anthropology

Curiosities @ Sapiens.org

The “Curiosities” column at Sapiens.org explores the nature, importance, use, and changing interpretation of artifacts people have created

Human beings often infuse objects with deep, substantial meaning. The Curiosities at Sapiens.org investigates these curiosities, thereby inspiring us to think more deeply about our humanity and the significance of the countless things that surround us. Since February 2016, more than three dozen Curiosities columns have been read more than 700,000 times around the globe. In them, Dr. Steve Nash has tackled subjects ranging from the Huey helicopter to Acheulian hand axes, from Neanderthal stone tools to modern GPS systems, and from Russian gem carvings by Vasily Konovalenko to ancient footwear. Future columns will tackle objects ranging from an Arctic parka made of sea mammal intestine; the challenge of Neanderthal leadership; the nature, meaning, and symbolism of neckties; and archaeological evidence of the first joke!

Staff

Stephen E. Nash, PhD

Senior Curator of Archaeology and Director of Anthropology

Libby Couch

Business Support Specialist


Ancient Roman Bathrooms

What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper?

Toilet paper is now such a routine part of our lives that we rarely give it any thought. That boring reality, however, should make us think—because toilet paper is an artifact, a technology, and is therefore grounded in culture.

 

Museum Human Remains

The Skeletons in the Museum Closet

Museums are full of wonderful things. Museums are irreplaceable repositories of priceless things that help us understand our place in the universe. But that’s not to say that every object in every museum is valuable, special, or important. An acquire-and-preserve-at-all-costs acquisitions philosophy has led many museums to curate objects and specimens that simply aren’t worth keeping.

Peace Medals

Were Peace Medals the Price of Loyalty?

Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing through much of the 19th century, the U.S. government offered peace medals as gifts to leaders of Native American communities. No matter which president was on the front, peace medals were important instruments in U.S. diplomacy with Native American tribes across North America. They were offered as gifts of introduction and to celebrate treaty signings and other significant events.

Zuni Maps

Zuni Map Art

What Google maps don't show you.

Tupilaq and the Chicago Cubs

Spirit Monsters and the Curse of the Chicago Cubs

Superstition is a funny thing. As an anthropologist, I’m not terribly superstitious. I try to be a scientist, after all. But science is fallible, and supposedly rational behavior or objective analysis often isn’t, in retrospect. And every now and then life throws you a curveball—something happens that just leaves you bewildered—and your mind begins wandering outside the confines of reason.

Hand Axe Technology

Acheulian Hand Ax

To my mind, a well-made Acheulean hand ax is one of the most beautiful and remarkable archaeological objects ever found, anywhere on the planet. I love its clean, symmetrical lines. Its strength and heft impress me, and so does its persistence.

Clovis Point in Space

A Relic of the Past Soars into the Final Frontier

In 2014, Steve Lee, a space scientist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, approached me with an interesting proposition. An astronaut friend, Kjell Lindgren, was going to the International Space Station and could take along a small container of personal effects. Lindgren had graciously asked the Museum for a contribution.

Ultimately, the Museum’s anthropology staff decided to send a 13,000-year-old stone spearpoint from Illinois.

 

Tree Ring Dating

How Archaeologists Uncover History

Archaeology is a wonderfully rich multidisciplinary science that benefits greatly from dendrochronology. But it is also anthropology. From the stunning precision of tree-ring dates to the rich tapestry of Native American oral history, we know in astonishing detail much of what happened—and when, where, and why it happened—at Mesa Verde.

 

Moche Pot

Skeleton Sex Pots

The Moche, one of the world’s great ancient civilizations, occupied the northern coast of Peru from roughly 100 CE to 800 CE. They produced beautiful ceramic vessels; hundreds of thousands are in museums worldwide.  At first glance, people often assume that sex pots were designed to titillate, to be erotic if not pornographic. Such interpretations often say more about us—the contemporary interpreters—than they do about the people who made the pots. Indeed, sex pots are part of an extensive cultural tradition spanning more than 1,000 years of Andean civilization.

Zipper History

Forget Not the Mighty Zipper

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science curates a beautiful fur parka from Barrow, Alaska. Given that most Museum guests have never seen such a garment, they often ask how old it is. Before telling them that the manufacture date is believed to have been in the mid-1960s, I point out that we know the parka must have been made after 1893. How can we be so certain? The left and right sides of the parka are fastened in the front by a metal zipper, an invention first patented in 1893.

 

The Long Count

The Long Count

Time. Astronomers, philosophers, physicists, anthropologists, politicians, geographers, and theologians have all pondered the nature and meaning of time. Is it linear or cyclical? Is it reversible? (Put another way, can we go back in time?) Is time absolute and measurable, as it seemed to be to Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei, or is it relative, as Albert Einstein theorized? Cynically, is it “what keeps everything from happening at once,” as science fiction author Ray Cummings wrote so memorably in 1923? Is time a cultural construct? Or is it a corollary to the second law of thermodynamics, under which disorder always increases? Why does time seem to go so much faster the older we get?

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