Most People seem to agree that we cannot and do not want to go back to the past, but the reason given is often wrong; that time has moved on and what was can never be again. The truth is that we cannot go back to what we never left. Our home is the earth, our time the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The past is the formula for our being.
(Paul Shepard)

Monday, 4 November 2013

Barefoot believer

...or re-wilding your feet.
A small selection

Yes!I am a barefoot believer.  How I wish I had a story of back or knee pain gone or ligament damage reversed but I don't, that said I also don't have any stories about having to get my feet to adjust or vicing shin pain etc.
 Anecdotally I can offer more surefootedness when I run or walk but that is about it. I'm not dead yet so who knows where it will lead, surefootedness however is no minor consideration as in my conventional running shoes (asics) I frequently rolled my ankles which was bound to lead to trouble. I run far less now than in the past, due mostly to changes in my life. I will note that my feet hurt if I do a lot of jumping or skipping on hard surfaces. It is possibly better that the soles of my feet hurt stopping me exercising and  preventing me from placing a damging load on my joints. 
 (Pre) Historically footwear has long been an issue and as T.J Elpel noted that this probably prompted many native peoples to go barefoot much of the time. He illustrates this nicely with a story of Native American climbing a scree slope and wearing out several pairs of moccasins. Native Americans also used to spend evenings repairing their footwear.
Brain tan Moccasins and a modern take on Highland Currans
 In Europe, in Britain barefoot was a definite option until fairly recent times, Scots Highlanders, Irish and Welsh all famously went barefoot as have many other mountain peoples. Even shod, European foot wear resembled moccasins (the word itself derives from "mo chasan, my footwear" in Gaelic) until around the 16th century when manufacturing techniques and fashion gave us the heeled footwear of the gentry and wanna-be gentry. Along with ruffs and other immobilising silliness, heels were discarded when training for martial arts or indeed in combat."“cut away the timber-heeles of their bootes, that they might not trippe, but stand firme in their play.”"The triumph of God's revenge" (1621). A glimpse through any historical fencing manual will show uniformly thin, light shoes akin to slippers or indeed moccasins. Highland officers in the eighteenth century abandoned their buckled shoes for traditional hide currans when on campaign as did the highlanders of the British army in North America. Sailors rarely wore footwear in Nelson's navy thought the maritime officer of Regia Anglorum said that so far their period correct (early medieval) footwear has not produced any issues. He did note that they do not sail in adverse weather.
 I am yet to find a paleolithic or Mesolithic trackway that was made by anything other than bare feet. Even the trackways in the caves were made by well formed bare feet. While offering some protection moccasin type foot wear is pretty slick in wet conditions and requires premium parts of animal hide such as Elk (Alces alces) neck they also wear out in short order. Early medieval waste sites show many hundreds of discarded shoes.Indeed it might be thought that the most useful aspect of a leather shoe would be the fact that it will protect any sock or other insulation. Oetzi's shoes were essentially a net for keeping dried grass next to his feet.
Oetzi's shoe
  Some foot protection "must" have been worn by early hominids in Europe to avoid frostbite so the wearing of foot garments probably has a very long pre-history. certainly longer than proposed in this paper. I suspect the authors have not actually worn moccasins I'm not sure how much anatomical change could be wrought from soft, well tailored shoes.
 For modern folk walking barefoot is something of a challenge, German Soldiers in the first world war commented that Europeans would never be able to walk barefoot as Africans who were born to it could. Modern folk also have to contend with litter and continually changing surfaces as we move through our lives, recreationally a barefoot walk in the woods can become a soberingly painful experience when we meet with a cinder path. Even well cared for woods in South East England contain agricultural relics like barbed wire and rather wonderfully in my friends woods a V2 wreck.
 My friends tried walking barefoot as the !kung do in the Kalahari but said the sand was far too hot. Footwear appears optional in the kalahari but the Hadza almost universally wear shoes made from tyres. Suggesting that perhaps culture and different environmental factors will dictate whether
Chauvet footprint
footwear is worn or not. Protection is very much not optional in the sagebrush of the American West as I found out the gard way!
 Walking barefoot is not so much of an option for modern people living in something of a more  dangerous environment., though I have known more than one country eccentric person who walks, or rather walked barefoot on a more or less permanent basis. For most of us however we will need to be walking in some form of footwear. Thankfully over the past few years the barefoot running phenomenon has led to the companies that make barefoot shoes moving into other areas of footwear.
 Barefoot shoes are more than just shoes with a zero drop. Some sport manufacturers have been making zero drop shoes, or rather did not start adding padding to their shoes, for sometime. Converse springs most easily to mind. There are other types of shoes for women that have more or less flat soles. Barefoot shoes are more than just zero-drop however and have a flexible sole that is more or less puncture proof they also have a much wider toe box. Both of these features allow your foot to move in the manner which it has evolved over millions of years to do. The toe box is particularly useful to me as I have wide feet and have had problems buying shoes for years.
