Why so many Americans are struggling to feed themselves

·35-min read
<span class="caption">A community drive-thru distribution centre in Vallejo, California in June 2020. </span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">John G. Mabanglo/EPA</span></span>
A community drive-thru distribution centre in Vallejo, California in June 2020. John G. Mabanglo/EPA

This is a transcript of episode 16 of The Conversation Weekly podcast The racial hunger gap in American cities and what do about it. In this episode, we look at some of the reasons behind racial disparities in U.S. food insecurity and hear from experts with their suggested solutions. And the discovery of the bones of a small child, carefully buried in Kenya 78,000 years ago, gives us a peek into the minds of ancient humans.

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Dan Merino: Hello and welcome to The Conversation Weekly.

Gemma Ware: In this week’s episode, why so many Americans are struggling to feed themselves.

Craig Gundersen: Due to COVID, what we’re projecting is that between 40 and 45 million Americans are food insecure.

Julian Agyeman: We cannot divorce hunger in the U.S. from racist urban planning.

Dan: And the discovery of the bones of a small child, carefully buried in Kenya 78,000 years ago.

María Martinón-Torres: This is the earliest burial known so far in Africa.

Dan: I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco

Gemma: And I’m Gemma Ware in London, and you’re listening to The Conversation Weekly, the world explained by experts.

Dan: For the past few months my colleagues here in the U.S. have been working on a series about why so many people struggle to provide nutritious meals for themselves and their families.

Gemma: Decades of research have shown that improving food security is a no-brainer. People who don’t get the food they need have more problems with depression and other mental health issues. Seniors have lower nutrient intakes, and children have higher rates of anaemia.

Dan: All this results in higher healthcare costs – a lot of which is put onto the government health insurance programmes, such as Medicare.

Gemma: A household is defined as food insecure if at some point in the past year it didn’t have enough resources to have enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle for its family.

Gemma: There’d been a dramatic increase in U.S. food insecurity after the great recession of 2008-9.

Even after the economy began to recover, food insecurity rates remained stubbornly high until about 2014.

Dan: But the situation began to improve then. And by the time the pandemic hit, fewer people were living in food insecurity than at any point since the U.S. began measuring it in 1996.

Gemma: But there were big racial disparities. In 2019, the official food insecurity rate for Black people was 19% – more than twice as high as it was for white people at just under 8%. And it was just under 16% for Hispanic people.

Gemma: To find out why, and what’s been going on during the pandemic, we’ve talked to three experts who study food insecurity and food justice in the U.S. This is a story about who has access to food. About the legacy of racist urban planning in US cities. And about money – and what it would actually cost the federal government to eradicate food insecurity in one of the world’s richest countries.

Gemma: In the early months of the pandemic, when the economy crashed and unemployment soared, millions of Americans turned to charitable organisations to help put food on their tables.

Caitlin: In 2020, it was like this muscle that really got flexed where these food justice organizations and mutual aid networks were really rising to the occasion.

Gemma: This is Caitlin Caspi. She’s an associate professor in the department of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut, UConn.

Caitlin: Just recently that I did a pandemic move from the University of Minnesota, to UConn where I’m also working at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. And I’m the director of food security initiatives there.

Gemma: In March and April 2020, Caitlin says people mobilised quickly at a local level.

Caitlin: It looked really different, in different communities. And so in some communities you saw that the school buses were being re-purposed to deliver food. Many other communities, parking lots or, or sports fields were being re-purposed as mass food distribution sites. In some places you even had people getting screened for food insecurity as they were getting a COVID test and they could get food right there.

Gemma: Underneath this, another layer of grassroots support and mutual aid developed. Friends and neighbours helped each other out. Food justice organizations stepped in and people began using community gardens to grow food. The emergency was acute and the response was immense. But it all raises bigger questions – about why so many people are struggling to feed themselves in the U.S. and who they are.

To find out more I called up one of the U.S.‘s leading experts on food insecurity.

Craig Gundersen: My name is Craig Gunderson. I’m the ACES distinguished professor in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois and I do research on the causes and consequences of food insecurity and on the evaluation of food assistance programs with an emphasis in the largest food assistance program, SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program.

Gemma: Official statistics on food insecurity during the pandemic are yet to be published, Craig and his colleagues have been tracking what’s been going on. Remember, before the pandemic, food insecurity rates had been at an all time low.

