Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bernard Arcand R.I.P.

The anthropologist Bernard Arcand passed away last Friday at the age of 63. He was one of my favorite professors at Laval, probably because he was among the least ideological ones. He avidly read the works of different Marxist writers but never considered himself to be one. In fact, he often criticized the unconscious Marxism that had seeped into much of anthropology, particularly the tendency to classify different populations by their mode of subsistence, notably hunter-gatherers versus agriculturalists. He would point out to us the artificiality of this distinction, and how there was just as much difference within these two categories as between them. In comparison to most agriculturalists, some hunter-gatherers were actually more sedentary, others more densely populated, and others still less egalitarian.

The Calusa of southern Florida formed a society divided into classes, lived in villages that could hold over 2,000 people, built temples, and kept an army that ensured the payment of tribute needed for a hierarchical system of local chiefdoms. This social complexity and these unequal social relations were supported by a hunting and gathering economy. (Arcand, 1988, p. 43)

According to Bernard, this unconscious Marxism reflected an economic determinism that was equally popular on the left and the right.

… an emergent industrial ideology ... succeeded, mainly in the 19th century, in postulating that the economy has an autonomous status and should be seen as the ultimate determinant of society and culture. The argument is already well known and need not be repeated. Industrial capitalism and its socialist critics affirmed the crucial determining role of the development of productive forces, which would ensure rising productivity and be a key condition for progress and happiness. Despite the radical contrast between their political programs and goals, capitalism and socialism wanted to take over the same producing machine. More humbly placed, the anthropology of hunter-gatherers could not easily claim that everyone was wrong and that this was all just secondary. So it went on pretending that the mode of subsistence was what mattered. (Arcand, 1988, p. 52)

Bernard was also a man of letters who wrote not only academic articles but also readable essays for the public at large, such as Abolissons l'hiver and an essay on pornography called Le jaguar et le tamanoir. His analysis was striking in its originality. To be sure, his works suffered from one shortcoming: very few of them have been translated into English.

He will be missed.


Arcand, B. (1988). Il n’y a jamais eu de société de chasseurs-cueilleurs. Anthropologie et Sociétés, 12, 39-58.


Anonymous said...

The Jaguar and the Anteater is available in translation and can be previewed on google books. (It does read like a translation from French )

His point about the variety of social systems amoung hunter-gatherers would really apply to those doing a lot of gathering rather than to Arctic environments where they were mainly hunters though.

There is an article that says "fewer people with MS are born in November and more in May, implicating a lack of sunshine during pregnancy". I believe schizophrenia is far more commom in those born in Febuary.

Anyway in ice age European steppe tundra women the seasonal scarcity of food would presumably favour those who were made pregnant at certain times of year, even with agriculture seasonal hunger was common in northern Europe. The realease of 'D' from breakdown of bodyfat stores containing vitamin D in times on hunger would not occur for modern (often obese) western people who sequestrate vitamin D in bodyfat stores that are not broken down by seasonal food shortage.

Anonymous said...

Could ultraviolet B irradiance and vitamin D be associated with lower incidence rates of ...(fill in the blank) Some examples 1 , 2, 3

Vitamin D 'insufficiency' (putatively due to living at a high high latitude)as the cause of a myriad of diseases is being given ever more credence in the medical world . The reception your ideas on the evolution of white skin get will be badly affected if the public has it hammered into its mind by journalists quoting epidemiologists that vitamin D is vitally necessary for health and in short supply away from the equator.

The availability of berries to be gathered along with the fattened prey animals being more easily hunted must have made summer a time when an excess of calories was being ingested and hence a time when bodyfat was increasing. Summer would certainly be a time when vitamin D was synthesized in excess of requirements. It is known that vitamin D is stored in the stored in the body fat.

As you have said
"Food scarcity is endemic among Arctic groups. Typically, food crises occur over yearly and generational cycles".

Presumably winter would be such a time, if so it would also be a time when the bodyfat added to in the summer was used up. Hence there may be an additional benefit to the breakdown and metabolism of adipose tissue in the UVB-less months of winter inasmuch as this also results in the stored vitamin D being released to supply the bodies requirements though the UVB-less months - precisely when it is needed.

Agriculture probably shoud not be expected to have changed this system much, seasonal fluctuations in bodyfat along with food scarcity may have been less dramatic but winter was a time of hunger well into historical time in northern Europe

The relevance of this to modern claims of Vitamin D 'insufficiency' is that for today's people there are no periods of food scarcity and hence adipose tissue fails to release its stores of vitamin D . Scots whose high rates of disease at a high latitude make them the best example of the vitamin D insufficiency theory are more obese than anyone but Americans.
Seasonal variance of 25-(OH) vitamin D in the general population
Vitamin D insufficiency in southern Arizona
Prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency in obese children and adolescents.
Body fat and vitamin D status in black versus white women.
Body fat content and 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in healthy women.

