Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Works in progress

I came across an interesting blog from a writer by the name of Kim Norton. It's interesting because she is working on a novel that deals with Neandertals. Now since I am writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece in which Neandertals play a very important part, I am always interested in other people's thoughts about them. I must admit, my thoughts about Neandertals are not quite the same as hers. She seems to think they either communicated in some nonverbal way, or else they could not "compartmentalize" thought "domains". Perhaps she's right. We really don't have any way of knowing for sure. And it seems to me that this way of viewing Neandertal brains and Neandertal thought, comes from the work of Derek Bickerton, who is, I think, a linguist. I believe he is the one who came up with the idea that Neandertals apparently couldn't cross "thought domains". And what I've read of his work, just doesn't seem convincing to me. But again, perhaps he may be right.

On the other hand, this view of Neandertals as somehow fundamentally "different" derives from some old, and mistaken, notions that somehow, Neandertals were "closer to apes" than "we" are. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this notion was dominant in part because Neandertals were the first non-modern human fossils ever to be discovered. Furthermore, the famous Neander Valley fossil, after which they were named, was discovered in 1856, three years before Darwin published his theory of evolution. Therefore, when confronted with remains that seemed to belong to a human, but at the same time, did not look like any human type the researchers were familiar with, they simply did not know what to do. This "ape" view of Neandertals was reinforced some fifty years later, when Marcellin Boule "described" the now famous La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil from SW France. Boule made some pretty egregious mistakes; he either ignored, or did not know, the fact that the poor fellow had a rather bad case of arthritis, and had lost most of his teeth. All I can say, from a more "modern" perspective is, that you too would probably get arthritis if you had to live in a dank, damk cave during a cold and clammy Ice Age. But his fellows apparently thought well enough of him to bury him! The very fact that Neandertals frequently buried their dear departed, has allowed a lot of them to be preserved for posterity. And there is some evidence that they may have practiced some sort of rituals around these burials. In any case, as more was learned, the "brutish" image wore off--- to a certain extent.

Yet still there persists the idea that Neandertals were somehow fundamentally "different". Again, maybe this notion is correct. One difference, aside from the obvious anatomical ones, is that their populations were apparently quite small and scattered. Given the geographical area where they lived, and the time they lived in it, this isn't very surprising. One has only to consider people who live in northern Eurasian regions, and in northern North America. The populations of such groups as the Inuit aren't very large, either. In such severe and often fluctuating climatic conditions, resources may be scattered far and wide. The same was probably true for Neandertals.

But small populations are more severely impacted by such fluctuations than larger ones are, and this probably contributed to their disappearance, just as some small populations of "modern" humans have not survivied, or have strugggled to survive, into modern times. And this has nothing to do with "different" brains or "brutish"(whatever that means)behavior. Anybody so inclined can do the math and they will see how Neandertals --- or anybody else with a small population --- could disappear.

Which brings me back to the issue of language, etc. People who follow the Bickerton(and earlier workers') line of reasoning seem to be assuming that Neandertals were different from us in some fundamental way, because they disappeared. But such archaeological evidence as there is, doesn't seem to bear this out. They were perfectly competent hunters, thank you very much. They seem to have been able to organize the living spaces of their humble caves in some way which is familiar and recognizable to us "moderns", at least those among us who know something about hunter-gatherer traditional lifestyles. And, as I suggested above, there are tantalizing suggestions of rituals that probably brought "meaning" to their lives. Which suggests to me, at least, that their brains functioned pretty much the way ours do, and that they had a perfectly functional language, whatever that might have been.

How did they react to the presence of "moderns", when they arrived in Eurasia? We don't know. There are various ideas about that, which I will not go into at the moment. What "happened" to them? Again, we have no idea, and again, various ideas have been put forth. But their disappearance, in my opinion, was not due to some "inferiority" or "lack". They were "different" --- in some ways. But behaviorally, in the ways that "count"? I'm not so sure.
Anne G

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Points of view

I've been having some rather interesting conversations with some writers on Yahoo's Historical Novel Society's e-mail list. They're all writers or trying to write something. They discuss books they've read, quite a bit. Lately, though, they've been discussing point of view.

Point of view is, shall we say, a kind of funny thing. If you're writing fiction, there are, theoretically, lots of ways to tell a story and introduce characters. Usually, the most "pain free" way of writing a book, at least for a writer who is "learning the ropes", is, when you have a number of characters, have one or two main characters, and have one POV per scene or chapter. It is also usually easiest to write in third person.