Craig: In 2019, to be more precise about this, there was about 35 million Americans who were food insecure. Now due to COVID, what we’re projecting is that they’ll probably be an increase in food insecurity. So we anticipate that probably about this has risen to about, between 40 and 45 million Americans are food insecure.

Gemma: 10.9% of Americans didn’t have enough food in 2019. Craig’s projections are that this rose to 13.9% in 2020, and will fall slightly to 12.9% in 2021. This is definitely a worrying increase, but Craig says that the general impression that food insecurity rates would sky rocket during the pandemic, just hasn’t happened.

Craig: We just really didn’t see that and it’s for three main reasons. The first is that the U.S. government, the Trump administration, the Congress put together the stimulus package, which dramatically raised a lot of people’s income, especially for poor households. In some sense, they actually had more money after COVID than they did before COVID, which allowed them to purchase more food than they otherwise would.

A second reason is that, unemployment benefits were being paid to people who are unemployed. And the reality is these unemployment benefits were higher than what they had when they were working and therefore that also give them more money to spend on food. A third and something that’s oftentimes overlooked, is the fact that there wasn’t any sort of rapid pricing increase. The agricultural supply chain in the United States is just remarkably vibrant. And so, because of this, we didn’t see increases in food prices. We didn’t see shortages at our are food stores and all these other things. So really it was, it was pretty amazing that things weren’t worse during COVID.

Read more: The pandemic recession has pushed a further 9.8 million Americans into food insecurity

Gemma: But dig down deeper and there’s a worrying trend. Craig projects that the rate of food insecurity for Black Americans will fall slower than that for white Americans this year. This feeds into some of his wider research on racial disparities in food insecurity.

Craig: I think probably the two groups that we see the most concern are Black persons and American Indians. So let me first begin with American Indians. Rates of food insecurity amongst American Indians have remained stubbornly high since we began measuring food insecurity.

Gemma: The official figures for indigenous communities can be difficult to unpick because of the way statistics are collected, but one recent study found the rate of food insecurity among American Indians and Alaskan Natives averaged 25% between 2000 and 2010.

Craig: America has something called Map the Meal Gap, which provides county-level estimates of food insecurity. And what you see is like these pockets in the United States, where overall you have low rates of food insecurity, then you have these areas with really high rates of food experience. Those are American Indian reservations.

Gemma: In Craig’s analysis, even after controlling for income and a host of other factors, Native Americans still have higher rates of food insecurity.

Craig: I think a lot of this probably comes down to location issues. Oftentimes American Indians are living in areas where there aren’t many jobs in those areas. There’s unlikely to be jobs in the near future. These are areas that have been poor for decades

Gemma: The other group with high levels of food insecurity are Black Americans.

Craig: What we see is the main story about Black persons in the United States is incredibly high rates of food insecurity in the upper Midwest, like in the Chicago, the Milwaukee, the Minneapolis, the Detroit, and relatively lower, much lower rates of food insecurity in the South in Atlanta, in Charlotte and Birmingham and all these other cities that are in the South. So in other words is that it’s really a story, a tale of two different situations. These northern cities have long histories of really serious segregation. And you just don’t see that in southern cities, you just don’t see these patterns of racial segregation that you see in Northern cities. So I think that that’s has a lot to do with it. Is that just that, you know, these areas are cut off from jobs, cut off from economic opportunities.

But another component of this is that in the United States, of course, the South is the booming area. I mean, if you see it in terms of growth patterns, the South is growing, this is where the future of our country is in the South. It’s not in the North.

And if you actually look at it at even a more granular level at the zip code level, you really see these sharp, sharp, just racial disparities that exist in a lot of Northern cities. Areas that are predominantly white, have really low rates of food insecurity in these cities. Areas that are predominantly Black, have really, really high rates of food insecurity.

Gemma: To find out more about the role racial segregation of American cities plays in access to food today, I called up Julian Agyeman.

Julian: I’m a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University in the Boston metro area. My interest is in what I call just sustainability is how do we move towards improving people’s quality of life, now and into the future.

Gemma: Julian says its impossible to talk about food access in US cities without understanding the legacy of racist urban planning policies.

Julian: Urban planning in the U.S. is the spatial toolkit of white supremacy. The way our cities are laid out is no accident, it’s by design. And it has led to deeply segregated communities and really has inscribed areas of deep poverty and lack of access to opportunity. We cannot divorce hunger in the U.S. from racist, urban planning, certainly in our cities.