 In fact, thinking about it, it is a sign of how mental our society has become that barefoot shoes are a niche and are not the default or "null hypothesis" of shoe manufacture. Many years ago I talked to a physiotherapist who told me that the human body was poorly designed. I told her that it was probably less likely poor-design but more sitting on chairs and other abuses we pile on our savannah-living frame. I may as well have spoken Hungarian. I've seen the same face on doctors and dentists. The assumption is that we are born wrong because the needs of culture cause us problems, not that culture places demands that our biology (and I would argue, psychology) cannot accommodate.
There are plenty of other sites and blogs dealing with pro-prioception and the anatomical advantages of walking in barefoot footwear and I don't really want to go over this here. I really just want to relate my experiences of having worn barefoot shoes for a few years.
One of my methods for teaching silent movement and tracking skills is to get the students to try a simple skill such as carving or laying a fire but with boxing gloves on. This is a pretty effective demonstration of how wrapping up a sensitive appendage in padding makes it , yes safer, but also insensitive and clumsy. Being a wind bag I will also make a quick point about predation, in that animals with insensitive/less sensitive feet such as deer and horses are prey while the predators, especially cats, have very sensitive feet. This doesn't hold up across mammalia but is a pretty good general rule and makes a nice story. In addition most people who take courses wear the "traditional" countryside footwear which makes them look like they have Challenger tanks on their feet.
To paraphrase Mick Dodge, your feet don't toughen going barefoot they get more sensitive. The foot changes,  and this is one of the challenges of wearing barefoot shoes after a while going back to conventional shoes  becomes a very unattractive prospect and indeed when wearing conventional shoes I trip and stumble in a way that alerts me to how infrequent that is when in contact with the ground. It is a bit like wearing sunglasses on a dull day, or maybe like wearing boxing gloves! In addition one's foot widens and conventional shoes feel very restrictive, my wife has noted that her normal shoes now feel very tight. She also relates how the way she moves has changed especially running as some movements are impossible without the cushioning effect of a padded heel. Another barefoot convertee told me that his knees now hurt in conventional shoes as they "correct" the natural walking pattern of his foot. I often think the rolling, dominating slobbish gait of many people would be completely impossible without paving and padded footwear.
Human tracks
 There are very few companies that make suitable footwear. As I have mentioned above, zero drop is only part of the picture and for some activities such as hiking or gardening even that is unavailable outside specialist manufacturers. In the UK Merrel offer an increasing range of minimalist shoes, Vibram offer their five finger range but in very few outlets and Vivio barefoot offer a large range but again this is few a few outlets. I have no idea why but shoes vary in size even with the same manufacturer and ordering through the Internet is not exactly ideal. All manufactures charge a great deal for their product and for some reason design really quite unpleasantly garish shoes. I very much liked the idea of five fingers however this article really put me off. As it seemed like they were little more than smelly and impractical gimmicks. I did find an outlet and tried them on and found them to be pretty uncomfortable too, being both garish and expensive to boot. They do appear to be pretty hard wearing as a few boxers I know wear them for training and they have had them for some time, boxing is very hard on shoes because of the twisting off the foot when punching. 
Boxing lesson!
 Vivo offer a good range and in styles other companies don't do. My daughter has barefoot wellies which for some reason are not offered for adults. I have the hiking boots which are fantastic and the hiking shoes which are truly dire. The problem is that like clothing manufacturers they change their styles every season. The first pair of vivos I bought were and remain the finest shoes I have ever owned. I would be very happy to never have bought another style of shoes ever again. Naturally they discontinued this line. One day I may forgive them!
 Nearly always comfortable, vivo shoes are quite inconsistent in terms of durability and many of the styles are really pretty ugly. They can also be pretty pricey. The company is really sketchy and the 13-14 winter range has been postponed again, not such a problem for me but for retailers I know a major annoyance. I have tried changing shoes with them which has been hard and their store in Brighton stocked shoes for giants and midgets and no-one else. I am also reliably informed that their women's shoes are horrible and I'm not too keen on their men's designs either. The designs are very inconsistent in their durability. Some shoes last for a long time in good condition whereas the expensive hiking shoes started to split within hours of being worn. They  are very stiff and cut my feet if I don't wear very thick socks. I have been told that the boot version of this style have the same problems. Not very impressive at over a hundred pounds.
 You can't go back. Basically I am waiting for other shoe companies to try and get a piece of the barefoot action or better for some of the manufacturers to be bought out by bigger companies and professionalised. A running coach was telling me that most of the mainstream shoe companies are minimalising their lines which is something of a move in the right direction.
 Until Vivo and the other minimalist manufacturers get some real competition  we are going to be stuck with shoe companies that don;t actually seem to have the courage of their own convictions and seem to make shoes designed to be flimsy fashion items for yuppies rather than practical utilitarian footwear for real people, yes I am a real person.
 That said their kids shoes are really top notch........ah the problems of the first world!

