Is Trump's Foreign Policy Evolving?

President Trump waits to greet Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen outside the West Wing of the White House on March 30. Trump’s approach to foreign policy has changed since he has taken office.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump came into office promising big disruptive changes in the way America defined its role in the world. American foreign policy would no longer be aspirational — it would be transactional. “What’s in it for us?” would guide the new “America First” approach. Human rights? Downgraded. America as an idea, a beacon of freedom to tired, huddled masses? Been there, done that. Promoting democratic values as a way to strengthen America’s own economic and national security? Nope. Trump just didn’t see the connection. But as the new president is finding out, things happen. Chemical weapons are used. Missiles are fired. And the world’s greatest superpower has to respond.

Here are some examples of how Trump’s approach to the world is changing.

1. Syria

The president said Wednesday the horrific images of children killed in a suspected chemical weapons attack had a big impact on him. “It crossed a lot of lines with me,” Trump said, adding, “when you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal.” For years Trump had argued that Syria wasn’t our fight. He repeatedly criticized Obama — not just for drawing a red line and then erasing it — but for considering intervening in Syria at all.

Recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that Assad’s removal was no longer U.S. policy.

But Wednesday Trump said, “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” And in a huge shift for a president whose tendency has been to blame his predecessor for everything, he acknowledged that Syria is now his “responsibility.”

So, what would Trump do differently? That’s still not entirely clear. Tillerson said Thursday that “it would seem” there is no role for Syrian President Bashar Assad to govern his country moving forward, and that efforts are “underway” to build a coalition to remove him.

Trump’s own remarks on Thursday didn’t shed much more light. Asked if Assad should step down, Trump said, “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.” Trump said the attack “shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” but he refused to comment on specific responses. “I don’t want to say what I’m going to be doing,” he said.

On Syria, his rhetoric has shifted, but his policy is still TBD.

But as Thursday, NPR’s Tom Bowman reports that the administration is looking at a variety of options, ranging from economic to diplomatic to military in order to respond to this week’s chemical attack in Syria. Trump was also slated to meet with his top national security officials Thursday at Mar-a-Lago, according to Bowman.

2. China

The president meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week.

Trump attacked China relentlessly during the campaign. But since he’s been in the White House he’s been acting more like his predecessors.

He promised to declare China a currency manipulator on Day 1. That didn’t happen. He promised to slap 45 percent tariffs on Chinese goods. He hasn’t. He said he’d only reaffirm the “One China” policy if he got something from China on trade or North Korea in return. But then he reaffirmed the policy without getting any concessions from China. And on Wednesday he acknowledged that he has a responsibility for the North Korea nuclear problem — without repeating his threat from last week that if China didn’t solve the North Korea issue, the U.S. would take care of it ourselves, maybe with unilateral military action.

3. Mexico

Trump promised he would renegotiate NAFTA. So far he’s proposing only tweaks. And he hasn’t found a way yet to force Mexico to pay for the border wall, one of the trademark initiatives of Trump’s presidential campaign.

4. The Middle East

The president flirted with dropping the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution. He’s since backed off that and has reaffirmed his predecessor’s policy on settlements, saying they aren’t very helpful. And he hasn’t yet moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

5. The European Union

The president once praised Brexit and predicted other countries would follow the United Kingdom. He disparaged the European Union as nothing more than “a vehicle for Germany.” But in a recent interview with Financial Times, he agreed the center seemed to be holding in Europe and that the EU was “doing a better job.”

6. The National Security Council

This week Steve Bannon, the president’s top strategist, was removed from the principals committee of the National Security Council. Bannon, the architect of the president’s overarching “America First” policy, was the first political adviser ever to be given a seat on the committee.

Bannon’s removal shows that Trump’s new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster — a foreign policy professional and one of several establishment figures in the new administration — is taking control. It is another sign that Trump’s foreign policy process is getting a little more conventional.