Gemma: Can you talk us through, where would you start telling the story of how cities became segregated through urban planning?

Julian: Well, let me illustrate through one particular city, that’s in the focus of our minds at the moment and that’s Minneapolis.

Pre-1900, there was a small African-American population in the city, but it was fairly well distributed. And then around the turn of the century, 1900-1910, racist covenants started to appear. These covenants were something along the lines of “this property shall not be rented or sold to, anybody other than in the caucasian race.” Horrifically racist terms were used to describe who was not allowed to rent or buy these homes. By about 1930, this action alone had created a concentration of African-Americans in what is now North Minneapolis, and that population still exists.

Now you have to add onto this as well that in many U.S. cities, racist zoning was allowed. This was zoning for land use based on race. It was struck down by the Supreme Court of the U.S. in 1917, but it was then replaced, by what’s called single-family or large-lot zoning. Zoning on the basis of a large lot, an expensive property that basically many low-income and minority, especially African-Americans would not be able to afford. So this is called exclusionary zoning. It excluded people.

Read more: Urban planning as a tool of white supremacy – the other lesson from Minneapolis

Then there was a period of redlining in the 40s and 50s when government loans, private sector loans were not permitted in certain neighborhoods that were redlined on a map, literally, redlined as hazardous. And of course these were racially derived red lines, basically. There was also a parallel process called yellow lining to stop Chinese and people from Asia getting into these areas. The cumulative effect of these processes is racial segregation. And only one nation on earth has done it better than the U.S. and that was apartheid South Africa.

Gemma: So these urban urban planning policies influenced the way cities were designed, but how do they practically influence hunger and how Black Americans get access to food in the 21st century?

Julian: So the legacy of these racist planning policies is that there are still neighborhoods, which have been characterized as food deserts or food swamps. There is some contestation over these terms because the terms, food desert, food swamp, almost implies a natural occurrence. Many critics prefer the term food apartheid, which really I think gets to the racialized nature of these areas.

So if you imagine all of those city planning policies that I mentioned, they concentrate poverty. The poverty is reflected in economic activity in the neighborhood, which is generally lower, and food availability in terms of nutritious food at a reasonable price, culturally relevant foods is much lower in these neighborhoods. Most US cities have food desert areas that can be overlaid with these formerly redlined neighborhoods, these areas where covenants were prevalent. It’s a cumulative effect.

Read more: How urban planning and housing policy helped create 'food apartheid' in US cities

Gemma: These terms, food desert, food swamp, food apartheid, are contested among researchers. Craig Gundersen told me he avoids using them.

Craig: Empirically is it’s been shown again and again and again and again, that food deserts have no relationship at all to food insecurity. So therefore, even to talk about food deserts in the same context of food insecurity is just misguided. I always find it really insulting to people who live in those areas. It’s like they, they take pride in their areas and it’s the same as also another really annoying term, food swamps, where you’re insulting people who live in these areas.

I will say one thing though – but this doesn’t mean that food access is not an issue. And I think that it is very select cases. So for example, coming back to American Indians, for those who are living on reservations, there could be not a food store nearby at all.

Gemma: Often he says this is not about the proximity somebody lives to a store, but about their ability to get one. Someone may have a physical disability, or face mental health challenges that make it difficult for them to manage a short trip, or an older person may feel uneasy about leaving their house.

Craig: Far and away, the leading indicator food and leading predictor of food insecurity in our country is disability status. Persons with mental health disabilities and physical disabilities, whatever their income is – much, much higher rates of food insecurity than persons without disabilities.

Gemma: For Julian Agyeman, these issues about access have an extra dimension for those living in areas that were once racially segregated.

Julian: We can’t just think of poverty as being kind of a monolithic thing. Poverty means lack of access to get on a bus or to get to places where, fresh, wholesome, nutritious and affordable food is available. So these neighborhoods are lacking in so many different ways, and you know, food access is just one of those.

Gemma: To create a more just food system and to unpick the racist legacies that still haunt U.S. cities, he believes action needs to come from a local level.

Julian: We need to start with an analysis that really nails the problem. What’s impressed me most is a plan that I’ve seen for food justice in Boston, which is being proposed by mayoral candidate, Michelle Wu.

Gemma: Wu is one of six candidates, all people of color, running in Boston’s mayoral elections this November. Julian and some of his students at Tufts have analysed her plan and made some suggested improvements, which he says have been incorporated by Wu’s team.

