I have been mesmerized by a new book, Who Ate the First Oyster?, which chronicles human stories of individual firsts: the first oyster eater, first cave painter, first to commit murder &c. Author Cody Cassidy uses anthropology and biology to put a face in front of the brain behind each of these inventions, a brilliant way to de-science the work. The book is full of surprises from the very beginning, where Cassidy explains the Very First Invention, which is … well… I can’t tell you or I would be responsible for revealing all the fun parts.
Cassidy also explains that the timeline is compressed, meaning most of human advancements–even the early inventions in his book–occur in a teeny-tiny space at the very end of his timeline. I wish to do Cassidy’s book justice, but, rather than planting Spoiler Alerts over the next seven paragraphs, I thought I might take a different angle. Riffing on this writer’s approach, I would like to give a brief history of the invention that represents the most important contribution to civilization as we know it. Of course, I’m talking about how humans acquired Ice Cream.
Well, maybe fire was more important. And writing. Counting. Computers? Space flight? Ice cream would be right in there, somewhere. Strangely enough, you wouldn’t need fire, writing, counting, computers, or space flight in order to make ice cream, so It Stands Alone. But it starts with harnessing the power of Ice!
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Clause deleted from the Declaration of Independence
Fans of Broadway shows may recognize those opening words–he has waged cruel war– and hear a lush breeze of violins rise in a syncopated “beautiful waltz” in a song about molasses, rum, and slaves. Slavery was nearly abolished as an American practice–at least, it was proposed to be abolished by Thomas Jefferson before the country became these united states.
But Jefferson also owned slaves and fathered children with one of them, who was 15 when the relationship began. The statesman who argued so passionately for the morality of individual liberty did not entirely practice what he preached. There are nuances worth examining in this paradox, little-known facts that should be included in the conversation. To either stick him on a pedestal just because he wrote the “Declaration of Independence” or join the ubiquitous bands of protesters pulling down statues just because he was a slave owner seems overly simplistic. If we are going to judge historical figures, we should include as much of the picture as we know.
This past week has embraced us with the feeling of a watershed moment. Peaceful protests are still the central focus across the country, while incidents of mayhem seem to have died down. History shows that something good often comes out of it, impossible as it may seem at the time.
When Gallup conducted polls in the early 1960s, both before and after the 1963 March on Washington (the “I Have a Dream” speech), respondents said that such massed protests hurt the cause of civil rights. Not by a bare majority either; in May 1964, 74% of those polled by Gallup said that non-violent protests “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality. ” It’s hard to see the watershed when the waterfall is still falling on our heads.
Protests, historically, have followed a particular pattern. Oppression. Uprising, partly peaceful/partly violent. Masses come together. Law enforcement cracks down. More mass protests, more crackdowns. Trials with verdicts, rarely with justice satisifed. But later, some change. Society inches forward over the rubble.
Here are a few examples from the last seven centuries or so.
Negotiations Go Better when You Don’t Spit on the King
The Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 is an early example of mass protests which led to positive change, though it took a squirrely path to get there. Let me set the scene. The Black Death had ravaged Eurasia and North Africa, where by the 1350s, somewhere between 30-60% of the population had succumbed. Peasants died by the millions, but the landowners and wealthy were also not spared, leading to a labor shortage and inflation. Laborers demanded higher wages and more autonomy, and some got it from the barons who depended on the peasants to work their farms for income. At the same time, England was engaging in continuous skirmishes with France on their own soil and across the Channel, and constant war was expensive. All of it sounds rather familiar.
Sports help us tell time. Games give us heroes, distracting entertainments, and opportunities for gambling. We enact statues to the winners and turn games into myths with exaggeration and tropes–GOAT, threepeat, the favorite, the Cinderella story. Sports are full of pageantry, like religious ceremonies.
No wonder we miss them so much. It’s not just about the contest.
We Would Be In the Fourth Year of the 31st Olympiad
The Greeks knew this, which is why the Olympic Games were rooted in a religious festival that spawned athletic contests, which in turn created a way to count the years. An olympiad was a four-year interval, and the Greeks would refer to the third year in the 113th Olympiad, and so on.
The city of Olympia, located in northwestern Greece, was the site of a cult of Zeus. Originally, a complex of temples, stadia, and markets stretched across this woody set of hills near the Ionian Sea. The Temples for Zeus and Hera came first, then some small athletic venues for running and jumping. Things really got architecturally involved when they brought in the chariot races, somewhere along in 17 AD (the 198th Olympiad?). By then, the Altis (sacred site) had sprawled to a dozen acres. Kind of like Las Vegas.
Today is a perfect time to honor our healthcare professionals, celebrate international women’s month, and remind you to lather up. Consider it a threefer. All hail to midwives, nurses, and mom.
Aqueducts and Aquamaniles APlenty
Contrary to some beliefs, bathing and hand-washing is not a historically recent phenomenon, but was a practice widely dispersed across many cultures for centuries. The Romans, Greeks, Mesoamericans, and Japanese all incorporated bathing into their daily routines. Even into the Dark Ages, where food was eaten mainly with the hands, it was customary to rinse off before dining. Special ewers were provided for noble feasters, but even commoners might prepare a hand-washing solution with herbs, like making tea.
Pour faire eaue a laver mains sur table mectez boulir de la sauge, puis coulez l’eaue et faictes reffroidier jusques a plus que tiedes. Ou vous mectez comme dessus camomille et marjolaine, ou vous mectez du rommarin, et cuire avec l’escorche d’orenge. Et aussi feuilles de lorier y sont bonnes.
To make water for washing hands at the table. Boil sage, strain the water and let cool to a little more than tepid. Or take camomille and marjoram in stead [of sage], or rosemary, and boil with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.