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ME: AN: cultural adaptation

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  • John Carr
    Return-Path: X-Originating-IP: [] From: john wasson To: aztlan@ULKYVM.LOUISVILLE.EDU
    Message 1 of 2 , Feb 1, 1998
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      From: "john wasson" <mesquito@...>
      To: aztlan@...
      Subject: ME: AN: cultural adaptation
      Date: Sun, 01 Feb 1998 12:15:28 PST

      Wankarani, Wattle and Daub.

      In the February Scientific American magazine there are two articles of
      interest, two articles strangely related; one deals with climatic change
      and the other with the development of long boats in the Nordic part of
      the world. I will come back to those two articles, in a bit, because
      they are important but first, I want to began, as I have often done,
      with the Wankarani in Bolivia.

      Some time around 1200 BC. the Wankarani (todays name) moved into
      the southern altiplano around Lake Popoo and the Salar de Uyuni. During
      the first hundred years or so they adapted to life on the high arid plain.
      At first they lived in houses with a circular floor plan and walls of small
      trees or bushes. If the walls of these houses initially consisted of woven
      brush (wattle) it would seem that they would immediately have added
      mud (daub) to seal them, although they might have used wattle and then
      thatch and then mud on top of the thatch. The difference between wattle-
      and-daub and adobe is simply a matter of scale and proportion; grass
      instead of sticks covered with mud and made into bricks instead of being
      applied on a pre-built wall.

      The point here is not the relation between wattle-and-daub and adobe,
      although that is interesting in its own right, it is that in a relatively short
      time the Wankarani adapted to the high, cold-winded, dry, environment,
      building a new type of wall, and then using that same house plan for
      4000 years. I have included at the bottom of a group of pictures of
      Bolivian Churches the pictures of a group of Uru-Chipaya houses (that
      is another name for the Wankarani) The pictures were posted to illustrate
      a note on Post1492 (for that, the churches) but the Uru-Chipaya houses
      of today are built on the same floor plan as the Wankarani house of 1000
      BC. The pictures (it is a large slow loading file) are found at:


      The point here is not the persistence of culture, although that too
      is interesting, it is the rapidity of cultural change under what one
      assumes are changes in ones environment (including political
      conditions). The cultural adaptation is one of the fundamental
      differences between man and other animals. In order to adapt
      genetically the Wankarani would probably still be developing
      increased body hair for protection from the cold dry winds. In one
      hundred years the Wankarani could make an adaptation which
      genetically could take perhaps a thousand or more years and at the
      end of that long period they would be miss-adapted for life in the
      lowlands. The cultural adjustments offer a much increased adaptability
      even though I would argue that these changes, are not easy, require
      a changed environment to bring them about, and only change what is
      necessary. The material in the walls changed but the circular floor plan
      did not. There is a caveat here, the adaptations may be incremental
      and continue over an extended periods such as in the Longboats of the
      Vikings and the industrial revolution. The virtual fossilization of the early
      Wankarani adaptations are very unusual.

      Now, to the main issue: The story of the Viking Long boats and their
      slow development and their sudden use for long distance raiding and
      their eventual demise in competition with boats of another design are
      directly related to the question of cultural change (changes in ones
      tools and then changes in ones relations with ones neighbors) and they
      may be as suggested in the Scientific American article, related to a
      change in the world climate which made the Viking culture more effective
      in increasing the area of its influence.

      The Climate changes.

      The second article I found of interest in the magazine argues that the
      evidence today suggests that there has a been a rhythmic cycle of
      twenty-thousand years between warm spells for at least the last one
      hundred-thousand years and probably longer, with other fluctuations
      inside that rhythm. This brings us back to the Bering Straits discussion
      we had not long ago. I have argued that the Bering Straits have been
      easily crossed at certain times of every year for the last one hundred
      thousand years and as a result Man came across when he was
      properly dressed, when he had made the proper adaptation to the cold of
      western Siberia. But this cycling raises another possible influence on
      the Naked Ape. As the harsh climate waxed and waned the people living
      in the far north would have been forced to either adapt to the new condi-
      tions or migrate to new areas where their existing culture would be
      effective. It is probable that both things happened. These regularly but
      slowly occurring changes would stress the system and force migrations
      and fights for territory and the development of new tools and types of
      clothing and housing and styles of hunting and warfare. Those changes in
      the environment would reward effective cultural adaptation and punish
      animals requiring the much slower change that comes about genetically.

      One final point: for man to adapt effectively to new environments he was
      required to make cultural changes for survival in each new ecozone,
      changes which might take several hundred years. How long would it take
      Eskimos to adapt successfully to the climate and related ecology in
      Houston. This would suggest that the progress from the Bering straits to
      Patagonia would have taken a lot longer than the progress from the
      Bering Straits to Iceland.

      John Wasson
    • Alec Christensen
      ... John, I don t want to diminish the role of cultural adaptation; in fact, it is clearly what allowed our species to go global in the first place. But I fear
      Message 2 of 2 , Feb 3, 1998
        ----------------------------Original message----------------------------

        I don't want to diminish the role of cultural adaptation; in fact, it is
        clearly what allowed our species to go global in the first place. But I fear
        you greatly underestimate the role of biological adaptation. The reason that
        human populations look so dramatically different from each other is that they
        have evolved to fit their local environments, in some cases remarkably
        rapidly. The amount of biological variation in the Americas is quite high,
        given the shallow time depth of their occupation. In fact, Andean natives are
        one of the best studied cases of human microevolution around. They have
        developed a unique set of physiological adaptations to high altitude that
        enable them to thrive in places that culture alone could not assist them in
        prior to this century, when we developed oxygen masks and other such things.
        Tibetans have likewise adapted supremely well to extremely high altitude and
        the consequent low atmospheric oxygen, but have done so in a completely
        different manner. These two cases demonstrate not only the power of
        evolutionary changes within modern humans, but also the tremendous variability
        and plasticity inherent in our genome.

        Alec Christensen
        Department of Anthropology
        Vanderbilt University
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