RE: [SACC-L] NYTimes Anthropology of skin
- I've read Jablonski's book over winter break and found it fascinating,
especially with respect to the evolution of skin color. I'm including her
conclusions on UVA/UVB rays and the production of Vitamin D, in addition to
melanin's ability to protect folates -- which affects cell division -- in my
lectures this semester.
Monica Bellas, PhD
"Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved
but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting...
"HOLY SHIT...WHAT A RIDE!"
>From: "Popplestone, Ann" <ann.popplestone@...>_________________________________________________________________
>Subject: [SACC-L] NYTimes Anthropology of skin
>Date: Tue, 9 Jan 2007 09:51:28 -0500
>January 9, 2007
>A Conversation With Nina G. Jablonski
>Always Revealing, Human Skin Is an Anthropologist's Map
>By CLAUDIA DREIFUS
>In an era of academic hyper-specialization, Dr. Nina G. Jablonski has an
>amazingly broad r�sum�. At 53, she heads the anthropology department at
>Pennsylvania State University
>. She's also a primatologist, an evolutionary biologist and a
>Last year, Dr. Jablonski led an expedition to China, where she dug for
>human fossils in an attempt to learn how early man coped with climate
>. This month, she's in Kenya, where she and Meave Leakey are putting
>together a study on prehistoric monkeys.
>For more than a decade, Dr. Jablonski has been trying to get her arms
>around a ubiquitous and yet mysterious topic: the biology, evolution and
>social function of human skin. The results of her studies have been
>published by the University of California Press
> as "Skin: A Natural History."
>"Skin has been studied to absolute death by dermatologists," Dr. Jablonski
>said jokingly during a recent visit to New York City. "They know it inside
>and out from the point of view of diseases that afflict it. What we wanted
>to learn was how human skin came to be as it is and what that meant for
>Q. What set you off on writing a natural history of human skin?
>A. I had an insight in 1981, when I was teaching gross anatomy to medical
>students at the University of Hong Kong. The students had been presented
>with a cadaver to dissect, and they were tremendously frightened of it.
>However, their attitude changed the very moment they cut through the skin.
>With the skin gone, they began seeing it as a mere body devoid of a
>personal history, and they could get on with their work.
>That moment showed me how much of what we consider our humanity is imbued
>in our skin. It stayed with me for a long time. Then about 15 years ago, I
>joined a project studying the natural history of skin color. The topic was
>so engrossing that I began looking into the larger question of what our
>skin does and is.
>Q. And what have you found?
>A. That skin is the most underappreciated of our organs. Unless we're
>having the sort of problem that brings us to a dermatologist, we take our
>skin for granted. We never think of it as working very hard for our body or
>doing valuable things for us socially.
>But when you really start thinking about it, it's a factory that produces
>vitamin D, sweat, hormones
>, oils, wax, pigments - substances we need. Skin is a raincoat in that it
>protects us from water, bugs and noxious chemicals. It's also a billboard
>which we adorn with powder, tattoos, piercing and scars to give off instant
>messages about our history, health, values and availability for mating.
>On an evolutionary level, there are three remarkable facts about skin. It
>comes in colors, of course. Compared to other mammals, our skin is
>relatively hairless. And it's sweaty. In the last few million years, humans
>became the sweatiest of mammals.
>Q. Is that important?
>A. Absolutely. It's often said that our large brains are what made it
>possible for us to evolve from ape to human. But those big brains could
>never have developed if we didn't have exceptionally sweaty skin.
>It happened this way. There was a tremendous takeoff in human evolution
>about two million years ago when primates who could no longer be called
>apes appeared in the savannahs of East Africa. These early humans ran long
>distances in open areas. In order to survive in the equatorial sun, they
>needed to cool their brains. Early humans evolved an increased number of
>sweat glands for that purpose, which in turn permitted their brain size to
>expand. As soon as we developed larger brains, our planning capacity
>increased, and this allowed people to disperse out of Africa. There's
>fossil evidence of humans appearing in Central Asia around this time.
>Q. In a nutshell, what has your research shown about why humans have
>varying skin colors?
>A. That it's not about race - it's about sun and about how close our
>ancestors lived to the Equator. Skin color is what regulates our body's
>reaction to the sun and its rays. Dark skin evolved to protect the body
>from excessive sun rays. Light skin evolved when people migrated away from
>the Equator and needed to make vitamin D in their skin. To do that, they
>had to lose pigment. Repeatedly over history, many people moved dark to
>light and light to dark. That shows that color is not a permanent trait.
>Q. Did early humans decorate their skin?
>A. We don't know. There's no human skin in the fossil record. The oldest
>preserved skin we have is that of �tzi, the Neolithic iceman whose
>mummified body was found in the Alps in 1991. �tzi lived about 5,000 years
>ago. Interestingly, he has tattoos. But we can only guess what they mean.
>Modern humans, we love to alter our skin. You'll find very few people
>walking around today with unadorned skin. They might make permanent changes
>- piercing, scarring, tattooing - to memorialize events and announce their
>identity. Or they might use cosmetics for temporary alterations to announce
>their attractiveness, mood or sexual availability. The bottom line: humans
>are the self-decorating ape.
>Q. I get the feeling that you think cosmetic use is some kind of ancient
>evolutionary behavior. Are we reading you correctly?
>A. Evolution is all about attracting a mate and getting a chance to
>reproduce, so yes, makeup helps with that. When a woman uses eyeliner to
>make her eyes appear larger, she's giving off a message: "I want you to see
>me as attractive." Large eyes in a woman are almost universally seen as
>appealing. This is not just a girl thing. Male body paint in East Africa
>emphasizes forbidding facial expressions. They announce a man's prowess as
>a warrior and as a mate.
>Q. How do you feel about your own skin?
>A. I like it. It is my unwritten biography. My skin reminds me that I'm a
>53-year-old woman who has smiled and furrowed her brow and, on occasion,
>worked in the desert sun too long. I enjoy watching my skin change because
>it's one of the few parts of my body that I can watch. We can't view our
>livers or heart, but this we can. And yes, I use cosmetics. Like other
>humans, I have a penchant for changing my appearance easily and quickly. It
>also helps me feel more confident. That may seem silly, but I still do it.
>Q. You made news in 2004 when you discovered the world's oldest chimpanzee
>fossil. These were chimp teeth about a half-million years old. Where did
>you find them?
>A. In a drawer at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. I was rummaging
>through this bag labeled "fossil monkeys" and I saw it. "This doesn't look
>like monkey," I thought. It turned out they were from an early chimp. That
>find proved important because there had been no chimpanzee this old in the
>fossil record. By analyzing it, we've learned that chimpanzees in their
>current form have probably existed for longer than previously thought.
>(Laughs) Since my find, people have been rummaging through dusty museum
>Ann Popplestone AAB, BA, MA
>CCC Metro TLC
>[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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