Eccentricity

Harlequin boots from Williamsburg, rhombus tights, beige balloon skirt, multicoloured belt from Camden Market, striped long-sleeved shirt and black nails.

“You look like a minstrel today” – university lecturer

Eccentricity: ec·cen·tric·i·ty (ksn-trs-t) : defines the shape of the Earth’s trajectory around the sun. The eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit is currently 0.0167, meaning that the Earth’s orbit is nearly circular. Over thousands of years, the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit varies from nearly 0.0034 to almost 0.058 as a result of gravitational attractions among the planets.

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Eccentricity is unlikely to change during our lifetime, and thus at precise intervals of time, we will find ourselves floating in the exact same place in space.

Ten revolutions ago, I was 18, starting my academic pursuit and my life as an adult. I found myself behind desks, pen in hand, ready to learn about my species, about myself, where I came from, where I was going. Amid Malinowski, Franz Boas, and Freud, I found life-changing friendships, and played new games, some of which I excelled at, but many of which I wasn’t ready for yet. In February of 2002, I finally found myself between an ashtray and untidy bedsheets, between a starved stomach and a broken heart. Lost beyond recognition to myself and those who surrounded me, I decided my next ten revolutions would be spent splashing in cosmic light. So the planet turned, and I with it. I was determined I would find myself around the next bend and wave goodbye forever to this place on the arc away from the sun.

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My lecturer handed me a green pen and a red eraser, which I placed on the pile I had prepared for my tutorial. I made copies of the hominin phylogeny, spanning its 7 million years, all the way from Chad (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) to the world (Homo sapiens), along with a diagram of a cladogram. My articles were printed and a handwritten sign-in sheet was ready to be filled. It was February 2010 and I was five minutes away from my first teaching experience. Feeling more nervous than overjoyed, I checked my notes once more, took the pile under one arm, and carried the green pen and red eraser in the opposite hand as I made my way to room 128 of the UCL Anthropology department.

“Why is this all in pink?” asked one of the students as he signed next to his name. I glanced at the blindingly girlish sign-in sheet, and glanced over my own notes and articles, a pink-ridden mess. I gave off a nervous laugh: “Yes, I seem to have a slight problem with bright colours”.

My relationship with colours had often caused confusion during my first year as an undergraduate in 2000. I was once even labelled ‘politically ignorant’ after wearing a pink top with a picture of an orange at the centre: in Portugal, pink is the colour of the socialist party, you see, while orange is the colour of its opposition, the social-democratic party (I am still convinced that I was in fact the most politically illuminated of all…)

Stepping into my new shoes at the front of the class, I felt lonely and vulnerable. There were twelve inattentive and uninterested heads staring my way, and my task of delivering information for 50 minutes seemed daunting. I realized I had spent so long studying and being interested in this subject of human origins, that its meaning and significance had creeped under my skin and were ingrained in my body, lost beyond words in the depths of my gray matter, to the point where I wasn’t able to formulate in full sentences why I believed this was the most fascinating topic of all. I was not going to teach them any skills, none of my knowledge had real-life applications, I was not about to give them privileged information or any insight of significance, and nothing of financial relevance would be gained from the next hour. It became clear that what was so obvious to me, was not obvious to this adolescent audience and my biggest task ahead would be to give them a glimpse of all the wonder I felt when studying these matters – in essence, to open myself up and show them my world.  Looking around upon a classroom filling with teenage girls bobbing their long luscious hair, boys in tight jeans all typing on their cellphones, I slowly resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to be able to express to them my profound excitement for these bones of mine.

*****

My grandfather was a philosophy teacher whose colour blindness endowed him with a knack for particularly eccentric fashion statements. When his students asked him what his teachings were all for, he learned to simply reply: “Well, nothing of course! Absolutely nothing!”

Grandfather Pepe, after whom I was named (Anna Pepe Barros). He was a true Spaniard, a story-teller, a bon vivant. He is not looking particularly eccentric in these pictures (click here for a few more photos)

I started somewhere. I wrote my name and email on the board and pointed out that I was Canadian after hearing whispers about it being “all Americans teaching this year”. They laughed, apologised and congratulated me on my country’s epic Hockey victory.