Friday, 3 May 2013

How "natural" is violence??

The beginnings of agriculture did not necessarily herald the widespread adoption of violence. In Scandinavia the hunter gatherers of the Mesolithic had a death from violence rate which was high , Ofnet Cave in Bavaria also probably represents a seriously violent event from Mesolithic Germany.
 Violence in pre-history is unequivocal but how much and how far back is more contentious. Often it comes down to belief, and often one's belief in the shape of modern societies. My experience of violence in martial arts and combatives training means that I am far more likely to believe that violence is not a native or natural state for humans though I will make the bold step and acknowledge that this is a belief. In the ring or even "for real" combat is largely a case of not being overwhelmed by your own instinct.
 While Primate males frequently fight over females, studies in human primitive societies have shown that violence does not correlate with reproductive success, Moore (1990) Knauft (1987) Kelly (2000: 20–35) . Moreover studies of primitive farmers in New Guineau have cast doubt on whether land/resource pressures initiate or intensify conflict.
 The Graves at Wetwang Slack in Yorkshire featured three individuals who had been killed by spear thrusts. This was an Iron Age grave and violence at this time was endemic. The report mentioned that death from violence was probably higher given that a lot of human is pretty squishy. This reasoning is often given to inflate or suggest higher violent death rates among prehistoric groups. The problem is that the "squishy bits" are not really good targets. A quick or even slow perusal through medieval fighting texts with show that the head and "upper openings" are the main targets. The legs are attested to in many medieval sources (though without a shield geometry make them a risky proposition)  with the arms (especially the sword arm) also being favoured. The iron age graves from Danebury, which represent men killed in battle, show repeated injuries given  and very often healed injuries sometimes of real severity. This is a pattern repeated at many medieval battle graves. Wounds caused by inter-person violence concentrate on the upper left side of the body given a right handed assailant. In modern times 53.8% of stabs are to the upper body and 11% to the arms (bateman 2003).Contrary to what Hollywood tells us it takes a serious amount of injury to incapacitate a person and it is extremely rare for a person to receive one wound.Everything that will result in a quick death is well protected by bone.  Defensive wounds to the hands and arms are also common as on Oetzi the tyrolean punchbag. Bone wounds especially defensive "parry" wounds are open to interpretation
 Wounds and especially wounds that result in death should be regarded as archaeologically visible and to have a definate signature. Though wounds delivered by projectile may be harder to distinguish from accidents it muct be remembered that there are clear indications on prey animals (junkmans)  that shots were (often successfully) aimed at chest cavities even under difficult circumstances such as stellmoor. The arrowhead embedded in Oetzi is a good example of this.

 1; Violence leaves clear indicators and is archaeologically visible.

