Anthro in the news 6/11/12

• Excuse me, are you a woman?
Some female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer are undergoing treatment to make them less masculine. Others are being secretly investigated for “displaying overly manly characteristics.” Sport’s medical officials are attempting to quantify and regulate the hormonal difference between male and female athletes. Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was so fast and muscular that many suspected she was a man, hit the news three years ago. Now similar cases are emerging all over the world. Semenya, banned from competition for 11 months while authorities investigated her gender, is back, vying for gold. She and other women like her face a complex question: Does a female athlete whose body naturally produces unusually high levels of male hormones, allowing them to put on more muscle mass, have an “unfair” advantage? In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold. In South Africa, ground zero of the debate, about 1 per cent of the population are born “intersex.” Semenya, who remains the unwilling poster girl for the issue, says: “I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.” Elaine Salo, anthropology professor at the University of Pretoria who has a poster of Semenya on her office door, says: “She’s truly a hero and a leader and a role model in this country. I don’t think we celebrate her enough…What is athletics if not the ability of the biological body to extend itself?”

• Progress for Chagos dawning at Downing Street?
The U.K. has a great opportunity based on realpolitik and human rights to restore the Chagos archipelago to its rightful owners according to Sean Carey, regular anthropologyworks contributor, in an article in The Guardian. A recent meeting at 10 Downing Street may indicate hope for Chagos.

• French-Tuareg relations
An article that discusses French-Tuareg relations quotes from the blog, Bridges From Bamako, in which Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist at Lehigh University in the U.S., noted: “It’s certainly true that the Tuareg have a sympathetic following among the French and that rebel spokesmen have frequently appeared in the French media.” In a shock announcement on Saturday, May 26, the secular MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad) announced its merger with Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group, declaring that the two groups had agreed to turn northern Mali into an Islamist state. Days later, as analysts were attempting to study the implications of the new development, a top MNLA official emailed a statement that categorically rejected the organization’s merger with Ansar Dine due to differences over the two groups’ interpretations of sharia law… hours later representatives from both groups insisted their organizations were still bound by the May 26 in-principle agreement. “The situation has been changing almost every minute; it’s very dynamic,” said Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate and cultural anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. According to Keenan, the real question is: “In the beginning, we were hearing that the MNLA controlled between 2,000 and 3,000 men returning from Libya, whereas Ansar Dine had only about 100 to 200 fighters. So, where are the MNLA’s great, battle-hardened fighters?” The question has to do with a region the size of France, where various groups control different areas within a city. The question remains: does the MNLA have Islamist or al Qaeda links?

• The importance of baskets
The Sequim Gazette of western Washington state highlighted a new book on baskets of the Olympic Peninsula with focus on the culture and artistic abilities of local American Indian tribes. Cultural anthropologist Jacilee Wray of Olympic National Park hopes readers will gain a new appreciation for basketry and the local craftsmen who have created baskets for centuries through her book, From the Hands of a Weaver: Olympic Basketry through Time. She has worked for years compiling it with help from researchers and tribal basket makers to explore the history and how-to-process of baskets within the Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Skokomish (Twana), Quinault, Hoh, Quileute and Makah tribes.

• More on murder in Mauritius
Sean Carey was interviewed by John Mooney for a piece in the Sunday Times (U.K.) on the McAreavey murder trial currently underway in Mauritius. Carey manages to weave in Levi-Strauss.

• Coffee, tea, or water?
A new study reported in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health says that tea and coffee are just as good as bottled water at keeping us hydrated. The study, by a nutritionist at La Trobe University, Victoria, points to bottled drinking water as a “fashion accessory and a token of instant gratification and symbolism.” Tsindos suggests the eight glasses of water a day recommended by Australian authorities may by excessive and can be met by other fluid intakes besides water. Here’s the anthro connection: Tsindos points to a study from 1976 in which anthropologists said that Saharan nomads drank little water despite living in one of the world’s driest regions, half the amount of Europeans in the same area. “Given that even in a harsh environment the consumption of water can be minimal, why do we insist on drinking such large volumes of water every day?” asks Tsindos. [Blogger’s note: still trying to track down that 1976 study…]

• There be vampires
Bulgarian archaeologists say they have unearthed two centuries-old skeletons pinned down through their chests with iron rods. The rest of the discussion is from The Times of London. According to Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of the National History Museum in Sofia, two skeletons from the Middle Ages were found near the Black Sea town of Sozopol. He said that corpses were regularly treated in this way, even until the beginning of the last century, to prevent those who did evil during their lifetimes from returning after death to feast on the blood of the living. Dimitrov said that remains from 100 similar burials had been found in Bulgaria, and that the rite was practiced in other Balkan countries as well.

