Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Discovery of Oldest DNA Scrambles Human Evolution Picture. By Karl Gruber.

An artist’s interpretation of the hominins that lived near the Sima de los Huesos cave in Spain. Javier Trueba, Madrid Scientific Films.

Discovery of Oldest DNA Scrambles Human Evolution Picture. By Karl Gruber. National Geographic Daily News, December 4, 2013.

New tests on human bones hidden in a Spanish cave for some 400,000 years set a new record for the oldest human DNA sequence ever decoded—and may scramble the scientific picture of our early relatives.
Analysis of the bones challenges conventional thinking about the geographical spread of our ancient cousins, the early human species called Neanderthals and Denisovans. Until now, these sister families of early humans were thought to have resided in prehistoric Europe and Siberia, respectively. (See also: “The New Age of Exploration.”)

Baffling 400,000-Year-Old-Clue to Human Origins. By Carl Zimmer. New York Times, December 4, 2013.

Sima de los Huesos: Scientists Sequence Genome of Enigmatic Hominin., December 4, 2013.

Hominin DNA baffles experts. By Ewen Callaway. Nature, Vol. 504, No. 7478 (December 4, 2013).

A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos. By Matthias Meyer et al. Nature, published online, December 4, 2013.


Excavations of a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain have unearthed hominin fossils that range in age from the early Pleistocene to the Holocene. One of these sites, the “Sima de los Huesos” (“pit of bones”), has yielded the world’s largest assemblage of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils, consisting of at least 28 individuals dated to over 300,000 years ago. The skeletal remains share a number of morphological features with fossils classified as Homo heidelbergensis and also display distinct Neanderthal-derived traits. Here we determine an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos and show that it is closely related to the lineage leading to mitochondrial genomes of Denisovans, an eastern Eurasian sister group to Neanderthals. Our results pave the way for DNA research on hominins from the Middle Pleistocene.

The bones were first thought to belong to European Neanderthals,
but analysis showed they are genetically closer to the Siberian Denisovans.

Why Are Things Bad in the Mideast? Read Genesis. By Edward Platt.

Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham. By Adriaen van der Werff, 1699. Wikimedia.

The God of Genesis Loved a Family Saga. By Edward Platt. Aeon Magazine, December 2, 2013.


One reason the Abrahamic stories have transcended time and place so successfully is that they were not intended to reflect contemporary realities. Recent scholarly analysis suggests that the descriptions of Abraham’s life are more suggestive of conditions during the first millennium BCE when the stories were written down, than those of the 18th century BCE, when Abraham is supposed to have lived. In other words, they were not folk tales handed down from generation to generation, but contemporary inventions, or folk tales infused with contemporary observations. There might have been similarities between Abraham’s life and the lives of his earliest audiences in ancient Judea — and also his audience in the Arabian peninsula, introduced to his deeds 1,000 years later by the visionary who founded a new faith by reasserting the principles of the old one. Yet the stories were always intended to evoke memories of an ancestral past, an older, purer time, when a man such as Abraham could be on intimate terms with God.
. . . .

That the matriarchs and patriarchs of old often fail to live up to His expectations only deepens the feeling that we are watching real people, who are frequently blind to their true interests. Indeed, such a turbulent background might explain why today’s Jews and Muslims, in places such as Hebron, do not treat their shared heritage as a source of commonality: in maintaining the family feud, they are preserving the spirit of the stories of Genesis — stories, moreover, in which the image of their God is found.
Communal relations in Hebron have not always been as bad as they are today. The two communities lived together peaceably for 400 years during Ottoman rule. Coexistence came to an end only in 1929, when tensions caused by Jewish immigration resulted in riots throughout Palestine. The worst violence was in Hebron: on the night of 23 August, an Arab mob killed 67 members of its Jewish community, and soon after the British authorities evacuated the rest.
A small group of settlers returned to the city after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day war of 1967, and ever since the conflict has centred on the city’s religious sites and shrines. On 25 February 1994, a settler walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs during morning prayers and shot dead 29 Muslims. Three years later, Hebron was partitioned. Today, settlers may enter the parts of the city controlled by the Palestinian Authorities only to visit a shrine, and it is not unusual to see Jewish worshippers walking through the streets escorted by soldiers, in a strange fusion of piety and militarism.
The Palestinians understand how settlers can co-opt the sacred to expand their presence in the city: one day, I set off with a Palestinian guide to find a well, mentioned in the Bible, where Abraham was supposed to have watched Sarah bathing. We couldn’t find it, and it transpired that the man who owned the house behind it had built a garage over it. He wanted somewhere to park his car, but that wasn’t the only motive: he was concerned that the settlers would add the well to the list of places to which they had visiting rights, and he wanted to pre-empt the possibility of them turning up at his front door.
Still, the legend of Isaac and Ishmael offers some grounds for hope. Genesis relates that Isaac met the exiled Ishmael only once, when they buried Abraham in Hebron; but Jewish tradition maintains he never forgot him. Isaac lived in the Negev beside the ‘fountain in the wilderness’ where the angel rescued Hagar for the first time. One evening, he had gone out to meditate in the field when he saw the camel train approaching, bearing Rebekah to Canaan. Tradition maintains that it was Ishmael who was on Isaac’s mind — that, thinking of his brother, he was rewarded with his wife — and yet the filial reconciliation he dreamed of never came. Perhaps it will be enacted symbolically by their heirs. If so, they will have overcome not only the entrenched political problems apparent in Hebron, but the enduring human weaknesses so graphically portrayed in the very stories in which Isaac and Ishmael were created.

