Naledi and human evolution: A carefuly case of identity

So we had quite the stir in the world of bones last month. The findings on Homo naledi, a prehistoric hominid that might have buried its dead a few million years before hominids were supposed to know what “dead” really meant, were released this September.

I must admit, I am not a trained paleoanthropologist by any means, merely a student of culture. Still, my background gives me pause whenever a concept like “ritual burial” is mentioned. Burying dead is a tall order, one that requires abstract thought and concepts of individual and cosmic identity. And the academic world rightly paused when the news on H. naledi was unveiled. As I said, burying dead is a rather tall order, and one that ought to make us consider.

There are tenuous strands of meat and gristle–by contemporary understanding–that make us human. And one of those strands is the complex and abstract idea that allows such a ridiculous concept as ritualistically and purposefully disposing of our dead. That a creature–one which, admittedly, may have evolved into us–could do something like that a couple of million years ago (the findings on when naledi lived are not yet in) is striking. But we should be careful not to anthropomorphosize our ancestors too soon.

I recently read “The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack” by Ian Tattersall, a nonfiction tome about the evolution of our understanding of human evolution. His writing was brusque; toward the middle, the narrative devolved into almost pure species categorization–I felt like I needed more charts to keep up–and the book only started getting really interesting during the final pages when Tattersall switched from reportage to speculation. But he made a fair point repeatedly throughout.

That point was that our understanding of human evolution has been jaundiced by scientists who wanted to believe that human evolution was the ultimate result of a single, perfect line of development. As a result, the scientific community has tended to overplay the humanity of prehistoric species in an attempt to sync us–humanity–up with our predecessors because, presumably, we want our ancestors to be like us. That idea has been anathema to the real understanding of human evolution, Tattersall said, which is far more complex than a single lineage. Given the number of fossils in the fossil record, I’m willing to agree. But the nature of what makes us human still remains.

Many things have been suggested as what makes us human: tool making, art, religion. But maybe none of these is the best classification. Maybe what separates us from the animals is that there is no other creature that seeks its own origins. Maybe a better name for our species would be homo petitor, the “man who seeks.” After all, isn’t any quest, whether it is artistic, scientific or spiritual, is ultimately a quest for the self?

We are always straining for something to make us special. Tattersall argues against that; he argues against there being anything particularly special about being a human being. But through writing his book, Tattersall covertly concedes that there is something to special about being human, namely the idea that only humans would bother to write a book. Likewise, although naledi may or may not have buried its dead prematurely (according to the fossil, and cognitive, record), it takes a human mind to consider the consequences of such an action.

Some thoughts on hotels in horror

I suppose it says something about my credentials for running this blog that people I know ask me about upcoming and current horror. “What do you think about ‘thriller X,'” they may say, or, “Have you heard about ‘movie Y,'” before I start talking and the other party suddenly feels sorry they asked because I can’t shut up.

So it should be no surprise that I’ve fielded some questions about “American Horror Story: Hotel” lately. I am intrigued by what I’m hearing, that the show will mark a return to the series’ Los Angeles roots. I am not quite sure what to make of the new star though. Ms. Gaga is far from my favorite performer, but she certainly has a flair for the theatrical and, stylistically at least, should fit in well with the feel of the show.

Speculations are cheap though, and I easily have more to say about hotels in horror in general. There is something about the notion of hotels that’s oddly disquieting, as evidenced by the number of overnight establishments that populate thrillers, going back to folk tales about traveling men who had to spend the night in a broken down inn staffed by suspicious characters (sometimes ones whose connection to the living world was tenuous at best). Obviously, there is the age old fear of spending the night in an unfamiliar environment far from home; in a way, a bright hotel is no better than a dark wood. However, hotels are designed to be familiar, even uniform (consider Best Western and Motel 6), so why are they still a staging ground for some of horror’s most memorable moments?