And with this week’s comments on Syria, Trump sounded like he’d found himself in the same box that former President Barack Obama did — with all the same frustrations and limitations (and crossed lines!). Trump doesn’t like what Assad is doing, but he’s apparently not willing yet to get the U.S. involved in a war to remove Assad. Sound familiar?

As of Thursday night, Trump is reported to be considering, among other things, a similar kind of more limited military action that President Obama considered and ended up rejecting in 2013.

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Twitter Sues Homeland Security To Protect Anonymity Of 'Alt Immigration' Account

A now-deleted tweet from @ALT_uscis was included in a complaint Twitter filed against the Department of Homeland Security. Twitter says the DHS tried to unmask the user behind this account, which has “expressed dissent in a range of different ways,” including this early tweet that “the author apparently believed cast doubt on the Administration’s immigration policy.”

Twitter/U.S. District Court Northern District of California

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Twitter/U.S. District Court Northern District of California

Twitter is suing the Department of Homeland Security after the agency demanded to know the identity of the person behind the “@ALT_uscis” or “Alt Immigration” Twitter account, one of several “rogue” accounts ostensibly created by anonymous employees of the federal government.

The lawsuit from Twitter alleges that DHS demanded to know the name, log-in information, phone number, mailing address and IP address of the user behind the account, and threatened that failure to comply could lead to court actions.

Twitter also says DHS “requested” that the company not reveal the existence of the summons. Twitter did not comply with either the summons or the request for silence — instead, the company is asking a federal court to declare the summons “unlawful and unenforceable.”

The Twitter account in question is @ALT_uscis, as in “alternative U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.” It’s one of a wave of accounts started in late January and early February after the Trump administration set limits on social media postings from a number of agencies.

You may remember that a Twitter account for Badlands National Park went rogue, tweeting about climate change. After that act of resistance was shut down, a number of “alternative” accounts — for national parks and all kinds of other government agencies — sprang up.

Some accounts say they are run by fans/supporters. Others claim to be run by actual government employees, which is difficult to verify. As for @ALT_uscis, The Associated Press reports that the people behind the account told the wire service they were “employees and former employees of the agency.”

Identifying which employees was apparently the goal of the DHS summons, demanding Twitter produce “all records” associated with the account or face legal consequences.

Lawyers for the social media giant say that the summons was itself illegal — a violation of the First Amendment rights of @alt_uscis as well as of Twitter itself — and unenforceable.

They note that @alt_uscis was expressing dissent, criticizing immigration policies and disagreeing with other Trump administration policies. (The account’s older tweets have since been deleted; some screenshots are shared in the court filing and more recent tweets follow the same trend.)

Now it is ( high tech fencing) zap zap !! We started at Mexico will pay for it.. now we are at wires in 75 days flat https://t.co/3eNx0Gt9iN

— ALT🛂 Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 6, 2017

Identifying the user “would chill the expression of particularly valuable political speech,” Twitter says.

The company says on its site it only releases private user data in case of emergency or through the proper legal processes, like a court order. In the lawsuit, it says that to demand a user be unmasked, the government must demonstrate a law was violated, prove that identifying the user is the “least restrictive” way of investigating the offense, and make the case that they aren’t trying to suppress free speech or violate the First Amendment. (Twitter has a process for law enforcement officers seeking private information, which requires a court order, subpoena or proof of emergency.)

“Defendants have not come close to making any of those showings,” the company’s lawyers write.

Furthermore, they say the tool DHS used to demand the information — a Customs and Border Patrol administrative summons — is only meant to allow CBP to demand information about imported merchandise. “It is apparent that whatever investigation Defendants are conducting here does not pertain to imported merchandise,” the complaint says.

As a side note, they point out that the summons was delivered on March 14, with a deadline of March 13 — that is, already in the past.

The larger question is one of First Amendment rights, the company maintains.

