Olmec and Maya Sculptures Used to Study Evolution of Emotions

Neuroscientist Alan Cowen and psychologist Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, have used ancient sculptures to study whether human facial expressions are signalling the same emotions across cultures. How universal are our facial expressions? Previous comparisons of facial expressions of living people have been questioned because of the far-reaching influence of modern Western cultural practices.

Their study asked 114 participants to rate how people in the same situations as the 63 Mayan and Olmec sculptures would express the same emotions or emotional states. They were given descriptions of what the sculptures were doing, but not photos. The sculptures made in Mexico and Central America between 3,500 and 600 years ago, and were doing various things including being held captive, being tortured, carrying a heavy object, embracing someone, holding a baby, preparing to fight, playing a ballgame, and playing music. In other words, the 114 participants were used to check what emotions would participants "expect" to see on the sculpture's faces.

Separately, more than 300 English-speakers were presented with photographs of just the sculptures' faces. They were then asked what the statues’ expressions were, according to a list of 30 emotions or emotional states. These participants could not see what activity the statue was engaged in.

The study found that the sculptures’ facial expressions aligned with what the participants expected to see, per the 114. The findings suggest that humans may have evolved a wider set of facial expression to convey more emotions that had been previously thought.

Canada's prestigious Queen's University officially banned black medical students in 1918. The policy was enforced until 1965, and only officially removed the ban in 2018!

The Epic Life of A Viking Explorer

Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir was a Norse explorer, born in Iceland, but remembered for her participation in the Viking expeditions to what is today Canada. She became known as the ‘far-traveller' and she is talked about in two Old Norse sagas, The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders.

Gudrid is described in The Saga of the Greenlanders as “a woman of striking appearance, and wise”. Both sagas start Gudrid's story with her and her father sailing west to join Erik the Red’s newly-founded colony in Greenland. According to The Saga of the Greenlanders Gudrid, her husband and several others were shipwrecked, then rescued by Leif the Lucky, son of Erik the Red. A sickness came through the Greenland colonists that winter and Gudrid's husband died. The Saga of Erik the Red does not mention a shipwreck or Gudrid already being married. Instead, when Gudrid arrived Greenland was in the grip of a famine. Though a Christian, she took part in a pagan ritual and assisted a seeress in chanting songs to sway spirits and end the famine.

Both sagas agree that after arriving in Greenland Gudrid married Thorstein, son of Erik the Red and younger brother of Leif the Lucky. That winter a deadly sickness struck again. Gudrid and her but, once again, Gudrid survived. She then married an Icelander, Thorstein Karlsefni, who travelled with her to Vinland. After they landed, Gudrid gave birth to a son, Snorri. If the sagas are truthful Snorri was the first baby born to a European on the North American continent.

Gudrid's story continues after the Vinland attempt at a colony is abandoned. She becomes a revered matriarch in Iceland, who many famous Icelanders trace their ancestry to. She even makes a pilgrimage to far-away Rome. The Saga of the Greenlanders ends with a list of Gudrid's descendants. Some historians argue that the saga should more rightly be named "The Saga of Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir" given how important she is in the history.

The Assassin Who Gave Us A Word

The English word "guy" meaning a man or gender-neutral person, likely comes from Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot he was involved in, in 1605. The word "guy" was first slang for a poorly-dressed person like those that carried Guy Fawkes effigies at the yearly festival. Eventually it lost its negative connotation.

How many human sacrifices did the Aztec make, really?

The most recent archaeological evidence suggests a consistent pattern of finding between 90-150 individual remains at each of the the major archaeological sites in Mexico City. Based on the age of the city, and the Aztec religious calendar, the math suggests the Aztecs sacrificed 18 to 25 individuals every year. This might go up during times of stress. We have at least one recorded drought when they increased the number of human sacrifices in response. But in general, this is a much lower number than the popular imagination would have you believe. Another win for archaeology!

Buzz Off

One genus of mosquitos, discovered and named by German entomologist Johann Wilhelm Meigen in 1818, is called "anopheles." From the Greek an (“not”) + ophelos (“benefit”).

The empire which had the largest percentage of the world's population living within its imperial borders was....the Achaemenid Empire! Better known as the Persian Empire, it had roughly 49.4 million of the world’s 112.4 million people in around 480 BCE. That's 44% of the world's people!

How Extremism Crippled A University

Although now obscure, Göttingen had been the place for mathematical research all throughout the 1800s. Those working at the university were premier mathematicians (and physicists): Gauss, Riemann, Klein, Dirichlet, Noether, Von Neumann, Oppenheimer, Hilbert. (For us non-mathematicians, that’s apparently a very impressive list of names.) The importance of Göttingen and German mathematicians generally is most clearly shown by German becoming an international language for science. Dissertations published in the US and UK often had German titles.

With the Nazi rise to power in the early 1930s many prominent Jews left Germany. Göttingen was still prominent, however. Then came the “great purge.” Academics including Max Born, Victor Goldschmidt, James Franck, Eugene Wigner, Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, Edmund Landau, Emmy Noether, and Richard Courant were expelled or fled from the university. Göttingen became the showpiece for the Nazi crackdown on “Jewish physics.” Only approved Germans were now allowed to teach there.

One of the few remaining faculty from before the purge, David Hilbert, was asked in 1934 “How is mathematics at Göttingen, now that it is free from the Jewish influence?” He replied, “There is no mathematics in Göttingen, anymore.” The center of academic progress moved, virtually overnight, to the United States.

Buddhism's Sacred Trees

Trees are a re-occurring motif in the life of Siddhartha Gautama, according to the beliefs of the religion he founded. His mother, Maya, went into labor while traveling through Lumbini and held a branch of a sal tree for support while giving birth. A fig tree (bodhi) shaded Siddhartha while he achieved enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. And as the end of his life approached, the Buddha lay down between two sal trees in Kushinagar, as he passed from this world. Tree shrines exist at most major Buddhist sites. At Lumbini, for instance, a living descendent of the sacred bodhi tree grows alongside the temple at Bodh Gaya.

The Bizarre Life of Spanish Sportsman Josep Iborra

Following the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona's football team (soccer to Americans) made a tour of Mexico in order to raise funds for the club, which had been devastated by the Civil War. When the tour finished, Rossend Calvet, the Club's secretary, gave four choices to everyone on the trip. First, return to Barcelona and the Republican zone, second, stay in exile in Mexico, third, go into exile in France, or fourth, return to Spain and cross into the Nationalist zone. Nine players opted to stay in Mexico. Among them was goalkeeper Josep Iborra. He quickly signed with a Mexican team and continued to play professionally. His life after traveling to Mexico had two interesting historical happenings.

First, Iborra befriended a fellow Catalan exile, Ramón Marcader. Name sound familiar? One day during lunch together, Mercader abruptly announced that he had go do an errand. Police showed up the next afternoon and took Iborra to see a bloody body: Mercader had killed another exile, Leon Trotsky, with an ice axe. Mercader served twenty years in a Mexican prison and Stalin presented him with the Order of Lenin in absentia.

Iborra continued on his life in Mexico after that little incident...and kept living for a really long time ... until his death in 2002 at age 94. Which made him the last Spanish player who had fled the 1936 Spanish revolution to die.

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    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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