Monday, December 2, 2019

The Emergence of the Moundbuilders: The Archaeology of Tribal Societies in Southeastern Ohio

The Emergence of the Moundbuilders: The Archaeology of Tribal Societies in Southeastern Ohio – edited by Elliot M. Abrams and AnnCorinne Freter (Ohio University Press, 2005)

This one is a series of papers by multiple authors about pre-historic tribal societies that settled here in the greater Hocking Valley of Southeastern Ohio. 

The preface notes that:

“The indigenous societies of the Ohio Valley were part of an ancestry that extended back at least ten thousand years.”

While true, that does not mean there were not additional migrations into the area as possibly evidenced by suggested large population increases in certain time periods.

It is also noted that this collection is the first in this area to include GIS site analyses and radiocarbon accelerator mass spectroscopy (AMS) to date the first instances of maize agriculture and pottery use in the area.

The first paper is: The Archaeological Research History and Environmental Setting of the Hocking Valley by Abrams and Freter.. First evidence of human occupation of the area dates to the 9th millennium B.C.E. Mounds were built beginning in the first millennium B.C.E. and agriculture moved from local species to maize and beans by the end of the first millennium C.E. Most of the archaeologically discernible change in these societies occurs between 2500 B.C.E. and 1450 C.E:

“Those four millennia witnessed the establishment and expansion of tribal communities … “

The history of archaeology and especially that of the U.S. midcontinent moundbuilders, is fraught with wrong assumptions, pseudo-science, and hucksterism. Speculation in the 19th century abounded about the mounds being built by great lost societies, often of non-Native Americans and sometimes by extremely unlikely peoples like lost tribes of Israel. Often, it was put forth that the Native Americans were the ones who killed off the ancient societies. This was done often for political reasons to deny that Native Americans were capable of generating such societies, especially urban ones. The 19th century also saw quite a bit of excavation of these burial mounds and unfortunately many of the artifacts retrieved were lost. Other mounds and features were ploughed over.

Early surveys of the area included Squire and Davis’s 1848 Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. William Mills’ 1914 Archaeological Atlas of Ohio documented many of the works of southeastern Ohio. As archaeology gradually moved away from hucksterism and speculation into a more anthropological science, more was learned. The focus moved to include non-mound areas like inhabited rock shelters, flint quarries, and mass cooking sites. The 1989 publication of James Murphy’s An Archaeological History of the Hocking Valley provides a detailed account from a lead excavator at several local sites. Murphy noted that archaeology knowledge of the area is scant, especially in the Middle Woodland period. The Ohio University field archaeology program was started by Eliot Abrams in 1986 specifically to excavate habitation sites (rather than more commonly excavated mounds) in order to better understand cultures and tribal features and how they changed through time. I took a non-field class in Anthropological Archaeology there that very year.

Tribal society is defined here by anthropologists Service (1962) and Sahlins (1961, 1968) as “of the order of a large collection of bands, but it is not simply a collection of bands.” What distinguishes ‘tribe’ is its set of social identities and relationships with other tribes. Households, villages, subtribes, and regional tribal societies is the sequence from small to large. With the advent of agriculture came the ability to be more sedentary and build larger communities. 

Chronology starts with Early and Late Paleoindian from ~15000 to 8000 BC to Early, Middle, and Late Archaic from 8000 BC to 1500 BC to Early, Middle, and Late Woodland from 1500 BC to 700 AD to Late Prehistoric from 700 AD to 1450 AD to Protohistoric from 1450 AD to 1600 AD and finally to historic from 1600 AD to present. This chronology is based on Murphy’s 1989 work on the Hocking Valley. Many radiocarbon dates are cited in the papers in this current book so that long histories of site occupation, though probably not continuous in many cases, can be established. The authors also acknowledge the difficulty of archaeological analysis and tying it to culture due to scant data. There is little to no actual history known of these peoples. While there were some native bands known and considered in historical time (1600 and later) it is not known how connected those people were to previous inhabitants as migration due to local wars and resource availability was likely in the previous centuries and millennia.

There is much emphasis on the environmental and geological variability of the Hocking Valley, which includes several glacial terminuses that help shaped local landforms. The native peoples took advantage of some of these landforms. Terraces formed by such glacial terminuses, or glacial outwash soil deposits, were key places of mounds and habitation for moundbuilder societies. A prime example is that of The Plains, a large flattened terrace region just west of Athens. Ohio. The terraces occur between the floodplain of the Hocking River and the ridgetops, with total relief being about 400ft or so. Quite variable soil types occur in the area as a result. Clays for pottery, chert for tools, and floodplain soil for agriculture were available along the Hocking watershed. There are also what are called saltlicks, left by evaporated glacial outwash lakes, that drew animals and provided salt for food. The different physiographic zones are also home to somewhat differing fauna and flora, as well as soils. Climatic variability is also a feature now as it was in the past, with extended droughts not uncommon. Climatic variability also leads to ecological variability. For example, edible nut production (acorns, beech nuts, hickory nuts, and black walnuts) vary considerably according to climate. 

The second paper/chapter by Stump, Lein, Abrams, and Freter is a GIS analysis of settlement trends in the Archaic and Woodland Hocking Valley. This is mainly modern mapping of sites and settlement trends according to time period. Maps of sites are given for each time period and analyzed according to preferred physiographic province such as glaciated vs. unglaciated and stream valley vs. upland slope vs. ridge top. Settlement distribution shifts indicate a southward movement from glaciated to unglaciated areas through time. There was also a clear preference for terrace and stream valley locations as time progressed from Archaic to Woodland times, when upland slope and ridge top sites were used just as much. Early and Middle Woodland sites are somewhat more numerous than Late Archaic and those two are much more numerous than Middle Archaic sites. The Plains, interpreted as a ritual center, has a high site density.  Another interpretation is that sedentism increased through time, especially as agriculture increased. 

Paper/chapter 3: The Bremen Site: A Terminal Late Archaic Period Upland Occupation in Fairfield County, Ohio by Pecora and Burks focuses on the Bremen upland site in Fairfield County in the upper headlands part of the Hocking Valley. Radiocarbon dating of burnt nutshells in a pit containing pottery suggest that it is the oldest site in the Hocking Valley region with pottery. Upland is characterized as an oak-maple forest. Bottoms were rich in beech, maple, and black walnut. The authors mention Late Archaic/Early Woodland (3000-1000BCE) primary changes as including increased sedentism, burial ceremonialism, and a greater reliance on cultivated plants. They see the Late Archaic as the transition between previous hunter-gatherer lifestyles and future agricultural-based living. Seasonal mobility of encampments was common as was camping to exploit local resources, such as flint for arrowheads and tools or perhaps clay for pottery. Two phases of Late Archaic/Early Woodland were proposed for the mid-Ohio Valley: Maple Creek phase (1650-1250 BC) and the Cogswell phase (1250-750 BC). The Cogswell phase included different projectile points for hunting and the beginning evidence of ‘domesticated cultigens’ and using wild varieties of starchy seed plants such as knotweed, maygrass, goosefoot, and ragweed. 

The Bremen site was excavated in 2000 and 2001. Radiocarbon dates of charred material date from 2826 BC to 1315 BC. A midden, or kitchen trash heap, was defined. Pottery and projectile points were found. One groundstone artifact was recovered.  Postmolds, places where wooden posts once existed, were found. Analysis of raw materials can detect regional geological sources of flint found. Upper Mercer, Vanport (biggest exposure at Flint Ridge in central Ohio), and other sources were found here. There are known outcrops nearby (within 20km). Evidence of flint flaking for tool-making is abundant. Tools were likely partially processed from raw materials for transport. Botanical remains include burnt hickory and walnut charcoal. The site has been interpreted as a short-term residency site, possibly in autumn or winter based on burnt nut residues. 