“Compelled disclosure of the identities of Twitter users who have engaged in pseudonymous speech would chill their exercise of the constitutionally protected right to speak anonymously,” Twitter’s lawyers write.

“A time-honored tradition of pseudonymous free speech on matters of public moment runs deep in the political life of America,” they note elsewhere

NPR’s Laura Sydell reports that this isn’t the first time Twitter has gone to court over users’ privacy.

“Twitter has resisted other government attempts for information about its users including a demand from New York prosecutors for information about an Occupy Wall Street protester in 2012,” Laura says. “Twitter lost that case.”

Twitter and DHS both declined to comment about the new litigation.

Last week : Unmasking is outrageous when it comes to Russian collusion.
Today: Unmask @alt_uscis because customs import code.

— ALT🛂 Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 6, 2017

FYI, some refugees became refugees out of fear of being unmasked by dictators because of dissent/opposing views . Lets not have that here.

— ALT🛂 Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 6, 2017

The user behind @alt_uscis has responded, however, with several tweets.

If they win here, where will they stop? who will be next? https://t.co/5942MUeqJQ

— ALT🛂 Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 6, 2017

“Last week: Unmasking is outrageous when it comes to Russian collusion,” he or she wrote, in a reference to Republican outrage over intelligence operations.
“Today: Unmask @alt_uscis because customs import code.”

“If they win here,” the anonymous user asked, “where will they stop?

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BLM Replaces Mountain Landscape Photo With Coal Seam On Homepage

A quiet change to the website photo banner of a relatively obscure federal agency is causing a bit of an outsized stir on social media.

On the top of its homepage, the Bureau of Land Management, which manages more than 200 million acres of public land under the U.S. Department of the Interior, swapped out a photo of two kids backpacking across a mountain meadow in favor of one showing a massive coal seam at a mine in Wyoming.

A cached version of BLM.gov from March 25 shows the Bureau of Land Management’s homepage previously featured a photo of man and a boy overlooking a scenic landscape.

Bureau of Land Management via Internet Archive/Screenshot by NPR

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Bureau of Land Management via Internet Archive/Screenshot by NPR

A screenshot of the Bureau of Land Management’s homepage displays a photo of a “large coal seam at the Peabody North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming.”

Bureau of Land Management/Screenshot by NPR

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Bureau of Land Management/Screenshot by NPR

The agency’s mission is, after all, to manage federal land for multiple uses – which range from hiking trails along scenic vistas and in remote deserts to oil and gas fields and, yes, coal seams.

But on Twitter, environmentalists — along with some satirists — were quick to pounce on the symbolism. The Trump administration hasn’t exactly been shy about its plans to increase fossil fuel development on federal land.

.@BLMNational Putting a giant wall of coal on the BLM site won’t bring back coal, the future is safer without it! https://t.co/W5n0pmDcnxpic.twitter.com/vy21jYSufh

— Greenpeace USA (@greenpeaceusa) April 6, 2017

#Trump‘s fed land agencies: All coal, all the time! BLM’s home page image has a certain postmodern minimalist charm. h/t @Sierra_Magazinepic.twitter.com/0baJq0Idbw

— Jonathan P. Thompson (@jonnypeace) April 6, 2017

The BLM is downplaying the latest Twittersphere uproar.

More than anything else, spokesman Jeff Krauss tells NPR the change in homepage photos is due to an IT redesign that will once again allow different photos to be rotated through that reflect the agency’s multiple use mission. That used to be standard practice until recently, Krauss says.

Despite its low-profile status when compared to other DOI agencies like the National Park Service, the BLM has long been a favorite political target from both sides of the aisle. During the George W. Bush administration, for instance, conservation groups criticized – and sued — the agency for approving a rapid expansion of drilling on public lands. Later, under President Obama, mining groups accused the agency of being too restrictive, and western ranchers led by Cliven Bundy even led armed standoffs against the agency, protesting its authority to control western lands.