“The Austrap… Austropi… Australip… ” staggered one student. “Austra-lo-pi-the-cus. Or simply put: the southern ape… like ‘Austra’ in Australia”, I helped. Behind me on the whiteboard there was a phylogeny of human pubic lice; there was also a drawing of Africa, with a line across the Rift; there were arrows depicting human migrations through the landscape, and a crooked drawing of a female pelvis. My legs were crossed as I listened to the students’ accounts of what they read, and felt excited by their questions, which I answered with much gesturing. It dawned on me. I had come around the bend, ten revolutions later, I was back in this place, and I was looking at myself from the other side of the mirror, except I was standing tall in my harlequin boots and on my own, nothing seemed lonely or scary anymore, and I knew how to pronounce Australopithecus and all of its different species backwards and in my sleep. A new confidence blossomed inside me and I spoke about the things that excited me the most. I found myself with a handful of gleaming gazes resting upon me, captured momentarily by the images I was painting with my words.

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Facebook status: “I am convinced there is no greater pleasure in life than teaching and being taught.” 7 likes. 3 comments.

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“Did it help or was I confusing?” I asked. “No, you made it clearer actually” replied a girl. As they left the classroom, I placed my keys around my neck and started erasing the green mess I had made on the whiteboard. Memories came to mind that I had kept at bay during the last hour as my keys clattered against the New York license plate key chain which read ‘PEPE’, my middle name. There were no ashtrays or messy bed sheets this time, although that familiar starving stomach growled and the heart was starving too. I felt tired and the world closed in on me as the whiteboard became white and empty again. I was truly back here, standing at the exact same distance from the sun, at the exact same place on the circumference of the Earth’s orbit. I turned back around to escape my thoughts and found a few students still there, teasing a classmate about how old he’d become: “Oh my God! You’re going to be twenty years old! We can’t hang out with you anymore, you’re so old!”. I felt so little and young, still trying to fight back those childish tears and the urge to scream for mommy. “See you next week” I said while walking out, and I glanced at them once more, wondering which one of them I would have been back then.

“Hey, there’s a girl in the lab, she’s finishing up, can you go check on her?” asked a colleague who leads the lab sessions with me. Behind the bend around the other side of the room from where our desks sit, beyond the two human skeletons, was a girl in tears hovering over her blue lab book, panting in despair. She told me she wasn’t able to do the exercise because she was anxious and that she now couldn’t focus behind the water forming in her eyes. She begged me to finish next week and wondered how this would affect her marks. She was worried about having made a mistake and now that she couldn’t think, she felt lost and wanted help. I thought: there I am.

In my minstrel-like outfit, I sat down next to her and took a breath. I placed my hand on her shoulder and said: “relax, this doesn’t matter.  You need to breathe and have some perspective over this. This counts for nothing for your mark. This doesn’t count for anything for your academic record. But mostly, it doesn’t say anything about you and it doesn’t count for anything important for your life. You can finish this some other time. Just breathe.” She wiped her tears and became calm. Between apologies and thank you’s, she handed me her half empty lab book to be filled at some other time in the future. I wasn’t sure who I had just spoken to: to a young undergraduate student, to myself at 18, to myself now. But mostly, I had no idea what it was I thought didn’t matter so much: the unfinished exercises, others’ mistakes, my mistakes, people, or the heavy key chain around my neck.

I took the key chain from around me and started breathing again, despite not having realized I had ever stopped. Feet cushioned in my harlequin boots clutching pink-ridden notes filled with cladograms and bone diagrams between my black nail-polish, tall, alone, grown-up and with passion in my heart, I realized I was never lost, that I was finally home, that I had been headed towards this all along, and will keep heading back for as long as every spiral, every circumference, every revolution of the earth keeps coming full circle.

And so I found my cosmic order in an eccentricity that keeps calling me back, yelling from the beyond with voracious force and overwhelming liberation: “absolutely nothing matters of course!”, and pulling me in all my shades of colour, my unconfused and unashamed colours, round the next orbital bend to the next revolution, a personal revolution, a revolution from within.

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Author’s note: scientific facts aside, most of the stories and dialogues in this post have been modified to cater to the narrative; many did not occur in the stated order.