Next is: The Walker Site: An Archaic/Woodland Hunting-Collecting Site in the Hocking Valley by Abrams and DeAloia, an analysis of the Walker Site in Jacksonville Quadrangle of western Athens County. This is also an upland site, located on a small flat ridge crest overlooking the Hocking River. Excavation work was done by Ohio University archaeological field school in 1998. This site was also determined to be seasonal or short-term, but its use ranged from 8000 BC to 400 BC. Many artifacts were recovered including projectile points of different styles and ages, one drill fragment, and one celt fragment. No pottery was found. The majority of fragments were made from the local Brush Creek chert. Fire-cracked rock was also found and interpreted as rock-lined campfires or open hearths. No midden pits or postmolds were found here, which suggest the site was not a residential basecamp. It was more likely a resource procurement site, although it is not clear what resources may have been procured here. Food, perhaps nuts, are one possibility. The authors note that while such temporary sites are rarely excavated, much can be learned and perhaps more such sites should be excavated. 

The next paper is titled, Late Archaic Community Aggregation and Feasting in the Hocking Valley, by Heyman, Abrams, and Freter. They state that habitation sites in the Late Archaic were from 2-4 families in size, so small and dispersed. People were nomadic and procured their resources seasonally, often, as suggested here, in the form of aggregation of the greater community which included feasting. Nut harvesting and smoking and salting of fish and meat are suggested with both likely in autumn to store food for winter. Such aggregation in larger numbers may have contributed to greater tribal solidarity and integration. Examined here specifically are sites along Sunday Creek and where it drains into the Hocking River near The Plains. The Plains mound complex is prominent. 

The authors think such sites as the Plains mound complex shows the beginnings in the area of aggregation and that such aggregation could also be used for ritual purposes, feasting, sharing, mound burial ceremonialism, and perhaps exchanging of gifts between bands. Episodic macro-bands thus likely formed. The County Home site at the confluence of Sunday Creek and the Hocking River reveals a site with large cooking features. Five large features were described as Late Archaic and Early Woodland communal roasting pits. The pits were lined with fire-cracked rock. Granitic and quartzite groundstones were also recovered from all five features, likely found already rounded in stream beds. Residues and fragments of bones, botanical materials, and clay (possibly to seal in moisture during cooking) were also recovered. These roasting pits were large, typically 2 meters by 1 meter in size. In one feature burnt tree branches were found between fire-cracked rocks indicating a method of achieving even heating. This could be similar to historical accounts of Plains Indians cooking methods. Meat was likely wrapped in leaves and clay. The authors think the actual feasting took place below the site on the floodplain where the rivers conjunct. A nearby natural salt lick and abundance of nut trees as mast could have been exploited as a place to hunt game and a salt source for preserving meat and fish. Data indicate that mound construction and horticulture began in the area during the first millennium BCE. There is evidence for population increase beginning around 1500 BCE. 

“…the data from the Hocking Valley indicate a greater degree and more formalized type of interaction among local communities beginning ca. 1500 B.C. than was experienced by previous generations.”

Next paper is Woodland Communities in the Hocking Valley by Crowell, Abrams, Freter, and Lein. Much change was happening in the first millennium BC in the region as more sedentism, pottery, more evidence of wild seed harvesting and domesticating of plants, and mound building began. These riverine societies of the Midwest ushered (according to Brown 1985) “the appearance of permanent habitations, food storage, domestication of plants, multiregional exchange of valuables, cemeteries, intragroup ranking of individuals, and the elaboration of art in a social context.”

Few habitation sites in the area have been excavated but two, the Boudinot 4 site and the Woodland component of the County Home site, have yielded significant data. Dating indicates both sites were occupied from the Late Archaic to the Middle Woodland, generally the last two millenia BC. The Boudinot 4 site is on a terrace. Excavation yielded 19 subsurface features, mainly cooking units, generic pits, and architectural posts. It was estimated that 10-20 people lived there. The County Home site yielded a 25 x 25 meter habitation area and a total of 78 features, including the midden and large roasting pits noted previously. 29 postmolds were interpreted so large wooden structures are implied. Rocks in the post holes were interpreted as chinking to help hold the posts. Charcoal at the base indicates the in-ground part of the posts were charred to reduce effects of weathering and rot as was common with Adena peoples and still practiced by some farmers. The authors interpreted five large buildings at the site. The elevated terraces were above any point of flooding but are generally rare, representing about 5% of the Hocking watershed land. The nearby salt licks provided salt for humans to preserve foods, and for potential game animals. However, there is no real evidence of permanent occupation, so likely habitation at these sites was likely seasonal and the population still relatively nomadic.

Local mounds were built by small groups of people and were not as labor intensive as might seem. Burials were typically at the base, with men, women, and children, as in other regional mounds. There are hundreds of small conical mounds in the Hocking Valley, often on ridgetops. Only a few of those hundreds of mounds have been dated with dates ranging from 440 BC to 280 BC. The authors also think the mounds possibly served as communication since “any mound was visible from any adjacent mound.” The authors think the people spent fall and spring at the terrace habitation sites, summer on the flood plains and wintered in rock shelters.

Archaeobotanical data from the Boudinot 4 site show that one species of squash was grown ca. 1092 BC, by ca. 400 BC chenopods, erect knotweed, and sumpweed were eaten, and by 200 BC maygrass was eaten. These species likely entered the diet as wild species but were gradually domesticated, basically grown in gardens. Data indicates hickory nuts were 95% of nuts collected in 800 BC but by 100 BC hazelnuts, black walnuts, and butternuts were added. Maygrass is not available in southern Ohio which suggests domestication with seeds from farther away. It was also a spring plant that could have fed in spring when food was generally scarce. Overall, the data suggest farming began to supplement hunting and gathering in the area around 500 BC. It is estimated that chenopodium was eaten in wild form from at least 1500 BC. It is suggested that an Early Woodland local community was 25-35 people in 4 or 5 households. Marriage may have been to people from other households which is common. Regional DNA evidence has shown that the Ohio River served as a boundary between genetically distinct marital populations.

Next paper is Woodland Ceremonialism in the Hocking Valley by Blazier, Freter, and Abrams. With increased sedentism and larger communities by 100 BC likely came new social developments. One may have been lineage affiliation as the authors suggest. The mound complex in The Plains, Ohio was built between 50 BC and 250 CE. Likely due to lack of water there was thought to be no actual habitation at The Plains earthworks but that the area was used for ceremonialism, specifically mortuary ceremonialism. Some of these mounds were excavated in the 1800’s and apparently much data was lost. The authors go into detail about excavation of one mound, indicating six stages of construction, with fire-crack rock indicating possible ritual burning. Skeleton remains found in mounds there indicate  similar numbers of males and females, which suggests an egalitarian society according to the authors. 

The size of the larger mounds at The Plains suggests many more people built them than built the much smaller ridgetop mounds of earlier times. There are also 9 earthwork circles from 100ft to 210ft in diameter. Many were plowed over but the Courtney Circle is still visible. Its ‘walls’ are about 10m thick and there is a 20m diameter rise in the center. It is estimated that the exterior walls were originally 7ft high. Around 50 BC it is estimated that there was long distance trading among Middle Woodland tribes as evidenced by copper artifacts from the Great Lakes, mica from Tennessee, and bear claws and teeth and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains being found in Ohio mounds. The age of The Plains mound complex is similar to other mound complexes in Ohio and suggests a regional mortuary ceremonialism had developed. New social and political structures are also inferred. 

Evidence suggests that bodies of the honored individuals interred in the mounds may have previously been subjected to excarnation and cremation before internment. Bones of bear, eagle, and wolf were also recovered from the mounds. A shamanistic or animistic worldview is assumed. The burial pattern of the Armitage Mound is that of a 50-60 year-old man’s full skeleton surrounded by 15 cremated skeletons wrapped in bark. The authors think that individual mounds may have represented family lineages but that is speculative. In sum they note:

“The Plains was largely an unoccupied ritual center serving a dispersed population of small horticultural/hunting and gathering communities.”

They think this development from 50BC to 250 CE represents the largest regional extent of political inclusiveness in the greater Hocking Valley tribal societies.