For sure, the stakes are high when it comes to the BLM and the American public’s land, which might explain why a seemingly simple photo change ignited as much controversy as it did in this hyper-partisan political climate.

Things will probably quiet down tomorrow when the agency plans to swap out the coal photo for one reflecting the BLM’s recreation programs.

Or will they?

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Sen. Mark Warner: No Evidence To Support Trump's Political Snooping Claims

Mark Warner (from left) of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina listen to testimony during a March 30 hearing in Washington, D.C.

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee says he has seen “no evidence” that former national security adviser Susan Rice may have improperly surveilled then-President-elect Donald Trump or his aides during the transition.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly on Thursday that he and his committee would pursue the evidence in their investigation wherever it leads, but that so far nothing substantiates the White House’s Rice storyline.

“I have not seen any evidence or any indication of [anything] improper,” Warner said. “But again, these are serious accusations against people affiliated with the Trump campaign. I have to treat the accusations that are made by the Trump administration officials as serious as well until we can actually get to the bottom of this and look at the facts.”

Even so, Warner said, the Trump White House has fallen into a pattern of responding to criticism or inconvenient news with sometimes extreme countercharges.

“Boy oh boy, there’s a lot of smoke,” he said. “You’ve got this administration which seems to try to deflect any story with some other outrageous claim, whether it be that the Obama administration somehow hacked into you, or you listened in on the Trump folks, or other claims that are, that have been outrageous about millions of unregistered voters voting.”

Republicans do not call it “outrageous” that Rice might have been involved in potentially asking for Americans to be “unmasked” in classified reports about legal surveillance of foreign targets — including potentially of Trump or his aides. That must be the subject of the ongoing investigations, they argue, since they say there are indications the practice might have gone on for years and amounted to a political snooping operation.

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes of California, revealed last month that Trump and his campaign aides might have been swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign targets during the presidential election. What’s more, he charged, the White House may have inappropriately asked intelligence agencies to reveal the identities of the Trump aides so that the Obama team could keep tabs on them.

Nunes learned about these practices from officials in the Trump administration, and then announced them, and then publicly visited the White House because, he said, he needed to brief Trump about them. Nunes did not share the original materials or what he knew with the other members of his committee, which caused its investigation to stall.

On Thursday, Nunes announced he had been the subject of accusations to the House Ethics Committee related to the White House episode, ones he called baseless. But rather than attempt to fight them and carry on with the Russia investigation, Nunes said he would recuse himself from that process while staying on as chairman of the full committee.

In his statement, Nunes characterized the Rice eavesdropping storyline as the most urgent thread to follow.

“The charges [against Nunes] are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power,” he said.

The House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, praised Nunes’ recusal. And in the Senate, both Warner and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina said they thought it was appropriate.

Warner told NPR he thought Nunes’ behavior has been “bizarre, to say the least,” but he repeated that he and Burr were committed to working together in a less dramatic fashion and would continue to stick together as the inquiry goes on. Americans deserve a credible accounting of the interference in last year’s election, including all the people who might have been involved with it, he said.

“This is why … our effort has to be bipartisan — nonpartisan in a more ideal sense,” Warner said. “Tensions and feelings are so high among so many Americans on both sides of this debate.”

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Thai King Signs Military-Backed Constitution

Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (right) endorses the constitution document in a ceremony on Thursday in Bangkok.

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AP

In an elaborate ceremony, Thailand’s king has signed the country’s military-backed constitution. The document paves the way for Thailand to hold elections in the coming months, but critics say it only solidifies the power of the military.

Voters approved the constitution by a wide margin last August, two years after the Thai military seized power in a coup, as The Two-Way has reported. The junta has argued that this constitution was badly needed to restore stability.

The new constitution “constrains further elected governments with an appointed senate, and commits governments to follow the military’s 20-year development plan,” according to the BBC.