 Violence in the Paleolithic is  at considerably lower levels than in later periods. In fact outside the oft cited site at Jebel Sahaba violence is pretty hard to find. The presumably awful events at Jebel Sahaba took place during an especially trying period of climate fluctuation and may represent severe stress and resource depletion in the area. We can't discount the low rate of preservation from the Paleolithic but we might expect to see at least some evidence given some of the high levels of violence cited by authors such as Steven Pinker (1998). It is in fact not unreasonable to expect to see something like 15%+ of the skeletons bearing wounds. There are some clearly human caused wounds from the Paleolithic including the epigravettian graves of  woman from Sicily wounded in the hip (she survived) and a child from the Grotte des Enfants with a flint point in its back. The child was buried with other unwounded children.  Before sapiens there are a few examples of wounded hominids, the Neandertal burials from Shanidar are good candidates for accidents though the blade injury might be suspicious.
Despite being hugely banged-up Neanderthal bones don't tell a story of inter-person violence. Chris Stringer did write that he thought the famously uniform injuries of Neanderthal could represent wrestling injuries, wrestling that would make the UFC look like a child's tantrum! .  The supposed close range hunting method of Neanderthal  gives us a mechanism for blade accidents occurring, the question might be why don't we see more? (American hunters manage about a thousand accidents a year).
Cannibalism or at least excarnation in Hiedlebergensis is supposed at Atapeurca and a number of Neanderthal sites. At Atapeurca at least it appears to have been conducted in a relatively rich environment.Some skulls from this site  have numerous fractures though the cannibalised remains represent younger individuals (3-18).
  During the Holocene, war dominated all artistic records, both pictorial and mythic. This domination makes the lack of any such pictorial record during the Paleolithic even more notable. This is an extraordinary distinction. The palaeobiologist R. Dale Guthrie, arguably the world’s leading authority of Palaeolithic art, comes to this conclusion: “This shortcut to stored bounty by raiding the wealth of others became a universal tribal phenomenon: warring conflicts constitute most of recorded and mythic Holocene history. But Palaeolithic art shows no drawing of group conflict, and there is virtually no indication from late Palaeolithic skeletons of murderous violence.”(source)
2; evidence for violence is rare in the Paleolithic there is no clear evidence for neanderthal beyond possible survival cannibalism. Remains at Atapeurca suggest ritual or conflict cannibalism. Unequivocal evidence of violence is extremely rare.
 The Mesolithic in Europe marks the transition from the Paleolithic to the adoption of agriculture at differing rates through the continent. Other Continents use differing markers to distinguish adoption of lifestyles, for example pre-post columbian in North America. The Mesolithic was marked by a general warming with several intervals of severe cold like the Loch Lomond Stadial. Aveline's hole is a Mesolithic site of European tundra while a few thousand years on  Star Carr represents a Mesolithic forest-marsh site.There was significant environmental pressures as well as some land loss. Dogger land in the North Sea was inundated while land previously ice locked was exposed. For humans the period marks a greater use of marine resources and a growing use of consistent, reliable sources of nutrition like hazelnuts. Health remained good but stature decreased somewhat particularly in North Western populations The grasslands had gone replaced by dense forest which may have made a big-game dependent culture impossible. There appears to have been greater sendentism with semi permanent dwellings in Scandinavia and Britain, possible territorial markers are also known.
Howick house
 That violence correlates with economic hardship cannot only be found in the law books of England (a rich source for this historian) but also in archaeology, with violence among the Native American Chumash peaking during a period of environmental stress. The levels of violence among Native Americans also rose quite dramatically after contact with Columbus.
 Much of the Mesolithic appears to be humans adapting to astonishing environmental uncertainly with stored resources and possible territories giving a further impetus for violence. Violence rates for some Mesolithic sites correlate well with Eastern Woodland sites in North America, with even wound types being similar. It is unclear what impact the farming societies were having through the tradeways of Europe but it would seem likely that there was a bow-wave of hunting and territory pressure as farming encroached.
 There is plenty of good evidence for violence in the Mesolithic of Europe and North America. Including endemic "tribal" conflicts and even mass burials/massacres. Interestingly the dramatic Ofnet cave incident occured during the transition from hunting to farming and may reflect intense social pressures.
 Even though there may be a clear rise in cases of violence through the Mesolithic (the late Mesolithic features many wounded males) even with similar pressures and resources bases violence does not appear to have occurred at similar rates or even to have been universal.
 3; Territoriality, resource and population pressure and clear unequivocal inter-person violence occur in the Mesolithic. Rates of violence were not universal.