Next is The Swinehart Village Site: A Late Woodland Village in the Upper Hocking Valley by Schweikart. This site is in eastern Fairfield County south of Buckeye Lake. The site is on an upland terrace on a bluff. This is characteristic of many sites in the Ohio area dating from 250 CE to 400 CE. Evidence of occupation is from Early Archaic through Woodland but most recovered materials date from 300-800 CE. Blades of high-quality Flint Ridge/Vanport flint were found as well as Chilton-style gorgets. This is the only enclosed village in the Hocking Valley area and suggests that peoples north of Hocking Hills area may have been distinct from those south. The author sees two main reasons for development of such upland terrace sites during this time period: to maximize available resources and for defense. The defensive attribution is supported by a good surrounding view of the lower lands. There is one skeleton in Columbus, Ohio from this late Middle Woodland period that exhibits a lethal wound from a projectile. Horticultural fields were likely developed on the adjacent lowlands. The author speculates that since these defensive sites coincide with the last of the mound-building in the area that something happened to prevent the community aggregation that was previously more common.

Next is The Allen Site: A Late Prehistoric Community in the Hocking River Valley by Abrams, Bergman, and Miller. There are several known Late Woodland and Late Prehistoric (700-1300 CE) villages in the central Hocking Valley area. The Allen site was excavated in the 1990’s. Dates of occupation of the site were estimated at 600-1310 CE. Pottery types found were also consistent with dating. Projectile points found reach back to the Archaic but with most being Late Woodland to Late Prehistoric. 

The many architectural postholes found indicate about 5-8 buildings occupied at a time at the Allen 1 site and 4 or 5 houses at the Allen 2 site (max of 13 houses). This is consistent with other Fort Ancient time period hamlets that contained from 6 to 10 structures. Several indoor hearth areas were identified. Position of posts indicate the houses were rectangular. Population size is estimated at between 25 and 90 people, slightly larger but roughly consistent with the 24-44 people estimated for other Fort Ancient aged sites. The site yielded considerably less pottery sherds than similar aged site near or far. Even rockshelter sites have yielded more pottery. The authors note that one local researcher, Prufer 1967, remarked that “a distinctive, local Woodland pottery complex which appears during Adena times, remains essentially intact … into Late Woodland times.” One possible sherd of that type was found at the Allen site. The other types were likely manufactured onsite as one area was interpreted as a pottery firing pit. This was further away from the houses, suggesting that the smoke from firing was kept away. 

Most of the chert found was the local Brush Creek variety with lesser amounts of Upper Mercer/Zaleski flint that outcrops further away and even lesser amounts of Vanport flint which is even more distant. The authors go into detail about debitage (mostly flaked chert) and archaeological interpretation of lithic materials. The large amount of debitage recovered indicates that tool and projectile point making was a common activity at the site. They suggest the western area of the site was mainly used for toolmaking as most debitage was found there. Other flint tool types found were drills, scrapers, and one possible hoe blade.  They also go into detail about projectile points with several different types of different vintage but most being of the Prehistoric fine triangular type. They think that lithics were transported from their sites of origin partially worked then finished at the home site. 12 cooking features were identified of different sizes. One was significantly larger and further away indicating a possible communal feasting cooking pit. One possible waste pit was found. Their interpretations fit with other interpretations of similar sites of similar age.

Next is Late Prehistoric Agriculture and Land Use in the Hocking Valley by Wymer. By 700 CE the rich fertile soils along the Hocking River floodplain were being tapped for growing crops. It was at this time that maize agriculture took off in this area. Previous to this it was likely that this plant of tropical origin was genetically acclimating to temperate climates and through time working its way north. Paleobotanical samples were obtained from the Allen site, mentioned in the previous paper. These some 26 specimens were examined for composition and relative density and ubiquity. Wood charcoal, nutshell, nutmeat, maize, and seeds were the categories recovered in flotation samples. Nutshells were the most ubiquitous material but maize and seeds were nearly as much in terms of density. 7 fragments of maize were recovered, including an entire intact kernel which was dated at 689 CE. Wood charcoal fragments were mostly oak (59%), both white and red varieties, along with hickory, beech, ash, and buckeye. Nutshell fragments were hickory, black walnut, butternut, and acorn. Seeds were of raspberry and bedstraw. Macrobotanical samples include oak (both groups), hickory, walnut, maple, ash, elm, chestnut, and possible black cherry. By weight, oak and hickory comprised 85% of overall wood samples. These two woods are probably the best two fire woods growing in the area so that was likely their main use. Maize was found at other sites of the same age nearby. The author notes that the absence of more seed material such as fragments of Eastern Agricultural Complex (EAC) crops like squash, chenopodium, maygrass, goosefoot, and ragweed is quite anomalous as most similar sites have some of these. She also notes that the earliest occurrence of maize in the regional area is material from West Virginia dated to 425 CE. And she notes that there is no evidence that the Hocking Valley area communities aggregated to large nucleated communities as in the Fort Ancient sites during the 800-1000 CE period. 

Next is The Impact of Maize on Settlement Patterns in the Hocking Valley by Wakeman. First the author notes that maize agriculture began in the region by just before 700 CE as evidenced by the previous paper and that maize agriculture in this area required growing on the rich fertile floodplains (this is still generally true today with “corn bottoms” being the most productive plots). Of course, there were other reasons to frequent floodplains such as drinking water availability and fish and other aquatic food. He also notes that the study area of the Hocking Valley is unique in that it contains three distinct physiographic provinces: flat glaciated till plains in the north, glaciated Allegheny Plateau to the west and unglaciated Allegheny Plateau to the southeast. This topography was sculpted in the Pleistocene era about 1.8 million years ago. The different glacial terminuses in the area make for an unusually wide variety of soil types. The author notes that settlement patterns after maize agriculture became widely adopted tended to follow the most fertile soils, which could be quite small in areal extent. Moraine, floodplain, and terrace sites represented 78% of applicable sites. Data suggest that Late Woodland societies continued into Prehistoric times in the lower Hocking Valley but that new communities created ca. 1000 CE were restricted to the upper Hocking Valley to the northwest.

The final paper in the book is a long overview titled: Tribal Societies in the Hocking Valley by Abrams and Freter. They note the evolution of the development of archaeological goals in the region which is now more focused on trying to understand how these communities lived. They suggest that alliances, perhaps based on kinship, led to larger and more inclusive communities. Evidence of community feasting suggests different bands coming together likely on seasonal occasions to exploit and process food resources communally. Before horticulture there was likely nut processing and game processing. Mounds were likely another feature of smaller bands forming into regional tribes. Of course, the large mounds were only built in this area in about a 300-year period. With the observation that adjacent mounds were often visible from other mounds suggests that there was some regional planning. Horticultural pastimes like growing chenopodiums in gardens likely were learned from other nearby groups and adopted. Ceramics were likely used before horticulture was practiced, for carrying nuts and seeds.

The authors offer a new periodization in the Hocking Valley beginning with the Period of Intensive Hunting (3000-1500 BC). This corresponds to the Late Archaic and is characterized by gradually increasing rainfall which led to more production from food plants and game. More abundant food also likely increased sedentism and decreased nomadism. 

Next is the Period of Protohorticultural Communities (1500-500 BC). The authors think this period may have been a time of slow or no population growth due to less rainfall. Less available drinking water due to less rain in uplands likely led to more floodplain settlement as well. Evidence of communal feasting begins ca. 1500 BC. Fall collection of nuts and seeds was possibly made more efficient as a result off less availability due to less rainfall. More people meant more local nuts would be used up faster and so available seeds may have become more utilized. Newley cleared and/or burnt areas provided ideal spots for some of the EAC plants like chenopodiums. These plants provide a manageable supplement via gardening for a hunter-gatherer society. Now it was more a hunter-gatherer society that practiced seasonal sedentism. Small burial mounds first appear during this time period. Larger mounds began prior to 500 BC in regionally areas outside the Hocking Valley. The authors suggest that the mounds may have also provided a tribal unification mechanism to keep nearby tribes from taking their lands and resources. They are also indicative of shared ritualism, or a cultural-specific form of animism. The authors note that the Hocking Valley and nearby Muskingum River Valley have many of these small conical ridgetop mounds built beginning ca. 500 BC, but the Scioto River Valley does not. This could reflect the topography where the Hocking and Muskingum valleys are more narrow with less floodplain, only a few terraces, and steeper slopes. 