Israel in 10 Years. By George Friedman.

Israel in 10 Years. By George Friedman. Real Clear World, December 3, 2013.

Oldest Javelins Predate Modern Humans, Raise Questions on Evolution. By Charles Q. Choi.

Oldest Javelins Predate Modern Humans, Raise Questions on Evolution. By Charles Q. Choi. National Geographic Daily News, November 26, 2013.

The oldest known stone-tipped projectiles have been discovered in Ethiopia. The javelins are roughly 280,000 years old and predate the earliest known fossils of our species, Homo sapiens, by about 80,000 years.

Earliest Stone-Tipped Projectiles from the Ethiopian Rift Date to >279,000 Years Ago. By Yonatan Sahle et al. Plos One, November 13, 2013. Also here.


Projectile weapons (i.e. those delivered from a distance) enhanced prehistoric hunting efficiency by enabling higher impact delivery and hunting of a broader range of animals while reducing confrontations with dangerous prey species. Projectiles therefore provided a significant advantage over thrusting spears. Composite projectile technologies are considered indicative of complex behavior and pivotal to the successful spread of Homo sapiens. Direct evidence for such projectiles is thus far unknown from >80,000 years ago. Data from velocity-dependent microfracture features, diagnostic damage patterns, and artifact shape reported here indicate that pointed stone artifacts from Ethiopia were used as projectile weapons (in the form of hafted javelin tips) as early as >279,000 years ago. In combination with the existing archaeological, fossil and genetic evidence, these data isolate eastern Africa as a source of modern cultures and biology.

Oldest Human Fossils Identified. By Hillary Mayell. National Geographic News, February 16, 2005.

Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia. By Ian McDougall, Francis H. Brown, and John G. Fleagle. Nature, Vol. 433, No. 7027 (February 17, 2005).

Hamas Loses Ground. By Victor Kotsev.

Hamas Loses Ground. By Victor Kotsev. Sada, December 3, 2013.

2013: The End of History Ends. By Walter Russell Mead.

2013: The End of History Ends. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, December 2, 2013.

What Augustine’s Antiquity Tells Us About Today’s Geopolitics. By Robert D. Kaplan.

Augustine’s World. By Robert D. Kaplan. Foreign Policy, December 3, 2013. Also here.


What Late Antiquity says about the 21st century and the Syrian crisis.

