A recent article by ‘Quartz’ online has stated that ‘Archaeologists have found the tomb of China’s Shakespeare.’
Archaeologists in the south eastern region of China have released a statement that they have been able to identify the tomb of a man called Tang Xianzu. He was a renowned late 16th Century playwright who is often dubbed the country’s Shakespeare. Student’s wanting to apply for HSPS and Archaeology and Anthropology can explore concepts such as cultural imperialism and the arguments surrounding imposing western figures on other cultures. Does comparing Tang Xianzu to Shakespeare detract from his own relevance within Chinese culture?
Students wanting to apply for Archaeology or Oriental Studies may then want to look into the discovery of his remains as a prompt to explore the context behind many of his plays. Tang Xianzu was known for his defiance of nobles in the Ming Dynasty. His plays explored controversial themes like the triumph of humanity over hierarchy and authority.
The remains of Tang’s tomb are filled with stories, and other parts of China’s history even after Tang’s death. The tomb suffered devastating destruction in the Cultural Revolution, a decade long political movement that began in 1966. This period plunged the country into a chaotic turmoil which saw various historic sited ransacked and destroyed. Students that are applying for History may use the discovery of Tang’s tomb as a reminder that the discovery of such objects are useful to build a more intricate and concrete picture of the past and highlight the linear path of history.
Allegations have recently resurfaced as to whether Michael Jackson is in fact the vocalist on some tracks from his first posthumous album “Michael” (2010). The album was cobbled together from scraps of recording left behind, predominantly from his last album project “Invincible” that he had been working on from 2001 until his death in June 2009.
The songs under scrutiny are “Breaking News”, “Keep Your Head Up” and “Monster” and have been since the album’s release. “I know my Uncle’s voice and there’s something seriously wrong when you have immediate family saying it’s not him” Tarryl Jackson, the son of Michael’s brother Tito, wrote on Twitter in November of 2010. An ongoing lawsuit has followed, led by fan Vera Serova, which has recently led to sources reporting that Sony Music admitted in court to Jackson not being the sole vocalist. Sony have escaped sanction on the grounds that they had no way of knowing that Michael was not the vocalist and Serova has gone on to file suit against the producers Edward Cascio and James Porte who were co-writers of the songs, as well as their company Angelikson Productions.
The ongoing suit raises questions of authenticity in popular music culture and its consumption, particularly with the rise of companies rebranding posthumous artists for economic gain. This is most overt in the perhaps morbid use of holograms for so-called ‘live’ performance of the deceased, from Tupac to Frank Sinatra. Key characteristics of the artists voice, Jackson’s ‘Moonwalk’ or Prince’s shadow over his guitar, are being turned into code and reproduced without the artists consent and the controlling arm of business leaves their voice culpable to corruption and misrepresentation.
Applicants for Music may wish to consider the role of authenticity in music and its effect upon its consumption. Questions surrounding an artists, or composers, intentions are likely to be addressed in a range of historical courses at undergraduate level. Applicants for Anthropology may want to study the role of music and art in Western society and the influence of business upon this.
The ongoing construction of a new route on Rome’s metro has uncovered a plethora of archaeological riches from the city’s antiquity. The city’s metro is notoriously difficult to construct, as any dig is likely to hit upon evidence of Rome’s multilayered past, some of which may be of great value. Among the artefacts uncovered were Roman pottery, mosaics and even entire building plans. The C line has 22 stations currently open and the newest station, San Giovanni, features a mini museum of its ancient treasures; passengers can view a selection of the 40,000 objects discovered during construction, delving into the history of the neighbourhood from the Ice Age to the 5th century AD as they wait for their train. The station museum has been described as a time-machine, taking you further and further back as you walk.
The next station scheduled to open is Amba Aradam, situated in an area that has proven archeologically very fruitful. Researches digging at around 9 metres below street level unearthed a huge building complex of 39 rooms, which is thought to have been military barracks during the rule of Emperor Hadrian. Subsequently, the house of the military commander was also discovered close by, containing 14 rooms and a central courtyard- the typical layout of a house for those that could afford it. Some reports suggest that the home also includes a bath house. City officials are planning to preserve these buildings as part of an “archaeological station”, with the barracks and house integrated into the station itself. Francesco Prosperetti, head of Rome’s archaeological department, is confident that Amba Aradam is set to become “the most beautiful metro station in the world.” It is not certain when this museum-cum-station will be open to the public, as it is possible that yet more ruins will be brought to light as the digging continues.
Applicants for Archaeology and Anthropology, HSPS, or Classics may be interested in the discoveries being made, what they reveal about past civilisations and how the city is responding to them. Students may also wish to think about the relationship of a city, people, or nation to its past. What cultural links shape and maintain this relationship?
