Anthro in the news 6/7/10

• Spilling our Gulf
The millions and millions of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico will lead to “extreme human suffering as well as extreme property damage,” according to Gregory Button, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Tennessee. He has done research on other oil-related disasters including the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the collapse of an oil storage tank during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Furthermore, he notes that the people most hurt by the Gulf-area hurricanes of 2005 are likely to suffer most from the oil spill: “They’ve already lost their homes, their livelihood, their income, and their communities.” Spill workers are at risk to their health from direct exposure. Other repercussions, similar to those following the Exxon Valdez disaster are likely: alcohol and substance abuse, divorce, suicide, and mental health problems.

• Follow the (BP) money
Three years ago, Laura Nader, cultural anthropology professor at UC Berkeley, argued that the university should not take money from BP to support research at its Energy Biosciences Institute because BP is a “criminal corporation,” as quoted in the Sacramento Bee. The funding, perhaps ironically, goes for research to find green fuels and reduce oil use. Critics say this is simply “greenwashing.” Scientists say it allows them to do important research. A post-doctoral student who works at the Institute is quoted as saying that she has to first run her findings past BP: “There have been a few things that they’ve asked me to be a little more vague about.”

• Maya were early materials scientists
Early Maya were the first polymer scientists according to MIT materials science researchers. Their study was prompted by a question from undergraduate student, Michael Tarkanian, in a freshman archaeology class: How did the Maya produce bouncy rubber balls? The research will be reported in the journal Latin American Antiquity.

• Big bird lives on in rock art
Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory, contains the oldest known works of art in Australia. A recent discovery of a rock art depiction of what is likely a bird that went extinct 40,000 years ago is another example affirming Arnhem Land’s invaluable prehistoric art heritage.

• Ancient brain food
Archaeologists have found that early humans, around two million years ago, ate crocodiles, turtles and fish. This oldest evidence for a diet containing aquatic animals was discovered by researchers including Andy Herries of Australia’s University of New South Wales. The aquatic animals are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are critical to human brain growth. Findings will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

• Neanderthals in the sceptred isle
A discovery in Kent (the part of England closest to the European mainland) by Dr. Francis Wenban-Smith, shows that Neanderthals were in residence around 100,000 years ago. The evidence is some flint hand tools. The Neanderthals apparently arrived from what is now France via a land bridge.

• Bonobo mojo
Vanessa Woods concludes her series of guest posts for Discover with a post about bonobo sex in which she responds to skeptics who say that reports of frequent sex among bonobos are inflated. Woods provides data to support her position, including a histogram of different bonobo sex positions. She refers to a supporting hormonal study. Blogger’s query: why is it so difficult for many people to free themselves from their chimp-based model? [Possible answer: because the chimp model validates human male violence and mercurial male sexual affect?].

• In recognition and memoriam
Professor Gilbert Kushner, founder of the first graduate program in applied anthropology in the United States, passed away this week. As a youth, in the 1950s, he was a beatnik, singing protest songs in Greenwich Village. After earning a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina, he joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida in 1970, was the department chair for many years and served as associate dean in USF’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. In the face of widespread objections to his idea of establishing of an MA degree in applied anthropology, from Margaret Mead among others, he pursued his vision. A passionate supporter of anthropology and social activism, he once wrote, “Anthropology (is) not only a scientific and humanistic discipline, but a way to contemplate humankind’s place on Earth.”

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