Anthro in the news 10/24/11

• On vengeance and feuding
Canada’s National Post carried an article about the execution (assassination?) of Gaddafi which quoted Ronald Niezen, chair of anthropology at McGill University in Montreal. Niezen said that the killing of Col. Gaddafi “establishes the legitimacy of the old tribal allegiances that are destabilizing of state structures…The danger is the complete destabilizing of the fledging state, because the institutions on which it depends for stability are weakened by that informal sphere of tribal alliances. Maybe he was such an exceptional figure that the fallout will not be disarray, but it was an opportunity, when he was taken, for the state to be legitimated [by bringing him to trial].”

• It’s not working
There’s more to securing our future than technical and commercial innovation, writes Dame Anne Salmond, Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland. She argues that the international rating agencies have done New Zealanders a favor: the double downgrade of the country’s credit rating makes it clear that the policies promoted by successive governments are not working. [Blogger’s note: Dame Salmond’s long-term collaborative research with the Maoris, and the several publications resulting from it, may offer alternative insights for policy makers about more effective policies].

• Highlights about our friend Governor Scott
Some people believe there is no such thing as bad publicity. So, for better or worse, Governor Scott of Florida has brought anthropology into the media limelight as a field of study. Several anthropologists have responded, this past week, to Governor Scott’s dismissal of anthropology as being of little use to Florida’s economic future or career prospects of graduates.

Cultural anthropologist Janice Harper published an essay in the Huffington Post in which she stated that responses from anthropologists seeking to educate him on the vital role anthropology plays in the sciences, and the contributions it makes to policy, health, international development and even Homeland Security are unlikely to persuade him to reconsider his position: “When people publicly commit to a religious or political perspective, whether left or right or what have you, when presented with information challenging their positions they become more certain, not less certain, of their positions, as anyone in sales, marketing or psychology well knows. Moreover, Scott is probably quite aware of the role the social sciences already play in shaping policy and public perception. If anything, his sensitivity to anthropology’s social reach may well be what is influencing his aim to gut funding to the discipline and to other liberal arts programs, because these programs encourage critical thinking and challenge exclusionary policies and practices based on race, religion, class, gender and other social categories.”

Cultural anthropologist Paul Stoller also published a piece in the Huffington Post, using the concept of the limited good: “The anthropologist George Foster coined the term ‘limited good’ in 1965 to describe Mexican peasants who believed that the good things in life — money and good fortune — were in short supply and beyond their capacity to capture and fully enjoy. As a consequence, these peasants did not pursue new opportunities and lost their ability to dream about a different life. My sense is that the notion of the limited good should not be restricted to the Mexican peasants…Belief in the limited good has long been part of mainstream American society…politicians like Rick Scott have repeatedly tapped into these sentiments for political gain. My students, many of whom come from families of modest means, feel the pressure of the limited good. Their parents want them to major in business, accounting, or computer science — degrees that will lead to good well-paying jobs. Who can fault them for wanting what’s best for their kids. And yet many of my students, who have little or no interest in accounting, end up learning how to do audits instead of following their passion into anthropology, history or psychology.”

Strong support for a liberal arts education comes from the president of Arizona State University who argues in Slate magazine that Governor Scott’s emphasis on practical education is short-sighted: “It is critically important that students develop the ability to move from subject to subject and problem to problem, and from environment to environment and opportunity to opportunity, in ways that unleash and utilize their innate capacities and creative potential. Such mental agility will allow them to establish new business enterprises, scientific or technological capabilities, social initiatives, and creative endeavors in every sector of the economy. It may come as a surprise to Gov. Scott, but the perpetual innovation that drives our economy could even be inspired by anthropologists.”

Governor Scott both backpedaled and bit back. At a talk this past week, he said that he “loves anthropology, don’t you know”.

At the same time, he has pressed state-funded universities to provide detailed information to him about where Florida college graduates are finding jobs, how much they earn, and how much university officials are being paid: “I’d like to understand why our universities cost what they cost,” Scott said Wednesday during an interview in Gainesville. Scott said that “The growing jobs in our state over the next 10 years are going to be science, technology, engineering and math degree jobs.” He asked, “What percentage of our graduates are in those areas? How are we promoting that? What’s our success? Is it going up? Is it going down?” Scott sent a letter on October 13 to Florida’s 11 state university presidents with 17 requests for data, surveys and other information including:

– Job descriptions, total wages, number of courses instructed and “measurable goals” for the 50 highest-paid employees at each university for each of the past three years.

– Costs and revenues per program from the past decade.

– A list of the required classes for undergraduates.

Scott has implemented a fee for public record requests to his own office.

• Mauritius not so vanilla
Sean Carey, contributing blogger to anthropologyworks, published an article in the Mauritius Times on how Mauritius would be better served by branding itself as the Air Quality Island rather than the Vanilla Island. Carey says, “I have to be honest, when I think of Mauritius, I don’t think of vanilla.”

