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!

2022

Two Pioneering Female Archaeologists

Hannah Marie Wormington and Cynthia Irwin-Williams grew up in a time when women were banned from some anthropology classrooms, yet they forged successful careers and set examples as supportive and inspiring leaders.

March 23, 2022

A Hidden Figure in North American Archaeology

A Black cowboy named George McJunkin, who died 100 years ago, found a site that would transform scientific views about the deep history of Native Americans in North America.

January 20, 2022

2021

The Blockbuster Exhibit that Shouldn't Have Been

Museum curators have occasionally embellished archaeological finds with compelling but questionable stories. Consider the Field Museum’s “Magdalenian Girl.”

November 30, 2021

Do Stolen Sacred Objects Experience Culture Shock

Ancestral memorials from Kenya called vigango have been stolen and sold as “art” around the world. An anthropologist working to return them wonders what the spirits experience when they are displaced.

October 11, 2021

How Museums Can Do More Than Just Repatriate Objects

It is beautiful when museums go beyond returning objects toward “propatriation”—collaborating to commission new objects for display.

May 13, 2021

The Phantom Forests That Built Mesa Verde

For years, archaeologists working in Mesa Verde National Park have been looking for evidence of where Ancestral Puebloans harvested the thousands of trees they used to build their elaborate cliff dwellings.

February 17, 2021

Do Twins Share a Soul?

An anthropologist—and identical twin—grapples with different cultural understandings of twinship.

January 12, 2021

2020

An Archaeology of Marijuana

How did cannabis—a plant humans have been using for more than 10,000 years—become so vilified in the U.S.?

October 16, 2020

Wildfire Archaeology and the Burning American West

Archaeologists in New Mexico are pioneering surprising research methods—involving tree rings, pottery, and blasts of light—to explain why wildfire suppression doesn’t work.

September 9, 2020

Two Surgeries, 800 Years Apart

An archaeologist’s hip surgery prompts him to reimagine the experience of a Puebloan woman who survived a terrible fall centuries ago.

August 26, 2020

A Curator's Search for Justice

One museum’s saga of returning stolen vigango statues to Kenya reveals how repatriating sacred objects is both the right thing and a very hard thing to do.

May 14, 2020

The Masked Man

A history of masks reveals how humans have used them to hide, disguise, transform, and protect themselves.

April 20, 2020

The Scientific Sorcery of Radiocarbon Dating

An archaeologist explains why figuring out an object’s age is harder than you think.

March 27, 2020

Why We Buy Weird Things in Times of Crisis

With COVID-19 making its way around the United States, people are emptying stores of toilet paper. Archaeology throws a light on other bouts of odd consumer behavior.

March 19, 2020

What Modern Extremes Taught Me About Noise in the Ancient World

After floating in a sensory deprivation tank and visiting Dave & Buster’s, one anthropologist ponders our ancient ancestors’ soundscapes.

January 9, 2020

2019

A Tale of Two Ruins

New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon showcases magnificent structures that were built on ingenuity. By contrast, the state’s Rio Rancho Estates was built on fraud.

October 19, 2019

What Do Monuments Reveal About Their Makers?

An archaeologist ponders memorials—from the Monti gate to the Taj Mahal—and finds clues about the reasons people want to be remembered.

September 18, 2019

Stone Age Myths We’ve Made Up

Commonly held views of ancient history are often colored by what survives in the archaeological record—and by cultural biases.

July 19, 2019

What Would Leonardo da Vinci Think of the Future?

On the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, an archaeologist and curator imagines the inventor and artist teleported to our time.

May 2, 2019

Who Decided It Was Bad to Be Fat?

Westerners have long shunned obese people, and this attitude now pervades much of the globe. Was this always the case?

January 11, 2019

2018

What Google Maps Don’t Show You

The long history of Native American tribes is nowhere to be found on modern maps. So the Zuni decided it was time to create their own kind of cartography.

November 13, 2018

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.

October 29, 2018

How Do We Know Which Historical Accounts Are True?

For many years, scholars believed oral history was no more accurate than mythology. It turns out they were wrong.

September 21, 2018

Why Are Some Caves Full of Shoes?

An archaeologist explores how shoes have embodied our identities through the ages.

August 1, 2018

Is Cyclical Time the Cure to Technology’s Ills?

We can continue our obsessive, harried pursuit of new technology, or we can relax and enjoy life more—but we can’t do both.

May 11, 2018

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.

April 3, 2018

The Weird, Wild World of Mortuary Customs

Embalming is just one among the world’s wide variety of funeral practices, and in a sense it’s as ordinary as any other. Then again, it’s pretty strange.

March 8, 2018

Transcontinental Travel—2,000 Years Ago

People who were part of the Hopewell culture ventured far and wide to obtain large quantities of raw materials.

February 7, 2018
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