Anthro in the news 1/20/14


Thomas Robert Malthus

  • China’s one-child policy: Malthus more than Mao

An article in The Times (London) cites the research of Harvard University cultural anthropology professor Susan Greenhalgh that reveals how the visit of a Chinese mathematician to an international meeting in Helsinki put him in touch with Malthusian thinking about population growth and its dangers and specifically the book, The Limits to Growth.

  • Falling down on the job in Cambodia

Over the past two years, many garment workers in Cambodia have fainted and been hospitalized and production has slowed or shut down, according to a report in The New York Times by Julia Wallace, the executive editor of The Cambodian Daily. In one instance, a worker started issuing commands in a language that sounded like Chinese, claiming to speak for an ancestral spirit and demanding raw chicken. No raw chicken was provided, and more faintings occurred.

The article mentions the work of two cultural anthropologists, Michael Taussig and Aihwa Ong, who have described spiritual responses to oppression. Taussig wrote about Colombian peasants working on sugar cane plantations in the 1970s and their perceptions of having sold their souls to the devil.

More closely related to the Cambodian case is Aihwa Ong’s research on spirit possession among women factory workers in Malaysia in the 1970s. Ong interpreted women’s spiritual affliction as a protest against harsh working conditions. Such “protests” however did not result in better working conditions for the women.  In Cambodia, in contrast, mass faintings have produced a positive response – indirectly, through public support for workers’ rights after a government crackdown on demonstrating workers and, directly, through a raise in the minimum wage. [Blogger’s note: garment workers in developing countries need all the help they can get, so bring on the spirits!].

  • The future of jobs in the world

An article in The Economist on the future of employment drew on the work of many scholars including cultural anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics. The views in general are not promising for employment rates, given the ever rising replacement of labor by technology. Increasing income equality is projected. The article alludes to Graeber’s perspective that much modern labor consists of “bullshit jobs” (low- and mid-level screen-sitting that serves simply to occupy workers for whom the economy no longer has much use) and that keeping bullshit workers employed is a ruling class practice to maintain control. [Blogger’s note: interested readers should consult Graeber’s original writings for more details].

  • Eating cake and talking about death

Art du Jour, an art gallery and education space in downtown Santa Cruz, CA is a bright and cozy place where some 30 strangers gather to talk about death and dying. To help begin those conversations comes a new concept in an unlikely phrase: the Death Cafe. Death Cafes originated in England, the country where the hospice movement began. An article in the San Jose Mercury on Death Cafes in California quoted Shelley Adler, a U.C. San Francisco medical anthropologist who held the first San Francisco Death Cafe this past spring:

“Bundt cake makes everything easier…[regarding death, she says]. “We have more than 100 euphemisms for it. The end. Pass away. Kick the bucket. It’s not that we want to avoid it, necessarily. It’s everywhere, from zombie movies to video games. But we were desperately in need of a platform. And, when you face it, you suddenly feel unloaded. It’s not as scary.”

  • Organs for the rich

Nancy Scheper-Hughes. University of California, Berkeley.The Corporate Crime Reporter described the research of cultural anthropology professor, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, of the University of California at Berkeley, on the illegal trafficking of human organs. The article also provides material from an interview with her. Scheper-Hughes’ advocacy work has resulted in criminal prosecutions, most notably in the Levy Rosenbaum case in New Jersey. [Blogger’s notes: (1) there appears to be an error in paragraph 4 in the article which reverses the direction of transplanted organs – it should be from poorer younger men to richer older men; (2) a shorter version of this article was picked up by The Huffington Post].

  • Multi-year study of indigenous group in Venezuela

Venezuelan experts evaluated the experiences of indigenous people, the Jot, especially the interaction with the environment, in order to design strategies to reduce the negative impact on their environment from outside forces. According to the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC), Stanford Zent and Eglée Zent have worked for 15 years on two projects focused on studying, understanding and explaining the ecology and culture of that community. Through quantitative and qualitative methods used in different sciences such as anthropology, biology, botany, and psychology, the researchers designed mechanisms to understand the interactions between the Jot and its environment. Collecting samples of plants, floristic inventories, census plots and crops, structured interviews and participant observation, were among the methods used for the study, reported in the journal Environmental Research Letters IOPscience.