For many readers --- and I think most writers must keep their audience or potential audience in mind --- this way of writing is also easiest to follow. This seems to be the consensus of the people in the Historical Novel Society's list. Generally, I agree with them. However, several things have come up during the course of these discussions, which, I must add, have been very useful to me. One of them is that readers may feel "disconcerted" if you switch a POV in the middle of a scene. I was a reader long before I was a writer, and I can't say I ever noticed this, if the writing was good. On the other hand, I can see why this would disconcert a reader, if they've gotten used to "perceiving" their surroundings through the eyes and emotions of the character the writer started out with. As I say, I never noticed these things. Nevertheless, I don't do it, unless I've gotten distracted or confused. And then, the second draft, I "fix" it. That's what drafts are for.

Things get more complicated when a writer goes through the process of deciding what POV to use. Different ways of telling a story may require different "voices" and tenses. For example, I have a story that I've put aside for now, while I'm writing my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. It's also a Great Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, but it takes place in the near future, not in the past. And the principal character is a teenage Neandertal girl, living in a former timber town in Western Washington, that has sort of "yuppified" Needless to say, you will not find this town anywhere on the map in Western Washington. Be that as it may, I decided to write it in first person. After all, the focus is a girl who starts out nearly fifteen, and goes on for a year with some horrific things happening in this fictional town, till she's nearly sixteen. Writing in first person is far more difficult than one might think, because the writer is forced to stick to that one person's viewpoint. Unless, of course, you have two narrators and the narration switches between them. I don't think I've ever seen this done, but that doesn't mean it never has been. That would probably not seem intrusive.

But opinion on that list seems to be divided on some other issues. For example, some of the writers on the list, and a number I know, including me, will not read anything written in present tense. For me, at least most of the time, it just doesn't seem necessary. But I keep coming across more and more books that are written this way. And I wonder why? This includes some historical novels, and in historicals, I really don't think this is necessary. I can see a use for it if you're writing something very contemporary, particularly if it s "gritty" or kind of "sad" or dramatic. The immediacy, the "you are there" quality conveyed that way might just work. After all, a lot of people seem to be used to this "reportage" style from watching TV news. And some of these works are aimed at "young adults".

But if you're just telling a story, what is the point of getting "arty" about it? Because this is what writing in first person, in, say, a historical novel, is doing. And I don't think it suits such a form very well. But in my recent conversations with the e-mail list, opinion is divided on this. Some of the writers really like it in some works, though, interestingly, most of them won't use present tense themselves. I certainly won't, even in a "contemporary" or "near future" book. I just don't much like the "feel" of present tense writing, and I think you have to be an awfully good writer to get away with this.

On the other hand, considering that one out of four people in the US, according to a recent survey, didn't bother to read any books at all last year, perahps one shouldn't rant and rave. At least people who are reading books in the present tense are actually reading. And at least they know what they can tolerate. I think writers should, on the whole, be grateful for this. Because I, for one, just can't imagine a life without at least some books. And there are a lot of people "out there" who can. So if someone doesn't mind a book by some author, written in the present tense, perhaps I should just cheer. Because I can always hope that they will like mine.
Anne G

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Human nature/bonobo nature

The John Hawks blog has an interesting piece here regarding a recent piece in the New Yorker concerning bonobos. It seems that Frans de Waal, who has studied bonobos for years, objected to certain aspects of the article claiming that bonobos are not the peaceable creatures they have been made out to be. He sort of seemed to imply that the New Yorker was promoting some political agenda by publishing this. Now it so happens, I tend to agree with Hawks; he does not seem to think that the New Yorker is promoting some political agenda, whatever that may be. In fact, the New Yorker Magazine generally promotes "agendas"(when it does at all), that are the opposite of what de Waal appears to be implying. OTOH, I have come across people who sort of "valorize" a popular view of bonobos, that they are peaceable and "female dominated", which is partly based on some of de Waal's writings. Whether he's right or wrong, I don't know. I'm hardly a primatologist. But it's also true that for a long time, primatology was dominated by men who were "into" strong "dominance hierarchies" and exaggerated their importance among our closest relatives. This is hardly anything new; well before I got into anything relating to human evolution, I learned(and am still learning, everything I could about wolves. Supposedly, wolves have a "strong" dominance hierarchy in their packs, and, until very recently, most canid researchers were men. And most of these men made much of the "dominance hierarchy" of wolves. Interestingly, more women are getting involved in canid studies, which may, in the future, lead to some interesting results.

