After years of speculation a team of researchers has pinpointed the age of this ancient mystery.
- The Plain of Jars consists of over 90 sites containing thousands of jars scattered across Laos.
- According to new research, these jars were constructed sometime between 1240 and 660 BCE.
- In 2019, UNESCO named a cluster of 11 regions as a World Heritage Site.
The stone jar sites scattered around Laos are considered the most unique and important archaeological finds in all of Southeast Asia. In total, over 90 sites have been identified, with each site containing between one and 400 jars, some of which weigh up to 20 tons.
Carved of rock and cylindrically-shaped, the predominantly undecorated jars—only one features a "frogman" etched into its exterior—vary in shape and size, though they are predominantly constructed of sandstone. Other materials used include breccia, conglomerate, granite, and limestone. The jars range from one to three meters tall.
The purpose of these jars has long been debated. Given their proximity to funerary grounds, they might have served a ritual purpose or merely marked where the dead were buried. They might have housed cremated remains. A more pragmatic purpose has been put forward: to collect monsoon rainwater.
The Plain of Jars, as this network is known, was heavily bombed by the United States Air Force in the 1960s. In fact, the USAF dropped more bombs on Laos (specifically, these jar sites) than in the entirety of World War II—a total of 262 million cluster bombs. Some 80 million remain undetonated, making them a daily threat to the population of Laos today.
Protective measures are now being taken. In 2019, UNESCO designated a group of 11 of these regions as a World Heritage Site. The organization notes that these sites represent a historical crossroads between the Mun-Mekong system and the Red River/Gulf of Tonkin system, noting that beyond ritual purpose, they could have been utilized by travelers in some capacity—hence the rainwater theory.
After decades of speculation and research, a team led by two Australian researchers and one Laotian researcher have dated these jars. Using a fossil-dating technology known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), the team examined sediment from underneath jars at 120 different locations, discovering that they were constructed sometime between 1240 and 660 BCE.
View to the southwest at megalithic jar Site 1.
Credit: Louise Shewan, et al.
Dr. Louise Shewan from the University of Melbourne explains,
"With these new data and radiocarbon dates obtained for skeletal material and charcoal from other burial contexts, we now know that these sites have maintained enduring ritual significance from the period of their initial jar placement into historic times."
How the jars were moved around Laos remains unknown. As with other ancient mysteries—the various henges around Scotland and England; the interconnected network of cities in the Harappan civilization—understanding the rituals associated with and technologies used to create awe-inspiring monuments remains a dream for many archaeologists.
The team behind this research plans on examining more samples from these Laotian jars—a particularly daunting challenge considering less than 10 percent of jar sites have been cleared of American explosives. Shewan is excited about the prospects of what further testing could reveal, however.
"We expect that this complex process will eventually help us share more insights into what is one of Southeast Asia's most mysterious archaeological cultures."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
At the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is just a few weeks shy of being one year old. Many people have been practicing social distancing, quarantine, and isolation procedures for most of that time. While these practices have had a real effect on case numbers, they have also had more than a few adverse side effects. In Japan, the government is blaming a recent increase in suicide rates on the difficulties caused by isolation.
Japan, which has done an excellent job of keeping COVID death rates low, saw an increase in the number of suicides among women and students during the last year. Despite the continued fall in the suicide rate for men, Japan still has the highest suicide rate among any G7 nation.
In hopes of attacking the problem at its perceived source, the Japanese government has taken the bold step of appointing a cabinet member dedicated to the loneliness crisis.
The Ministry of Loneliness
Tetsushi Sakamoto, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this month to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely individuals.
Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different ministries that hope to address the issue alongside a task force. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.
Hikikomori, often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many countries, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at risk of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and distress.
Kodokushi, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.
These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to smoking. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social problems. It is even associated with changes in the brain. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real consequences.
The virus that broke the camel's back
A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic.
Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation considered. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other countries.
American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly 3 in 5 Americans reported being lonely in a report issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years.
In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's final report paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.
The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in 2018, Tracey Crouch, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem.
The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.
If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.
Knowing what to do is one thing, doing it is another.
- The trolley problem is a well-known thought experiment, and its variations provide the source of endless discussion.
- However, few people consider the problem holistically. Would you actually be able to pull the lever?
- A new essay reminds us that many philosophies have a holistic approach to moral problems that we should consider.
The trolley problem likely has the honor of being the most widely discussed thought experiment of all time due to its popularity outside of academic circles. Devised in its current form by Phillipa Foot in 1967 and existing in similar ones for decades before that, the experiment is an extremely accessible tool for interacting with the problems of ethical theory.