Anonymous said...

I remember Paul Emil Victor saying that inuit women didn't have menstrues all years long but does it necessarily apply to european hunters gatherers ? after all inuits are basically asian while the first european hunters can be described as african or bushmen living in cold countries, according to genetic and figurines.
Am I correct ?
And also, about food scarcity in these european hunters, are you so sure food was so scarce? the few figurines we have show well fed women.
Why has the food to be so scarce if there is abundant games for hunting and plentiful of fishes, berries and nuts, probably more than in Africa?


Anonymous said...


Yes, the term "hunter-gatherer" is a misnomer for Arctic groups, since they engage in very little gathering. But it's one of those terms that have become almost mandatory in anthropology.

"The reception your ideas on the evolution of white skin get will be badly affected if the public has it hammered into its mind by journalists quoting epidemiologists that vitamin D is vitally necessary for health and in short supply away from the equator."

The vitamin D theory of European depigmentation is not new, although it seems to be getting a new lease on life through Dr. Holick's writings (generously funded by the suntanning industry).

Vitamin D is essential for human health. It doesn't follow, however, that people need white skin at northern latitudes to get enough of this vitamin. UV light is blocked more by dark skin than by light skin, but this does not seem to be a constraint on vitamin D synthesis and calcium metabolism. Rickets is rare among British people of West Indian origin. It is also rare among the indigenous darker-skinned inhabitants of northern Asia and North America. Yes, it is common among British Asians, but this seems to be due to their diet and their systematic avoidance of sun exposure (to be as light-skinned as possible). When South Asian, European, and Black African subjects are irradiated with the same amount of UV light, their skin produces similar amounts of vitamin D. A recent study of subjects from Hawaii (of different ethnic backgrounds) found no relation between skin color and calcium metabolism.

So how can a need for vitamin D explain the white skin of Europeans when skin is naturally darker in people who live quite well at the same northern latitudes?

Recently, the anomaly of European skin depigmentation has been attributed to the introduction of cereal crops to Europe, some 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. Whole meal cereals contain phytic acid, which binds to calcium, making it unusable, and thus increases the body's need for vitamin D. It seems, however, that the high phytic acid content of cereals is a recent phenomenon (which may account for the epidemic of rickets in the 19th and early 20th centuries). Older methods of cereal processing greatly reduced phytic acid content.

This debate will be resolved when we get firm dating of the period when European skin became white. Current evidence points to a relatively narrow time frame, either in the second half of the ice age or in the early Holocene. If it happened before the Holocene, the vitamin D hypothesis will no longer be credible.


Bernard Saladin d'Anglure told me that traditional Inuit women rarely menstruated because they were almost always pregnant. Of course, this is no longer true for the younger generation.

Food scarcity in Arctic hunting peoples is cyclical. The following is from my latest article: "Sexual Selection and Human Geographic Variation"

Although these herds were a potentially rich food source, early modern humans found them difficult to exploit for reasons still true today. First, wild reindeer herds fluctuate greatly in size within any area of their range, in part because they annually migrate over long distances but also because they go through longer-term cycles of expansion and contraction (Burch, 1972, pp. 352-359). Among caribou-dependent Inuit, “at least 1 period of hunger or starvation is part of the normal annual cycle” (Burch, 1972, p. 350). The same Inuit are “faced with a major resource crisis at least once every 2 or 3 generations” (Burch, 1972, p. 356).

Anonymous said...

"I remember Paul Emil Victor saying that inuit women didn't have menstrues all years long but does it necessarily apply to european hunters "

Maybe the timing of birth was constrained by low bodyfat. But I do think the hunting would be far more difficult at some times of year and therefor the bodyfat levels would fluctuate in a regular way with the women able to gather in the summer.Inuit are the closest thing to the "loess-steppe of the Last Glacial Maximum (25,000-13,000 BP)"
I have read that even the contents of the caribou's stomach was eaten.

The Inuit have traditionally been hunters and fishers. To this day, they still hunt, whales, walruses, caribou, seals, and at times other less commonly eaten animals. Their traditional winter diet does not contain plant matter. But, depending on the season, Grasses, tubers, roots, stems, berries, and edible seaweed are collected and preserved.
I am certain that in the summer the ice age hunters would be eating all the berries they could get. They would be doing a Atkins diet with little food and no carbs (apart from glycogen in the meat) at all though winter remember.