But this is actually a slightly different document than the one Thailand voted on. It contains six changes made at the request of new King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, who acceded after the death of his father in October.

Those changes expand the power of the monarchy. For example, according to the Bangkok Post, the king may leave the country without appointing another regent. Also, it removes a requirement for the king to call a meeting with the heads of top courts and the Senate in the event of a constitutional crisis.

“Thailand has had so many constitutions in its modern history — this is the 20th since 1932 — that many of them were introduced with little fanfare,” the BBC reports. But the extravagant ceremony requested by the king is seen as a sign of “royal approval,” the broadcaster adds.

The Bangkok Post describes it as an “ancient ceremony not seen in almost 50 years”:

“Officials beat gongs and blew trumpets and a royal guards band played marching music, followed by a 21-gun salute by the army, navy and air force.

“Temples throughout the country simultaneously recited prayers, rang bells and beat drums.”

Rights groups were critical in the lead-up to the referendum, saying that the ruling junta had stifled dissenting opinions and debate about the draft. Dozens were reportedly detained for encouraging people to vote no.

Now, Amnesty International is concerned that the new document will not protect human rights, as the Associated Press reports.

“Thailand’s military government retains its carte blanche authority to rule by diktat until elections are held, and future governments will have free rein to restrict human rights on various vaguely defined grounds,” Amnesty’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Champa Patel told the wire service. “The new constitution also keeps in place the full gamut of orders and decrees imposed by the military government since the 2014 coup, which have facilitated widespread human rights violations.”

The timeline for elections is not clear. As Reuters reports, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in televised remarks that the country could now hold a vote “within the 19 months set by the constitution” but did not provide an exact date.

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Turkey Says Autopsies Of Syrian Victims Show Evidence Of Sarin Exposure

Experts in Turkey did autopsies on Wednesday on Syrians killed Tuesday in Idlib. Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said results show they were subjected to chemical weapons in the attack by Syrian government forces.

DHA-Depo Photos via AP

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DHA-Depo Photos via AP

Autopsies of victims of a deadly attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, show the victims were killed by chemical weapons, Turkey’s health ministry says.

The Turkish government says dozens of victims were treated across the border in Turkey, and several died. Their autopsies revealed evidence of exposure to sarin, the government said Thursday.

Also on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “it would seem” there is no role for Syrian President Bashar Assad to govern his country moving forward, and that efforts are “underway” to build a coalition to remove him.

He would not confirm if the U.S. was considering military involvement, simply saying the chemical weapons attack is “a serious matter. It requires a serious response.”

As NPR reported yesterday, experts already suspected a powerful nerve agent like sarin was the toxic chemical used in the attack, based on the symptoms shown by victims.

Sarin is a chemical weapon that is prohibited in war, under several international treaties.

Turkish officials have now confirmed the experts’ suspicions, The Associated Press reports. The attack happened about 60 miles from the border with Turkey, the wire service reports:

“[T]he Turkish government — a close ally of Syria’s rebels — set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in Hatay province, where the victims were initially treated before being moved to hospitals.

“Turkish officials said nearly 60 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey for treatment and three of them died. …

“In Turkey, the state-run Anadolu and the private DHA news agencies on Thursday quoted Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as saying that ‘it was determined after the autopsy that a chemical weapon was used.’

“The Turkish Health Ministry later issued a statement saying that ‘according to the results of the first analysis, there were findings suggesting that the patients were exposed to chemical substance (sarin).’ “

Victims were suffocating, convulsing and foaming at the mouth, aid agencies report. “Paramedics used fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims,” the AP writes.

An eyewitness to the attack’s aftermath, Syrian activist Samer al-Hussein, told NPR’s Alison Meuse what he encountered in Khan Shaykhun:

” ‘I saw something I’d never seen in my life,’ Hussein said. ‘Dozens of children, women, men and elderly people lying on the ground, getting hosed down with water, out in the cold. Children trying to breathe a gasp of air, with saliva and foam coming out of their mouths and nostrils.’