In fact, this lupine "dominance hierarchy" is mostly for reproductive purposes(a pack would get awfully large, awfully fast, and run out of territory rather quickly, if all 7-10 wolves in an average pack could be breeding adults). In other words, there's an "alpha pair" that (usually) does all the breeding, but the other wolves in the pack are (usually) all related to the "alpha pair". And eventually, one of the pair may get killed or die of old age or the pack just gets too large, and it splits up, possibly making room for another alpha pair. And even if the pack is "stable", the "alpha-ness" of the pair may be more fluid than meets the eye. I've actually read accounts of some alpha female sneaking off with some wolf other than the alpha male, and breeding.

Which leads me back to Hawks's comment, the New Yorker article, and Frans de Waal. Bonobo behavior is just as variable in its way, as wolf behavior. Which apparently means, as the New Yorker article, and Dr. Hawks, correctly pointed out, that bonobos are sometimes "peaceable hippies" and sometimes something else. Just like humans.

And this, in turn, leads me to the subject of human nature. A lot of people(and this, I think, is where "political" agendas may come in), seem to have the idea that "human nature" is somehow mean and violent. These people like to point to recent wars and conflicts and "ethnic cleansings" as "proof" that humans are "naturally" nasty and violent. This is why some other people with other agendas, sometimes wish "we" were more like those "peaceful" bonobos. Except that human nature --- which, in my opinion has never really been defined --- is a lot of things. Yes, sometimes "we" are nasty and violent. But think of all the saints, prophets, founders of world religions, humanitarians, heroes, who try to do good, and are not violent. Think of those selfess people who try to help poor people out of poverty or care for the very sick, or take in orphaned children or. . . . I think the Gentle Reader will get the idea here. Humans are as variable in their way as wolves, or bonobos. People act nasty or selfless, start wars or bring peace and happiness, often depending on their environments and circumstances.

But some people have a view of humanity that is basically dark and pessimistic. If they are attracted to "agendas", they will be attracted to those agendas that promote such dark and pessimistic views. And they may even work to make these agendas a reality. But in a sense, they are working against, and do not understand, the variability of what is called "human nature" All they are really doing is projecting their own dark views. And this holds true, whether they are projecting onto wolves, bonobos, or humans.

So, if anybody tells you that "human nature is__________(fill in the blank here), you, Gentle Reader, should view such statements with a good deal of skepticism. Because at this moment, we know that there is a "human nature". But at this moment, we don't know what it really is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Writer's frustration

I am in a state of pure frustration. Why? Because the chapter I am currently writing just won't come. It's not that I don't know what's going on, or where it is going. It's how to get it there, since I have to fit my characters in with certain historical events(as far as they are known). This isn't as easy as it sounds, because the events in question are confusing in their details, and different chronicles of the events seem to have given somewhat different sequences of them. Obviously, since the characters I'm focusing on are fictional, I have some leeway as to what they are thinking, doing, wearing, etc. I just don't have much leeway with the events, as far as they are known. And I'm not even sure I'm doing this stuff in the proper order. But I don't want' to do anything about that until I get some timeline making software(yeah, there is such stuff out there, I've discovered). And I probably won't do anything about this until I start my second draft. So I haven't gotten very far with Chapter 32, which must move certain things forward. I've only written 2 ½ pages so far. I guess I'll just have to let my writing partner down this week and finish it next week. Even then, it will probably require work. That is the writer's life, I guess
Anne Gilbert

Friday, August 10, 2007

More good material

I've just found a web site devoted to archaeology and paleoanthropology. It has a forum, too. It looks like it has some medieval-related material. Yay! Of course, it seems to have prehistoric material, too. Another yay! So I'm adding a link.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

More unnecessary Potter-trashing

I've just read this "review" of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in The Guardian, courtesy of a writer friend. He's complaining about Ms. Rowling's prose????? And his standard is, somebody should't write something like "The count walked into the drawing room"?????? Well, okay. Rowling uses too many adverbs. Sure she could have used an editor. But as this same writer friend pointed out, the reviewer entirely missed the point. Because it's not "about" the prose, it's about the story. I supoose if he'd been living in the year 1000, he would have been complaining about Beowulf, for heaven's sake. Jeez. Some people!
Anne G

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Great Harry Potter Review

I have a friend who reads a wide variety of things. This is in part because the friend has a family, and the children, one of whom is a teenager, and the other more or less preteen, enjoy a wide variety of reading material. Thus, my friend is also exposed to it. Like a number of my friends(though certainly not all of them), she was an English major in college. Let me state, for the record, that being an English major is not a bad thing to be. You get exposed to some very good stuff in such a course of study. The downside of this is, that being an English major doesn't necessarily lead to a "career". Except, possibly, for some people. Or maybe it doesn't lead to "a career" for any English major.