The Pax Romana was a period of relative peace and stability throughout the Greater Mediterranean. But history is often a matter of convulsions. In 200 A.D., the Roman Empire still existed in the shadow of the recently deceased emperor and pagan philosopher Marcus Aurelius – at a time when, according to Princeton University historian Peter Brown, “a charmed circle of unquestioning conservatives” gave order to the world. Over the next 500 years, however, everything changed.
By 700 A.D., the Roman Empire had vanished from the Near East, Europe had become Christian, and the Near East and most of North Africa had become Muslim. During this era, poor, uneducated, and extremist Christian heretics and sectarians – Donatists, rabble-rousing monks, and so on – had dispersed around the Mediterranean basin, burning and terrorizing synagogues and pagan temples, before they themselves were overtaken in North Africa by Arab armies proselytizing a new, more austere religion. Meanwhile, Gothic tribes ravaged Europe, and Asia Minor was on the brink of an epic conflict between Christians who venerated icons and other holy images and those who glorified their destruction. Brown, in the course of a lifetime of scholarly work, gave a name to this pungent epoch in which the world gradually turned upside down: Late Antiquity.
Late Antiquity was dominated by vast civilizational changes, though many were not marked at the time. Writing about the Middle Ages that followed, the now-deceased Oxford University historian R.W. Southern noted, “This silence in the great changes of history is something which meets us everywhere.” Late Antiquity appears full of drama only because we know its beginning and end. But on any given day during that half-millennium, the Mediterranean world might not have seemed dramatic at all, and few could have said in what direction events were moving.
Of course, the historical clock moves a great deal faster today, and thousands upon thousands of words – in these pages alone – have been written on the Arab Spring, the military rise of China, the tumult in the European Union, a nuclear Iran, and the chipping away of America’s post-Cold War hegemony. But can we really discern any better than the denizens of Late Antiquity in what direction events are moving?
The erosion of America’s role as an organizing power, which heretofore relied on public acquiescence and the inability of anyone else to challenge the status quo, has disoriented elites in Washington and New York whose own professional well-being is intimately connected with America’s proactive involvement abroad. And few developments have been more evocative regarding the sentiment of splendid isolation creeping once again through the American citizenry, or more integral to understanding the weakening of the United States, than Syria.
Syria is the Levant, the geographical core of Late Antiquity. And its disintegration, like the crumbling of Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, along with the chronic unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, signifies not the birth of freedom but the collapse of central authority. Rome could not save North Africa, and the United States will not save the Near East – for as the opinion polls demonstrate, Americans have had enough of foreign military entanglements. Anarchy, perhaps followed by new forms of hegemony, will be the result.
IF THE LIFE OF ANY INDIVIDUAL ENCAPSULATES Late Antiquity, it is that of St. Augustine, a Berber born in 354 in Thagaste, modern-day Souk Ahras, just over the border from Tunisia inside Algeria. In drifting from pagan philosophy to Manichaeism and finally to Christianity, which he subjected to the logic of Plato and Cicero, St. Augustine straddled the worlds of classical Rome and the Middle Ages. His favorite poem was Virgil’s Aeneid, which celebrates the founding of Rome’s universal civilization. He railed against the radical Donatists (Berber schismatics), whose heresy was undermining the stability of the Maghreb, even as he saw the benefits in traditional bonds like tribalism. And he died at age 76 in 430, in the midst of the assault of Genseric’s Vandals on Africa Proconsularis, Rome’s first African colony. His great work, The City of God, writes scholar Garry Wills, sought to console Christians who were disoriented by the loss of Rome as the organizing principle of the known world. Rome, St. Augustine wrote, could never satisfy human hearts: Only the City of God could do that. Thus, as Rome weakened, religiosity intensified.
We are at the dawn of a new epoch that may well be as chaotic as that one and that may come upon us more quickly because of the way the electronic and communications revolutions, combined with a population boom, have compressed history.
Consider that, in 1989, at the end of the Cold War, the United States was the unipolar military and economic colossus, the triumphalist liberal democracy captured by political philosopher Francis Fukuyama in his article “The End of History?” Since then, the European Union has expanded throughout Central and Eastern Europe, promising an end to the furies of the continent’s past. Of course, the Middle East, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian subcontinent, was benighted and illiberal through the first years of the 21st century. But at least it was quiescent, if only by its own dismal standards.
