30 TED Talks on Anthropology and Archaeology

Here is a collection of TED Talks (and TedX) regarding anthropology and archaeology on a wide variety of topics.

These are curated by me after years of bookmarking TED talks.
Each talk has an idea or a random element within the talk that broadened my thinking and hope they will provide the same for you.

How Language Transformed Humanity – Mark Pagel

Evolutionary biologist Mark Page shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of “social technology” that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.


How Archaeology Teaches Sustainable Architecture – Rachel Prinz

Architectural designer and historian Rachel Preston Prinz believes that  integrating ancient building forms by modern architects and builders result in a visually stunning  sustainable architecture that also reflects our heritage.


New York — Before The City – Eric Sanderson

400 years after Hudson found New York Harbor, Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson shares how we made a 3D map of Mannahatta’s fascinating pre-city ecology of hills, rivers, wildlife–accurate down to the block–when Times Square was a wetland and you couldn’t get a delivery. This video may be helpful for those practicing GIS archaeology, landscape archaeology, GIS, 3D mapping.


A Rosetta Stone for a Lost Language – Rajesh Rao

Computational Scientist Rajesh Rao explains how he is implementing modern computational techniques to try and decipher the 4,000 year old Indus script.


Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land – The Future of the Past – Thomas Levy

Thomas Levy showcases cutting-archaeological methods that are helping create a new and objective future of the past.


What Separates us from Chimpanzees? – Jane Goodall

Primatologist Jane Goodall states the only real difference between humans and chimps is our sophisticated language and advises us to start using it to change the world.


America’s Native Prisoners of War – Aaron Huey

Photographer Aaron Huey takes you on an anthropological journey through a series of photos from his five years of work with the struggling native Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.


DNA Clues to our inner Neanderthal – Svante Paabo

Geneticist Svante Paabo shares the results of a massive, worldwide study and the DNA proof that early humans mated with Neanderthals after we moved out of Africa. Paabo also discusses who we were able to identify a whole new humanoid species based on  a fragment of a baby bone.


Ancient Wonders Captured in 3D – Ben Kacyra

Digital Preservationist Ben Kacyra invented a groundbreaking 3D scanning system and is using it to scan and preserve the world’s heritage in archival detail that are under threat from pollution, war, and neglect.


Changing the Way We See Native Americans – Matika Wilbur

Native American and Photographer Matika Wilbur wants to change the way Native Americans are portrayed and seen by showing the viewers photographs that show their truth and beauty.


Tracking Ancient Diseases Using Plaque – Christina Warinner

Archaeological geneticist Christina Warinner uses the microbial DNA in fossilized dental plaque to track ancient diseases from past to present.


A Dig for Humanity’s Origins – Louise Leakey

Paleoanthropologist Louise Leakey takes you on a quest to the Rift Valley in Eastern Africa in order to answer the question “Who are we?” Digging for evolutionary origins of humankind, Leakey also suggests a stunning new vision of our competing ancestors.


Cultural Heritage: A Basic Human Need – Sada Mire

Somalian archaeologist Sada Mire believes that cultural heritage is a basic human need based off her archaeological experience.


Dreams from Endangered Cultures – Wade Davis

A personal favorite anthropologist/ethnobotanist of mine, Wade Davis celebrates the extraordinary diversity of the world’s indigenous cultures through photos and stories that are also disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate.


A Family Tree for Humanity – Spencer Wells

Genographer Spencer Wells talks about his genographic project that uses the shared DNA common bits that all humans share from our African ancestors to figure out how all are truly connected – despite our diversity.


Redefining Success: Archaeology as a Way to Embrace the World – George Bey

Anthropologist and Mesoamerican archaeologist George Bey discusses archaeology as a way to engage the world.


Lessons From Easter Island – Carl Lipo

Archaeologist Carl Lipo discusses the history of Easter Island and how merging his former engineering background led to his discovery on how the Moai Statues were moved.


The Search for Humanity’s Roots – Zeresenay Alemseged

Paleoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged searches for humanity’s roots in the badlands of Ethiopia, revealing his discovery of finding the oldest skeleton of a humanoid child and how Africa holds the clues to our humanity.


Will our Kids be a Different Species? – Juan Enriquez

Throughout human evolution, multiple versions of humans co-existed. Juan Enriquez suggests we could be in mid-upgrade right now and shows us how technology is revealing evidence that suggests rapid evolution may be under way.


Archaeology from Space – Sarah Parcak

Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak introduces the field of “space archaeology” that uses satellite images to search for clues of ancient civilizations and lost sites.


What I Dug Up From New York City’s Streets – Alyssa Loorya

Urban archaeologist Alyssa Loorya talks about her NYC urban archaeology adventures and the discovery of artifacts that help tell a story about our past.