The Ape That Wouldn’t Grow Up

 

“It takes people years to see that there is something un-childish about the condition of childhood, that it is not merely a temporary state of innocence but a zone of pure philosophy”

- Andrew O’Hagan, in ‘Leave the kids at home and go see where the wild things are’

“Mommy, where are we?” I asked during a transatlantic flight from Montreal to Lisbon. “We’re still flying over the ocean” answered my mother. Baffled and looking into the darkness that extended beyond my oval window, I replied: “Yes I know! but on which planet? Portugal or Canada?” You see, in my six year-old head lay an intricately woven cosmos of fantastical concepts to which my parents were oblivious. As I understood it, each country was a planet, each with its own oceans, and aircrafts were inter-galactic flying devices transporting passengers to their interplanetary destinations.

I also believed that cats and dogs were different sexes of a same species (cats were females, of course), cars had faces and emotions (our red chevy was a temperamental old man), bad people were hired to get killed for real in movies, and about half the world was made up of Benjamin Buttons (I constantly tried to guess if a person was growing older or younger).

… And little else do I remember of this lost land. Puberty, like a bad night out, has virtually erased all that is left of that mystical universe I inhabited in my head. By the time adolescence showed me the door, I knew I would spend a good part of my twenties nursing the hangover from my teenage years. At 27 (ahem, 28) childhood is nothing but a distant memory of that time when shit hadn’t hit the fan yet.

But while shit does hit the fan eventually for all mammals – and by this I mean sexual maturity, the proverbial ‘coming of age’ and all the reality checks that come with it - humans are the only species lucky enough to be graced with four years of pure radiant bliss, a time of suspended growth. That bracket of infinite magic, childhood.

True, childhood is tainted with all that is dark and evil in human nature – I will not soon forget my ‘Lord of the Flies’ moments – but from the perspective of our evolutionary journey, of our own coming of age as a species, childhood might just have been the most perfect invention of all. It is the cushiest season, the most carefree and glorious of times. And it may very well be the reason for our overwhelming success.

The evolution of childhood (in red), unique to Homo species which has been increasing for the past two million years

We might like to think of the four seasons of life, but we do in fact have five: infancy, childhood, juvenile, adolescence (right after puberty), and adulthood. Most mammals progress from infancy to adulthood almost seamlessly, without the growth-spurts, the growing pains, the voice changes and acne-ridden faces. Highly social mammals, like wolves, wild dogs, lions, elephants and primates, postpone puberty by inserting a period of juvenile growth between infancy and adulthood. Puberty, marking the onset of sexual maturity, is delayed to allow for larger brains and the acquisition of proper life-skills. But only in the human species do we find a 5th season: childhood – a well defined step both physiologically and behaviourally, spanning roughly from three to seven years of age.

Relative to our body size, the human brain is bigger than that of any other animal, but our human bodies constrain the size of our heads at birth. In fact, during the last part of the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, the human fetus is so large that it presses against internal organs and constricts blood vessels. We have no choice but to slow down our growth and then rebound after birth to catch up to the size we would have had if growth had been continuous.

Our journey to adulthood is in fact rather counter-intuitive from an economic and even logical point of view. Its sinuous course, more akin to the stop-and-go motion of a highway traffic jam, leads us first into a period of rapid growth immediately after birth, then a period of rapid decrease in growth rate until the age of four, followed by a period of almost arrested growth that lasts until our juvenile years, at which point we hit puberty and grow up to 7-9 cm per year! (that’s about three inches per year).

Children at the AADHU/CYCA Centre for Orphaned Children in Kenya, Africa. I am particularly fond of this project because it is not affiliated with any religious organizations


Children at Kibera, Kenya

Childhood is defined by the period after weaning, which in nonhuman primates marks the beginning of independence since individuals can now walk and fetch food on their own. But not so for humans. There is no society on earth in which children deprived of care by older individuals, survive.

Due to the nature of our growth pattern, which is not equal for all body parts, our brains achieve adult size when our body growth is only at 40% complete. This leaves us with small bodies, small digestive systems with immature dentition, and big heads that require high-quality foods (low in volume, high in nutrients) that we cannot get hold of on our own. It isn’t until the age of seven when significant milestones of dental and brain maturation are reached that we are able to adopt an adult diet and shift to a new plateau of cognitive functions (and realize countries are not planets…).

The head, limbs, and body grow at different rates, resulting in a human adult with proportions completely different from those of the newborn baby. Growing in this way allows us to keep our ‘cute’, infantile looks for longer than in any other species of mammals

… But why take this four-year detour if all paths lead to Rome (or adulthood)?

