The central question that anthropologists ask can be stated simply: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ In search of answers, we learn from people around the world – from city-dwellers to those who live by hunting and gathering. Some of us study fossil hominins such as Homo erectus or the Neanderthals; others look at related species, such as apes and monkeys.

Something that sets us apart from these ancestors and primate relatives, and should be of special interest to anthropology, is our unique propensity to laugh. Laughter is a paradox. We all know it’s good for us; we experience it as one of life’s pleasures and a form of emotional release. Yet to be able to laugh, we must somehow cut ourselves off from feelings of love, hate, fear or any other powerful emotion. The fall of a pompous fool slipping on a banana skin is the cliché of comic routines; we laugh at his misfortune because we don’t really care.

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