Third is the Period of Tribal Integration (50 BC-250 CE). The beginnings of larger and more mounds begins at this time. The bigger mounds such as the ones at The Plains required more labor and more people to build and it seems to have been a complex of mortuary cult ceremonialism. This general period has been termed as the Hopewell civilization, although the civilization is no doubt the same people as the Adena. People apparently used to think they were different peoples altogether and there is some possibility that the increase in population came about due to migration of other peoples into the area, however, there is no direct evidence of this. The greater Hocking Valley is part of what has been termed the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, based on the presence of copper and obsidian arriving by trade from long-distance. Mounds may have also delineated family lineage association with the land, or land ownership, a concept generally not adopted by historical Native Americans.

Next is The Period of Regional Tribal Fragmentation (250-500 CE). This period is when construction of burial mounds ceased throughout the Ohio Valley. Unfortunately, few artifacts from this period have been found in the area. Populations in the Scioto and Licking valleys are documented archaeologically to have continued, though on a smaller scale. The question is whether there was abandonment of habitation sites during this period and why. 

The last is the Period of Agricultural Tribal Communities (500-1450? CE). During this period there was increasing reliance on maize agriculture with community sizes ranging from 35 to 80 people. Villages were situated near good bottom land. Depletion of soils was likely, although some fallowing of good land was also likely eventually practiced. Soil depletion likely caused communities to move. Skeletal analysis from southwestern Ohio indicates that maize was up to 65% of the diet for pre-historic societies there. Around 1450 CE the Hocking Valley along with other nearby riverine communities seems to have been abandoned. Drought may have been a factor as well as the benefits of moving closer to the Ohio River with its larger swathes of fertile bottom land. Defensive earthworks appear early in this time period ca. 600 CE. The authors suggest that food surpluses enabled the more organized tribal integration period from 50BC to 250 CE and lack of such surpluses led to its ending. They also suggest that maize agriculture was difficult early in this area due to climatic and seasonal variability so even with it dominating the diet there were not significant surpluses.  They note a few “stages” od sedentism: gardening of local crops, membership in regional tribal alliances, and adoption of maize agriculture as a staple crop. 

The author recommendations for future research in the area include more intensive excavation, especially more rockshelter excavation as only one of several known has been extensively excavated. More excavation of extraction sites is also recommended. Some parts of the Hocking Valley area such as Federal Creek have not even been surveyed well for sites. They note again the biggest enigmas are the postulated abandonment period (250-500 CE) as well as the postulated abandonment period after 1450 CE. 

Overall, this is a great book not only for those interested in the area but those interested in Native American history. It is also a great book that details archaeological methodologies as well as comparison to various archaeological theories and classifications based on other societies.

Amrita of Eloquence: A Biography of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

Book Review: Amrita of Eloquence: A Biography of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche – by Lama Karma Drodul-translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, KTD Publications (2009)

For me, this is the story of my guru, or the closest interaction with an authentic teacher I have encountered. Lama Karma as author is knowledgeable and capable as is Lama Yeshe as translator. 

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, wrote in the forward that he rejoices in its publication since Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche is worthy of praise and his biography will be a source of goodness. In the first preface by the late Ninth Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, he notes the three traditional qualities of a teacher: extensive learning, impeccable moral character, and a kindly disposition and says that Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche possesses all three in abundance. He tells of Rinpoche’s great learning and his care for his students around the world. He tells of his commitment as a fully ordained Buddhist monk for most of his life. He tells of his great humility and patience. He praises the biography as a source of inspiration. In the second preface by the Ninth Thrangu Rinpoche, it is noted that Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche knew each other as young monks at Thrangu Monastery in Tibet and fled Tibet together in 1959. He notes that Rinpoche “has consistently demonstrated his reliability and his goodness, The characteristics of a genuine spiritual friend.” 

Lama Karma also expresses happiness for the opportunity to write a namtar (spiritual biography) of his guru and dedicates the merit to all beings. Translator Lama Yeshe Gyamtso notes that the Tibetan version, written in 2005 is titled: Amrita of Eloquence, Medicine for Our Faith: A Brief Biography of Our Great Holy Guide, the Learned and Accomplished Khenpo Karma Tarchin. He notes that Lama Karma’s account of the value of a namtar is that studying the life of a guru brings devotion and devotion brings awakening. He also gives a short account of Lama Karma’s life thus far: born in 1974, became a monk at 13, fully ordained at 20, came to America in 1997 and became Rinpoche’s attendant. Rinpoche is his uncle. He also notes Lama Karma’s traditional Tibetan habit of denigrating his own importance compared to the teacher. Lama Yeshe notes this habit as a reminder toward humility. He also thinks this work is a good example of how to practice devotion to the guru in the tradition of the three yanas. Thanks to the efforts of Lama Karma and Lama Yeshe we are able to have the opportunity to study the life of our guru. The publisher notes that Lama Karma wrote the biography at the request of Lama Nyima Rinpoche (it is customary to do such actions by request) of Thrangu Monastery in East Tibet. 

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche passed away on Oct. 6, 2019 at age 96. He was cremated in a traditional ceremony a few weeks later. As the death of one’s teacher is said to be a good time to do practices, in order to mix one’s mind with the mind of the guru, I thought it would also be good to become re-inspired by his virtuous life and awakened qualities.

The book is full of pictures, old and new, from Tibet, America, Taiwan, Bhutan, India, etc. Rinpoche was one of the foremost teachers of dharma in the “West” over the last 43 years of his life. The book is a traditional namtar, or spiritual biography. It is structured around the analogy of the twelve deeds of the Buddha with twelve chapters explaining the “greatnesses” of the guru. The book includes some splendid lyrical dharma poetry and lots of anecdotes and stories of Rinpoche’s life. Lama Karma also includes explanatory verses from various sutras and tantras.

The first part is called Virtue in the Beginning and gives veneration, the writer’s promise to write, and an introduction. First given are the traditional attributes of a guru or a ‘spiritual friend:’ He should be very leaned in the Mahayana path and very disciplined in practice are two of the main requirements. One thing Lama Karma notes is that the 16th Karmapa conferred upon him the title “Lord of Dharma” before sending him to America in 1976. Such a title being conferred by the Gyalwang Karmapa shows that the lord of the Karma Kagyu lineage has confidence in Rinpoche’s qualities as a teacher of dharma. Lama Karma also gives the meaning and qualities of a namtar: it means “complete liberation” and is the story of the guru’s liberation through practice. It has the quality to inspire, to stir others to attention and practice. It inspires devotion to the guru as well. He notes that devotion is a special quality of the Dakpo Kagyu, the Kagyu schools that come through the teacher Gampopa. Transference of the lineage blessing from the guru is a key feature and devotion enables such transmission.

The second part is called Virtue in the Middle and contains the actual biography.  The first part is about his birth and childhood. Rinpoche was born in Kham, a region of East Tibet. It is a region of steppe-like valleys and high mountains. There are grazing herbivore animals like gazelles and yaks, water birds like geese and swans, and grasses and flowers. Nomadic Tibetans there keep goats, sheep, cows, and horses as well. As is customary Lama Karma gives some details of Rinpoche’s birth and potentially auspicious signs associated with it. One is that he was born at sunrise, indicating his wisdom. Another was his birth on a Dharmapala day, indicating his strength. Some dharma activities of Rinpoche’s parents are recounted, including his father’s carving of the Amitayus Sutra and a stupa on a large flat rock sticking out of a mountain. His father studied under a Great Perfection teacher, Drimay Ozer the yogin, and practiced daily recitations including the names of Manjusri. Rinpoche played old cymbals as a child during family Guru Rinpoche practices. The yogin also taught Rinpoche’s parents the Powa, or ejection of consciousness practice. His father was said to be heard reciting the mantra Phat!, from the Powa practice when he died. Several of Rinpoche’s brothers are/were also lamas of some distinction. 