One could argue that it has something to do with the idea of a place where reality is entirely manufactured. Even more than in a restaurant, where you can sometimes see the kitchen, a hotel offers an environment where food appears at the door, beds are already made and messes disappear overnight, suggesting a kind of otherness, an unseen reality that exists beneath or beside “normal” reality. At least, it’s slightly surreal. Below you’ll find a few of my favorite places to stay; let me try to convince you to book a room. Later, I’d be curious to hear some of yours:

The Globe Inn from “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”

I first found this short story by M. R. James in a collection called something like “The Scariest Stories Ever Written.” I agreed at the time; I don’t quite see it that way now–James’ tone is a little too friend-of-a-friend-of-mine to be completely engaging–but upon re-reading I am glad to report that the story is an intelligent and entertaining one, dealing with the psychic fear of waking up and realizing–without having to look–that you are not the only one in the room any more. And if the notion of a materialist academic encountering an immaterial entity seems a little cliché to you, it’s because James was inventing that cliché with stories just like this one.

Visitors to Burnstow have a lot to love about the Globe Inn—and not just because it’s the only hotel in the area that remains open during the off season. The Inn is within walking distance of the beach, a golf course and the ruins of a Templar church. The Globe Inn does not recommend you remove anything from the ancient Templar site to take with you; and if something happens to follow you back, the Globe Inn takes no responsibility.

The Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”

There is no way that Kubrick’s meticulously monstrous child could possibly fail to make this list. There is no hotel in the history of cinema that is as threatening as the Overlook, in no small part due to its size. Everything about the Overlook is big–big building, big rooms, unmanageable maze, and long and winding drive from civilization to the hotel–compared to the tiny people who have to stay in it over the winter. But most impressive are the blueprints, which utilize bizarre, Lovecraftian geometry. Doors open wrong and windows vanish; however, no attention is directly called to these physical impossibilities. The weirdness, therefore, works on a subconscious level; the familiar is made subtly unfamiliar.

The Overlook really has everything you could want: tennis courts, expansive ballrooms, a hedge maze, the feeling that you’re being watched and a full kitchen. Just ask our winter caretaker, Jack Torrance. He’s been here a very, very long time. Please note that room 237 is undergoing maintenance and the elevators are closed for repairs until further notice.

The Bates Motel from TV’s “Bates Motel”

OK, so I couldn’t let this one go. If I hadn’t given some love to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” a couple weeks ago, I’d discuss how the establishment is a physical extension of Norman Bates’ haunted and isolated psyche; instead, let’s focus on A&E’s televised form of the same motel. In “Bates Motel’s” first season in particular, the curious juxtaposition of 50s and 60s Americana with modern rave culture certainly fits the definition of surreal. The show is also interested in the psychology of the people who staff hotels–the socially awkward and psychologically disturbed seek shelter in the created reality of the hotel.

If you need to get away from it all, there’s nothing more convenient than the Bates Motel. Located off the main highway, this cozy, rustic motel forgoes the beaten track for cabin style lodgings. Which is not to say that they lack amenities–the bathrooms are tastefully modern and impeccably clean. And the friendly staff is on hand 24/7. As our general manager, Norma Bates, puts it: “Who is going to book a room in the rape/murder motel?” You are!

The Gilman Hotel from “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the World”

It would be wrong to say that “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the World” was unappreciated (nothing with a cult following can really be unappreciated), but I think it’s fair to say that it was underappreciated. The game was perhaps a bit slow for some; the best set pieces tended to be unnerving psychological crawls. For set ups, nothing beat the Gilman Hotel. After spending a day wandering around bizarre and foreboding Innsmouth, private detective Jack Walters settles down for a night in a hotel that he knows is run by a cannibal with a penchant for torturing hotel guests before he kills them. Which raises the question: why do we stay in hotels with strangers anyway?

A night at the Gilman Hotel will surely conjure up the words quirky, funky and eldritch. If you don’t mind a fishy smell, take a stroll through the old town and tour the Marsh Refinery or the historic Innsmouth sewer (authorities suggest not rowing out to Devil’s Reef after dark). The townsfolk may seem standoffish, but they’re full of color, and you’ll be be picking up the local dialect in no time. You ever hear tell of a shaggoth? You will.