• Who’s impoverished? Listen to the breast milk
Working with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, anthropologists at U.C. Santa Barbara have found high levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in the breast milk of “economically impoverished” Amazonian woman compared to [apparently not “economically impoverished”] women in the United States. Their research appears in the current issue of the journal Maternal and Child Nutrition. The study compared breast milk fatty acid composition of women in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Tsimane (pron: see-mah-nay) women of Bolivia. The Tsimane diet consists primarily of locally grown food crops, wild game, and freshwater fish. Samples of Tsimane mothers’ milk contain significantly higher percentages of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is crucial for infant cognitive and visual development. “The fatty acid composition of breast milk varies with the fatty acid composition of a mother’s diet and fat stores. Ancestral humans likely consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in equal proportions,” said Melanie Martin, a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California – Santa Barbara, and the study’s lead researcher. “The Tsimane mothers’ average milk DHA percentage was 400 percent higher than that of the Cincinnati mothers, while their average percentages of linoleic and trans fatty acids were 84 percent and 260 percent lower, respectively…Despite living in economically impoverished conditions, Tsimane mothers produce breast milk that has more balanced and potentially beneficial fatty acid composition as compared to milk from U.S. mothers.” The study comes in the wake of the May 21 issue of Time magazine, which reignited debate over the appropriate age at which a child should top nursing. “Buzz about the recent Time magazine cover missed the point,” noted Steven Gaulin, professor of anthropology at UCSB, and one of the study’s co-authors: “The American diet is eroding one of the most important benefits breast milk can provide –– fats that are critical to infant brain development…”

• Sugar, sugar
Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, published an op-ed in The New York Times in response to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to ban the sale of giant soft drinks in New York City. Lieberman writes that “The obesity epidemic has many dimensions, but at heart it’s a biological problem. An evolutionary perspective helps explain why two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and what to do about it. Lessons from evolutionary biology support the mayor’s plan: when it comes to limiting sugar in our food, some kinds of coercive action are not only necessary but also consistent with how we used to live…Obesity’s fundamental cause is long-term energy imbalance — ingesting more calories than you spend over weeks, months and years. Of the many contributors to energy imbalance today, plentiful sugar may be the worst.”

• In memoriam
William L. Rathje, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona who pioneered the study of modern refuse, died at the age of 66 years in Tucson, Arizona. Rathje’s three decades worth of landmark studies punctured many earlier assumptions of what happens when people throw things away. Four decades ago, Rathje, then an up-and-coming young archaeologist and already noted for his work on ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, thought that the principles and methods of archaeology could also be used to extract information about contemporary behavior in society changes over time. Rathje graduated from the University of Arizona in 1967 and earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1971. He returned to the University of Arizona that year as an assistant professor of anthropology where he immediately became a favorite of students, teaching survey courses in archaeology for majors and general education classes for undergraduates, as well as graduate-level Mesoamerican archaeology classes.

Phillip Tobias, South Africa’s foremost palaeoanthropologist and professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg since the 1950s died at the age of 86 years. Tobias’s name was synonymous with ‘research’ at the Sterkfontein caves near Johannesburg, now a World Heritage site. According to an article in All Africa News, Tobias, with a tinge of humor, was renowned for demystifying complex science to everyday life and language, as his television programs bore testimony.  South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has sent condolences to the family of Professor Tobias: “We have lost a renowned scientist, a scholar and a unique human being. Our country remains eternally proud of his work. On behalf of government and the people of South Africa, we extend our deepest condolences and may his soul rest in peace.” [now back to ABC news] Lee Berger, who studied under Tobias and went on to follow him as the leading researcher in his field at the university, compared Tobias to the Leakeys, paleoanthropologists who have made significant anthropological findings in East Africa. Nick Barton of Oxford University said that Tobias “was one of the greats in human evolutionary studies.” A South African colleague, archaeologist Lyn Wadley, said Tobias should also be remembered for speaking out against apartheid.

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