The Story About our Past – Sjoerd van der Linde

Professor and archaeologist Sjoerd van der Linde talks about archaeologist’s subjectivity on cultural heritage and explores questions like is the past dead?, who does the past belong to? and how should we preserve it? Linde is also a proponent on giving communities the tools of archaeology so that they can preserve their history.


We are all Cyborgs – Amber Case

Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case argues that technology is evolving us. 21st century humans rely on “external brains” like cell phones, computers, and other connected gadgets to remember, communicate and for almost everything else. Case offers surprising insight into our ‘cyborg’ selves when exploring whether these machines will ultimately connect us or conquer us.


The Anthropology of Mobile Phones – Jan Chipchase

User anthropologist Jan Chipchase has made some unexpected discoveries throughout his investigation on how we interact with technology that has led from the villages of Uganda to China.


A Monkey Economy as Irrational as Ours – Laurie Santos

Experimental/cognitive psychologist Laurie Santos works with primates to search for the roots of human irrationality and shows us a series of experiments in “monkeynomics” that reveals some of the silly choices we make, monkeys make too.


Skin Color is an Illusion – Nina Jablonski

Anthropologist Nina Jablonski teaches that differing skin colors are simply our bodies’ adaptation to varied climates and levels of UV exposure – alerting us that Darwin disagreed with this theory, but that’s because he didn’t have access to NASA, she explains.


The Gentle Genius of Bonobos – Susan Savage-Rumbaugh

Primatologist Susan Savage-Rumbaugh  lifelong work with bonobos forces us to rethink how much of what a species can do is determined by biology and how much is determined by cultural exposure.


2600 Years of History in One Object – Neil MacGregor

Director of the British museum Neil MacGregor takes us on a journey of 2600 years of Middle Eastern History through one single object: a clay cylinder covered in Akkadian cuneiform script that is a powerful symbol of religious tolerance and multi-culturalism.


Analyzing the Past – Chemistry, Archaeology, and Art – Ruth Ann Armitage

Chemist Ruth Ann Armitage describes analytical chemistry research on historical and archaeological materials, colonial bricks, ancient rock paintings, and tiny fragments of textile to explore the questions of what chemistry can and cannot answer about our ancient past.


A Forensic Anthropologist who Brings Closure for the “Disappeared” – Fredy Peccerelli

Forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli and his team uses DNA, archaeology, and storytelling to help families find the bodies of their loved ones among the 200,000 civilians killed in Guatemala’s 36-year conflict.


Understanding Evolution: Macroevolution & Major Transitions

Evolution is a fascinating topic that allows you to look at life through the lens of deep time. ‘Deep time’ are vast intervals that cannot be experienced in normal everyday life and it is studied through the science disciplines of geology and paleontology.

But what is ‘evolution’? Is it a fact? Is it a theory?

There are many variants on the definition of evolution, but in the most concise definition, evolution is change over time. More importantly, it is the observable change over time on generations. Changes in a single human individual is not evolution, but developmental. Evolution is concerned with changes on a population.

Evolution is often divided into microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution refers to change within a species. Species are a group of organisms with shared traits, but a condensed definition of species is a closed gene pool. Macroevolution is when a species changes into another species – a process known as speciation.

Evolution is both a fact and theory.  Across the scientific disciplines, evolution without an argument is a fact. The ‘fact’ stems from the overwhelming amount of evidence of the fossil records, transitional fossils, molecular clock, genetics, and so forth, which also includes facts from laboratory experiments and data from the observable real-world. The ‘theory’ part deals with how we think the fact of evolution has occurred.

In this post, we will be concerned with macroevolutionary transitions.

Macroevolution transitions are that of where some great leap happened, such as a novel mean of adapting to a radical environment. For some examples, think about transitions from sea to the land, the land to the air, the land back to the sea, or salt water to fresh water. Think about leaps in habitats that also forced additional leaps in reproduction.  For example, think of the development on land of both plant seeds and enclosed animal eggs as adaptation to arid environments. Another example is live birth by dolphins, which is an adaptation to marine environments.  Fruits with surrounding seeds that entice hungry animals is an adaptation to enhance plant reproduction.

In turn, some major evolutionary transitions actually changed environments, thus driving additional evolutionary transitions. Think of how the evolution of land plants changed landscapes, the evolution of coral reefs changed seascapes, and evolution flying pollinating insects that changed landscapes.

We can see these sorts of transitions all around us. For example, although modern seals and walruses are adapted to spend most of their lives in marine environments, they are descended from land dwelling animals.  An opposite example are penguins which are in transition from terrestrial to marine environments. They descended from birds that originally flew in the air. They now use their flying ability to great advantage when flying under the water.