“Hussein wept as he watched first responders succumb to the chemicals themselves. He frantically searched for a ventilator for one of the children, but in those moments when he was looking, he says, ‘was the difference between life and death.’

“He says he saw entire families being pulled from their apartments, lifeless. The strikes came just at daybreak, he said, ‘before the children would be leaving for school or the parents for work.’

World leaders have denounced the Assad regime for the attack, which included a follow-up shelling targeting a hospital treating victims of the initial attack.

Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons before, including a sarin attack on a Damascus suburb in 2013 that left hundreds dead.

But Assad and his Russian allies deny responsibility for the newest attack. They maintain that the Syrian government has destroyed all its chemical weapons, as it agreed to do after that 2013 strike. Instead they claim the strike was a conventional weapons strike that accidentally hit an arsenal of chemical weapons belonging to the rebels.

That explanation has been rejected as dubious by chemical weapons experts. One of them, Dan Kaszeta, spoke with NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel and explained why:

“Kaszeta says … nerve agents are unstable and are typically stored as two separate chemicals. With sarin, for example, one of those precursor chemicals is highly flammable isopropyl alcohol.

” ‘You drop a bomb on it, the whole thing is going up in a huge fireball,’ he says. Even if the nerve agent was pre-mixed, a bomb strike would fail to disperse it in a way that could cause mass casualties.

“Kaszeta says he thinks the most likely source of chemical was the Syrian regime. Sarin and other nerve agents are hard to make, and it’s unlikely that rebel groups would have access to it. … The Syrian regime is still believed to have experts who could make nerve agent from scratch.”

The U.N. Security Council has drafted a resolution to condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria; the U.S. hopes for a vote before the end of the day Thursday.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog group, has “initiated contact” with Syria in connection to the attack, and is actively investigating the situation.

Meanwhile, observers are wondering what options the U.S. is considering in its response.

Tillerson’s comments on Thursday were vague, with references to Assad’s “uncertain” future and the need for “an appropriate response” to the strike.

President Trump also addressed the Syrian strike in conversations with reporters on Air Force One on Thursday afternoon.

Asked if Assad should step down, Trump said, “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.”

Trump said the attack “shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” but he refused to comment on specific responses. “I don’t want to say what I’m going to be doing,” he said.

“A Pentagon official tells NPR that the administration is looking at a variety of options, ranging from economic to diplomatic to military to respond to a chemical attack in Syria this week,” NPR’s Tom Bowman reports. “President Trump is slated to meet with his top national security officials today at Mar-a-Lago.”

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Bison Or Brian? From A Calorie Perspective, Cannibalism Didn't Pay For Paleo Humans

Archaeologists have suggested that Stone Age people sometimes ate one another for nutritional reasons. But a new study suggests that from a calorie perspective, hunting and eating other humans wasn’t efficient.


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Publiphoto/Science Source

The meat on an adult human’s bones could feed another person for over two weeks, or maybe a whole Stone Age tribe for a couple of days, according to a new report on the practice of Paleolithic cannibalism. No wonder, then, that evidence of cannibalism in ancient humans pops up in the archaeological record from time to time.

When the human bones look like they’ve been eaten without ceremony or ritual, showing gnaw marks on the bones or gashes where the tendons would have been, archaeologists have chalked the motivation for cannibalism to the fact that there’s a decent amount of meat on a human, says James Cole, an archaeologist at the University of Brighton. But that story just doesn’t add up when you look at the calories in human meat when compared to other large prey, Cole says.

Based on his calculations, published on Thursday in Nature Scientific Reports, a single human adult male is nutritionally worth about 143,000 calories or 32,000 calories, if you only ate the skeletal muscle. That’s a lot of calories, but by comparison, a horse carcass would get you six times as many.

