donderdag 28 november 2013

Food etymology

As an additional window on the history of our most basic foodstuffs I have compiled a list of etymological first-use. 

It was here but I now have placed it here where it is easier to maintain and edit.

My main interest is in the geographical origins and spread of crops and I wanted to see if pulling dates from the Online Etymology Dictionary would give insight in the historicity of everyday supermarket products. Etymology is not an exact science and dates are for modern English and especially for older dates it does not mean that the thing named was not known before that. It does allow to see the way new foods from the Americas and elsewhere are introduced to the European menu as trade networks start to span the globe from 1400 onwards and after 1500 especially.

These etymological word maps also contain much food names.

maandag 25 november 2013

The Natural History of London

R.S.R Fitter's 'London's Natural History' (1945) is what we would now call an environmental history of Greater London. It is strangely antiquated, refreshingly modern, stunningly original, and, at times, bloggerishly quirky. All at the same time.

When Fitter cites Piltdown man it is a thing of the past but when he writes about houses as a new form of habitat that by necessity have to be pioneered by plants and animals seeking living space and using adaptation to make it theirs, he opens my eyes to the evolutionary cunningness of the ants, slugs and silverfish crawling in my living room. 

There is plenty of raw material (plant and bird lists) for Fitter to use and as a writer of guidebooks he loves that stuff. There are also many good maps and that is one reason why this book lives: it is a source of raw data that is still of interest to birdwatchers and phyto-psychogeographers. This book was written during WWII and the most original chapters are those in which Fitter documents the results of the Blitz as a great opportunity for nature to return to the surface in some of the oldest continuesly built-over parts of the City. It strikes me as both eccentric and typical of the stoic attitude that famously is said to have come over the citizens of London in response to German attacks. Bombs or not live must go on and that included scouting bombcraters for unusual flowers. 

Nice book.

woensdag 20 november 2013

Triangulate the deep past

James C. Scott on Jared Diamond. Nothing new really but it sounds better when it comes from him.
He imagines he can triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are ‘our living ancestors’, that they show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns and government. This assumption rests on the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.

In the unique case of Highland New Guinea, which was apparently isolated from coastal trade and the outside world until World War Two, Diamond might be forgiven for making this inference, though the people of New Guinea have had exactly the same amount of time to adapt and evolve as homo americanus and they managed somehow to get hold of the sweet potato, which originated in South America. The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the other 35 societies he canvasses. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies. The anthropologist Pierre Clastres argued that the Yanomamo and Siriono, two of Diamond’s prime examples, were originally sedentary cultivators who turned to foraging in order to escape the forced labour and disease associated with Spanish settlements. Like almost all the groups Diamond considers, they have been trading with outside kingdoms and states (and raiding them) for much of the past three thousand years; their beliefs and practices have been shaped by contact, trade goods, travel and intermarriage. So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’. That is, their location in the landscape is designed to help them evade or trade with larger societies. They forage forest and marine products desired by urban societies; many groups are ‘twinned’ with neighbouring societies, through which they manage their trade and relationship to the larger world.

We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.

zondag 17 november 2013

The power to embrace and integrate entire continents

Jarod Diamond's latest book (the world until yesterday) I have not read but I have read reviews and it was trashed by almost everyone. Chris Knight, UK anthropologist and all round troublemaker is someone who I like to read. From Knight's review of Diamond's book this is I think a wonderful passage:
Excellent when he sticks to science, Diamond is less convincing when he turns to politics. Here is an example: “Large populations can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, executives who carry out the decisions, and bureaucrats who administer the decisions and laws. Alas for all of you readers who are anarchists and dream of living without any state government, those are the reasons why your dream is unrealistic… ” As I read these lines, I had the funny feeling they were directly aimed at me! It would be interesting to research the extent to which anthropologists’ political beliefs correlate with those of the people they study. My closest professional colleagues study African hunter-gatherers; all of us have witnessed and participated in emphatically egalitarian social, economic and gender relationships. As a result, we have all become “anarchist” in the sense Diamond intends. We have had an excellent education - by people who make anarchy work. I should add that anyone familiar with hunter-gatherer systems of extended kinship would be surprised at Diamond’s description of them as “small-scale”: unlike truncated Western notions of kinship and family life, these extraordinary systems have the power to embrace and integrate entire continents.