Studies in the field of cultural psychology have suggested that Chinese people tend to express psychological distress in much more psychical ways than people from other cultures. In particular, psychologists now believe that certain clusters of physical symptoms often reported by Chinese people should be diagnosed as clinical depression and treated as such, even though these symptoms vary considerably from those reported by depressed individuals elsewhere in the world. An interesting historical example of this comes from the 1980s, when the Chinese Minister of Health told American Psychiatrist and Medical Anthropologist Arthur Kleinman that mental illness did not exist in China. Indeed, figures indicated that the depression rate in China was only 2.3%, compared to America’s 10.3%. However, a different illness known as neurasthenia was very common, with symptoms such as dizziness and chronic pain. After careful examination of 100 patients with neurasthenia, Kleinman concluded that the majority of them were actually suffering from depression.
This phenomenon whereby psychological disorders manifest physically is known as somatisation. In the past, these differences were attributed to the Chinese being a less sophisticated and emotionally immature people, incapable of “properly” expressing their feelings. Other researchers suggested that the Chinese language was incapable of conveying emotions, but this research was heavily biased in favour of the English language. Nevertheless, contemporary studies continue to find a greater degree of somatisation among Chinese people. For example, a 2001 study conducted at The University of New South Wales found that depressed Malaysian Chinese individuals were more likely to report physical symptoms than depressed Euro-Australian individuals. Likewise, a 2004 study at the Massachusetts General Hospital found that 76% of Chinese Americans diagnosed with depression reported physical complaints. The authors suggested that Chinese Americans on the whole do not see a low mood as something worthy of being reported to a doctor. However, other researchers are arguing that the actual lived experience of depression is culturally shaped, and that if depressed Chinese people report more headaches, for example, it’s because they do in fact experience more headaches.
Applicants for Psychology or Medicine might want to use this example to consider to what extent medical science and psychology can produce objective results. What are the implications of the idea that symptoms can vary significantly across cultures? Applicants for Anthropology may want to think more broadly about cultural differences, and students wishing to apply for Linguistics should consider the extent to which differences in language may play a role.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote: “of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.” Since Darwin’s time, researchers have been looking into the possible origins of our morality do determine whether it is a trait that evolved—and if so, how and why.
Darwin was puzzled by the fact that human beings voluntarily go to war and die for their larger groups, as this doesn’t fit with the idea of natural selection being driven by individuals acting on their own self-interest. He proposed the idea of group selection, according to which a group with more altruists would have more survivors in a war or crisis, thereby passing on the altruistic genes. But the frequency of such events and the force of group selection would have to be enormous for it to override selection between individuals, making this theory unlikely.
Evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that human morality emerged when hunter-gatherers formed groups to hunt big game (about a quarter of a million years ago), and cooperation became necessary for survival. In this type of society where the food source has to be actively shared, alpha male tendencies would have been suppressed and hierarchies eliminated in order to share food evenly. Those who tried to take more than their fair share of meat would have been killed, and hence self-control and the willingness to share would have become evolutionarily successful traits.
Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, has spent years conducting experiments on chimpanzees and human children to compare their social behaviour and cognitive abilities. He argues that human morality is a consequence of our tendency to collaborate more than other apes do. Chimpanzees may be said to have a social nature, with individuals sometimes working together; but according to Tomasello, only humans are “ultra-social”, having developed an enhanced predisposition to cooperation. This is borne out by experiments which shows that human toddlers are much more likely to choose cooperation than chimpanzees and are more willing to share rewards. Like Boehm, Tomasello subscribes to the collaborative hunting theory, but adds that this new food source not only encouraged sharing but led people to view themselves as part of a larger unit—a perspective which he calls “shared intentionality”, and which is behind all human collective projects and cultural institutions. This perspective, he believes, is the root of morality.
Applicants for Anthropology or Biology might want to familiarise themselves with Darwin’s thoughts on social evolution including the evolution of morality, and the subsequent research on it. Do you find the collaborative hunting theory convincing? Students wishing to study Theology or Philosophy may wish to think about the implications of these theories on our understanding of ethics more generally. If altruism is merely the result of certain genetic traits resulting in reproductive success for the individuals possessing them a specific context, is it objectively and universally required of us? In our current society, is altruism still an evolutionarily strong trait or do the ruthless come out on top?
How diverse was Roman Britain? For a long time, the mainstream perception was of a homogeneously European population of ethnic Brits and Romans; but we now know that Roman Britain was a multicultural society which included citizens from Africa and the Middle East. These findings have been welcomed and scorned in equal measure, with many still mistakenly believing that it is anachronistic and historically inaccurate to portray non-European people in art and media about the past.