 Biological theories of violence "war is the natural state of humanity" would imply that rates of violent interaction be roughly consistent over time and space. The archaeology does not support this view. Indeed consistently valid biological or evolutionary reasons for violent behaviour are quite hard to determine from contemporary groups (cashdan 2001). It should also be noted that in data sets dealing with Primitive violence such as use by Keegan and Keeley foragers, horticulturalist, pastoralist and even states are all mixed the oft cited Data sets "true" hunter gatherers give lower rates of violence than for horticulturalists and this in a background of severe resource and cultural pressure.It should also be asked how much hunter gatherer violence is "legitimate" self defence from expansionist neighbours. The Kalahari Bushmen were driven into the desert by a full on genocidal assault by their African neighbours and then the European settlers. Hadza have to defend themselves from Datoga and Maasai, and Northern Aborigines defended the trade territories they had established with Indonesians. Would this level of violence exist in an environment with no farmers? Would the "New York" levels of murder be present if the resource pressures, Government oppression, alcoholism and flat out desperation didn't exist? What would New York's murder rate be like if there were no hospitals?
The Yanomomo are frequently referenced in papers about primitive violence and perhaps serve well for a neolithic or NBK model, but as horticulturalists living in particularly crowded jungle are not good models for hunter gatherer behaviour. There are questions about Yanomamo anthropologist Napoleon Changnon's methods too.
 The conflation of these groups doesn't necessarily weaken the arguments made by these writers that big state is safer than small state or tribe but it does weaken the case against endemically high violence rates through humanity's history. It is also annoying.
4; Modern Hunter Gatherers live in the modern world and are compromised models for past behaviour. Farmers, hunters and pastoralists are often conflated despite being radically different societies. Statistics obtained from Modern data sets are not reflected in the archaeological record. 
 Now for some controversy........
"only spazzes start fights, technical term.... most people can't fight" (Richard Grannon)
  In the 18th century military tests showed that at a hundred yards a musket was about 75% effective. This was considerably higher than could be achieved on a battlefield. Blenheim (1704) gave 25% Fontenoy (1745) gave about the same, this is at ranges of 30 yards! At longer (100 yards) ranges accuracy dropped to about 2-5%. Considering the effectiveness of weapons casualty rates from history are often low particularly for the writers winners. Severe combat stress through damaged teeth is reported from the archaeology of Towton (1461) and combat stress was reported to be up to 100% in the difficult Italian conditions in WW2. Controversial statistics from World War 2 showed that very few soldiers even fired their weapons and overwhelmingly soldiers would try not to shoot each other. The controversy has occurred in later generations but this work was widely accepted at the end of the war by people who had fought in it and was used to develop training methods afterwards.Training techniques which successfully bypass conscious effort in shooting and use a kind of Pavlovian instinctive conditioning. This "moral bypass" has been blamed by some authors including Lt Col Grossman (retd) for much higher rates of PTSD in veterans and suicide rates which are extremely high, indeed often higher than casualty rates in the actual wars.
 Conflict and combat appears to require a very wide suite of cultural enablers, the evidence shows that harming another human is difficult psychologically and can have lasting and very negative consequences. While this does not mean that violence is "unnatural" it should be noted that it is an activity few humans are willing to engage in (and will go to absurd lengths to avoid) and that has many potential selection disadvantages.
5; Fighting is difficult, physically and psychologically.
 Why is it important? Aside from the fact that it is an interesting subject in its own right, our view of our ancestors reflects how we feel about ourselves and our society. Evolutionary biology is often cited as "evidence" for various facets of modern human behaviour with varying degrees of merit and appropriateness. My own view is that violence is a human response to some situations rather than a state of mankind, most importantly to me is that even in the same situation some cultures will use violence and others will not and that we ultimately have a choice in how we act.