  • Challenge for cultural anthropology in 2014

Cultural anthropologist Paul Stoller of West Chester University published an article in The Huffington Post in which he considers questions about the future of the liberal arts and specifically the social sciences and cultural anthropology:

“It is now commonplace to read reports about the demise of the liberal arts, including, of course, the social sciences. In states like North Carolina, once the very model of excellence in public higher education, there is a politically driven movement to dump the ‘irrelevant’ and ‘unproductive’ social sciences and humanities into the academic dustbin. Last year North Carolina Governor Pat McGrory wondered if public funds — taxpayers’ dollars — should be used to fund ‘unproductive’ disciplines like philosophy.”

He discusses two recent anthropology books as examples of work with relevance to the public. He concludes by looking back to Franz Boas for insights into the future of anthropology:

“The public advocacy of anthropology’s founding father, Franz Boas, long ago set the standard for social scientific public engagement. He expended his considerable academic capital on a long battle against racism and social intolerance. As a 2014 challenge, it is perhaps time for more social scientists to follow his lead in order to demonstrate the indispensability of the social sciences. Our future depends upon it.”

  • Social media for development

The Express Tribune (Pakistan) reported on a conference held in Islamabad, Pakistan entitled, “Socio-Political Innovations: Making Social Media Responsible”. The underlying theme of the conference, held at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), was that social media can play a constructive role by streamlining the development discourse in a demand-oriented, inclusive and people-friendly direction. Shirin Gul, a digital anthropologist and social behavior analyst at Mindmap Communications, discussed the impractical role of non-trained social media experts who are not fully-aware of development issues:  “There is an urgent need to recognise that the discourse about development sector on social media should be research-oriented and dialogue-based.”

  • Inequality in urban Pakistan

According to an article in The News (Pakistan), urban income inequality in Pakistan was discussed at the South Asian Cities conference in Karachi in a panel on “Constructing the Right to the City in South Asia.” Kamran Asdar Ali, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, mentioned different cities of the world as examples. His thoughts about Karachi: “Class should not become a building block for cities. Karachi should not dream of becoming Dubai when it grows up. We need to help the poor live a better life and plan cities which welcome them.”

  • Refugees in Vermont

A report in Seven Days (an independent news source in Vermont) describes the adjustments of several immigrants in Vermont. The report quotes Adrie Kusserow, a St. Michael’s College anthropology professor who works with Sudanese refugees in Vermont, who says that some Lost Boys have not found work and struggle with depression and alcohol abuse: “A lot have not had their dreams of education fulfilled,” she adds. “They’re also under pressure to send money home, and many are looking for wives in Sudan. It’s tough to negotiate the bride price in cows from here” — a reference to the sub-Saharan tradition of using livestock as currency to win the consent of a potential bride’s family.

  • Oral history research in Alaska

The Home Tribune reported on an ongoing study by Hungarian anthropologist Medeia Csoba-DeHass using archival sources, museum collections and close collaboration with Native Alaskan elders to collect and catalogue oral histories and photographs about Nanwalek, aka English Bay, aka Alexandrovski and the first Russian trading post on the Alaska mainland.  “This collaboration was in response to the concerns of village elders and culture bearers,” she said. “They often expressed that they were ‘at the verge of ‘losing everything’ because there was no information or proper documentation available to use for educational and cultural projects.” Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Csoba-DeHass is working with staff at the Pratt Museum which houses hundreds of Sugpiaq pieces. Csoba-DeHass holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology, as well as an M.A. in History, from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.

  • Cultural anthropologist helped inspire novel about the Inuit

According to an article in The Globe and Mail, the University of Manitoba Press, in partnership with Avataq Cultural Institute is releasing the first English edition of Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s novel, Sanaaq (translated by Peter Frost from the 2002 French version). The book follows the life of a woman named Sanaaq and her family as they navigate their daily routine of child-rearing, visiting, and harvesting food, as well as the arrival of southern traders, medical professionals and rival Anglican and Catholic missionaries. As described in the preface by anthropologist Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, who worked closely with the author as she completed the manuscript, she “reinvented the novel, even though she had never read one.”

