anthro in the news 7/30/18

Stop them before they stop us – Bumper stickers on a car in Austin, Texas, 2016. Credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr

ethics of AI weapons research

The Guardian reported that thousands of leading AI (artificial intelligence) researchers have signed a pledge against killer robots. A key issue is that, while researchers of course can choose not to work on autonomous weapons, for those who do such research, the use of their published findings is beyond their control. The article quotes Lucy Suchman, a signatory to the pledge and professor of anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University. She said that even though researchers cannot fully control how their work is used, they can engage and intervene when they have concerns:  “If I were a machine vision researcher who had signed the pledge I would, first, commit to tracking the subsequent uses of my technologies and speaking out against their application to automating target recognition and, second, refuse to participate in either advising or directly helping to incorporate the technology into an autonomous weapon system.”

decolonizing African universities

Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda . Credit: Makerere University

The London Review of Books published an essay by sociocultural anthropologist Mahmoud Mamdani, director of the Institute of Social Research at Makerere University and Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at the School of International and Public Affairs, and  professor of anthropology, political science and African Studies at Columbia University. He writes: “It is striking, in the postcolonial era, how little the modern African university has to do with African institutions. It draws its inspiration from the colonial period and takes as its model the discipline based, gated community that maintained a distinction between clearly defined groups: administrators, academics and fee-paying students. The origins of this arrangement lay in 19th-century Berlin, and Humboldt University, founded in 1810 in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia. The African university makes its appearance later in the 19th century. At the southern end of the continent, colleges were started from scratch – Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Witwatersrand. In the north, existing institutions such as al-Azhar in Cairo, a centre of Islamic scholarship, were ‘modernised’ and new disciplines introduced. The Humboldt model aimed to produce universal scholars, men and women who stood for excellence, regardless of context, and – in the colonies – could serve as a native vanguard of ‘civilisation’ without reservation or remorse. The African university, in other words, began as part of the European colonial mission, a precursor of the one-size-fits-all initiatives that we associate with the World Bank and the IMF. And so it continued, until decolonisation.”

documenting U.S. immigration problems

The Guardian published commentary by Holly Norton, historical archaeologist who focuses on political violence and a U.S. public servant working in the compliance process. She writes:  “You don’t have to be an anthropologist to be horrified by the Trump Administration’s policies around immigration and particularly the practice of separating children from their parents and adult care-givers at the US-Mexico border. But I do feel that my profession has an interesting perspective, and it is one that I would like to share. Separating children from their parents is not new…Nor are insights about it from sociocultural anthropologists.” She mentions the work of Susan Terrio, professor of anthropology and French Studies at Georgetown University; Lauren Heidbrink, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California Long Beach; and Jason De Leon, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and founder of the Undocumented Migration Project.

exploring the past

Utah Public Radio broadcasted a program highlighting the research of Anna Cohen who uses pulsed lasers to map ancient cities. The program seeks to encourage young people to become scientific explorers.  Cohen, a public archaeologist, is a postdoctoral associate in anthropology at Utah State University. [Audio]

culture and climate change back then

An article in The Arizona Daily News reported on findings from a new study carried out by researchers from Southern Methodist University and the University of Arizona showing that Native Americans actively managed the prairies long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The research looks at the use of fire in bison hunting in the northern Great Plains. It finds that burning combined with climate variability amplified the effects of climate on prairie fire patterns. “The important contribution of this research to paleoenvironmental science is a demonstration of the impact that relatively small groups of mobile hunter-gatherers could have on amplifying the broader climatic effect on wildfires,” said study co-author María Nieves Zedeño, professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona: “We have added a new human dimension to the discussion of interactions between people and climate by actually going back in time and showing how mobile hunter-gatherers manipulated the environment by improving the grassland through fire.” The relative importance of climate and human activities in shaping fire patterns is often debated and has implications for fire management today. Findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