Rinpoche became a novice monk when he was 12 and lived at Thrangu Monastery. When he was 15 the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa stayed for a month at Thrangu Monastery bestowing empowerments and teachings, Including numerous black crown ceremonies. Rinpoche was able to attend all of these events. When he was 16 he went on pilgrimage to Lhasa on foot as was customary for monks. When he was 20 Rinpoche received the bhikshu vows of full ordination. In Lama Karma’s poetic words:

You saw sacred places and the Black Crown that Liberates upon Sight.

Your past aspirations and virtuous habits were awakened.

You properly received the precious moral discipline pleasing to the victors

And are magnificent amidst the saffron-adorned.

Rinpoche did a one-year retreat soon thereafter and then his three year retreat on the six dharmas of Naropa at Thrangu Monastery. Inspired by teachings from Jamgon Rinpoche he decided to spend the rest of his life in retreat but after a few months Traleg Rinpoche insisted that he would be of more benefit if he attended the college so at age 26 he attended the college for the next 5 years. He received more teachings from the Karmapa and traveled for the next 5 years with Thrangu Rinpoche doing ceremonies and teachings. He was also manager of Thrangu Rinpoche’s residence. He was inspired when Khenpo Gangshar visited Thrangu Monastery and gave teachings on guidance of the mind. In 1958, due to politics and war Rinpoche fled Tibet with Thrangu Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche, Zuru Tulku, and Rinpoche’s brother Lama Sonam Chodar. A few weeks into their journey they were fired upon by the Chinese, but no one was hit. Rinpoche recounted that he visualized the Gyalwa Karmapa on his back like a shield of protection as he ran. In 1959 they reached the refugee camp in Buxa, India. Rinpoche spent 9 years there studying with lamas of all traditions. In 1967 Rinpoche went to Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim and taught monks there. He was there for a year and a half then went to Tilokpur nunnery where he stayed and taught for another year and a half. Then Karmapa sent Rinpoche to be rainy season abbot at Dungkar Tashi Choling, a monastery in Bhutan. He stayed there with some others from Thrangu monastery for the rainy season then went to Khamtrul Rinpoche’s monastery in Tashi Jong, also in Bhutan, to receive four months of teachings and empowerments from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Throughout these narratives Rinpoche has various dreams which he interprets. One recurring theme is that of the Thrangu Upasaka (a non-monastic Buddhist with liberation vows), a kind of spirit who helps protect Thrangu monastics and practitioners. Rinpoche credits the Karmapa’s compassion and the Thrangu Upasaka’s guidance as keys to his own success at serving the dharma. At this time Rinpoche has begun suffering from tuberculosis. He suffered for five years finally being hospitalized for 11 months. He felt he was close to death and began to prepare. He began to improve, especially after he made it to America in 1976 to become the Gyalwa Karmapa’s representative. Karmapa believed Rinpoche would have died had he not received treatment in America.

Rinpoche gave his first teaching in America in New York City in 1977. The Karmapa was there and was pleased. Land was found to begin construction of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) near Woodstock, New York. There was trouble hitting water with a water well as after drilling 500ft no water was found. Karmapa suggested they offer a golden drink, an offering to the ‘golden guardian of the earth,’ who Karmapa said was a great protector of the USA. Soon thereafter water was secured. The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa died in America in the fall of 1981. Karmapa gave two vials of his blood to Rinpoche for use in rituals and formulations of dharma pills. During this time – late 70’s, early 80’s – many Karma Kagyu centers were established in America. Rinpoche first taught tranquility meditation but as disciples matured he also began to confer empowerments and other ritual practices.

Rinpoche was known for his hard work. He filled many statues with dharana rolls and precious stones, was renowned at sowing thankas, brocades, and other fabrics, built drums, was an expert in geomancy (he taught some geomancy from Karma Chakme’s teachings when I was in attendance once), and painted and gilded statues. He gathered gifts and practice aids for dharma practitioners at the various centers.

Rinpoche had a very strong dharma practice that began as he awoke early in the day. He often kept his back erect throughout the day (a yogic practice) and sat with his hands touching the ground in front of his knees in the manner of Lord Marpa.

Rinpoche was known to offer blessing by touching the top of his head to those of his disciples. I was fortunate to receive some of these, usually during empowerments, but once when I asked him to introduce me to the nature of mind. Of course, the blessing went right through me as I was not so aware. Rinpoche was devoted to the Kagyu masters of the past, especially Gampopa. Some of his students even consider him as an emanation of Gampopa. He was also very devoted to the 16th and 17th Gyalwa Karmapas.

Rinpoche also travelled to Taiwan a few times, where he had disciples. There he helped heal a woman who had had a stroke. He visited ill disciples when he could and helped the dead by performing Powa. With Lama Norlha he was able to attend the enthronement the 17th Karmapa at Tsurphu in Tibet and on his return he saw a certain yak which he identified as an emanation of the Thrangu Upasaka. In 2004 when he visited Tibet again he identified a butterfly that followed them a long way as an emanation of the Thrangu Upasaka. Interpretation of dreams, events, and appearances of beings has long been a feature of Karma Kagyu Buddhism, especially among the more dedicated practitioners.

Rinpoche, along with Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Tenzin Chonyi made KTD an inspiring place to practice and receive teachings. They also helped establish and sustain many meditation centers which continue today. There are daily ritual practices at KTD including Green Tara, Chenrezik, and Mahakala sadhana practices. Every new year there are long practices of the three principle Kagyu yidams – Vajravarahi, Chakrasamvara, and Jinasagara. There is also a long Amitabha practice performed. When Rinpoche first met the 17th Karmapa he was addressed as “Agama” just as the 16th Karmapa addressed him – as a term of endearment.

In 1990 the groundbreaking for Karme Ling was blessed during a visit by Jamgon Rinpoche. He died later that year in a car accident in India. This was to be the first three-year retreat (actually three years, three months, and three days) set up in America. The retreat begins with the mahamudra preliminaries (ngondro) according to Jamgon Lodro Thaye’s Torch of Certainty. Next comes the three guruyogas of Marpa, Milarepa, or Gampopa. Then the six dharmas of Naropa are practiced. Then the practice of Chakrasamvara is done. Other daily practices such as torma offerings, chod or severance, burnt offerings, smoke offerings, and physical practices are done as well. Elaborate practices and fire offerings are done at the conclusion of retreat. Rinpoche sowed all the garments for the retreatants.

Lama Karma notes that Rinpoche’s foremost disciple was Lama Yeshe Losal. He spent four years in retreat performing one million prostrations among other practices. He now(?) lives at Samye Ling in Scotland. Another is the American woman Lama Karma Wangmo, who practiced Vajrayogini for twelve years after preliminaries that included a hundred Nyung Ne practices. She is said to wander without a fixed location. Others are the American man Lama Tsultrim who has completed three three-year retreats and the Taiwanese woman Ani Lodro, who also completed three three-year retreats. Another Taiwanese woman Ani Karma Puntsok continued to practice after three-year retreat, not leaving at all but entering the next retreat, practicing Jinasagara. Other three-year retreatant veterans including Lama Kathy Wesley, or Jigmay Chotso, continue to teach at affiliate centers. Lama Kathy has been the most active teacher to tour the other centers and give teachings. Those who do not do three-year retreat are encouraged to practice the four hundred thousand preliminaries, or ngondro, which may take some years, followed by the Karma Pakshi Gurusadhana.

Rinpoche has taught many teachings over the years, including teaching Powa to many Chinese students who accumulated six million Amitabha mantras. Rinpoche would teach at KTD, occasionally visit affiliate centers (we were very lucky to host him three times in Athens, Ohio), and teach at Karme Ling. Since 1991 Rinpoche taught a 10-day teaching at KTD in the summer. At the request of the 16th Karmapa, Rinpoche taught over the course of a few years the Mountain Dharma of Karma Chakme. These teachings are available in book form. He taught many different teachings like those from Atisha and the Bodhicharyavatara of Shantideva, and many books were published of his teachings and instructions. When Rinpoche visited Tibet he again served as rainy season abbot as he did once in Bhutan. As a fully ordained monk he encouraged the other monks to keep their moral discipline, stating that:

A bhikshu with moral discipline is luminous

In 2001 Rinpoche visited the 17th Karmapa in India and attended the Kagyu Monlam, or prayer festival. While there Rinpoche and Bardor Tulku Rinpoche offered a traditional mandala to the Karmapa and many other offerings to those present. Lama Karma praises his teaching thus:

Through the current of empowerment, transmission, and instruction.

