Thursday, September 22, 2016

Bits and Pieces Fall 2016

1. WAMENA (AFP).- Cradling the centuries-old remains of his mummified ancestor, tribe leader Eli Mabel lays bare an ancient tradition that has all but vanished among the Dani people in the Papuan central highlands.
The tiny, blackened, shrunken figure he carries was Agat Mamete Mabel, the chieftain that ruled over this remote village in Indonesian Papua some 250 years ago.
Honoured upon death with a custom reserved only for important elders and local heroes among the Dani people -- he was embalmed and preserved with smoke and animal oil.
Nine generations on and his descendent Eli Mabel is the current chieftain in Wogi village --  an isolated hamlet outside Wamena that can be reached only by hiking and canoe.
He said the exact age of Agat Mamete Mabel was not known, but told AFP this ancestor was the last of the village to receive such a funeral. Once common among his forebears, the ritual method of smoke embalming was no longer practised, he explained.
Christian missionaries and Muslim preachers encouraged the tribespeople to bury the corpses, and the tradition has faded as the centuries drifted by.
But Mabel is determined to retain the ancient rites and rituals for future generations.
"We must protect our culture, including the ceremonies for the mummy, the way we treat it, and maintain and fire for it," the Dani tribesman told AFP.
The mummy, decorated with pig tusks slung around the torso, a feathered headpiece, and traditional penis gourd rests in a hut known as a "honai".
This wide domed, thatch-roofed hut is tended year round by a select few villagers who keep a fire burning to ensure the corpse remains dry and preserved.
The duty of caring for the mummy often falls to Mabel, he said. He spends many nights sleeping alone in the honai, ensuring no harm befalls his ancestor.
Eventually, the duty of caring for the mummy will be passed to others, he said. Mabel hopes his own children will bear some responsibility for keeping their customs alive, but worries they are far away.
"I have told them they must take care of the mummy at some point in their lives," Mabel said of his four children, some living in far-off provinces in Indonesia's more populated centres.
The ancient Dani tribes in Indonesia's half of the island of New Guinea were cut off from the outside world until well into the 20th century. Their homeland in the Baliem Valley was isolated by steep, rugged valleys and dense highland forest.
Today, the region remains one of the poorest in Indonesia. Many tribes rely on tourism, their unique customs, traditional dress and rituals attracting visitors to their remote villages.

2. PARIS (AFP).- The first people to reach the Americas could not have passed through the ice sheet-cleaving inland corridor long thought to be the entry point of humans to the continents, according to a study published Wednesday.
More likely, the New World pioneers of our species -- probably some 15,000 years ago -- inched along a Pacific coastline free enough of ice to support life-sustaining flora and fauna.
The exact route and timing of this maiden migration remains conjecture, the researchers said. But what is certain, according to findings reported in the journal Nature, is that the textbook version of that passage is wrong.
For decades, scientists favoured a scenario something like this. About 14,500 years ago, a 1,500-kilometre (900-mile) north-south corridor opened up between the Cordilleran ice sheet -- which covered roughly what is today the Canadian province of British Colombia -- and the much larger Laurentide ice sheet, which smothered the rest of Canada. The Ice Age was slowly giving way, but still held the region in its grip and -- draining the oceans by dozens of metres -- forged a land-bridge between Eurasia and Alaska.  So far, so good. About a thousand years later, according to this theory, the first Ice Age humans moved through this elongated inland gateway to found new cultures to the south.
A new storyline
Among them was the Clovis people, who first show up in the archaeological record more than 13,000years ago. This storyline presumes, of course, that these path-breaking early people found sustenance along the way.
And that's where the theory falls apart, according to Mikkel Pedersen, a researcher at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, and lead author of the study.
"The earliest point at which the corridor opens for human migration is 12,600 years ago," he told AFP. While the passage may have been free, "there was absolutely nothing before this date in the surrounding environment -- not plants, not animals." Nothing, in other words, that would have allowed humans to feed themselves during a long, hard slog between towering cliffs of ice. Other research showing that humans might have arrived in the Americas at least 14,500 years ago -- and perhaps a couple of thousand years before that -- had already begun to undermine the ice sheet corridor hypothesis, forcing experts to look more closely at the possibility of a coastal route. Pedersen and colleagues now appear to have closed the door on the inland route for good. The innovative methods they used for reconstructing the late Ice Age ecosystem was crucial. Rather than hunt for DNA traces of specific plants or animals buried in sediment -- the standard approach -- Pedersen's team used what is called a "shotgun" method, cataloguing every life form in a given sample. "Traditionally, we have been looking for specific genes from a single or several species," he explained.
"But the shotgun approach really gave us a fantastic insight into all the different trophic" -- or food-chain -- "layers, from bacteria and fungi to higher plants and mammals."
Window onto ancient worlds
The researchers chose to extract sediment cores from what would have been a bottleneck in the inland corridor, an area partly covered today by Charlie Lake in British Columbia.
The team did radiocarbon dating, and gathered samples while standing on the frozen lake's surface in winter. Up to 12,600 years ago, the environment was almost entirely bereft of life, they found. 
But the ecosystem evolved quickly, giving way within a couple of hundred years to a landscape of grass and sagebrush, soon populated by bison, woolly mammoth, jackrabbits and voles.
Fast-forward a thousand years, and it had transitioned again, this time into a "parkland ecosystem" dense with trees, moose, elk and bald-headed eagles. The findings open "a window onto ancient worlds" and are a cornerstone in a "major reevaluation" of how humans arrived in America, said Suzanne McGowan of the University of Nottingham, commenting in Nature.
They also make the coastal passage scenario much more likely, she added. Other scholars agree. "If there ever was an ice-free corridor during the Last Glacial Maximum," James Dixon of the University of New Mexico wrote in a recent study, "it was not in the interior regions of northern North America, but along the Northwest Coast."
A "biologically viable" passage stretched along that coast from the Bering Land Bridge to regions south of the glaciers starting about 16,000 years ago, he reported in the journal Quaternary International.

