Anthro in the news 11/5/12

• Politics as performance

U.S. presidential campaigns provide a unique window into society and reveal the obsession with celebrities, according to a new book by two U.S. linguistic anthropologists. Michael Lempert, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Michigan and Michael Silverstein of the University of Chicago are authors of Creatures of Politics: Media, Message and the American Presidency. They “dissect” the construction and presentation of a presidential candidate’s “message,” which includes appearance, style of speech, gesture and their packaged biography. Lempert is quoted as saying, “Basically, we’ve come to rely on the characterizations of candidates that this system has invented to help us make sense of which candidates we should support…We not only have debates, but endless debates about the debates.” The debates are a form of theater to take the measure of the candidates their appearance, their pronunciation, their use of gestures, even their gaffes, which explains why George W. Bush, famous for his trouble with language, could be perceived to have done well in the 2004 presidential debate with John Kerry. According to Silverstein, “Kerry was, ironically, viewed as being the more patrician — his extended family was wealthy, but his parents were upper-middle class — based on his grammar and elocution.” As reported in the Washington Times, Silverstein says that the candidates take their cues from celebrities.

• (A) mazing corn

The New York Times carried an article describing how many American corn farmers are looking to corn mazes and tourism to make ends meet. Corn mazes have become so popular in the past decade that those who engage in the craft hold annual conventions. Mazes are enhanced with zip lines, live zombie scarecrows, and corn cannons that can shoot an ear of corn across a field. People buy tickets online or pay on hand-held devices, sometimes handing over $20 or more. The article quotes Kendall Thu, a cultural anthropology professor at Northern Illinois University and editor of the journal Culture & Agriculture: ”Corn mazes are similar to the cultural connections farmers markets and C.S.A.’s are creating between two worlds” [C.S.A.’s are community-supported agriculture programs in which customers buy produce from farmers in advance]. Unlike farmers markets with their upscale appeal in urban areas, corn mazes are popular among suburban people who long for an imagined country experience.

• Pay higher tuition in Florida to take anthropology?

An editorial in the Orlando Sentinel commented on a recent plan for higher education in Florida as short-sighted, discriminatory, and financially backward: :It should come as no surprise that a state task force, created by Gov. Rick Scott to study the public university system, is suggesting Florida place a priority on students interested in pursuing degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. But it’s shocking to hear the group’s proposal — lower tuition for in-demand degrees. Just last year, University of Florida President Bernard Machen suggested the opposite. In the face of a $300 million cut to the university system, Machen asked lawmakers for the flexibility to increase tuition for high-demand degrees that lead to high-wage jobs.” • Take that anthro degree..

…and become an indigenous-rights activist and environmentalist working with tribes in Ecuador. Zoe Tryon grew up in Wiltshire, U.K. and studied anthropology. After a relationship break-up, she moved on.  ‘People often can’t believe some of the things I do, just because I love a dress and a bit of mascara, too. Some of my greatest mentors are indigenous women who have taught me how to be tough and feminine at the same time. I’ve been fascinated with indigenous peoples since I was a girl growing up in Wiltshire. I studied anthropology but the turning-point was six years ago after a relationship break-up and, through a curious set of coincidences, found herself in the Amazon on a 10-day trip. After that: “I’ve been in and out of the forest ever since, living for weeks or months at a time with the remote tribes of the Ecuadorian Amazon and Andes. I’ve helped tribes to create eco-tourism projects and grass-roots educational and healthcare programmes, campaigned for the inclusion of rights for nature in the new Ecuadorian constitution and have worked closely on the case against Chevron in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon, the largest environmental lawsuit in history. I also lead filmmakers, journalists, photographers, celebrities and friends into the jungle on ‘toxi tours’ of the oil-spill sites, or on ‘indigenous immersion’ adventures in the forest. When in the jungle I stay in a local home, with a woven leaf roof and no walls. We wake at 3am every morning to drink guayusa tea, which is very high in caffeine, and to discuss our dreams, an everyday Achuar ritual.”

• The real CSI stars

The Indianapolis Star reported on the work of forensic anthropologists, Stephen Nawrocki and Krista Latham, professors at the Archeology & Forensics Laboratory of the University of Indiana. They are experts in forensic anthropology and are among a group of only about 60 people in the U.S. with this kind of expertise. “Our job is to uncover evidence at the scene, so the local authorities can decide what’s important,” Nawrocki said. Whenever they are called, Nawrocki, Latham and a team of graduate students get on their hands and knees to mark the site and then sift through dirt and decay for human remains and other evidence.

• Lost and found: Indians of San Nicholas Island, California

Archaeologists may have found the cave of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, whose solitary 18-year stay on a tiny island off the California coast inspired the children’s classic,  Island of the Blue Dolphins. According to Navy archaeologist Steven Schwartz,who spoke at the California Islands Symposium last week in Ventura: “The cave had been completely buried under several meters of sand. It is quite large and would have made a very comfortable home, especially in inclement weather.” One of the most famous people associated with the Channel Islands, the Lone Woman belonged to the Nicoleno, a Native American tribe who lived on the remote wind-blasted island of San Nicolas off the Southern California coast. The tribe was decimated in 1814 by sea otter hunters from Alaska. By 1835, less than a dozen Nicolenos lived on the island. At that time, the Santa Barbara Mission arranged a rescue operation which brought to the mainland all Nicoleños but the Lone Woman. “We’re 90 percent sure this is the Lone Woman’s cave,” said Schwartz, though further excavation is necessary.