Julian: She starts the plan by saying food justice is racial justice. We need to de-center whiteness and white supremacy from local food systems. Period. If we start from that position, from that recognition of the problem, then we can start to build.

Gemma: In Minneapolis, Julian says a plan called Minneapolis 2040 is introducing policies to eliminate some of these racist injustices in urban planning.

Julian: Remember, 70% of the land area of Minneapolis was zoned for single families and it’s been replaced in Minneapolis with, the ability now for developers to build duplexes and triplexes on formerly single family zoned land. So we need, removal of exclusionary zoning; including inclusionary zoning, which is equivalent to more affordable housing; development of community land trusts, which can take land for the benefit of communities for affordable housing, for maker spaces, for community programs and projects.

Gemma: On top of this, he says that local food justice programmes or urban agriculture projects on community land must be see as an opportunity to build community, not just provide food.

Julian: There’s plenty of evidence that the major contributor in local environments to community power-building is community projects that allow people to work together, in terms of a co-op, in spaces that become spaces of engagement. People from the community, get to meet each other across racial and ethnic difference.

I think also we need to think about urban agriculture as part of a series of opportunities for local economic development. And we’ve got plenty of examples again, in the Boston area, where local urban farms are working together with local restaurants or local food co-ops to diversify the food-scape, if you like, of the local neighborhood.

Gemma: Julian is optimistic about projects like this and he’s hopeful about the future. Still, in the meantime, many people need help, urgently. And some turn to food pantries. Here’s Caitlin Caspi again, whose research focuses on these pantries.

Caitlin: Food pantries are often located in areas with a high proportion of, um, of Black and Hispanic residents.

Gemma: These food pantries or food banks are part of a network of charitable food organisations across the U.S. – they get food via donations or directly from big supermarkets. She says the people who use them come from all walks of life.

Caitlin: All racial, ethnic backgrounds. People who are young and old. So national data would tell us that households with children and female-headed households and non-Hispanic Black households have higher rates of food insecurity and they’re also using the charitable food assistance system with greater frequency.

Gemma: For over 50 years, the U.S. has had the federal SNAP programme. Today this gives vulnerable Americans money to buy get the food they need via an electronic card that they can use to shop in their local store. The level of support varies according to a household’s income – and it’s been increased during the pandemic. But for a number of different reasons, some households still don’t get enough from SNAP to cover their needs.

Caitlin: In our research, we found that about half of the people who are visiting food pantries are also using SNAP.

Gemma: These food pantries also help people who fall outside of SNAP altogether, because their income might be just over the threshold.

Caitlin: You might have people who do have a stable job or they make a decent wage, or they might even be considered middle class. But because they have really high costs of, for example, housing or childcare or medical costs, it’s still hard for them to get food on the table.

Gemma: Others may unable to get help from federal food assistance programs for other reasons, for example because they might be undocumented.

Caitlin: People might not participate because of their legal status, or because of stigma. Or because they don’t meet work requirements, or other cutoffs for these food assistance programs. Or because they’re just facing an acute crisis and it takes some time to sign-up to get those benefits.

Gemma: The food pantry system wasn’t meant to be helping all these people. Caitlin says it was set up as a stop-gap measure, half a century ago. Now, her research is showing just how crucial food pantries are in people’s lives.

Caitlin: We’ve pretty extensively surveyed Minnesotans and found that among people using food pantries, they’re really seeing it as consistent source of a lot of their food. One statistic that has really been surprising and replicated in almost every time we ask this question, we find that about half of clients say they’re getting half or more of their total food from the food pantry. And people are also visiting food pantries and for long periods of time, they’re going as often as they’re allowed, which is usually about once a month and they’re going for a period of a year or more.

Gemma: So what’s the solution to stop people needing to turn to food pantries all together? For Caitlin, part of the answer is improving the social safety net in the longer term.

This is what Craig Gundersen told me too. While he thought that the increases made to SNAP during the pandemic, and extra food support for children this summer, were a good idea, this shouldn’t just be a temporary increase.

Craig: Food insecurity is not a COVID issue at all. If we think that increasing benefit levels is a good idea during COVID, it’s a good idea at any time.

Gemma: Craig is a big advocate of SNAP. It works, he says.

Craig: Study after study, after study, has demonstrated that households that are on SNAP compared to eligible nonparticipants that those households on SNAP are much less likely to be food insecure after controlling for different factors.