Then the world broke apart. An attack on the American homeland by Muslim extremists led to two large U.S. ground invasions in the Middle East, which, in turn, helped set the region in motion. Decadent autocracies later crumbled and conservative monarchies were forced to make unprecedented concessions, even if President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda did not turn out as intended. North Africa has since devolved into a borderless world of gangs, militias, tribes, transnational terrorists, anti-terrorist expeditionary forces, and weak regimes gripped in stasis. The adjacent Levant erupted into protracted low-intensity war, with only two strong legal entities left between the easternmost edge of the Mediterranean and the Central Asian plateau: a Jewish state and a Persian one (thus the centrality of Iran arguing for a rapprochement with the United States).
While this has happened, the European Union has begun to seriously stagger. A debt crisis, negative growth, and unseemly levels of unemployment have persisted for years as the welfare state – that signature moral accomplishment of postwar Europe’s politicians – becomes in large measure unaffordable. The result is that the European Union itself, so dominant in the first two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has lost some of its geopolitical force in Central and Eastern Europe, just as Russia has re-emerged as authoritarian and powerful, thanks to hydrocarbon revenues. The map of Europe is changing from one uniform color back to divergent shades, with national identities – once presumed to be in retreat – undergoing a resurgence.
As for China – that demographic and geographical behemoth that has become the engine of world trade – after almost a third of a century of unprecedented growth, its economy is finally slowing down. China’s economy and military are still growing massively in absolute terms, but the future of the Middle Kingdom is less certain than it was just a decade ago. With ethnic minorities and Han Chinese both pining for more freedom amid fewer opportunities, it is possible that China might one day face a variation on the Soviet Union’s fate.
Authority, once so secure and conveniently apportioned across the globe, seems in the process of disintegrating into small bits, with sects and heresies – Salafists, cybercriminals, and so on – entering from the side doors. The United States still reigns supreme economically and militarily, with immense stores of natural resources. Nevertheless, American power is increasingly stymied by these new and unpredictable forces. Sheer might – tanks and jet fighters, nuclear bombs and aircraft carriers – seem increasingly like products of an ever-receding Industrial Age. Yet the postmodern version of Late Antiquity has just begun.
Amid this panorama of global unraveling and new forms of sovereignty (a phenomenon that St. Augustine experienced 1,600 years ago), a curious observation has been made in the interstices: Tribes suddenly matter. Yes, tribes. They were the solution to checking the violence and undermining the religious extremists with their death cults in Iraq. They have been the dominating reality in Afghanistan, a world of clans and khels (what the Pashtuns call subclans). And when those reptilian regimes in North Africa and the Near East foundered, it was not democracies that immediately emerged, but tribes. This was particularly the case in Yemen, Libya, and Mali, but it was also true to a surprising degree in more developed societies like Syria, where beneath the carapace of sectarianism lay a grand guignol of tribes and clans, too many of which were infused with the spirit of holy war.
In St. Augustine’s world of imperial collapse, these ancient ties offered some respite from disorder because within the tribe there was hierarchy and organization in abundance. But modernity was supposed to free us from these cloistered shackles of kinship. Indeed, modernity, wrote Ernest Gellner, the late British-Czech social anthropologist, means the rise of centralized authority and the consequent decline of tribalism. But the opposite is presently occurring: The crumbling of central authority throughout much of North Africa and the Near East (as well as the rebirth of lumpen nationalism in parts of Europe) indicates that modernity is but a passing phase. Today, tribes with four-wheel-drive vehicles, satellite phones, plastic explosives, and shoulder-fired missiles help close the distance between Late Antiquity and the early 21st century.
St. Augustine’s North Africa, now with its degraded urban conurbations of cracked brick and sheet metal, will see its population increase from 208 million to 316 million by 2050, putting severe pressure on both natural and man-made resources, from water to government. As these millions move to the cities in search of jobs and connections, the political order will assuredly shift. Whatever arises by then may not be the states as they appear on today’s map. Indeed, what we consider modernity itself may already be behind us. The headlines between now and then will be loud and hysterical – as they are today in Syria – even as the fundamental shifts will at first be obscure. For history is not only about convulsions, but about the ground shifting slowly under our feet.
In The City of God, St. Augustine revealed that it is the devout – those in search of grace – who have no reason to fear the future. And as the tribes of old now slowly come undone in the unstoppable meat grinder of developing-world urbanization, religion will be more necessary than ever as a replacement. Alas, extremist Islam (as well as evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism in the West) may make perfect sense for our age, even as its nemesis may not be democracy but new forms of military authority. Late Antiquity is useful to the degree that it makes us humble about what awaits us. But whatever comes next, the charmed circle of Western elites is decidedly not in control.