3. LONDON Jonathan Jones uses the pretext of The New Museum’s The Keeper show on collecting to offer his own precis of what appears to be a basic human need that can be carried to unhealthy—or sublime—extremes:
The exhibition and these reactions suggest a new chapter in the history of collecting. The psychology of the collector seems more traumatised, anxious and defensive. The type of collecting the New Museum draws attention to tends towards the repetitive, and may be hard to explain to or share with others: amassing infinite numbers of the same thing suggests not so much an interest in the meaning or history of objects or a feel for their poetry as a need to surround oneself with reassuring familiarity. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” wrote TS Eliot1.[…]
Collecting in modern art started as a flash of poetry, a dreamer’s compulsion. In the 1920s, AndrĂ© Breton and his fellow surrealists visited Paris flea markets to purchase strange objects that seemed to speak to them, to personify hitherto unrecognised longings. “Objects that can be found nowhere else,” as Breton writes in his book Nadja. “Old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse …”
The surrealist art of collecting is the very opposite of hoarding. It is the special, unique, magical object that draws the surrealist collector’s eye: a strangely shaped spoon, a glove, an old book. From such found objects the surrealists assembled dreamlike images. Joan MirĂ³’s 1936 Object in New York’s Museum of Modern Art includes a stuffed parrot, a stockinged leg, an old map, a suspended ball and a derby hat. It is a collection that suggests intimate fantasies and elusive poetry.
Hoarders or collectors? Our frightened society has forgotten the difference (The Guardian)

4. NEW YORK - Chinese Insurance Firm Buys Major Stake in Sotheby's: Taikang Life, one of the China's biggest life insurance firms, has become Sotheby's biggest shareholder after dramatically increasing its stake in June and July. The Chinese company now owns 13.5% stake in the auction house, worth around $233 million in shares. [CNN]

China Dominates Art Auction Market Worldwide: A new study from Artprice reveals that China has reemerged as the "world's largest art marketplace," accounting for one third of art auction sales worldwide in the first half of 2016. The country's sales grew 18% over the year, registering $2.3 billion dollars in total. The report also found that auction sales in Belgium, Turkey, and Sweden have grown immensely, while sales figures are down 30% in London and 49% in New York. [TAN]

5. HONOLULU - —Bishop Museum in Honolulu Recovering from Scandal: Following a recent investigation into the misuse of institutional funds, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu is facing speculation that much of the museum's collection of cultural artifacts and historical specimens from the Pacific Basin and Oceania — the greatest such collection in the world — has disappeared. According to a report by The Art Newspaper, most of the museum's research staff has left, and access to the collection has been made nearly impossible. The Bishop's director and chief executive, Blair Collis, resigned in May after it came to light that he had been using a museum credit card for questionable purposes. [TAN

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