Gemma: He recently wrote a piece for The Conversation arguing that it would be relatively simple for the Biden administration to eliminate food insecurity altogether – using SNAP. It just requires more money.

Craig: If we increase SNAP benefit levels by about on average about US$40 per week this would lead to about a 60% decline in food insecurity among SNAP recipients. A second thing is, is that by expanding the SNAP eligibility threshold so more of those households can get into the program is that they’ll also be removed from food insecurity. Currently if you make less than US$30,000 for a family of four is in general, you’ll be eligible for SNAP. What we’re proposing is that for families making up to US$45,000 a year is that they would be eligible for SNAP. And for that it’s about a 70% decline if it was expanded to these new groups.

Gemma: Craig said this would cost an extra US$70 billion a year. To put that in perspective, the total SNAP expenditure in 2020 was US$79.2 billion.

Craig: For me, at least that’s inexpensive. OK. I mean, compare it to what we spend, like, I mean, the most recent stimulus from the Trump administration or from the Biden administration. The stimulus package is like US$5 trillion.

Gemma: And this should be a priority he says.

Craig: The mere fact that in a country with the wealth of the United States, that children are going to bed hungry or seniors don’t know where their next meal is coming from, that in above itself is of concern.

Dan: You can read more stories in that series that we’ve been doing on U.S, food insecurity, including stories by Julian Agyeman, Craig Gundersen and Caitlin Caspi by clicking on the link in the show notes.

Gemma: Yeah and Caitlin has some new research coming out in a few weeks about how to make visits to food banks more healthy and more dignified, so do keep an eye out for that on The Conversation too.

Dan: OK. Now it’s time to get your pickax and archeological toolkit out. Gemma, do you have yours read?

Gemma: Sadly not, but if I did have one where would I be taking it?

Dan: We’re going to a dig site called Panga ya Saidi in south-eastern Kenya. Paleoanthropologists working there recently spotted a couple of small teeth. These belong to a child who lived nearly 80,000 years ago. Researchers had found the oldest burial ever discovered in Africa and by studying the child buried there, they found clues to what the world was like for our ancient ancestors.

Maria: My name is María Martinón-Torres. I am a paleoanthropologist, and currently I am the director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution, the CENIEH, in Spain.

So paleonathroplogy is the study of past human species. Now we are the only human species on earth, but if we look back, we could see that during the last six million years of history and evolution, there were many other hominid species and ancestors that were also like us looking for a way to survive and adapting to a changing landscape, to the different challenges that life is offering them.

And this is what we do. We try to reconstruct our family tree. We try to investigate how these ancestors were. How they look like, how they were adapted to the landscape, to the interaction with other living creatures. And this is our interest in humans, but really going very far in the past.

Dan: You’re obviously not interviewing these people. You’re not studying their books, their literature, their movies. So how do you do this?

Maria: Well, one of the best tools we really have to investigate our past is through the analysis of the fossil remains we have of this species. This is a bit like the CSI. We try to investigate. We want to make them talk because they don’t really participate and they don’t collaborate that much. We have to look for our own ways to make the dead speak.

And for that, we have science, we have techniques. We have to use our creativity and imagination to try to extract as much information we can about those remains, who they belong to and what happened to them. So we really have to reconstruct the whole sequence of events that led that body you find to be there in that place in that a specific way. You’re finding it in in an archaeological excavation, for example.

Dan: This is a new finding you guys just published. Can you describe what it was generally?

Maria: We are talking about research that is the result of a very large collaboration of more than 30 institutions and researchers from all over the world led by the Max Planck Institute in Jena for the science of human history and the National Museums of Kenya and also the CENIEH here in Spain. What we discovered indeed was the earliest human burial is known in Africa.

Dan: Where in Africa is this?

Maria: Panga ya Saidi is a cave site located in the upland coast of Kenya. It is an extraordinarily beautiful site. We are talking about a cave with a high shelter where archaeologists have been recovering very rich findings related with all this symbolic explosion of behavior of our species, for a very long sequence. So we are talking of a community, probably of hunter gatherers that were living in the tropical forest, that were good hunters.

We have remains of the animals they hunt. We have antelopes. We have also, for example, exploitation of shells and mollusks. So it is a population that was well adapted at that time. And this site in particular is a residential site. That means that these people were living in this cave.