And humans probably took a lot more effort to hunt and kill than most other animals, Cole suggests. As NPR has reported, humans and horses are almost an even match when it comes to running. “If you’re hunting your own species, it’s the same size as you and can think just as well as you and can fight back just as well as you can,” Cole says. In other words, hunting a fellow human for food would probably take more energy than hunting a horse, he says. “We aren’t a great return of calories for the amount of effort.”

Besides, bigger, better prey was available to the ancient humans that appear to have practiced cannibalism. “We’re not dealing with populations on the edge of starvation. They’re successfully bringing in big game and butchering and eating them,” Cole says.

So, why turn to human meat at all?

Cole thinks that when cannibalism did happen among early humans, people might have just been taking advantage of a windfall of fresh meat rather than people hunting people for food. “The motivation might have been more social in nature. It could be around something like territory defense – an interloper comes and you attack them and then – you eat them.”

That much makes sense, says Bill Schutt, a zoologist at Long Island University and the author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. It’s a hard rock life in the Paleolithic, he says. When human meat was available, perhaps because of a natural death or violent conflict, “It’s likely that [early hominids] were extremely opportunistic and sometimes ate each other. Were they just going to leave [dead bodies]? No! I think you would have eaten them,” Schutt says.

But if the decision was only based on caloric value, hunting humans might have still been a decent use of time when compared to similar sized animals, Schutt says. “If you look at [Cole’s] table, the human has more caloric value per kilogram than an ibex. And an ibex is a pretty decent sized animal.”

Plus people were probably an easier prey target for other people than what Cole suggests, says Deanna Grimstead, an archaeologist at Ohio State University who did not work on the study. “Imagine the risk of hunting a mammoth versus hunting a hominid. “They could be trampled,” Grimstead says. “You’re never going to convince me that a hominid is going to outrun a cheetah. Easier? Well, it’s way easier to run down someone of your own species rather than something three times as fast as you.”

It’s true that humans are puny and squishy compared to something like a bear, Cole says. “But we do have great intelligence, stone tools and spears with which to fight back. I fail to see why that would make us any less dangerous or an easier option than a horse for example. We can outthink our attackers, lay traps for them.”

Cole thinks that hunting humans would cost a hunter too many calories to make it a common practice. It would just be more efficient to go after almost anything else, he says.

Grimstead, though, is unmoved by this argument. “You have a chance of surviving a spear point, if it’s just a flesh wound. But if you get skewered by a mammoth tusk?” she says. If the only reason for eating people is a simple effort spent versus calories gained calculation, it would still make sense to eat humans for nutrition, she says.

But she agrees with Cole that humans probably weren’t out actively hunting other humans all the time. Eating people might have had other, detrimental consequences. Conflict could start between different hunter-gatherer groups should one person make lunch out of a member of a different group. And eating people within your group is undesirable because you might be related, she says.

Grimstead thinks there’s really only one good reason why humans chowed down on fellow humans outside of cultural reasons. “[Human cannibalism] is where people have nothing left to eat and they can’t leave to find other food options,” she says. “It’s about survival.”


Angus Chen is a journalist based in New York City. He is on Twitter @angRChen.

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World Cafe Nashville: Steelism

Spencer Cullum Jr. and Jeremy Fetzer are the duo Steelism.

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Courtesy of the artist

  • “The Serge”
  • “Marfa Lights”
  • “Let It Brew”

In this session, we’re shining a spotlight on two elements that never seem to take center stage: backing musicians and music without words. But trust me, they deserve the limelight. Steelism is a Nashville duo made up of ace guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal-steel player Spencer Cullum Jr. Between them, Cullum and Fetzer have played with a lot of Music City’s biggest names, including Miranda Lambert, Caitlin Rose and Wanda Jackson. But, with Steelism, they’ve got their own backing band.

Steelism played a special session for us at City Winery in Nashville back in October to launch our World Cafe Nashville series. Relive the show with us by listening to the complete performance and interview above.