• The magic of Paris
The Independent (London) carried an interview with cultural anthropologist Graham Jones who did research on magicians in Paris. Jones feels that “he got fairly deep” into the secret world of magic despite the fact that “anthropologists don’t go undercover but try to blend in” and he himself cannot perform magic tricks. Jones’ book, Trade of the Tricks, is being published at the end of October by the University of California Press.

• New find of old Viking boat
The first fully intact Viking boat burial site ever uncovered on the U.K. mainland has been found on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Lochaber. The 16ft-long grave contained the remains of a “high-status Viking” who was buried with an axe, a sword and a spear. Archaeologists say the find is hugely significant and will lead to an improved understanding of how the Vikings came to Scotland. Dr Oliver Harris, project co-director from Leicester University’s school of archaeology and ancient history, said his team had first noticed an unnatural-looking mound in 2006.

• Older than expected blade production in the Middle East
Archaeology has long associated advanced blade production with the Upper Palaeolithic period, about 30,000-40,000 years ago, linked with the emergence of Homo sapiens and cultural features such as cave art. Researchers at Tel Aviv University have uncovered evidence which shows that “modern” blade production was also found as early as 200,000-400,000 years ago among hominins who lived in modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Professor Avi Gopher, Dr. Ran Barkai and Dr. Ron Shimelmitz of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations say that large numbers of long, slender cutting tools were discovered at Qesem Cave, located outside of Tel Aviv, Israel. This discovery challenges the notion that blade production is exclusively linked with recent modern humans. Findings are described in the Journal of Human Evolution.

• Pre-Clovis findings mount up
The New York Times and BBC covered findings about early mastodon hunting in North America. For many years, it was thought that the Clovis people were the first humans to populate North America, about 13,000 years ago. Recent evidence indicates that other settlers arrived earlier. A study, in the journal Science, support that hypothesis. Researchers have found a mastodon rib with a bone point lodged in it that dates back 13,800 years. The lead author, Michael R. Waters, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University, says: “It’s the first hunting weapon found pre-Clovis. These people were hunting mastodons.”

• 9,000 year old tools found in Mexico
Fox News Latino carried an article about a discovery by Mexican archaeologists of hundreds of rudimentary human-made tools and artifacts dating back to between 8,000-11,000 years ago in the northwestern state of Baja California Sur. These findings support the hypothesis that early arrivals to the Western hemisphere came via watercraft migration along the coast.

• We are not alone…in tool use
Evidence keeps coming in that culture is not unique to humans. Science Daily highlighted a study of orangutan populations headed by anthropologist Michael Krützen from the University of Zurich. Findings show that orangutans learn socially and pass learning down through many generations. The study provides the first evidence that variation in behavioral patterns in orangutans is cultural.

• Kudos
The Alaska Federation of Natives awarded its highest honor, the Citizen of the Year award, to Juneau resident Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute. Worl, an Eagle from the Shangukeidí Clan and the House Lowered from the Sun in Klukwan for her lifelong dedication to helping Native people throughout the state. Worl has a B.A. from Alaska Methodist University and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University. She has been the recipient of a multitude of awards and honors from various organizations, including the Solon T. Kimball Award from the American Anthropological Association for her pioneering work in applied anthropology and the Gloria Steinem Award for Empowerment.

• In memoriam
Archaeologist and professor of anthropology George Hamley Odell died October 14 at the age of 69 years. Odell was a member of Tulsa University’s anthropology department for 26 years and a recipient of the Society of Professional Archaeologists’ Excellence in Research Award. A veteran of field research projects all over the world, he spent two years excavating Stone Age sites in the Netherlands and led excavations and surveys in South Africa, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, France and sites around the United States. One of his specialties was lithic analysis, the study of stone tools used by ancient humans, and he won awards for his contributions to the field.

Archaeologist and professor of anthropology Gregory Possehl died October 8 at the age of 70 years. He was associate director of the University Museum from 1981 to 1992 and chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania from 1994 to 2001. Possehl was a leading expert on the rise of the Indus civilization in India and Pakistan. He did research at numerous sites along the Indus and Sarasvati Rivers, dating from 4300 to 1500 B.C.E. His definitive book, The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective, was named Outstanding Academic Book for 2003 by Choice magazine. He published many other books, chapters, and papers in scholarly journals. Possehl also shared his enthusiasm with nonacademic audiences. On a 1981 trip to India sponsored by the Women’s Committee of the Penn Museum and the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Possehl told the reporter accompanying the group that a certain ficus tree is considered sacred by Hindus because of its size. The reporter wrote, “Greg, who himself is quite large at 6-3, is also regarded as special because of his size…When he strides through a village, people touch him for luck.” He earned a B.A. and M.A. degree in anthropology at the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago.

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