Compared to other, more outlandish thought experiments, it also presents a rather tangible problem for our consideration. Situations similar to the one proposed in the experiment have arisen in real life. However, while we may learn what the right thing to do in theory is by thinking about the problem, that alone does not provide us with the tools to actually pull the lever in the moment where we find ourselves facing such a stark moral choice.
Think about it for a moment—if you were actually watching a runaway train hurtle towards some people, could you think quickly enough to pull the lever in time? Are you physically strong enough to do so? Can you live with the guilt of having essentially decided to kill the person on the other track? Can you handle the guilt of doing nothing? These problems often go unasked, and the utilitarian philosophy most people turn to in answering the trolley problem tends to gloss over these issues even if it, hypothetically, could account for them.
This comprehensive view of the trolley problem and a variety of philosophies that advise holistic responses to such situations are considered in the newly published essay "Bruce Lee and the Trolley Problem: An Analysis from an Asian Martial Arts Tradition," written by Dr. William Sin and published in the journal Sport, Ethics, and Philosophy.
The difference between thinking about the trolley problem and pulling the lever
Dr. Sin, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, argues that the scenario described in the trolley problem is not a mundane occurrence but an extreme event that will require an instantaneous response utilizing not only a person's ethical convictions but also their physical strength, psychological composure, and other capacities.
He turns to certain Eastern philosophies and their often holistic approaches to ethical problems to explain this perspective. The Zen Buddhism of the Samurai and the personal philosophy of martial arts legend Bruce Lee as exemplified by Jeet Kune Do, both approach fights as "extreme events" which cannot be overcome by just knowing what moves to make. A skilled martial artist must also remain calm during a battle, be able to strictly concentrate on the task at hand, and be able to differentiate between the actions done during practice and what is necessary during an actual fight.
A great fighter is not just one who wins, but one who does so well, with masterful control of themselves and their actions as they engage in something most people actively try to avoid. Dr. Sin connects this multifaceted understanding of fighting to how an individual must approach pulling or not pulling the lever in the trolley problem:
"The greatness or goodness of an action can't be judged purely by looking at its consequences, or by the type of action that it falls under in certain deontological categories. In addition, we need to consider the features of the moral battlefield that the agent is fighting against; these might involve how much blame/guilt that an agent is willing to carry, how demanding the situation is from the agent's viewpoint, how great the obstacles are for him to overcome, etc. In the trolley case, we can tell the difference between better or worse responses as some agents are able to maintain composure in an extreme situation and some aren't. A panicked or chaotic response may not mean much ethically, even if it saved more lives than it killed."
Three philosophies and their stances on complex moral problems
Unlike utilitarianism or deontology, which are primarily concerned with showing you what to do in a particular situation, the philosophies Dr. Sin examines, including Zen Buddhism, Bruce Lee's take on Jeet Kune Do, and Confucianism, often aim for the "practical refinement of life" rather than writing a decision process for difficult questions.
As Dr. Sin explains, this means these schools lend themselves to more holistic interpretations of approaching ethical problems and extraordinary events:
"While Jeet Kune Do prepares people for a physical encounter with their enemies in the street, a bar, or carpark, Bruce Lee emphasizes the importance of knowing oneself through the confrontations. The doctrines of Zen Buddhism were interpreted similarly by traditional Japanese swordsmen. But the practice and rigid discipline in Zen Buddhism is primarily proposed for the sake of self-realization: for practitioners to 'overcome the barrier between life and death (liaoshengjuesi了生決死).' Judgements about what people should do in particular cases stem from this direction of concern. The Zen Buddhists or traditional Confucians are not so interested in analyzing the balance of reasons in particular cases, or testing the consistency of ethical principles as such.
In the Analects, Confucius sometimes says different things to different students, seemingly contradicting himself. But he doesn't really care about demonstrating the overall structure of his "doctrines." He cares more about whether his words and deeds can help improve his students' characters, or highlight their mistakes when they arise. For Confucius, the objective of learning is largely about acquiring the know how for someone to become a better father, son, minister, etc. Confucius, in his teaching, does not like to engage in arguments. He prefers his students see the flaws themselves in their own reflection and correct them silently."
When asked if the principle of treating some ethical questions holistically went beyond fights and runaway trolleys, Dr. Sin largely agreed. "You can say that all performances should be evaluated holistically," he said. "We should always look beyond the actions, or their consequences, and study the territory in which the persons perform those actions. By 'territory,' I mean the kind of people the agents are, their histories, other features of the situation that are pertinent to them."
How can I use these insights?
Dr. Sin points out that many Zen monks apply this understanding in day to day life. "Some Japanese Zen monks adopt an attitude of seriousness to handle small things and routine matters. Apart from its intrinsic values (to achieve a small moral triumph), the practice itself is useful for self-cultivation."
