From Ḥadīth to Zawāmil

Today's big news from Yemen, as usual, happened in Arabic. Ḥasan Muḥammad Manā', who is quickly becoming my favorite governor to read, has an interview in today's al-Sharq al-Awsat. How can you not like a guy who quotes a ḥadīth in an interview with the press?

He talks about a number of things - the state of al-Qaeda in Ṣa'dah (weak), his reaction to the Huthis overtures (lies and deceptions, nice to see he has the same script as San'a) and, of course, the recent arrest of his brother, Fāris - but the thing I found most interesting was his discussion of the tribal fighters from the al-Ḥada tribe.

The reporter asked about the 1000 tribal fighters, but was quickly corrected by al-Manā', who said it was only 150 and they were only there as guards for a convoy of supplies. But what is missed in this exchange is that the government's current military commander in Ṣa'dah, Muḥammad al-Qawsī (the principal deputy in the Ministry of the Interior - also a key figure in the politics of marriage) is from this same tribe. The links, as always, are more fascinating the deeper you go.

From there the quality of the day dropped off significantly.

First, there is Jonathan Schanzer's testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which depressed me, and not for the usual reasons that reading about Yemen depresses me.

Next up was this report, following an event today at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The report is much too massive for a Wednesday evening, but in skimming through it I noticed two things. First, everything I said at a Carnegie event back in July was attributed to Christopher Boucek and not to me (the person who said them). That is not the way to win friends at Waq al-waq. C'mon, we know you can do better.

Second, the piece for some reason claims that Imām Aḥmad was known as "the devil." I nearly choked on my Gatorade.

Still, it was an admirable attempt to add color to the report. It just happened to be incorrect and misleading color. The Arabic, I'm fairly certain, that Ahmad would have used to refer to himself would have been Bāhūt and not Iblīs. R.B. Serjeant - a huge hero of Waq al-waq, who reportedly liked a fine single malt - translated Bāhūt as "The Terrible," a phrase I cannot improve upon.

After the latter two reports, the rest of my to-read pile on Yemen lost its attraction.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.