Anonymous said...

Even though female skin has less melanin, it also has more carotene, which blocks UV-A and neutralizes free radicals

Compared to sunlight sunbeds are said to emit extremely strong UVA.
I always wondered about those orange hued sunbed users

"In the past UVA was considered the safer form of ultraviolet light, and whilst it appears to be responsible for less cancer concerns than UVB, it causes melanoma, which is by far the most dangerous type of skin cancer. UVA light penetrates the skin deeply, destroys Vitamin A, and can cause indirect DNA damage. It does not cause reddening (erythema) of the skin so making it harder to measure possible damage to the skin from exposure".

"PUVA Treatment
PUVA treatment is the usage of UVA light in combination with psoralens (drugs) to make the skin hyper-photosensitive and is effective in the treatment psoriasis. However aside from any concerns about the UVA, the number of treatments must be carefully monitored and restricted over the lifetime of a patient due to the potential of liver damage caused by the psoralens".

This treatment using UVA and very powerful psoralens is what the study (Branda & Eaton1978) that Nina G Jablonski cites as evidence that folic acid is destoyed by sunlight was studying. This is does not square with the in vitro result of '5-Methyltetrahydrofolate inhibits photosensitization reactions and strand breaks in DNA' which I have linked to. Here is confirmation of that in vivo Serum folate levels after UVA exposure: a two-group parallel randomised controlled trial
"Our data suggest that both single and serial UVA exposures do not significantly influence serum folate levels in vivo."

Anonymous said...

Peter, I read your "Sexual Selection and Human Geographic Variation" article with interest.
When you mention all the postglacial european fauna, I feel that european hunters had way more food availability than today's inuits or africans.
Beside reindeers, there was lots of big animals in Europe. If you can kill an auroch, it seems to me that you are good for a long time if you can keep the meat smoked, dried, or salted.

I am not even sure that food availabilty has increased since. For exemple I have memories of my father telling me stories about him as a kid in the 1940's. His mom was feeding him meat almost by force, because my grandparents, who were peasants, thought that he was rachitic and rachitism was a great shame in a family. This shows that rachitism was still common in eastern France at this time. I have also saw some pictures of my other grand parents, in northen France, taken at a family reunion in 1920's or 30's. In today's standard you would say that everybody look underfed and skinny, even emaciated. These people were not hunters, but worked in agriculture (beets or potatoe fields) or in factories. By comparison, my great grand father, a hunter, looked in much better shape and showed a healthy and strong body.
So, while european hunters had probably lots of hard physical work to do, Europe is more generous than the artic or africa and I wonder if agriculture even improved much food availabilty.


Anonymous said...


Nina Jablonski wants to show that variation in skin color mainly reflects the intensity of UV radiation. I don't deny that UV plays a role, but it seems to be a significant selective agent only at the extremes of skin pigmentation, i.e., very light or very dark skin. Brown skin seems to be adaptive at all latitudes, as may be seen in the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas.

The current genetic data suggest that early Europeans remained brown-skinned for at least 20,000 years after their arrival in Europe. How can this be explained in terms of the level of UV radiation?


There is a lot of evidence that human health declined with the advent of agriculture. The diet was less nutritious and people had to put in longer hours of backbreaking work. There is also evidence (from interviews) that most hunter-gatherers refuse to adopt agriculture even when the techniques are fully explained to them.

So why did agriculture replace hunting and gathering? Because it allows a much higher ratio of people to land. Agricultural societies made possible much larger populations. It was by force of numbers that they overwhelmed hunter-gatherer societies.

Anonymous said...

Sunbathers: Beware the A-ray
Redheads make only one of the two main types of melanin, a red-yellow pigment called pheomelanin. They cannot make black-brown melanin, or eumelanin. Pheomelanin is the less stable of the two and is more likely to generate radicals. Non-redheads have both types of pigment, but produce more eumelanin when they tan. "You could imagine that the benefit of a tan is that it is switching the ratio from high pheomelanin/low eumelanin to higher eumelanin, which may explain why very dark-skinned people or people who tan are less likely to develop melanoma," says Fisher.

Why was white skin not formed by progressive reduction of eumelanin ?
Pheomelanin was not necessary to have pale skin and increases the risk of cancer (something that that producing white skin by simply lowering eumelanin does not do). Pheomelanin must have some advantage that outweighs its cancer promoting effect.

It produces novel hair colours

Anonymous said...

It produced novel hair colours.

For how long do you expect to see redheads in countries like the US and most of europe? one, two generations maybe.
After that, the carrots are cooked.