You ripen and free beings, placing each appropriately on the three yana’s path,

Your activity is tremendously vast, including direct and indirect disciples,

You free your mothers born in foreign lands from the ocean of becoming.

In 1996 Rinpoche attended the stupa consecrations in Crestone, Colorado. Rinpoche visited Thrangu Monastery in Tibet in 2004. He was met with a great procession at that place where he first studied and practiced dharma intently. He taught there for as long as he could then returned to the U.S. and resumed his regular duties as primary teacher and retreat master. He was delighted by news of his brother Lama Sonam who was doing life-long retreat and had completed 100 million mani recitations and his sister who had completed 200 million mani recitations. His disciple Bhikshuni Karuna Lodro Dronma completed 108 Nyung Ne practices. Rinpoche offered a mandala at the first teaching of Khenpo Ugyen Tendzin, who had recently arrived from Rumtek Monastery to be a teacher at KTD. Khenpo Ugyen is still there and now travels to teach at affiliate centers. Many great lamas have visited KTD and gave teachings and consecrations including Garchen Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, Thangu Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, Jamgon Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and others. During this time period a columbarium, to store ashes of deceased dharma practitioners was built at Karme Ling with statues of the five Buddha families and the Eight Mahabodhisattvas.

Guru devotion is considered a special teaching of the Dakpo Kagyu lineages. Devotion to one’s guru is considered the key to attainment through the blessing powers of the lineage. According to the sutras the guru is Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Since we do not have the fortune and karma to meet the Buddhas and bodhisattvas directly our meeting with an authentic guru is most important. It is the guru who shows us the two bodhicittas and points out mahamudra. In the tantras it is noted:

It is better to briefly recollect the guru

Than to meditate on a deity with marks and signs

For a hundred thousand kalpas.

The merit of remembering the guru is infinite.

It is also said that all deities are indistinguishable from our guru. Through such devotion all attainments and understanding are possible. There are four requirements for authentic devotion: Never examine the guru’s faults, know that whatever he or she does is good, one must resolve to eliminate hope and fear, and one must think of the guru as a parent. One will receive blessings from the guru according to how one perceives the guru, ie. as a Buddha, bodhisattva, siddha, or ordinary spiritual friend. Many sutras, tantras, and teachers have taught the great value of guru devotion. Lama Karma gives many examples.

Lama Karma also says that Rinpoche did not dictate any stories about his life and did not expect a biography to be written but told him it was up to him whether he would write it. Many of the stories and facts therein Lama Karma remembered from conversations and his own observations. His goal is/was to increase the devotion of himself and others. This biography was completed in late November 2005 while Lama Karma was in his second three-year retreat.

The last chapter includes several longevity supplications for Khenpo Rinpoche’s long life. It was great for many of us that he got to live and teach until he died at age 96. I remember the last few words of instruction from him I read on a Facebook post:

In practice, be courageous. Do not be timid.  (paraphrased but I think that is right)

It is no small matter in one’s life to meet an authentic being and I and many others have been fortunate enough to do just that and learn from his example and his teachings.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily LIfe

Book Review: Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life – by Steven Strogatz (Hyperion, 2003)

This one is an interesting foray into chaos and complexity theories and tendencies toward synchronization and self-organization. Strogatz is a mathematician. The book is ‘dry’ in parts but is not overly complex for the ‘slow’ reader like myself. Synchronization occurs in nature at all scales from atomic nucleus through cosmos. 

Spontaneous order is mysterious, he says. Synchronization is a kind of order - in time. He distinguishes accidental temporary sync with persistent long-lasting sync. We tend to like sync such as the rhythm of music. We tend to interpret persistent sync as a sign of planning, choreography, or intelligence. Seeing sync like schools of fish, synced fireflies, or in my case noticing that my geese and ducks (and one rooster) can be herded in sync as one unit, is fascinating. Sync among non-intelligent entities like cells and electrons is even more mind-boggling. 

The science of synchrony (sync) studies “coupled oscillators.” Oscillators are “entities that cycle automatically, that repeat themselves over and over again at more or less regular intervals.” Two or more oscillators are said to be coupled if they influence one another physically or chemically. Coupled oscillators may be many things: planets, heart cells sending electrical signals, or various units of life and matter. Strogatz studies sync mathematically and notes that there are practical applications present and future, many of them medical and safety oriented. 

He goes through the history of the study of synchronized firefly flashing. Biologist John Buck and colleagues discovered that the rhythm of flashing was regulated by an internal oscillator that could reset. Somehow all this internal resetting, adjusting to the flashing of others, without intelligence, accounts for the well-timed synchrony observed in many firefly species. Strogatz goes so far as to call the tendency to synchronize one of the most pervasive drives in the universe. Different syncs – say the moon’s ability to spin at the exact same rate that it orbits the earth so that we only ever see one side of it from here (caused by tidal effects) or the synchronized swimming of sperm on the way to egg or the pacemaker cells of the heart – are linked by mathematical relationships. In many ways nature is collectively precise without a leader.

The author was inspired by a book by biologist Art Winfree called The Geometry of Biological Time. Impulses often did not change smoothly. Instead they tend to jump which makes them harder to study with calculus and algebra. With multiple oscillators studying them mathematically becomes unwieldy and nearly impossible. Simulations are another method but far less precise than math. Peskin’s stroboscopic simulation method was more satisfying for the author who described the synchronization of his own experimental simulations as “spooky.” 

Strogatz and a grad student describe the tendency of synchronization to be due to what they call “absorption” where one oscillator “absorbs” another in the sense that once the absorbed becomes synchronized with the absorber they stay in sync irrevocably. That is, after they hit a threshold. They may be changed by other oscillators but will change together. Absorption is how oscillators “clump” together eventually resulting in a fully synchronized system or unit. This all happens according to mathematical proofs and logic. The synchronized firing of neurons and the way an earthquake happens after stresses cross certain thresholds are other examples of sync. There are many more. Another idea called ‘self-organizing criticality’ by physicist Per Bak was found to be synonymous with sync. Even though the study of sync has been mocked as frivolous by some politicians, there have been practical benefits. Early internet routers were plagued by pulses that showed sync that causes congestion and so engineers had to devise a means to “clock” computer circuits more efficiently.

Only male fireflies flash in sync and proposed explanations for it have much to do with mating: to advertise the scale of the males available, to take advantage getting lucky by being mistaken for another male, and to not stand out as prey so much to predators. In humans, females sometimes show sync when their menstrual cycles synchronize after being together for long periods. One of the leading possible explanations for the mechanism of sync involves pheromones, chemicals that may signal to sync. Among women some experiments showed that something in their sweat (pheromones) may signal the menstrual cycles to sync. Other experiments did not verify that so that explanation is still unproven. While the pheromones certainly influence the cycles of other women those cycles do not always end up synchronized. Thus, the behavior is more complex than the sync of fireflies. The complexity is enough that synchronized menstruation is difficult to predict. Some have theorized that they do this so they can share some child-rearing and breast-feeding duties which can result in healthier offspring among mammals. Strogatz notes that the shear complexity of some systems makes mathematical modelling of them an art as well as a science. 