Middle East Mess Isn’t About Settlements. By Jeffrey Goldberg.

Middle East Mess Isn’t About Settlements. By Jeffrey Goldberg. Bloomberg, December 2, 2013.


In an interview with Charles Gati in Politico Magazine, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, proves once again that he is a man of profound religious faith. He worships at the Church of Linkage, which holds that Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank is the primary cause of Middle East instability and a principal cause – if not the main cause – of the U.S.’s troubles in the Muslim world.
Before I go on, the usual caveats: The settlement project – especially those settlements far from Jerusalem that have been planted in the middle of thickly populated Palestinian areas – is a strategic and moral disaster for Israel. The settlements should be dismantled. They threaten Israel’s standing in the world; they threaten to undermine the very nature and purpose of Israel. And so on. I’ve written before about the threat that settlements pose, at great length.
But there is danger in thinking that the removal of these settlements would bring about a liberal, enlightened Middle East. The danger is analytical: If you don’t understand what ails the Middle East, how can you possibly fix it? It is also dangerous to scapegoat Israel for problems it didn’t cause, in the same way that it has historically been quite dangerous to blame the Jewish people for problems they didn’t cause. Brzezinski’s native Poland provides lessons in this regard.
Brzezinski has had hard feelings toward Israel for years, and he has been consistent in suggesting that American Jews possess too much political power. In Politico, he asserts in drive-by fashion – which is to say without offering proof to buttress his contention – that “the Jewish community is the most active political community in American society.”
Here is what Brzezinski told Politico about President Barack Obama’s failure to force Israel to permanently freeze settlements: “At a critical juncture he failed to show he had steel in his back, he failed to follow through. He spoke on the record and very sensibly about the settlements, but when a confrontation developed between him and [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, Obama caved in. That has contributed significantly to the general mess we now have in the Middle East.”
Brzezinski is referring to one of Obama’s earliest confrontations with Netanyahu. Early in his first term, the president demanded that Israel stop building in the settlements as a confidence-building measure in advance of peace negotiations. Israel gave in partially, but only partially, and when settlement building continued, Obama offered rhetoric but did nothing concrete to shape Israel’s behavior.
Obama’s mistake was to make a public demand of an ally (and a client) and then have no Plan B ready when that ally refused to listen. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to reverse himself on settlements – an unwillingness born of careerism as much as anything else (his governing coalition includes a disproportionate number of settlers and their sympathizers) – has hurt Israel, but has it actually, as Brzezinski alleges, “contributed significantly to the general mess we now have in the Middle East”?
Let’s look at the Middle East as it is today. Here is a partial catalog of phenomena that plausibly illustrate the idea that the Middle East is a “general mess”:
1. Tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. Jewish settlements did not provoke Iranian leaders to build the infrastructure of a nuclear weapons program. Regional ambitions, fear of American domination, a desire to counterbalance Saudi Arabia and opposition to Israel’s existence (as opposed to its settlement policy) have all contributed to Iran’s nuclear policy decision making.
2. The broad anger directed at the U.S. by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. Though these governments pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, the source of their current anger with the U.S. stems from the Obama administration's decision to negotiate with Iran.
3. The Syrian civil war, in which more than 100,000 people have died so far. The Syrian cataclysm does not appear to be traceable to Israel’s West Bank settlement policy or Obama’s failure to challenge it.
4. The regionwide schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which manifests itself in violence and disorder, not only in Syria, but also in Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq and, beyond the Middle East, in Pakistan. This schism does not seem to be caused by settlements.
5. The slow-motion collapse, amid horrendous violence, of Iraq as a unitary state. A settlement freeze on the West Bank will not stop the dissolution of Iraq.
6. Continued political instability and violence in Egypt. Tensions among Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers, advocates of liberalism and the Egyptian military would not be ameliorated by a settlement freeze. The overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak was not prompted by Obama’s failure to confront settlements. Nor was the subsequent coup launched against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi triggered by settlements.
7. Libya’s descent into gangsterism and chaos. The civil war that led to the ouster and death of Muammar Qaddafi was not caused by settlements. Nor was the fatal attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. It is difficult to imagine how a settlement freeze on the West Bank would stabilize Libya.
8. The proliferation, from Somalia to Yemen to Syria to Pakistan, of al-Qaeda-affiliated and -inspired groups. Settlements have not “contributed significantly” to persistent al-Qaeda activity. It could be argued that the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East is one of several sources of anger for al-Qaeda sympathizers, but a settlement freeze, as opposed to the elimination of Israel as a country, would not affect the views of radical Sunni terrorists. It could also be argued that the annihilation of Israel would empower radical terrorists by making them believe that they were one step closer to the establishment of a global caliphate.
9. Pathological misogyny that impoverishes the lives of millions and weakens countries that would otherwise be able to tap into the brainpower of their women. A settlement freeze would not lead to the widespread liberation of women.
10. The persecution of Christians in a dozen countries across the Muslim world, which will eventually lead to the elimination of these ancient communities. This persecution was not caused by Netanyahu’s recalcitrance on settlements.
And so on. I’ve neglected to mention such issues as literacy, water shortages, corruption, education stagnation, torture and the suppression of free speech, all of which contribute to general instability in the Middle East. The willingness of esteemed foreign-policy thinkers such as Brzezinski to scapegoat the Jewish state for problems it did not cause is myopic and dangerous.

The Stem and the Flower. By David Brooks.

The Stem and the Flower. By David Brooks. New York Times, December 2, 2013.

Jewish Demography. By Peter Berger.

Jewish Demography. By Peter Berger. The American Interest, November 27, 2013.

Converting the Gentiles? By Peter L. Berger. Commentary, May 1979.

Loving Us to Death: How America’s Embrace Is Imperiling American Jewry. By Jonathan S. Tobin. NJBR, October 24, 2013.