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Hold Up! Renée Fleming Is Not Retiring From Opera

Soprano Renée Fleming is looking forward to many more years performing opera.

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Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

The opera firmament was shaken yesterday when a New York Times article, headlined “The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming’s Farewell to Opera,” landed online.

The lengthy piece gave the impression that Fleming, a beloved star of classical music and one of the most successful sopranos of her generation, was ready to call it quits as far as opera was concerned. Her ostensible final performance would come on May 13 in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

The 3,000-word article begins with a wistful prelude probing Rosenkavalier’s themes of farewell and letting go. What follows are phrases such as “Her departure is a watershed moment for her extravagant, expensive art form … ” and “So Ms. Fleming is trying to say goodbye on her own terms,” and “She isn’t temperamentally inclined to share her regrets, but on the eve of her farewell she offered a few.” But also this: “Rosenkavalier may well be her farewell to staged opera. She will sing her final performance on the afternoon of Saturday, May 13.”

The key word here is “may.” Truth be told, Fleming has no plans to quit opera at all.

“I never said that I was stepping away from the opera stage for good. Never, never, never did I say that to anybody,” Fleming insisted in a phone conversation from her home in New York City earlier today.

“I think it misleads people,” she added. “They sort of imagine that I’m an opera singer and I’m now retiring. So I just want to make sure that gets cleared up.” Fleming said she told the newspaper she was interested in pursuing new operas and had received proposals from composers.

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What Fleming is also clear about are her plans to shelve a number of roles she’s practically owned over the last decades, including Rosenkavalier‘s Marschallin, the title role in Dvořák’s Rusalka and Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. Her schedule, she says, is booked for the next two years, including appearances at the Met in 2019, and she’s “in talks” with the Los Angeles Opera about a new role and a new production.

“As long as you’re singing well, there’s no reason to stop. I just sang a sold-out show with Plácido [Domingo] in Tokyo,” she said.

Rumors about Fleming’s retirement from opera have circulating for some time. That’s why opera mavens, seeing the Times‘ article, might have thought that now the curtain was finally falling. That sentiment was evident in many of readers’ comments, where fans lamented her farewell.

“There’s been press about this now for last couple of years floating around,” Fleming says. “I think it started with some paper in London, but it’s inaccurate.”

Fleming has guarded her vocal resources carefully, singing roles that fit her creamy, lyric soprano as well as her designer gowns suit her elegance. Critics have complained of vocal mannerisms cropping up, but her instrument has remained remarkably intact.

“My voice has not gotten lower,” she says. “In some ways I wish it had, then it would open other kinds of roles to me. It’s really just the same.”

Although she’s excited about much new opera being written today, Fleming laments that standard repertoire roles for a lyric soprano of a certain age are few. She’s also concerned about her looks in front of high-definition cameras.

“Unfortunately, the repertoire for my voice is mostly young girls. And it’s really important at this point, in the day of HD, to make sure that you’re not too far away from that ideal,” she observes. “I can still sing Rusalka and a lot of the Massenet repertoire. But would I? No, at this point.”

Given the demands of opera, which Fleming calls “an Olympian sport,” she has slowly been cutting back on her staged performances, doing a couple per year. Instead she’s focused on concerts, recitals and recordings. Last November, she premiered Letters from Georgia, a new song cycle written for her by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts, which may be getting an operatic expansion. She’s also just released Distant Light, an album featuring another new song cycle composed for her and three songs by Björk.

“I don’t understand the focus on opera,” she says about the thrust of the Times story, especially the headline. “I guess it’s because it’s the New York Times and the Metropolitan Opera is here, it becomes very, sort of, myopic.” But overall she liked the article: “I’m not upset. I think the profile is wonderful. It’s one of the more balanced portrayals in that [writer Charles McGrath] sort of got who I am.”

“I don’t know why they insisted on that headline,” she concludes. “I guess it’s more controversial.”

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