Anthro in the news 6/20/11

• Colbert reporting
Stephen Colbert interviewed Janny Scott, author of the biography, A Singular Woman, about President Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, who was a cultural anthropologist. In her interview and in her book, Scott complicates the image of Obama’s mother as simply “a white woman from Kansas.” Blogger’s note: cultural anthropology does complicate things, and such complication is our blessing and our curse.

• Complicating lap dancing
Judith Hanna, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Maryland, is an expert on dance. Her latest research is about lap dancing. If the Fox report is to be believed, Hanna sees lap dancing as a form of expressive art. Blogger’s note: interesting that Fox Business news picked up on this research.

• Sweat lodge rights
Religious conflict among the Cree brought the destruction of an aboriginal sweat lodge in a Quebec village by Christian Cree. Christian Cree feel that sweat lodges and other forms of indigenous practices such as pow-wows are not acceptable Cree practices. Ronald Niezen, cultural anthropology professor and chair of the anthropology department at McGill University, is quoted as saying that “the two resurgent faiths are coming into collision.” He explains the context: Christian missionaries taught that shamanic practices were wrong and created an older generation of devout Christians.

• Skirts rising
In Myanmar, desire for power is at the heart of the ruling generals’ decades-long fight against revealing female clothing, said Monique Skidmore in an article in the Los Angeles Times. Skidmore is an anthropology professor at Australia’s University of Canberra. She is quoted as saying that the ruling generals’ “…focus on ‘traditional values’ reflects a quest for legitimacy and an ongoing attempt to persuade the Burmese population they are guardians of the past and therefore fit rulers of their future.” In spite of the generals’ wishes, women’s hemlines are rising. Blogger’s note: odd as it may seem, cranking up a hemline may be as revolutionary for women in Myanmar as getting behind the wheel of a car in Riyadh. Context is so important.

• Kids should have chores as well as computers
Biological anthropologist Meredith Small, professor at Cornell University, entered the “Room for Debate” section of the New York Times with her piece on why American kids should have chores. She bases her comments on findings about children doing chores at early ages in non-industrial cultures and thereby learning to be responsible members of their households.

• Sail on Kon Tiki
In 1947, explorer Thor Heyerdahl claimed that Easter Island’s statues were similar to those at Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, indicating a connection from the New World to the Pacific. He sailed a raft from Peru to Easter Island to prove that Easter Island could have been colonized from America. Professor Erik Thorsby of the University of Oslo in Norway has found genetic evidence to support elements of Heyerdahl’s hypothesis. He collected blood samples from Easter Islanders. While most of their genes were Polynesian, a few carried genes found only in indigenous American populations. Findings appear in the New Scientist.

• Please pass the olives
British archaeologists (bless their hearts) have studied the contents of a giant septic tank at a city destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in CE (Current Era) 79. The diet of middle-class and lower-class residents included fish, spiky sea urchins, figs, walnuts, eggs, and olives. Early into “green living,” they used the olive pits as fuel.

• Sculptures of early Mexican ball players, one is headless
Mexican archaeologists have found sculptures of ballplayers monolith dating from between 900 A.D. and 1000 A.D at a site in the north-central state of Zacatecas, the National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH). The two ballplayer sculptures are unique among those found across Mesoamerica, archaeologist Luis Martínez Mendez, head of excavation work at the El Teul ball court, said. Martínez said the two ballplayer sculptures “probably” allude to a Popol Vuh story in which one of the divine twins – Hunahpu and Ixbalanque – was decapitated before being saved by his brother.

• Possible Iron Age settlement on remote Scottish Island
Archaeologists have found remains of what was then a permanent settlement on the island of Boreray in the St. Kilda archipelago including an extensive, terraced agricultural field system. The research team is quoted as saying that the research could change understanding of the archipelago’s history. Blogger’s note: I love the concept of “remote.” For the early residents of Boreray, Foggy Bottom DC would have been entirely remote. Isn’t the use of the term “remote” sort of centro-centrism?

• Archaeology of African American life
The Washington Post carried an article about research in Annapolis by University of Maryland students to reveal how a family of African Americans fared during the Civil War and beyond. The project is directed by archaeology professor Mark Leone of the University of Maryland. He says: “History books often overlook ordinary people.”

• Racism questioned and critique of racism questioned
It’s about measuring skulls of various populations and making assumptions about intelligence and a collection of skulls at the University of Pennsylvania. Short story: in the 19th century, physical anthropologist Samuel George Morton (for whom the collection is named) said that the skull measurements showed the existence of different “races” and, apparently, a correlation with brain size and intelligence (blogger’s note: I haven’t read the studies but I am betting that the “Chinese” were not the intelligence prize winners in Morton’s analysis). Then, in an 1981 book, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who like Morton is now dead and cannot defend his study, claimed that Morton’s measurements were incorrect and his findings shaped by racism. Now, scholars contest Gould’s writings. Findings are published in PLoS Biology.

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