Dan: So you’ve got this fairly complex community. What was this clue that led to unburying these bone remains?

Maria: At the moment in the side, they have excavated a trench, a narrow trench of a few meters by a few meters. And in that trench that at the moment has reached something like about three meters below the actual floor of the cave, they found in 2013, like in the vertical wall, an undulation of a layer. They saw something funny, like a change of texture, of color in the soil. And in 2017, they really reached to the extension of this layer and they were identifying something like a pit that was filled with a sediment that was different in color and texture to the rest of the sediment from that layer.

<span class="caption">An artist’s impression of Mtoto’s burial.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">Fernando Fueyo</span>, <span class="license">Author provided</span></span>
An artist’s impression of Mtoto’s burial. Fernando Fueyo, Author provided

And inside they were seeing like several bones, but when they weren’t trying to recover, they were so brittle that they literally disintegrate. And the more we try, it’s the worst. So, these people wisely decide that instead of keep trying, it should be better to try to really plaster and recover the whole amount of sediment containing those bones and bring them to the labs where you have like more sophisticated tools and you can approach this problem, let’s say, with more delicacy or with more care. And in this case, they brought it first to the National Museums of Kenya, where they tried to do this preliminary initial excavation.

Dan: How big was this block of earth that they plastered together? We’re talking like 10 foot by 10 foot?

Maria: No, it was not that big. Indeed we could say that the plaster could be something like, I would say half meter, 50 by 40 centimetres. Not that big.

So when they start this initial excavation, they remove the plaster, they see these two teeth on surface that looked like, well, maybe human, maybe hominid, perhaps a monkey. And then in the other side of the block, when you turn it, you see something like the shadow of a spine. It is again, the texture is so fragile that it’s not clear what they really have, but it seems to be something small.

Dan: And that’s where they called you, right?

Maria Yes. I was very lucky to be called. It’s one of these days that I’m so happy that I decided to specialize in teeth. You know, sometimes people think that specializing in skulls is more cool because they are easier to see or they are more impressive. But I will say that the teeth indeed is the jewellery of the crown, because in such a small space you have a lot of information. In this case information enough to see and say that we didn’t know what was inside that block, but that at least in the surface, those teeth were human.

Dan: You’ve identified these teeth as human teeth. So what happens from here?

Maria: This is the moment when I suggest that we could bring this to the conservation and restoration labs here, to the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena in Germany, because we really could combine our classic manual excavation of this block, trying to get the closest that we can to the bone and removing the sediment, but using also what we call this virtual excavation. And the virtual excavation means that we are using imaging techniques. Like you could have, for example, the CT scan with a hospital with a much higher resolution that allows you to really go through any element and see what is in the inside.

And somehow depending on the different density of the different elements, you can visually identify them and virtually extract them and reconstruct them in a 3D manner. So this is what we have been doing for more than one year, trying to excavate it manually, but also combining it with the scanning to try to understand what was that sediment block containing.

Dan: What did you guys see when you started using these excavation techniques, but both manual and digital, at your institute?

Maria: This has been, I would say a year of surprise by surprise. And I think that’s the beauty of science. So that thing that start by being only a sediment block with some possible hominid remains on top, we start cleaning here at the lab and we start scanning and we see that inside what we have there is a partial skeleton, articulated. That means that everything is in place, that each bone is connected to the right one in our body. It’s not displaced. Then we see the body of a child because of the estimation of the age through the dental analysis. We can say there was a child that died not more than 2.5 or three years old.

Dan: What is the story here?

Maria: Yeah, first of all, we said, we have a body. Yeah. And we have a complete body. And when we made the 3D reconstruction of that body will realize that that body was laid in that place in a very specific position. And when you really throw a body in a hollow, or if someone falls or something happens, you don’t reach this lateral position lying in your side and this almost fetal position. So you realize that there is an intention behind, and that that body was covered. How can we know that it was covered with sediment and soil? Because we have analyzed the soil inside the pit, and we see that it’s different in composition to the soil and the sediment you have in the layer where the cavity was dug.

And also geo-chemically different sand that probably was scooped from the floor of the cave somewhere else to cover the body.

Dan: This is not the earliest burial of any hominin. Correct? There have been other findings prior to this?

Maria: This is the earliest burial known so far in Africa. Indeed, outside Africa, and this is quite intriguing in particularly in the Levant. We have earlier evidences of burials associated to Homo sapiens, but also to Neanderthals. Establishing that type of connection with the dead is one of the most human characteristics somehow we have.