What "English major" backgrounds have a tendency to do, however, is engender a kind of "lit crit" approach to the written word, especially fiction. Sometimes, this "lit crit" approach works, as when reading literary fiction. Which is written, marketed for, and read by --- usually --- adult men and women.

Again, this is not necessarily bad. There are many people who actually enjoy reading literary fiction, and get something out of it. And this is fine.. Everyone is different, and I"ve found, in exchanging ideas with other readers and writers is, that there is a wide variety of tastes and approaches. Because nobody is exactly the same. However, there are some readers, and not a few writers who seem to thing that anything that is "not serious" or "too commercial", is, by its very definition, bad.

Which leads me to this review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the Harry Potter series.

It's hard to know where to begin with the review; Lakshmi Chaudhry dislikes the final volume on several counts: Harry "whines" a lot. Voldemort is kind of a "cartoonish" villain. He really should have gone after the Ministry of Magic, for they were the "true" villains. The ending is sappy and "trite". The writing is "clunky. And in the end, Harry doesn't "change", as a real "literary hero" is supposed to.

Reading this review, however, I was increasingly appalled at Ms. Chaudhry's apparent complete misunderstanding of Rowling's purpose, as it were, in writing the series. For Chaudhry just doesn't seem to understand that the series was, first and foremost, written with children, specifically preteens, in mind. An adult reader should be clear in their understanding of this, despite the increasing layers of complexity J.K. Rowling laid on during the development of the series. So, she doesn't like the near-total focus on the "wizarding universe"? Okay. She has a point. But, from the point of view of a a child reading the series, the "wizarding universe" of Hogwarts and everything associated with it is the only thing that really matters. She doesn't like the "good vs. evil" final battle? Has she read any literature for preteens and young adults that doesn't present such a triumph? For that matter, does she have any children at all? If she did, she would probably understand Harry's complaints, or his loyalty to his immediate friends, a lot better. Sure, Rowling could have introduced "larger" issues. Some writers are quite successful at doing this in books for children and young people. Often, however, they are not, and the results can be "clunkier" than anything Rowling might have intended. And, in a way, she does introduce "good" issues; the people who are the "bad guys" in the series, seem to go on an awful lot about being "purebloods". While this is kind of a crude way of saying we should accept and embrace all kinds and varieties of people, Rowling's genius, if you want to put it that way, lies in keeping things simple, but reasonably "relevant". I can imagine some kid, reading the series, and being totally absorbed by it, absorbing these seemingly "simplistic" truths.

And finally, Chaudhry's dismissal of the idea that love and friendship are important values to cultivate: What, values, exactly, does she think young people reading this book, ought to cultivate? It almost sounds as if she's one of these "high-minded" adults who would try to make their child be "independent"(whatever that means), so long as they blindly accept exactly what their parents feed to them. More likely, she sounds like the kind of adult who doesn't really "know" kids, because she herself doesn't have any. If she did, she might be a little less rigid about what she thinks kids "ought" to be exposed to.

Finally, it is interesting also, that Chaudhry refers to a famous(or infamous) review of the series that came out in 2003. This review was by A.S. Byatt, who is herself a good writer of her own kind of books. But in the review, as with some other "negative" reviews of the Harry Potter series that I've seen, I sense a streak of envy as well as a kind of literary snobbery: Byatt's work has gotten good reviews, but has never even begun to sell as well as the Harry Potter series. It is understandable that every writer who puts pen to paper would like to be as famous as Rowling. It is very understandable that every writer who has ever put pen to paper, would like to make that kind of money. Quite frankly, I would love to do both. But writing anything is a bit of a "crapshot". Publishers and editors may be looking for the "next J.K. Rowling", but what is likely to happen, at least for some little while, is that there are going to be a long series of imitations, none of which will do anything like as well --- though, if the author is lucky, he or she may make enough money to live on with some comfort. Even Rowling had a long string of rejections before she found her publisher in Britain. And after that, the first Harry Potter book sold, pretty much by word of mouth, as is common for reasonably successful first-time authors. It was only after Scholastic Books picked it up, that sales began to take off --- in the US. And this is about the best most authors --- if they haven't been thoroughly discouraged by rejections --- can hope for. Does Chaudhry understand this? I'm not sure she does. I think, when one reads reviews of very popular, but reasonably well-written literature like the Harry Potter series, that come out "negative" like this, that one should keep in mind that there are some people like Chaudhry, who seem to be able to connect with what makes these things popular. And why. Perhaps, as my friend, and some others, have suggested, she was never a kid. Or she went through an English major in college, and learned that she should "put away childish things". Or she doesn't have kids herself, so she doesn't have any way of understanding them. Or she suffers from disgruntled envy that "the masses prefer" Rowling to Byatt(the former just isn't "academic" enough, perhaps?). Or perhaps it's just plain green envy. I don't know. And I don't care. All I can say to Lakshmi Chaudhry is, she should try to get in touch with her "inner child". For, to quote another famous Biblical passage "If you are not as a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
Anne G