One favorite explanation is our dependence on culture and on learning for survival. For all intents and purposes, childhood can be viewed as en extended coffee break, where the day’s activities are arrested so that we can catch up with the the New York Times, the latest celebrity gossip and finish that Sudoku puzzle. It allows for an extra period for brain growth and time for acquisition of technical skills, time for socializing, playing, and the development of social roles and cultural behaviours. It is effectively a pit-stop, a period of waiting, an oasis of protection, a state of lower nutritional requirements and of low mortality.

Age (in years)

Probability of death by age of rural Gambians. Note how low this is for children

Some researchers even view childhood as a sort of parasitic stage, a way to selfishly elicit parental care after infancy because we maintain a ‘cute’, infantile appearance for longer than any other mammal species.

From the mother’s perspective, having offspring that pass through childhood reduces the interval time between births. Weaning time is what sets the pace between births – if you are done breastfeeding, your are ready to go – and in preindustrialized societies this averages at three years, which coincides with the onset of childhood – a stage when we are so ‘cute’ that just about any grown-up (especially grandpa and grandma) will offer to take care of us. So while the average birth interval for chimpanzees is about five years (age at which chimps become independent), in humans this interval averages at about 3.6 years… now consider the much lower weaning average for industrialized societies (six months to a year) and our overcrowded planet will start to make sense.

But if you’ve cringed at the thought of lending your breast to your offspring for more than six months, you’re not alone. In the United States, for example, women receive conflicting advice about when to wean their children from breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one year, while WHO and UNICEF recommend at least two years and many physicians consider six months to be extended breastfeeding, while some health professionals question the motives of women who nurse for more than a year. Women have even been known to hide the fact that they are still nursing an older child from disapproving health care professionals or family members. But the reality is that in many non-Western cultures children are routinely nursed for three to four years, which is likely the more ‘natural’ state of affairs.

Childhood is then the perfect ‘parking space’ for offspring and avoids us having to choose between producing few expensive, large brained babies, or many smaller-brained offspring. It lasts about four years, just enough time for your first-born to hit childhood so that a second one can be on its way. Because weaning and childhood go hand in hand, it sets the pace at which a mother is ready to bear another child so that she is not overwhlemed with a Lilliputian army of defenseless babies, but rather is able take care of one baby at a time, unless you have octuplets… nature errs too (in which case, good luck to you).

Me, an ape refusing to grow up

At seven years of age, our 1st permanent molars come in. In primates, this marks the onset of independence but for humans this is just the beginning of our long, arduous march to adulthood. While chimpanzees are ready to be be competent parents at about 10 to 11 years of age, humans remain largely dependent on theirs for a staggering 20 years!

(Unless you complete half a university degree, move countries twice, take four years to complete a second degree, take 2 gap years, a Masters and now a PhD, in which case you are still, at least partially, in a state of dependency at 27. Ahem, 28).

But whichever the case, as a species we seem to have evolved into the eternal pupil. Instead of striving to be adults, our journey has been about prolonging and inserting evermore states of dependency, forever extending the umbilical chord uniting us to our parents, stretching it until we must grow our own with our very own offspring. Of all our closest relatives we are the ones with the most childish appearance, the ones who grow the slowest, who play and learn for the longest. We are the forever young apes. The apes that refused to grow up.

While I now know that cats and dogs belong to different species, there is still much I don’t know about my own species, and so I find refuge in the safety of school where I get to look up to taller, bigger people to teach me wondrous things. And as London spreads before me from my 13th floor student residence window on the eve of my 28th birthday, I’m thinking… “Who will come out and play?”.

Primitive Passions

Neanderthal man

He is short, stocky and Portuguese. When the “hybrid child” was unearthed in 1998, the researchers in charge of studying his bones deemed him to be the ‘living’ proof of Neanderthal and Human admixture. Despite being met with much skepticism, Trinkaus and Zilhao have gone on to see signs of hybridization in other bones around Europe.

Neanderthals have proved to be the perfect ‘repository’ for all our human projections – they are the embodiment of our darkest, most violent impulses: Neanderthals are primitive brutes who do not use language, they are socially simple and technologically unsophisticated. And they are hairy. A psychoanalyst might even see in these projections signs of sexually repressed fears or desires on our part: these men are big and tall, physically very strong, they use force rather than language to get what they need, and when hunting they use their hands more than their tools (their stone tools, I mean).