You know, humans are a species that live continuously with the notion of death. Very early, we know we are going to die and we live with it. We try to tame death. To domesticate it, to delay, to control, to fight back, to change it, to prolong. So this is what we spend, I would say, more energy in. And once we have to accept that death happens, then we look for ways to prolong the presence of those who die with us. And we start doing things and rituals and ways of keeping connected to them to not really let them go.

We know our time here in this physical world is limited and maybe this awareness that is limited make us create this whole world to extend it in the symbolic world. And it’s important to see that this is not something that has been there always. We really have to trace in which moment in our life we start doing things like these.

Dan: And when you say in our lives, you mean human evolutionary past?

Maria: Exactly. It’s like, well, we are one of the many hominin species that we have left behind, you know. It is quite particular that we think we are unique and we are the only ones, because it’s quite unusual, indeed, that we are the only ones of our kind left on the surface of earth. It has not been always like this.

There was a time we were also coexisting with Neanderthals, which were also an intelligent and caring species that show compassion and bury their dead. So not all the species were the same and not all the species were doing the same. And in the case of our species, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, both of them have shown evidence of living in this physical world, but also in the symbolic world.

But before that, the evidences are not that clear. So it is interesting to know when this type of features that we recognize ourselves so much appear, you know. And in this case, we are really tracing the root, the very first evidences of something that now we can consider that it is so normal, yeah, to treat the dead with the delicacy and tenderness that we do with humans that are alive. I think that’s the special thing about paleoanthropology and paleontology.

Dan: So what’s next for you, Maria? Is your colleagues going to go look for more burial sites near that cave? Or is there more analysis to be done on the sediment block?

Maria: So this opens new possibilities we should be exploring. So it could be OK, perhaps we need to excavate more in Africa to find these type of evidences. It could be also that the behavior, the funerary behavior of populations living in Africa and outside Africa was different and also leaves different archeological traces. Some of them may not be visible, for example, we could think of some type of symbolic behaviors that can not be always archaeologically visible, like singing or dancing, for example. We really look at something that I would say that practices like burials are quite convenient for an archaeologist because the practice itself is protecting the evidence. So in that sense, we are more prone to find it, but not always things live an archaeological trace.

Dan: Maria wrote a story for us in Spanish about her research, but you can also find analysis in English by some of her colleagues. Links to both of those are in the show notes.

Gemma: To end the show this week, we’ve got some recommended reading on the situation in Israel-Palestine from one of our editors in the UK.

Jonathan Este: Hi, I’m Jonathan Este and I’m the international affairs editor based in Cambridge. As you’d expect, I’ve spent the past week thinking about what’s been going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The terrible violence escalated so quickly. But it’d be wrong to think it came out of nowhere.

I asked Carlo Aldrovandi, an assistant professor of peace studies at Trinity College, Dublin, to consider the politics on both sides. Israeli politics has been in turmoil recently with four elections in the past two years and they’ve all ended in political stalemate. After the most recent poll in March, though, it was beginning to look as if long-time prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu might lose is job. The Palestinian side is no less messy. Elections for the Palestinian authority were postponed by President Mahmoud Abbas last month. He’s worried that his Fatah party would lose power to its rival Hamas.

Add to that, the ongoing attempts by Israeli settlers to force Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem where many of them have lived for generations, as well as a violent Israeli crack down on protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and you’ve got a potent recipe for the violence that continues to rage.

I also asked John Strawson at the University of East London to look into how Israel’s governments have dealt with the Palestinian situation over the decades. He concluded that, apart from the 1993 Oslo Accords to allow Palestinians more autonomy, Israel’s commitment to Palestinian statehood has been pretty much nonexistent. And it remains like that to this day. I think we all share a hope for a quick resolution to this terrible violence. That’s it from me.

Gemma: Jonathan Este there in Cambridge.

That’s it for this week. Thanks to all the academics who who’ve spoken to us for this episode. And to the Conversation editors Matt Williams, Martin La Monica, Lucía Cabellero, Jonathan Este and Stephen Khan.

Dan: You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio or on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or email us at podcast@theconversation.com. And if you want to learn more about any of the things we talked about on the show today, there are links to further reading in the shownotes where you can also sign up to our free daily email.

Gemma: The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

Dan: I’m Dan Merino. Thanks so much for listening everyone.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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