Next is an ode to the work of Norbert Weiner, the founder of cybernetics. Weiner was the first to point out the pervasiveness of sync in the universe. He dived into the study of brain waves suspecting them as indicative of some internal clock mechanism to coordinate brain activities that occur many times in a second. He speculated that oscillators in the brain pulled on the frequencies of individual ones to speed them up or slow them down to achieve synchronization. So, the brain waves are a kind of consensus of the mental state. He believed that this ‘frequency pulling’ was a key mechanism of ‘self-organizing.’ He failed to adequately describe this situation before his death in 1964 but a year later Art Winfree would do so. He focused on the ability of oscillators to send and receive signals. Coupled oscillators influence one another and the sensitivity to being influenced changes according to the cycle. Winfree stated that: 

“At any instant, an oscillator’s speed is determined by three contributions: its preferred pace, which is proportional to its natural frequency; its current sensitivity to any incoming influences (which depends on where it is in its cycle); and the total influence exerted by all the other oscillators (which depends on where they all are in their cycles)”

That makes the mathematics very complex and the future can be predicted from the present by differential equations, or calculus. Linear differential equations are solvable but non-linear ones, including those involving competition or cooperation, are unsolvable. Winfree utilized computer simulations to attempt to solve the equations. Once some clumps begin to synchronize they can be “heard” over the background and this can lead to synchrony of the system. Group sync was not hierarchical but was not democratic either, he discovered. Winfree realized that group sync was analogous to phase transition (like the transition from liquid water to solid ice). In phase transition, at a certain temperature there is a reorganization that results in a new structure. Sync is similar, but in time rather than in space. This was an “unexpected link between biology and physics.” Non-linear dynamics and statistical mechanics could now be hybridized into a new theory. In 1975 Japanese physicist Yoshiki Kuramoto finally was able to solve the differential equations related to sync which were considered possibly unsolvable. He defined the ‘order parameter’ which gives a value of 1 to perfect sync and a value of zero to no sync. In his analysis he noted that only a total non-sync, a partial sync, or complete sync were possibilities. He realized that the oscillators must be similar enough to each other in order to synchronize. Strogatz set out in 1986 to study the Kuramoto model. He eventually used techniques developed by plasma physicist Lev Landau. Weiner’s frequency pulling turned out to be not as clear cut as thought but it was found for certain that oscillators affect the frequency of other oscillators. 

Next, he delves into the sync of the human body in sleep-wake cycles. We are tuned through evolution to the day-night cycle and being out-of-sync with it due to things like working the nightshift can wreak havoc. Apparently, we have a ‘circadian pacemaker,’ a ‘neural cluster of thousands of clock cells in the brain, themselves synchronized into a coherent unit.” This cluster influences other cells and organs to do what they do at the right times. Sync in the body occurs at three levels, he notes: sync in cells within an organ, sync between organs where they ‘period match,’ and sync between our bodies and the world around us – this last one, rooted in the day-night cycle, is called external synchronization, or entrainment. There is still much to learn about these circadian rhythms. Hormone fluctuations, digestion, alertness, dexterity, and cognitive performance are all related to these daily rhythms. Experiments with people kept from the sun have shown that their body temperature cycle (changing in a 1.5 deg F range) will sync up with their sleep-wake cycle. Some circadian rhythms were found to be 26 hours, some closer to 22 hours so they vary. However, some people desynchronized radically after long periods away from the sun, typically with long wake and long sleep cycles seemingly randomly thrown in. Their body temperature cycle, however, remained the same. This became known as ‘spontaneous internal desynchronization.’ Only the sleep-wake cycle varied, while the temp and hormone secretion cycles stayed with their variation of daily. Even though the desynchronization seemed random there was logic in the data as expressed with raster plots. The beginning of long sleeps coincided with higher body temps and the beginning of short sleeps coincided with lower body temperature. Results were strong correlations that sleep length was related to phase of temperature cycle. Many other physiological and cognitive processes were linked to the phase of the temperature cycle.

It has also been found that the REM cycle during sleep is also entrained with the body temperature cycle. It is most likely to be initiated just after the body is coldest which is why it more often occurs near the end of the sleep cycle. Other cycles such as the short-term memory cycle, release of the hormone melatonin, and other cognitive and physiological functions maintain phase relationships with the body temperature cycle and with one another. The biological clock ties everything together. The cells of organs also display circadian rhythms. Eventually, the suprachiasmatic nuclei, two clusters of neurons in front of the hypothalamus was identified as where the circadian pacemaker resides. Built in to our daily cycles are times of drowsiness corresponding to the siesta in the day (1-4PM) and the zombie zone at night (3-5AM). These are times when accidents are likely to occur. Times of maximum wakeness were also found, their peaks being 10AM and 9PM. Night shift workers tend to have trouble with synchronization and there are some things they can do to help. Light has a strong synchronizing effect. 80% of blind people suffer from some form of sleep disorders. The other 20% likely have intact circadian photoreceptors in their retinas, even if they can’t see.

An example of circadian sync is that of leaves of plants opening in the day and closing at night. Several trees do this. In 1665 Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens noticed that two pendulum clocks (he invented them) would synchronize their pendulum swings within a half-hour no matter where they started from. There are many other examples of non-living things spontaneously synchronizing. Lasers, utilized in many things including CDs, laser surgery, and supermarket scanners, rely on synchronized light emissions. Even our regional power grids utilizing different power generators or power plants end up operating in sync. 

Atomic clocks, the most accurate clocks we have, rely on sync. They “count the transition of a cesium atom as it flits back and forth between two of its energy levels.” Atomic clocks made possible GPS systems which can pinpoint positions in space from far away with accuracy. GPS allows synchronization better than a millionth of a second which is also useful for coordinating financial transactions. Each of the 24 global positioning satellites carries 4 atomic clocks synchronized within a billionth of a second of one another by a master clock in Boulder, Colorado.

In the wider universe, another example of inanimate sync is orbital resonance. In the case of two linked planets orbiting a star one version is where one will orbit the star at exactly twice the rate as the other. Even more remarkable is the case of our own moon that spins on its axis at exactly the same rate it orbits the earth, which is why we only ever see one side of the moon. In that case the earth’s gravitational pull of the moon is balanced by the moon’s centrifugal force at the center of the moon. The moon’s weight distribution (it is bottom-heavy) provides the corrective torque to bring it back into sync. Another example of astronomical sync (orbital resonance) is the calculated orbital periods of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which are always precisely mathematically related to the orbital period of Jupiter. The point of closest approach of the asteroid to Jupiter always occurs in the same place of both of their orbits, similar to Huygens’ pendulum clocks synchronizing. 

Quantum choruses is the next chapter. Superconductivity showed that perpetual motion was possible near but slightly above a temperature of absolute zero, which defies the laws of classical physics. The new theoretical science of quantum mechanics would mathematically solve this riddle and many others. Electrons pairing up and cooperating in sync would be the key to superconductivity. In 1995 physicists at a lab in Boulder, Colorado were able to get temperatures down to less than a millionth of a degree above absolute zero (mind-boggling) and this showed that atoms began behaving as one super-atom. This is ‘quantum phase coherence,’ the basis of the laser. Electrical resistance drops to zero at a certain low temperature, which is the basis for hopes of superconductivity as the basis of a much more efficient form of electrification. Apparently, this has to do with the “communal behavior” of paired electrons. With materials research in the search for superconductivity, which was a major research issue in the 1980’s, it was found that some materials could be coaxed into superconducting behavior at much higher temperatures, but unfortunately, not high enough to be feasible in the real world. There are many other hurdles as well. 

A young grad student, Brian Josephson, in the early 1960’s discovered that “supercurrent” could have a counterintuitive mathematical relationship (like many quantum-level processes). Physicist Richard Feynman soon discovered that these “Josephson effects” in superconductivity could theoretically occur for many “phase-coherent” systems. In 1997 one was found: superfluid helium. Strange quantum effects account for the Josephson effects, like quantum tunneling and quantum sync. “All liquids become highly ordered when cooled to very low temperatures.” Josephson’s theory involved sandwiched superconducting materials that later became known as “Josephson junctions.” They have led to the most sensitive detectors in science known as SQUID – superconducting quantum interference devices. They have been developed and used to great success in medical imaging and show potential for supercomputers, or rather superconducting computers. Josephson received a Nobel Prize in 1973 but soon thereafter devoted his work to paranormal research, thinking that one day quantum theory could explain telepathy. This was not well received by his physicist colleagues, but Josephson believes (if he is even still alive) that it is possible. It was noticed that Josephson junctions, like the motion of pendulums. Is non-linear. The motion of a pendulum is affected by gravity, angles, and torque. Josephson junctions are affected by phase. Breakthroughs in chaos theory aided in the study of sync with the development of non-linear dynamics.