Just in case anybody really wants to know, I've made a few "technical" changes. This is basically in order to make things more easily readable. Especially for those folks who have found that they have to wear bifocals or other "special" eyewear. Or even for people who value "readability". Along the way, I did some really "exciting" things. Like editing the color of the text font so light that it looked invisible. Now that won't do! Ugh! I changed it back, of course, although I enlarged the font size slightly. All in the name of easier readability, and therefore, access!
Anne G

And on the medieval front. . . .

I meant to post this yesterday. It's in Elizabeth Chadwick's
Living the History
blog(which you can find on the "Links" list to your right). She does a lot of historical recreation, and belongs to Regia Anglorum --- as well as being a fine writer of historical novels set in the Middle Ages.

And what does she write about? Well her last blog was devoted to her latest research. And if you scroll down to the very last part of her blog, you will see a very nice picture of reproductions of a very common type of medieval shoe of her period. It was so common, that it was apparently worn --- if the link she provided is correct --- by all classes of people, for "everyday" use. Hardly surprising. They look, minus the decoration, like certain Birkenstock styles. No, not the clogs. Birkenstock makes other types of shoes as well.

What is even more interesting to me is, basic shoe styles have hardly chainged at all since early medieval times. Literally. If you follow Ms. Chadwick's links , you will find, for example, that boots, for example, are little different(other than the fact that women's boots tend to have raised heels or high heels) from boots made back then. And some of them seem little different from certain kinds of hiking boots I've seen. These footwear must have seen an awful lot of use, and been "tougher" than a lot of similar wear that is manufactured today. I was also rather interested in a reproduction of an early medieval lady's slipper. Again, the design is interesting, because, minus the inevitable low heel seen on such shoes today, it could almost have passed for a women's flat(or one of those shoes of similar style, popular with some young people today, the ankle strap). Be that as it may, one has to sometimes shake one's head in near disbelief. Who "woulda thunk it" that there are only so many shoe styles that last? Or maybe I should say that it just "busts" one more stereotype about the Middle Ages. Or perhaps the final word is, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Anne G

Friday, August 3, 2007

The "interbreeding question", again

National Geographic has just put up a story regarding a fossil skull that was dug up in Romania during World War II, in a mining operation. It was not studied in any depth until after that war, and was dated to around 33,000 years old. It was, and is considered "modern". However, another look at this skull, by several experts, including Erik Trinkaus, one of the leading modern Neandertal experts. The reexamination unearthed a groove at the back of the skull, which had apparently, previously been overlooked. According to Trinkaus, this groove is very common among Neandertals(but the Gentle Reader should remember that not all Neandertals exhibit all the traits attributed to them), but rare to nonexistent among other "archaics". And it's rare to nonexistent among most contemporary "moderns". But this skull exhibits this trait. And Romania is one place in Eastern Europe, where Neandertals and "moderns" are known to have at least coexisted. You can view the skull here:

Now it doesn't necessarily follow from all of this, that Neandertals and "moderns" interbred. My feeling is, that, because at the time, the populations of both groups were necessarily rather small. Which could have meant (a) that some members of either group did not find "within-group" mates for whatever reason, or (b) that neither group regarded the other as fundamentally "different" in the ways that count. However, those who disagree point to possible mutations or simply "odd" characteristics that pop up in some people now and again. The problem is, apparently "Neandertal" characteristics are turning up in a number of places where Neandertals and "moderns" were known to have coexisted. It seems to me that this is something which is beginning to happen with sufficient frequency, that those who lean on the "genetic" aspects, have trouble explaining away. Most of them just ignore such things. But if these traits keep turning up in places as diverse as Portugal and Iberia, the "no admixture" crowd is going to have to do a great deal of explaining.
Anne Gilbert