives, both in the upscale and downscale areas of the city.
First Glimpse, by Timothy Ferris, Photographs by Robert Clark
This article is on cosmology, and cosmology really isn’t my thing. Somehow, the huge numbers of years and distance and things just serves to remind me that the clock is running and the universe will wind down someday. I mean, I’d be gone by then anyhow, unless an article I read a few years ago that said that time might stop any second turns out to be true, but I still find the thought, particularly that there is nothing we can do to stop it, or even slow it down, sort of distressing.
That being said, I read this article, which opens with a quote that cosmologists are “Often in error but never in doubt.” That’s comforting. Well, not really, but it does kind of remind me of the Dunning-Krueger effect, which says that people who don’t know what they’re doing (“often in error”) will be more likely to be certain that they are experts (“never in doubt”) than one would expect. It is likely that they do know what they’re talking about, but obviously someone has some doubts.
The article that follows talks about “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which are two forces that we cannot perceive but that seem to have some kind of effect on the universe. “Dark matter” seems to be pushing things closer together, while “dark energy” seems to be pushing them apart. Ferris also talks about the things that cosmologists are doing to measure what they perceive as being dark matter and dark energy, including a large sphere of lights pointing inward towards a pool of argon. The hope is that dark matter will pass through this device and make flashes of light.
I did find out that dark matter is not some mysterious thing “out there,” though, which was kind of interesting. Apparently, the Earth is being bombarded by it constantly and since we cannot perceive it, it is likely to be be passing through our bodies and we just are not aware of it.
First Americans, by Glenn Hodges
Now I’m back on familiar, and far more comfortable, territory.
In 2007, Mexican divers found a cavern full of bones. The oldest one whose skull was intact enough to do a facial reconstruction on, was a teenaged girl who died somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago. She was given the name Naia, after the Naiads of Greek mythology. Naia’s basic genetic structure is the same as that of current Native Americans, indicating that the current Native American population is descended from the people who were here all those centuries ago, but her facial structure is very different, with much coarser features.
The bodies of Paleo-Americans that have been found so far seem to be very likely to have evidence of injuries from some kind of close-range battle. The standard explanation is that the men were fighting over women, and the women were victims of domestic abuse. While this is a possible explanation, and may even be the most likely explanation, I was a teenager several decades ago and remember a few physical fights among my female peers. As a result, I’m not going to completely discount the idea that perhaps the women fought among themselves just as the men seem to have done.
The article also discusses the Friedkin site which is described as being in central Texas “about an hour north of Austin.” That’s still a very large area, so I did a little digging and discovered that it is in Salado, Texas, in Bell County. The Friedkin site may be the earliest settled place in North America. A large quantity of stone tools have been found on the site, some dating back 15,500 years. The quantity of tools seems to indicate to the archaeologists that a group of Paleo-Americans actually settled there for an extended period.
Hodges mentions the Anzick site in Montana, as well, where the 12,600-year-old skeleton of a child. They were able to extract an entire genome from this child, the first time we had been able to do so. Fossilized human waste was also found in a cave in Oregon, which gives archaeologists a chance to see what people of the area ate and which indicates that the Paleo-Americans may have settled there for a while.
The photographs on the article were taken by various photographers including Timothy Archibald, Paul Nicklen, James Chatters, David Coventry, and Erika Larsen.
First Bird, written and photographed by Klaus Nigge
This is a short, six-paragraph, piece on the bald eagle accompanied by five beautiful photographs. In the article, Nigge discusses his time photographing the bald eagles of the Aleutian islands, who were so habituated to humans that they would let him walk right up to them to photograph them.