making fire: another Neanderthal accomplishment

The Atlantic carried a piece describing research by Andrew Sorenson, an archaeologist at Leiden University. Archeologists have found evidence of Neanderthal fire pits. They have even found tar that Neanderthals likely made by deliberately heating birch bark. What they have never found are tools that Neanderthals could have used to start fires on demand. Without it, Neanderthals would have needed to collect fire from natural sources such as lightning strikes, which would have required walking long distances to find fuel to keep fires going and enduring cold spells with raw food when they went out. The mastery of fire would have made life much easier. Many think it was a key turning point in human evolution.  Sorenson collected a special kind of rock called flint off the beaches of England. If you hit it in just the right ways, flint will break to expose sharp edges that can be used to butcher meat, scrape hides, and cut wood. If you strike it against a mineral called pyrite, sparks will fly. Flint plus pyrite plus tinder equals fire.  In a paper published in Scientific Reports, Sorensen and co-authors argue that Neanderthals used bifaces and pyrite to start fires, based on the similar microwear patterns on real Neanderthal stone tools and on the tools he re-created in a lab. Sarah Hlubik, at Rutgers University who  studies the early origins of fire but was not involved in the study, comments that the paper is “really exciting” as it provides the first physical evidence of Neanderthals starting fires.

oldest known bread 

The Guardian and other sources reported about findings by archaeologists of the earliest known evidence of bread. Charred crumbs found in two fireplaces in Jordan have been identified as the earliest examples of bread, suggesting it was prepared long before agriculture. Using radiocarbon-dating of charred plant materials found within the hearths, the team found the fireplaces were used around 14,000 years ago. “Bread has been seen as a product of agriculturist, settled societies, but our evidence from Jordan now basically predates the onset of plant cultivation … by at least 3,000 years,” said Tobias Richter, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study, noting that fully-fledged agriculture in the Levant is believed to have emerged around 8,000 B.C.E. “So bread was being made by hunter-gatherers before they started to cultivate any plants,” he said. Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Richter and colleagues describe their findings about hunter-gatherers known as Natufians.

the black box has been opened

The Guardian reported on the contents of a large black sarcophagus recently excavated in Alexandria, Egypt. Egyptian archeologists opened the massive black granite sarcophagus to find three decomposed mummies damaged, apparently, by sewage water that leaked inside. “The sarcophagus has been opened, but we have not been hit by a curse,” said Mostafa Waziry, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, in response to news reports warning of maledictions hidden inside the tomb. Shaaban Abdel Amonem, a specialist in mummification who attended the opening, said initial assessments suggest the three were soldiers, with one of the skulls displaying evidence of arrow blows. Waziry said the lack of death masks in precious metals, amulets, statuettes, or inscriptions on the sarcophagus means the bodies were unlikely to be those of Ptolemaic or Roman royals. 

hazard of multiple pregnancies

The Daily Mail (U.K.) and several other media reported on research by Christopher Kuzawa, professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, showing that having multiple pregnancies causes a woman’s cells to age more quickly. The study, published in Scientific Reports, looked at two markers of cellular aging in 3,200 young women between the ages of 20-22 in the Philippines. Researchers were surprised to find that cellular aging accelerated by between 6 months and 2 years for each additional pregnancy. Another unexpected finding was that pregnant women’s cells looked younger, not older, than predicted. While there is sufficient evidence that having more children, especially more than four or five, can increase the risk of certain diseases and shorten a woman’s overall lifespan, researchers still don’t really know why. Kuzawa is quoted as saying:  “Our study points to cellular changes during pregnancy, possibly related to adaptive changes in the mother’s immune system as a possible explanation…There’s still a lot we don’t know. For instance, it’s not clear whether these relationships will persist into later life as these women age. We also do not know whether these changes will actually lead to less favorable long-term health outcomes.”

in memoriam

Harold Dibble, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and curator-in-charge of the European Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, died at the age of 67 years. A Paleolithic archaeologist, he conducted fieldwork in France, Egypt, and Morocco.  The majority of Dibble’s work focused on Neandertals and early modern humans in Western Eurasia, and particularly on their stone tools. In addition to his excavation work, he has maintained a skeptical view of symbolism in the Middle Paleolithic, on which he has published several articles, and he strongly advocated quantitative methods in archaeology including the use of GIS.

Sociocultural anthropologist Barbara Harrell-Bond died at the age of 86 years. Harrell-Bond OBE was emerita professor and founding director of the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at the University of Oxford. She was best known as a legal anthropologist and active humanitarian, who founded the RSC, part of Oxford’s Department of International Development, in 1982 and directed it until 1996. An unflinching advocate of legal aid programs for refugees, and research and teaching in refugee studies in the Global South, she was a driving force behind the establishment of a number of programs in countries that included Uganda, Egypt, South Africa, and the U.K. Refugee rights were more than just an academic area of study for Harrell-Bond, keeping the issue at the center of the humanitarianism agenda and at the forefront of public consciousness, was a life-long commitment of hers.

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