• On forks and biting

Several media carried a review of a new book, Consider the Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen. The review mentions the work of U.S. anthropologist C. Loring Brace, who found that the human overbite only emerged 200 to 250 years ago, along with the adoption of the knife and fork method of eating. Before then we used the “stuff and cut” style, that is, chomp down on something, then tear, or slice with a knife, to detach a chewable chunk. “Once people start cutting up their food very small and popping the morsels into their mouths, the clamping function of the incisors ceases, and the incisors continue to erupt until the top layer no longer meets the bottom later: an overbite,” says Wilson.

The site of what may be Europe’s oldest town, northeast of Sophia, in Bulgaria

• Found: Oldest town in Europe

A prehistoric town unearthed in eastern Bulgaria is the oldest urban settlement found in Europe, Vasil Nikolov, a researcher with Bulgaria’s National Institute of Archaeology, said. The stone walls near the town of Provadia date to between 4,700 and 4,200BCE. Experts believe the key to the development of the town was salt, which at the time was as valuable as gold.  “At a time when people did not know the wheel and cart, these people hauled huge rocks and built massive walls. Why? What did they hide behind them? The answer was salt,” said Nikolov.

A jade pendant of a vulture discovered at the Maya site of Tak'alik Ab'aj. (Tak'alik Ab'aj Archaeological Project.

• Maya tomb of early Maya ruler

Guatemalan archaeologists have found the tomb of what may have been one of the Maya’s earliest rulers and perhaps its most influential. King K’utz Chman introduced many cultural features that eventually defined the Maya, including building pyramids instead of square structures and commissioning the production of carved sculptures that depicted the royal family. His grave is the most ancient royal Maya burial to be found and it contains a variety of carved jade objects indicating his wealth and status. “He was the big chief,” according to archaeologist Miguel Orrego of the Guatemalan Instituto de Antropologia e Historia, “the ruler who bridged the gap between Olmec and Maya cultures and initiated the slow transition to Maya rule.”

• Pharoah princess burial found in Egypt

Czech archaeologists have unearthed the 4,500-year-old tomb of a Pharaonic princess south of Cairo. Antiquities minister Mohammed El-Bialy said that Princess Shert Nebti’s burial site is surrounded by the tombs of four high officials from the Fifth Dynasty dating to around 2,500 BCE in the Abu Sir complex near the famed step pyramid of Saqqara. Further excavation is needed before the tomb can be opened to the public. Ibrahim said that the antechamber to the tomb of the princess includes four limestone columns and hieroglyphic inscriptions. Egypt’s vital tourism industry has suffered from the country’s internal unrest in the wake of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

• Sex with Neanderthals may have given an immune systems  boost

In case you need a quick Neanderthal fix, here is news with video coverage that includes such memorable phrases as “fornication with the Flintstones.” The media reported on findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that are based research of modeled distributions of alleles across early populations. Conclusions are that interbreeding of Neanderthals and modern humans may have affected the latter’s immune systems in a positive way.

• Who are you calling a hobbit?

The Guardian and other sources reported on lawyers’ claims that researchers can no longer use the nickname “Hobbit” in referring to Homo floresiensis.  A lecture at Wellington’s Te Papa museum on Homo floresiensis is scheduled to coincide with the release of the first Hobbit film. The original lecture title referred to the diminutive early humans as “hobbits.” Victoria University earth scientist Brent Alloway had planned to call the free public lecture “The Other Hobbit.” But the title had to be changed after lawyers for Saul Zaentz Company/Middle-earth Enterprises, which owns some rights to The Hobbit books, objected to generic use of the term “hobbit.” The new title of the lecture is “A newly discovered species of Little People – unravelling the legend behind Homo floresiensis.” The event will feature two of the principal archaeologists involved in the discovery in 2003 of Homo floresiensis on the Indonesian island of Flores: Professor Mike Morwood, from the University of Wollongong in Australia and Thomas Sutikna, from Pusat Arkeologi Nasional in Indonesia. Homo floresiensis was nicknamed the “hobbit” because it stood just over 1m tall, had large feet and was capable of undertaking complex activities.

• Panda for dinner tonight?

According to an article in the South China Morning Post, panda fossil remains indicate that they were part of the diet of early humans in China. Since the 1950s, Huang Wanbo, of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has dug up, collected and examined just about every giant panda fossil fragment unearthed in China. Many were found at sites associated with ancient humans. Most of the giant panda bone fossils, from leg bones to teeth, bear marks showing that they had been smashed and cracked with stone tools by early humans, suggesting that early human ancestors had sucked out the marrow.

• Kudos

UNESCO awarded the National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) a medal for its work “on behalf of research and conservation of the cultural richness” of Mexico. INAH director Alfonso de Maria y Campos said that the Institute helps Mexicans learn about their origins, identity and reason for being “across many disciplines, via archaeology, anthropology and history,”

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