Neanderthals have undergone some re-branding in the past few decades, largely due to increase information about their genes and their lifestyles (through archaeology), which has allowed some insight into who ‘Neanderthal’ really is, as opposed to what we want him to be. We now know, for example, that he speaks, due to the presence of the FOXP2 gene; we also know he is socially sapient (he buries his dead, for example); and we also know that he is highly skilled (the Neanderthal stone-tool technology – the Mousterian – was at one point a shared skill with Homo sapiens). All of this evidence has softened our hearts to our hominoid fellow – we’ve even learned to look beyond his ginger hair colour, and have stopped demonizing him to instead humanizing him – he also sings now, and we compose orchestral masterpieces in his honour. We are, at last, coming to terms with the Neanderthal side of us.

After so many years of unjustified discrimination, we seem to have finally accepted Neanderthal man as our brethren… But as our lover too?

Scientifically speaking, proving that hybridization did in fact occur between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals is difficult, if not impossible. For starters, because hybridization as a process in itself is not well understood, we have no idea what such a cross between a human and a Neanderthal would look like. Then there is the question of whether such hybrids could themselves reproduce; if they could, would traits passed on from both parent species get ‘diluted’ as generations went by? And how would these subsequent generations look like? Would we be able to recognize them? What traits are diagnostic of processes of hybridization?

This gap in the scientific knowledge is the perfect hideout for all our psychological hang-ups. If, indeed, we accept this admixture, then we are abdicating from being the exclusive authors of our species’ accomplishments – since Neanderthal would have also contributed in some way. We’ve tried so hard to separate ourselves from ‘them’, that transitioning to viewing Neanderthals as one of us, has forced us to redifine ourselves, inasmuch as identities are created by oposition to the identity of ‘the other’. Namely, this means recognizing in us what has been previously relegated to the Nanderthal realm. We were supposed to be the better, more intelligent and sofisticated ones, who because of our ingenuity, prevailed over all others, and now it seems that we may have somehow merged – us and the savage Neanderthal as one?

Much of the mysticism created around the Neanderthal man came from him being the only other kind of human sharing the planet with us (or at least Europe). The discovery of the ‘hobbit’ in Indonesia has broken with this maniqueist vision of recent human evolution and we now have to come to terms with the fact that we were merely one species, among possibly many others, who somehow managed to thrive in detriment of all others.

These new scientific discoveries have also led to a reshuffling of our collective psyche’s values, after all, there are only two places in the ying yang orb, if the Neanderthal has ceased to occupy one half of this bubble in our heads, this means we are forced to recognize all the evil primitive drives we had associated with him, within us.

In the archaeological record, appart from a few French, Spanish and Portuguese sites, where there are arguable signs of cultural influence, it is clear that there are two very different peoples living side by side (quite literally in some cases). Were we keeping each other at bay because of weariness towards the other? Were they hostile to us? Or did we just not speak the same language? Or did fear make us drive them to their end? Alternatively, did we secretly wonder about each other’s habits, smells, grunts, games? Did we secretly desire our other human version? And did we give in to these desires?

If Trinkaus and Zilhao are right, they may have done so under the Portuguese moon.

In the natural world, hybridization is a lot more frequent than we think: James Mallet (2005) shows that 75% of british ducks, 25% of american warblers, 25% of UK vascular plants, 12% of European butterflies, 10% of the world’s birds,  and 6% of European mammals hybridize in the wild. As for primates, there are well documented cases of hybrid zones for baboons (Ackermann et al, 2006; Gabow, 1975; Jolly et al, 1997), Sulawesi macaques (Schillaci et al, 2005; Bynum, 2002), and Saddle-ack Tamarins (Kohn et al, 2001; Hutchison and Cheverud, 1995) in the wild.

Although I don’t think the case for Homo-Neanderthal hybridization is solid enough as it stands today – nor do I think that bones can ever answer this question – my human imagination very much hopes it happened. I am waiting in anticipation for the results of the new genetic mapping project currently under way. I do strongly suspect that this will show that we kept mostly to ourselves – intercourse-wise – but in our psyche, however, I believe we’ve blended the Neanderthal with ourselves, permanently.

And whether his genes are within us or not, there is most definitely a little bit of Neanderthal within us all…