There is no real reason that you have to be a monk to do that. He also suggests taking a look at the key texts of these philosophies. The "Analects" of Confucius and "The Tao of Jeet Kune Do" by Bruce Lee, for example, both provide thought-provoking and useful ideas.
And for those wondering how a Zen Master or Confucian Sage might act when faced with an out of control trolley car, Dr. Sin reminds us that they would consider that to be the wrong question. "For, the 'solution' is dependent on the readiness of the agents in the case. As Nietzsche says, strong people can digest their experiences (including deeds and misdeeds) as they digest their meals. If the people are not ready, there is not much to be said here."
He went on to suggest a Zen monk might hit you with a keisaku for asking and that Bruce Lee might see how you react to a fury of fists stopping near your face.
While it is entertaining and often intellectually stimulating to consider what the right thing to do in the situation imagined by the trolley problem and its endless variations would be, Dr. Sin and the thinkers he references remind us that it is often not enough to merely know what we should do but also to have the capacity to act on that information. A total response to the extreme situation imagined in the trolley problem will require various skills that may need active cultivation before such an event occurs.
A new study shows that at least one long-ago journey would have required deliberate navigation.
- Historians have wondered whether ancient mariners drifted from Taiwan to Japan or navigated there on purpose.
- The passage between Taiwan and the Ryukyu islands contains one of the world's strongest currents.
- Thousands of buoys suggests that the journey was anything but an accident.
It's something experts are still piecing together, but there's a growing body of evidence that as humans left Africa and scattered across the globe, they often did so by traversing land bridges that are now underwater, and, in other cases, by crossing oceans.
There was really no other way they might have gotten to Australia, for example, even linked as it was for a time with New Guinea as the Sahul landmass. There was always ocean between the continent and Asia, from which its early inhabitants apparently came. It may well have been a less daunting passage at times of lower sea levels, however.
What, if anything, guided ancient mariners to the places they reached remains an intriguing riddle. Did they just drift on currents hoping to bump into somewhere to land, or was their navigation more intentional?
A new study from researchers at the University of Tokyo suggests the latter, at least in the case of the ancient migration from Taiwan to the Ryukyu Islands in southwestern Japan—Okinawa is one of the those islands—some 30,000 to 35,000 years ago.
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Not an easy trip
Yosuke Kaifu of the University Museum at the University of Tokyo and his colleagues sought to answer the longstanding riddle. "There have been many studies on Paleolithic migrations to Australia and its neighboring landmasses," said Kaifu in a press release, "often discussing whether these journeys were accidental or intentional."
"Our study looks specifically at the migration to the Ryukyu Islands because it is not just historically significant, but is also very difficult to get there."
The ancient sailors would have known of the islands because they were visible from the top of a mountain on the coast of Taiwan, although not down along the coast itself.
The waters between Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands represented an opportunity for the researchers since they are dominated by the Kuirishio current, one of the strongest currents in the world. The researchers' hypothesis was that sailors were unlikely to have crossed it accidentally. Says Kaifu, "If they crossed this sea deliberately, it must have been a bold act of exploration."
Credit: w.aoki/Adobe Stock
Buoys will be buoys
Kaifu had long been interested in devising some kind of experiment to better understand those who made the journey but, "had no idea how to demonstrate the intentionality of the sea crossings." Upon meeting the study's Taiwanese co-authors, experts in the Kuirishio, the outlines of a plan because clear.
To test the possibility of an accidental arrival at the Ryukyu Islands, Kaifu and his team set 138 satellite-tracked buoys adrift and tracked how many of them managed to float over to the islands.
"Only four of the buoys came within 20 kilometers of any of the Ryukyu Islands, and all of these were due to adverse weather conditions," explains Kaifu. This was an unlikely factor in the human travelers' voyage because, "If you were an ancient mariner, it's very unlikely you would have set out on any kind of journey with such a storm on the horizon."
The results reveal that the current was more likely to take ancient sailors anywhere but the islands. "What this tells us is that the Kuroshio directs drifters away from, rather than towards, the Ryukyu Islands; in other words, that region must have been actively navigated."
Where the buoys traveled
Credit: Tien-Hsia Kuo/University of Tokyo
An old current
Supporting the researchers findings are geologic records from the area that suggests the Kuirishio hasn't changed since the mariners' journey so long ago — it's been present in its current form for about 100,000 years.
The research appears to answer the riddle of at least this one ancient migration, says Kaifu: "Now, our results suggest the drift hypothesis for Paleolithic migration in this region is almost impossible. I believe we succeeded in making a strong argument that the ancient populations in question were not passengers of chance, but explorers."