  • Bollywood news: Heroine returns and takes the lead

The Toronto Star carried an article on the new movie, Dedh Ishqiya, in which Bollywood icon Madhuri Dixit-Nene returns to the big screen and is the big draw. The article quotes Tejaswini Ganti, associate professor of anthropology at New York University:  “The rule of the thumb is that the heroine gets picked after the hero, the director, and often even after the music composer…All the money rides on the male star.” [Blogger’s note: that’s good news!]

  • Take that anthro degree…

…and become a career center director. Most people are familiar with the Goodwill store as a place to donate clothing or to shop for household bargains, but it’s also a good place to start a job search. Many people may not know that the Goodwill store at the Carrollton Crossroads shopping center in Georgia also has a Career Center that offers free help for job seekers and people wanting to improve their career skills. Career Center Manager Heather Evans says:  “Our services are available to anyone who comes in…Everything is designed to make it easy for someone searching for a job.” The center also offers classes:  “We usually offer 20 to 30 different classes each month…if anybody needs help beyond what the classes offer, we have workers trained on websites and other resources available.”  Evans graduated from Valdosta State University with a major in sociology and anthropology. After graduation, her first position was with Americorps. A link to the article can be found here.

…and manage an “Anthropologie-style” boutique. According to Florida Today, Cassandra Whelan Welch manages a women’s items boutique in Melbourne, Florida, owned by her mother. Previously she has worked with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and in physical therapy for 10 years. She is also currently a Pilates instructor. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Appalachian State University.

…and become director of a community center. Sarah Williams has done archaeological digs at pyramids in Belize, written the oral histories of tribes descended from the Incas, and dined on roasted guinea pigs in Peru. Now she is running the Community Center in Longview, Washington according to an article in The Daily News Online. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in anthropology and archaeology from Washington State University. She was hired in October as director of the community center in a part-time position funded with a grant from the Community Health Foundation. Williams views the neighborhood through the eyes of an anthropologist, and she keeps a log on everyone she meets: “Some of their stories are so amazing, I don’t want to forget them.”

  • Archaeologists vs. Taliban

The collections in the bombed, pillaged and now rebuilt National Museum of Afghanistan send a message of defiance and resilience. As described in an article in The New York Times, these are messages to the Taliban, who in 2001 smashed every museum artifact that they could find that bore a human or animal likeness. A few years ago, the National Museum here was defined by how much it had lost — 70 percent of its collection destroyed or stolen, including objects dating back to the Stone and Bronze Ages. A recent security upgrade at the museum financed by the United States government was just completed. A team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute are halfway through a three-year-long grant from the American government to register every object in the museum’s collections, creating a digital record. Intended to guard against future theft, the project will also help with restorations, and serve as a resource for scholars worldwide. The article quotes Michael T. Fisher, the American archaeologist heading the Chicago team: “If you don’t know what you have, you can’t protect it…When you do, the whole story opens up, and it’s incredible what you can see. A lot of the collection is world class.”

  • King Alfred’s pelvis has been moving around

After academics said they may have identified a piece of pelvis belonging to King Alfred the Great, comparisons were drawn to the discovery of Richard III under a car park. But what are the differences between the finds and why do they fascinate so many? Katie Tucker, whose examination of the bones will feature in a BBC documentary, accepts it will be more difficult to prove a royal link. Hugh Willmott, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Sheffield, said he was “most intrigued” as to how the Alfred the Great connection could be proven: “He died 1,114 years ago…His body has been moved at least twice in the past. All that moving around could cause problems.” [Blogger’s note: Lucky for Richard III that he was safely stuck under a car park all this time.]

  • Maya discovery in Honduras can boost tourism

The discovery of a new Maya site could boost tourism, according to an article in The Telegraph. Jorge Ramos, lead archaeologist on the Harvard University-sponsored project to excavate and open the site to the public is quoted:  “When we saw the quality of the sculptures and certain figures such as serpents in the stonework, we knew this was a residence of elite warriors…El Rastrojón is definitely a bit of positive news…It tells the world something good is happening in Honduras.”