The author began a collaboration in 1990 with Kurt Wiesenfeld, studying the non-linear dynamics of Josephson junctions. They developed a method of study and representation involving two-dimensional graphs that made interesting geometrical shapes. They were shocked to find that “every solution is periodic.” They suspected a “secret symmetry” in the equations. What they discovered was essentially the Kuramoto model! The Millenium Bridge opened in 2000 in England but when hundreds of people began walking on both sides of it, it began to sway and increased its swaying to the point where the bridge was shut down. Apparently, people walking to catch their balance in response to the sway was amplifying the sway. It was Josephson who figured out the sync mechanism that was causing the amplified swaying. 

Next, he delves more into chaos theory and non-linear dynamics with accounts of Lorenz coming up with his equations back in 1963. Chaos theory overlaps with complexity theory as chaotic systems are mathematically complex. He refers to the “second wave” of chaos theory where it was discovered that chaotic systems exhibit a new kind of order. Chaos now had laws. James Gleick’s 1987 book, Chaos, brought chaos theory to the masses (I have read most of it and one day may finish it for a review here). Chaotic systems mostly defy predictability, but it has been found that two chaotic systems can sync up. Synchronized chaos shows that chaotic systems only appear to be random. In reality they are subject to certain laws. 

“These, then, are the defining features of chaos: erratic, seemingly random behavior in an otherwise deterministic system; predictability in the short run, because of deterministic laws; and unpredictability in the long run, because of the butterfly effect.”

The butterfly effect is simply the observation that in chaotic systems small discrepancies or disturbances can end up changing the whole dynamics of a system, rendering it non-predictable. A chaotic system requires precision in the initial measurement of the system to get predictability, but only short-term predictability. 

“Just as a circle is the shape of periodicity, a strange attractor is the shape of chaos.”

In both cases dynamics are converted into geometry. On a practical level, chaotic systems provided the means for “chaotic encryption” of electronic communications, which is unpredictable enough to defy decryption. 

Next, the author explores sync in three dimensions. He goes back to 1982 when he accepted a summer job with Art Winfree at Purdue University to study topology – the study of continuous shape, among other topics. Winfree was the author of many scientific papers relating biology and mathematics, particularly geometry. Another topic of their study was the chemical waves produced in a “Zhabotinsky soup,” a chemical reaction that supports excitatory waves much like those that trigger heartbeat. Chemical waves are like neurons that have three states: quiescent, excited, and refractory (incapable of being excited for a time). One might also compare them to the human sexual response. Zhabotinsky soup (more accurately known as the BZ reaction) allows the unfettered study of wave propagation in excitable media. This led to discovery of a new kind of rotating, self-sustaining wave, shaped like a spiral. Such waves are responsible for tachycardia and the ventricular fibrillation that can result in sudden cardiac death. The waves tend to annihilate on collision with other waves. Strogatz and Winfree were studying these spiral waves in 3D. They helped define scroll waves, scroll rings, and twisted scroll rings, and the rules of such structures. Knots were more difficult. With modern supercomputers there is now much more known about spiral waves and scroll waves and their twisted and knotted forms. They continued to be studied for their role in cardiac arrhythmias.

The next subject is small-world networks. We know that networks have organizing principles and seek to discover them. Even the corpus of scientific knowledge is a network of sorts. Networks are made up of individuals but exhibit network properties, group properties. One version is the so-called “six degrees of separation” that connects us to one another and to others. 

“Whenever nonlinear elements are hooked together in gigantic webs, the wiring diagram has to matter. It’s a basic principle: Structure always affects function. The structure of social networks affects the spread of information and disease; the structure of the power grid affects the stability of power transmission. The same must be true for species in an ecosystem, companies in the global marketplace, cascades of enzyme reactions in living cells. The layout of the web must profoundly shape its dynamics.”

Networks are made up of nodes, or connection points. Studying networks with mathematics involves calculating the number of links between nodes. Strogatz and grad students designed simulations to study network connectivity. They defined a term to address a network’s evolving structure – the average path length, which is the number of lengths in the shortest path between two nodes, averaged for all nodes. They found that, counterintuitively, what they call small-world networks are both highly clustered and small, which is apparently different than bigger networks that are often highly clustered and small ones which are typically not highly clustered. The power grid and the nervous system both qualify as small-world networks. Social networks are also likely to be small-world networks, as the experiments in ‘six degrees of separation’ suggest. 

“The importance of small-world connectivity is even clearer for processes of contagion. Anything that can spread – infectious diseases, computer viruses, ideas, rumors – will spread much more easily and quickly in a small world.”

Small-world networks have a tendency to self-organize. Statistically speaking, there are networks that organize regardless of scale. These are called scale-free networks and have similar self-organizing properties to the small-world networks. 

“At an anatomical level – the level of pure, abstract connectivity – we seem to have stumbled upon a universal pattern of complexity. Disparate networks show the same three tendencies: short-chains, high clustering, and scale-free link distributions. The coincidences are eerie, and baffling to interpret.”

Scale-free networks have been shown to be resistant to random failures yet vulnerable to attacks on their hubs. In a study of the network of protein interactions in yeast it was found that the most highly connected proteins are the most important ones for the cell’s survival.

The last chapter addresses the human side of sync. The author was contacted by the actor Alan Alda, who read his Scientific American article about sync. Alda had long studied fads, a fascination of his. Likely spurred by Richard Dawkins’ idea of memes as a psychological equivalent to genes, he sensed mysteries of group human behavior to be discovered in the study of fads, possibly being some form of sync. Mobs, riots, traffic, and music or sports spectators all exhibit group behavior that sometimes seems to sync up. Sociologists and behavioral economists study group behavior too. Sometimes it’s called herd behavior – since the behavioral choices of others influence one’s own behaviors. We tend to do what our neighbors do. Companies tend to do what their competitors do, often to avoid falling behind or losing market share or profitability. There seems to be a threshold where if enough of one’s neighbors adopt a behavior then we will adopt it as well. Explanations involve ideas like ‘tipping points’ and ‘vulnerable clusters.’ Complexity theory has even been applied to highway traffic where sync does indeed happen when enough vehicles are confined to a certain space. We tend to adjust our speed to the traffic around us. Audiences clapping in unison is another example of social sync. The synchronized marching of German Nazis is another example, not so flattering. Some people see coincidences as a form of sync but the evidence is lacking or perhaps just harder to find. Some suspect sync is even involved in how the brain gives rise to the mind, a major problem in brain science and psychology. Now that we can correlate human thoughts and emotions with activity in different parts of the brain, we can arrive at neural correlates of consciousness. Cognition has been linked to brief outbursts of neural synchrony. Sync may well be a way of binding things together in our minds. Experiments have found that:

“… synchronized neural activity is consistently associated with primitive forms of cognition, memory, and perception.”

The question is perhaps whether sync is essential to cognition or simply just associated with it. Recognition of faces hidden in otherwise meaningless pictures has been definitely associated with synchronized neural activity. 

Strogatz sees science as changing from the excessive study of parts to a new holistic study of whole systems. Crafting parts into a whole often involves apparent choreography and that of course suggests sync. The non-linear sciences: cybernetics, sync, complexity theory, chaos theory, etc. are systems sciences. The chemist Ilya Prigogine thinks thermodynamics will come (somehow) to explain the non-linear subjects. Metabolism, as optimal use of energy, does indeed explain some processes.

As noted, this book was tough to grasp and a little boring in parts but overall quite fascinating. The final paragraph of the book goes like this:

For reasons I wish I understood, the spectacle of sync strikes a chord in us, somewhere deep in our souls. It’s a wonderful and terrifying thing. Unlike many other phenomena, the witnessing of it touches people at a primal level. Maybe we instinctively realize that if we ever find the source of spontaneous order, we will have discovered the secret of the universe.”