Some of the most important work in this area has come from the field of bioarchaeology, a type of archaeology which combines a scientific analysis of human remains with the contextual study of the individual’s historical situation in order to learn about their life. Modern techniques allow us to study things such as diet, health, background, and physical appearance, all by analysing their remains. Using data from skeletons in this manner gives us a more accurate picture of the social landscape than would be gained by relying on things such as writings and inscriptions, which may skew our perceptions towards certain demographics such as men or the wealthy.
Bioarchaeology has also helped to challenge some of the assumptions of traditional archaeology. For example when the grave of a 14-year-old girl buried in Southwark was uncovered and was found to contain rare items connected to Africa such as an ivory knife shaped like a leopard, it was suggested that she came from Carthage. However, forensic study showed that she was actually of European ancestry and had grown up in the southern Mediterranean. Hence, these studies have supplemented our knowledge of the past in crucial ways and have helped offset our overreliance on artefacts. In cases where remains are found without a name or possessions, bioarchaeology is the only way to find out about their life and therefore to get an accurate picture of the population. Such methods have enabled us to prove that people of black African descent did indeed live in London throughout the Roman period.
Applicants for History, Archaeology, Anthropology, or Classics might like to consider the impact of these new scientific techniques on our knowledge past civilizations. They should think about how our perceptions of the past might be influenced by the data available to us. How can we be more objective in our study?
Quite when human language first came about is still something of a mystery. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that the faculty belongs to Homo sapiens alone (as no other animals can be said to have ‘language’ as we would define it), and that therefore language must have emerged between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. Linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett, however, has refuted this assumption, claiming that Homo erectus possessed the language faculty around 1.9 million years ago.
Previously, Noam Chomsky had proposed that a single genetic mutation 50,000 years ago led to human beings developing the ability to “merge”, which allows two linguistic units to be joined into one—for example, “the cat and the mouse” becoming “the cat eats the mouse”. This then allows for even more complex merging and changing of language units, which Chomsky calls “recursion”; this, in his opinion, is the core of the language faculty, and is exclusive to humans.
But Everett argues that reversion is neither universal in human language nor sufficient for it. For example, he claims that an Amazonian tribe he had lived with and studied, the Pirahã, had no recursion. Rather, he places the development of language in a series of increasingly complex “signs”; from non-arbitrary, non-intentional “indices” such as a hoofprint proving that a horse has been present, to non-arbitrary but intentional “icons” such as the drawing of a hoofprint or a rock resembling a horse to represent a horse, to arbitrary, intentional “symbols” such as the word “horse”, which indicates a horse but sounds nothing like a horse. This system became ever more complex as language evolved. Hence Everett believes that when Homo erectus began using symbols one after the other in comprehensible patterns, this can be thought of as human language, even though they were not using recursion. If Everett is correct and language is much more ancient and primitive, human languages need not be as inherently similar to one another as previously thought, nor are humans necessarily as distinct from other animals as we had assumed.
Applicants for Linguistics may wish to familiarise themselves with different theories on the nature of human language. Which theory makes the most sense to you? What in your opinion is the essence of human language, and what separates it from mere animal communication? Students interested in evolutionary biology and applicants for Anthropology might also want to learn about the evolution of language.
Nasa’s Golden Record, sent into space in 1977 on Voyager 1 and 2, was intended to paint a picture of life on earth—and in particular human life—to any extraterrestrials with the capacity to interpret it. But scientists are now pointing out that this capsule of earthly culture may well give the wrong message to inquisitive aliens. As Rebecca Orchard of Bowling Green State University notes, “it is meant to be received by and interpreted by something that has the sensory capabilities of the average human; if the second one of these senses is absent, or an entirely different sense is added, the Golden Record becomes a bit confusing.” Far from presenting a thoughtful, peace-loving people as it was intended to do, the collection of music, sound-essays, whale sounds, and much else might prove bewildering and even intimidating. Moreover, if our alien friends tried to match up the sounds on one side of the record to the images on the other, they might come to believe that daffodils made a noise like a chainsaw or that a man eating toast had something to do with Bulgarian folk music.
At any rate, the matter is not urgent; although Voyager 1 is now the farthest man-made object from Earth, it will be 40,000 years before it approaches another star system, and who knows what may have become of life on Earth and human culture by then. Arguably, the Golden Record was made more for our benefit than for any of our distant green cousins. The chances of Voyager encountering alien life are already very slim, let alone the probability that these life forms would have evolved to a very similar level and in a very similar way to us. When the biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what message he would choose to send into space in the Voyager spacecraft he famously replied, “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach … but that would be boasting.” Regardless of whether there exists any life capable of hearing and understanding it, the Golden Record is thus first and foremost a snapshot of what a certain group of humans at a certain time deemed to be most important and most impressive about life on Earth. Orchard remarks, “I would hope that the mere fact that we’ve endeavoured to send a record of humanity shows something about our humanity”; perhaps, then, it is not Stravinsky but our desire to know and to make ourselves known that makes us human.