  • Off with their heads in Roman London

The Huffington Post and other media reported on a new interpretation of a mystery behind dozens of mutilated skulls unearthed in London. Archaeologists say the 39 skulls are the remains of young men beheaded by Roman soldiers or felled by their opponents in gladiatorial contests 2,000 years ago. The skulls were originally excavated in 1988 by laborers in the heart of London and then moved to the Museum of London, where they were stored until Rebecca Redfern, a researcher from the museum’s Center for Human Bioarchaeology, took a new look at them.

  • Steely Scots

According to an article from BBC News, new archaeological research shows that the Scots were the first to use steel. Findings come from an excavation carried out at an Iron Age hill fort known as Broxmouth in East Lothian during the 1970s and not published until now. The artefacts, made from high-carbon steel, are dated from 490-375 BCE. Deliberately heated and quenched in water, the artefacts are the earliest evidence of sophisticated blacksmithing skills in Britain. Gerry McDonnell, an expert in archaeological metals and a specialist involved in the project, said: “The process of manufacturing steel requires extensive knowledge, skill and craftsmanship. It points to an advanced, organised community where complex skills were refined and passed on.”

  • Discovery of a pharaoh’s tomb: Always exciting

According to NBC News, a previously unknown pharaoh and his burial place have been unearthed amid the tombs of other Egyptian kings. The pharaoh’s name, Senebkay, was found inscribed on the wall of a burial chamber that us part of the Abydos archaeological site, near the southern city of Sohag. Ali Al-Asfar, head of antiquities for the Egyptian government, is quoted as saying: “This was the first time in history to discover the king”. Senebkay lived roughly 3,650 years ago, during the second intermediate period of ancient Egyptian history. That was an era when several rulers vied for power, setting the stage for the rise of Egypt’s New Kingdom around 1550 B.C.E.

  • Indus Valley civilization: It didn’t end well

The Time of India reported on recent archaeological findings that the Indus Valley civilization showed increasing signs of violence and deadly diseases, especially among socially marginalized sections, as climate change forced the once opulent civilization into terminal decline. The study, based on analysis of skeletal remains found in burial sites near Harappa, was recently concluded by three U.S. anthropologists from the Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and their Indian counterpart Veena Mushrif-Tripathi from the Deccan College, Pune. Gwen Robbins Schug, lead author of the paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, led the team in examining evidence for trauma and infectious disease in the human skeletal remains from three burial areas at Harappa.

[Blogger’s note: see also an earlier report]

  • Very old inhabited forest in Wales

According to an article in Wales Online, a forest frequented by hunter gatherers 10,000 years ago was uncovered by storms that recently hammered the Welsh coastline. Archaeologists from the Pembrokeshire National Park Authority have been working to protect the remains of the forest as part of the clean-up operation.

  • Very old grog

According to Discovery News, ancient Scandinavians enjoyed an alcoholic mixture of barley, honey, cranberries, herbs, as well as grape wine imported from Greece and Rome. Found buried in tombs alongside warriors and priestesses, this Nordic grog predates the Vikings. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and leading archaeologist of alcohol, says: “You’d think, with all these different ingredients, it sort of makes your stomach churn…But actually, if you put it in the right amounts and balance out the ingredients, it really does taste very good.”

  • Neanderthal in the news: Let’s face it

The Telegraph reported on a new exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum allows visitors to view the most lifelike reconstructions of Neanderthals ever made. Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, traces the human lineage back into the depths of prehistory and brings together a treasure trove of rare fossils and ancient artifacts. Highlights include specially commissioned Neanderthal and Homo sapiens models that are the most life-like and scientifically accurate ever made. The article quotes Professor Chris Stringer, human origins researcher at the Natural History Museum: “Britain has one of the richest yet most underappreciated records of early human history in the world…It has taken more than 10 years for our 50-strong team of archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists to unlock the secrets of our ancient past…It’s great to be face to face with a Neanderthal and an early modern human. Their faces are really alive.”

  • Feeling hungry? What would a baboon do?

An early human ancestor who lived in East Africa millions of years ago, nicknamed Nutcracker Man for its large, flat molars and powerful jaws, did not really eat nuts as in walnuts, pecans, etc. According to The New York Times, by studying the diets of baboons living in Kenya, researchers have determined that Nutcracker, or Paranthropus boisei, mainly ate a nutrient-rich tuber known as the tiger nut along with fruits, worms, and grasshoppers. Gabriele Macho of the University of Oxford and colleagues discuss their theory about Paranthropus boisei, in the journal PLoS One.[Blogger’s note: so will the nickname change to: Tuber Man?].