Diagrams from the counterfeit paradise

Betty Meggers' book 'Amazonia: Man and culture in a counterfeit paradise' for a long time represented the Amazonian orthodoxy: environmental conditions made large-scale civilizations impossible. Things have changed. Here some diagrams.

donderdag 14 november 2013

The weeds in my Colosseum

In 1855 Richard Deakin published a study of the wild flowers growing in and on the Colosseum in Rome. It is available online. There was an earlier study and there has also been done a recent study and what it allows for is a study of place through the study of plants. Deakin's book contains a list of plants with descriptions. In the preface he writes: 

The object of the present little volume is to call the attention of the lover of the works of creation to those flocal productions which flourish, in triumph, upon the ruins of a single building. Flowers are perhaps the most graceful and most lovely objects of the creation but are not at any time, more delightful than when associated with what recalls to the memory time and place, and especially that of generations long passed away. They form a link in the memory, and teach us hopeful and soothing lessons, amid the sadness of by- gone ages : and cold indeed must be the heart that does not respond to their silent appeal ; for, though without speech, they tell of that regenerating power which reanimates the dust of mouldering greatness, and clothes their sad and fallen grandeur with graceful forms and curiously constructed leaves and flowers, resplendent with their gay and various colours, and perfume the air with their exquisite odours. The plants which we have found growing upon the Colosseum, and have here described, amount to no less a number than 420 species ; in this number there are examples of 258 Genera, and illustrations of 66 of the Natural Orders of plants, a number which seems almost incredible. There are 56 species of Grasses, 47 of the order Compositea or Syngenesious plants — and 41 of the Leguminous or Pea tribe.
The collection of the plants and the species noted has been made some years ; but, since that time, many of the plants have been destroyed, from the alterations and restorations that have been made in the ruins ; a circumstance that cannot but be lamented. To pre- serve a further falling of any portion is most desirable ; but to carry the restorations, and the brushing and cleaning, to the extent to which it has been subjected, instead of leaving it in its wild and solemn grandeur, is to destroy the impression and solitary lesson which so magnificent a ruin is calculated to make upon the mind.

dinsdag 12 november 2013

Carl Sauer's maps on agricultural origins

Carl Sauer, cultural geographer, author of the brilliant New Spanish Main on the Spanish landnam of America after Columbus, also wrote one the origin and spread of food crops and domesticated animals. Vavilov suggested a number of centres of origin, the so-called hearths. Sauer preferred to talk about Centres of Dispersal. Sauer came later but Vavilov is still the better known name. I have no clue what the current scientific validity is of both theories but it is certain helps that Sauer's Agricultural Origins And Dispersals (1952) is available on Archive.

Great maps, click to enlarge.    

vrijdag 8 november 2013

Human footprints in the Amazon

Nature has a new article tracing Western perception on past population level and societal complexity in the Amazon:
Studies dating back to the 1950s suggested that small indigenous tribes merely scratched out a living in primitive villages before the arrival of Europeans. But more recently, researchers have proposed that the Amazon hosted complex societies that turned swathes of the forest into farms and orchards. Some estimates place the prehistoric population of the Amazon as high as 10 million — a huge number considering that the current population is around 30 million.
Another interesting piece on Amazonian Ecology here.

vrijdag 1 november 2013

After the war [wild flowers in Somme summer 1917]

"Never shall I forget my first sight of the Somme in summer-time. I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell-holes and mud—the most gloomy, dreary abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure—dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pure dark blue, and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies: your clothes were covered with butterflies. It was like an enchanted land; but in the place of fairies there were thousands of little white crosses, marked "Unknown British Soldier," for the most part. (Later, all these bodies were taken up and nearly all were identified and re-buried in Army cemeteries.) Through the masses of white butterflies, blue dragon-flies darted about; high up the larks sang; higher still the aeroplanes droned. Everything shimmered in the heat. Clothes, guns, all that had been left in confusion when the war passed on, had now been baked by the sun into one wonderful combination of colour—white, pale grey and pale gold. "
From:AN ONLOOKER IN FRANCE 1917-1919, by WIlliam Orpen.