Here are some major evolutionary transitions:

  • Eukaryotic cells – the first major transition which happened more than 2 billion years ago.
  • Multi-celled animals – single cell eukaryotes evolved to become multi-celled animals ca. 600-550 ma
  • Skeletons – animals went from softbodied to hardbodied with the development of skeletons and other mineralized parts, whether these evolved with shells, bones or teeth.  Animals with a backbone show up in the fossil record ca. 530 ma.
  • Life on land – This is an interesting transition that happened ca. 500 – 400 ma. Here, plants, fungi, and animals all evolved to live on land that descended from organisms that originally lived in marine environments.
  • Vertebrate origins – Vertebrate also became four-legged and started to walk on land ca. 400 ma.
  • Insect flight and coevolution with seed plants – While vertebrates were beginning to walk on four legs, insects also began to appear ca. 400 – 350 ma. The appearance of insects nearly coincided with the transition of plants with seeds and the first forest.
  • First eggs – The evolution of enclosed animal eggs happened ca. 340 – 310 ma. This was a huge transition. This freed reptiles from watery environments and led to the later evolution of mammals and dinosaurs, as well as flying and swimming reptiles.
  • First flowers – The evolution of flowering plants happened ca. 130 -125 ma. This changed the world as we know it. Not coincidentally, this major transition happened with an evolution of insects into pollinating insects.
  • Mammal origins and evolution – Their evolution originally from reptiles happened ca. 230 ma. Later, they underwent additional evolutionary leaps, such as from egg-laying to giving live birth, and from hoofed land-dwellers to whales.
  • Primate and human origins –  There are several important transitions involved in their overall transitions; from tree dwelling primates to the eventual evolution of humans.

Four Factors that are Responsible for Macroevolutionary Change*

Geographic Isolation

Geographic isolation refers to how populations of a species may become isolated from one another. This include a physical barrier like a mountain chain, a river, or an ocean, that splits a species into different places.  Geographic isolation is not restricted to physical barriers, it simply may be an unfavorable habitat between two populations that prevent them from mating with each other. With enough time, geographic isolation can result in a second factor responsible for macroevolutionary change: genetic drift.

Genetic Drift

This means that a species has drifted enough, genetically speaking, from its ancestral population that it then became a different species or even diversified into many species. We sometimes call this adaptive radiation. It is important to note that while we are speaking of genetic drift in a macroevolutionary sense, genetic drift can also operate on the microevolution level without directly attributing to a new species. Genetic drift on this level concerns itself with fluctuations in allele frequencies on a population due to chance.  One example are the Amish people of Eastern Pennsylvania. They are a closed population that originated from a small number of German immigrants. They inherited rare concentrations of gene mutations from the German founders (hence, the founder effect) that is still active in their population. These mutations causes a number of disorders such as polydactyly (extra fingers) and forms of dwarfism. Because Amish people tend to marry within their population, the recessive genes have a high chance to come together during meiosis which requires two copies of the gene to trigger the disorders.

Environmental Change

Environmental change can be local or global. For example, lowering of sea levels during a time of global cooling would be advantageous for those organisms adapted to cool environment, or to an expansion of land environment.

Mass Extinctions

Mass extinctions are recognized as a factor in macro evolution. There has been 5 mass extinctions (a 6th is currently hypothesized) in the geologic past well before humans showed up. These extinctions occurred 440 ma, 360 ma, 250 ma, 200 ma, and 65 ma. We now suspect that these extinction events while also taking out a lot of species, also led to the opening of habitats and resources for those species that survived. One example is the evolution of dinosaurs from ancestral reptiles that occurred after an extinction event 200ma. Extinctions may have hastened some evolutionary transitions.

These four factors could be summarized by a little phrase coined by Charles Darwin: Natural Selection.  After all, as environments change or mass extinctions take place, organisms in the right place, with the right stuff (genetically speaking), gets selected to pass on those genes to the next generation.  Selection also includes the ‘artificial selection’ that we humans have done through the selective breeding and modification of domestic animals.

*Although we speak of four factors/natural selection that drive macroevolutionary change, it is important to note that there are other roles that attribute to evolutionary changes. We’ll examine a bit of these roles to understand how far science has progressed since Charles Darwin proposed the hypothesis of descent with modification via his 1859  book Origins of Species, which later turned into evolutionary theory.

New science roles that emerged since Darwin’s time include plate tectonics, which helps explain how populations have become geographically isolated in the geologic past.  It also helps to explain how volcanism might have altered the atmosphere, how mountain building and how other earth processes change environments or even influence mass extinctions. Developmental biology  examines how genes code for the development of growing organisms and how these genes might be switched on or off during evolution. Ecology is sophisticated science that looks closely and systematically at how organisms and communities interact with one another and how physical factors in their environments affect and guide their evolution. Modern genetic studies also examine genetic similarity and even help to explain sources of variation. One of the tools that are used in genetic studies include the molecular clock (the general idea  is using calculated rates of change in RNA and DNA to estimate when major transitions may have happened.)

Time-permitting, I will come back to expand on a web series regarding evolution.