  • The secret to longevity: metabolism

The Christian Science Monitor reported on a recent study finding that humans and other primates burn 50 percent fewer calories each day than other mammals. The study shows that among primates, low metabolism rate is associated with their longer life span. The researchers examined 17 primate species, such as humans, gorillas, and mouse lemurs. The international group of scientists who carried out the study worked with animals in zoos, sanctuaries in Africa, and in the wild.  Findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The results were a real surprise,” said Herman Pontzer. “Humans, chimpanzees, baboons, and other primates expend only half the calories we’d expect for a mammal. To put that in perspective, a human, even someone with a very physically active lifestyle, would need to run a marathon each day just to approach the average daily energy expenditure of a mammal their size.” David Raichlen, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona and a coauthor of the study, said: “The environmental conditions favoring reduced energy expenditures may hold a key to understanding why primates, including humans, evolved this slower pace of life.”

  • Dian Fossey vs. the gorilla poachers

An article in The Christian Science Monitor reviews several perspectives on primatologist Dian Fossey’s work to preserve gorillas in Rwanda. Key theories point to her knowledge of animal trafficking and her passionate commitment to gorillas.

  • Who says chimpanzees don’t share food?

Chimpanzees who share are chimpanzees who care, it seems. A study confirms that friendships are forged at mealtimes, at least for our closest living relatives. Scientists from Germany, Switzerland, Britain and the United States have found that chimpanzees who share their food have higher levels of oxytocin, known as the love hormone, than those who do not. The research was conducted on wild chimpanzees. Roman Wittig of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said chimpanzees had more than twice the level of oxytocin after sharing food than after mutual grooming — another important bonding behavior in primates: “We think food sharing can help spark new friendships, whereas grooming is more for confirmation of existing relationships.”

Julia Lehmann, an evolutionary anthropologist who was not involved in the study, called the results “very clear and highly significant.” They appear to support the idea that food sharing can extend social benefits normally found in animals who are related to each other to those dining partners who are not related, she said. Findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

  • In memoriam

David Harris, geographer and archaeologist, died at the age of 83 years. His studies shed light on the complexity and origins of farming, questioning conventional ideas of a simple split between hunter-gathering and farming. The beginnings of farming have often been discussed in relation to a few discrete “centers of origin,” for example, the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, and Central America. Throughout his career, he highlighted the diversity of the world’s ecosystems and the corresponding diversity and complexity of human management and its history.

A teaching appointment at University College London in 1964 brought him to the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, where he was professor of human environment (1979-98) (then emeritus), and director (1989-96). Harris was a major figure in fostering archaeological science in Britain, and archaeobotany in particular. He served as president of the Prehistoric Society (1990-94) and of the U.K. chapter of the Society for Economic Botany (1995-97). In 2004 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy.

  • In memoriam

Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, social anthropologist and Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Harvard University, died at the age of 85 years. He specialized in studies of Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Tamils, as well as the anthropology of religion and politics. His earliest major published work was an ethno-historical study of modern and medieval Thailand. He then became interested in the comparative study of the ways Western categories of magic, science and religion have been used by anthropologists to make sense of other cultures which do not use this three-part system. After the outbreak of civil war in Sri Lanka, he began to study the role of competing religious and ethnic identities in that country. At Harvard, he trained several generations of anthropologists in a number of fields. He also served on the National Research Council’s Committee for International Conflict Resolution.

In 1997, Tambiah received the prestigious Balzan Prize for “penetrating social-anthropological analysis of the fundamental problems of ethnic violence in South East Asia and original studies on the dynamics of Buddhist societies [that] have opened the way to an innovative and rigorous social-anthropological approach to the internal dynamics of different civilizations.” Soon thereafter, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland awarded him its highest recognition, the Huxley Memorial Medal and Lecture. In 1998, he was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize. In 2000, he became a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, a title given to those who have “attained high international standing” in a discipline in the humanities or social sciences. Tambiah is the author of many influential books, articles and chapters.



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