Students wishing to study Philosophy may wish to reflect on the question of what characterises our species and what is essential to our humanity, as well as how we could hypothetically show this to an alien race from a distance. What would you have put on the Golden Record? Applicants interested in Anthropology as well as those interested in issues of race could consider the Golden Record from the perspective of cultures; how does such an artefact shed light on what examples of human art and endeavour we consider most valuable? Is Voyager’s image of humanity entirely objective and universal?
The human brain is six times as large as that of other mammals of a similar size. Why are we so brainy? So far, the favoured hypothesis was that brain growth was driven by social pressures, such as the need to communicate, cooperate, and compete with others. But recent research suggests that the key factors may instead be ecological; those challenges that come from the environment around us, such as finding food. Mauricio González-Forero and Andy Gardner of the University of St Andrews have developed a mathematical model of human brain evolution. By using this model, the pair aim to accurately predict the consequences of various proposed theories, which can then be compared with the facts to work out which theory is the most likely. The model is based on the assumption that brains require a lot of energy, but that a bigger brain will help an animal to get more energy. It then predicts that human brains evolved when the challenges faced were 60% ecological, 30% cooperation-based, and 10% related to inter-group competition. This is partly because, whilst environmental challenges do not change with brain size, certain social challenges do change. For example, it might be harder to get ahead if those around you are getting smarter and are capable of lying and cheating. Thus, they argue, social challenges may sometimes favour a smaller brain.
Ecological challenges on the other hand are predicted to favour bigger brains—but only when an increase in brain power delivers a relatively big reward. For example, once an animal has evolved the brainpower to open an oyster, further brain growth may not help it to eat any more oysters, so there would be no evolutionary pressure for it to grow a larger brain. However, if subsequent improvements in the design of spears helps to catch more and more fish, this can be an evolutionary incentive for continuous brain growth. This phenomenon is amplified in an advanced culture where cooperation and communication leads to individuals sharing skills which help them tackle environmental pressures. Therefore, the same environmental pressure (such as the need to find food) may result in brain growth in some species, but not in others. However, other scientists, such as David Geary of the University of Missouri, though finding this research interesting, are wary of drawing conclusions too soon and still favour a mainly social explanation for human brain growth.
Students applying for Biology, Natural Sciences, or Anthropology may be interested in learning about the conflicting hypotheses surrounding various elements of our human evolution. They should consider how these hypotheses can be tested, and evaluate which option they find most convincing.
You may think that dealing with figures is integral to any society, but in fact, not all cultures use them. For example, Amazonian peoples such as the Munduruku and the Pirahã rely exclusively on terms similar to “some” or “a few” in English. Working with these ‘anumeric’ (numberless) societies can yield insights into how the invention of numbers came about, and has shown that the ability to comprehend them is not innate; indeed, experiments proved that without numbers in their vocabulary, adults struggled to distinguish and remember quantities as low as four. This is confirmed by studies on children in our own cultures. Prior to being taught number-words, children struggle to precisely differentiate quantities beyond three. Young children initially learn that numbers are organised in a sequence, much like the alphabet, but are not yet able to understand what each number means, and when to apply that number-word. Those whose cultural traditions do not involve the teaching of numbers never develop the more complex numerical understanding necessary to function in our own society.
The human brain does intrinsically allows for certain numerical instincts, but there are very limited. For example, as babies we can differentiate between five sweets and twenty sweets. But this is by no means unique in the animal kingdom. Even parrots have numerical instincts that can be trained and refined if they are introduced to numbers. How did we develop numerically-dependent societies? Caleb Everett, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Miami, explains that the majority of languages use base-10, base-20 or base-5 systems, in which smaller numbers are the basis of larger numbers—for example, English is a base-10 language, as was Proto-Indo-European, from which English is derived. This system is ultimately believed to be based on people counting on their hands, which is why the word for ‘five’ in many languages is derived from the word for ‘hand’.
Applicants for Linguistics may wish to think about the deep-rooted differences between some languages, and how this shapes the corresponding societies. They should consider which, if any, aspects of language are innate. Students wishing to study Anthropology might also want to learn about remote societies and languages such as those found in the Amazon, considering how they differ from our own and how they are adapted to their needs and environment.