Anthro in the news 7/1/13

• DOMA and beyond: it’s complicated

The Los Angeles Times published an article by Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. She is quoted as saying: “One doesn’t have to go far afield to question the idea that marriage has always been defined the same way.”

The Huffington Post published an essay by Tom Boellstorff, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine. He offers four points, the first of which echoes Joyce’s:

Defense of Marriage Act
January 10, 2009 Chicago protest of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Flickr/Kevin Zolkiewicz
  1. social scientists and historians have shown that many forms of marriage and kinship exist, and have existed, around the world, and heterosexual marriage itself takes many forms;
  2. the victory is bittersweet given the Supreme Court’s finding of a key element of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional;
  3. both the DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions were 5-4 rulings and this split represents divisions in society and suggests that heterosexism and homophobia will not disappear with these court rulings;
  4. finally, it is important to anticipate questions about what is “normal.”

• Structural violence and popular revolts

A Brazilian news source carried an article about the uprisings there and mentioned cultural anthropologists Paul Farmer, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and Philippe Bourgois.

The article points to how social exclusion plays a role in fomenting protest and predicts that given structural limitations, the government, even if it wants to, cannot resolve the major issues on the table in the short term. [Blogger’s note: the article is in Portuguese; my thanks to my colleague, David Gow, for this synopsis].

A Million Years with You A Memoir of Life Observed
A Million Years with You: A Memoir of Life Observed by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

• The world has much to teach us

The Washington Post carried an interview with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, self-trained anthropologist, about her new book, a memoir, A Million Years With You. One of the questions is: “You learned to live what you call ‘the Old Way’ from years interacting with the Bushmen in South-West Africa, now Namibia. What relevance does that have for people in Peterborough or Washington?” Answer: “The Bushmen knew everything in their environment..we won’t be matching that again.”

• Queens of ancient Peru

Several mainstream media, including Reuters and USA Today, reported on the discovery of an ancient tomb filled in Peru containing mummified queens and their servants, as well as many artifacts of gold, silver, copper, and bronze, dating from about 1,200 years ago. The site, El Castillo de Huarmey, on the coast of southern Peru has been called the “Temple of the Dead” by the National Geographic Society-funded research team led by Milosz Giersz of Poland’s University of Warsaw.

Images of winged beings adorn a pair of gold-and-silver ear ornaments a high-ranking Wari woman wore to her grave.
Images of winged beings adorn a pair of gold-and-silver ear ornaments a high-ranking Wari woman wore to her grave. Photo: Daniel Giannon

The site sheds light on the Wari people who ruled southern Peru before the Inca empire and suggests that Wari women held more power than previously thought. “The women were buried with finely engraved ear pieces made of precious metals that once were believed to be used only by men,” archaeologist Patrycja Przadk said.

Archaeologist Christina Conlee of Texas State University in San Marcos, who was not on the discovery team, is quoted as saying: “…we don’t see female high-status rulers in the art of the Wari very often.”

• Niah Cave endangered

According to a report in the New Straits Times, Sarawak’s famous prehistoric site, Niah Cave, and its surrounding areas, are under threat from ongoing limestone quarry construction. Because of its rich historical significance, the Niah National Park was created to protect the Great Cave.

Niah caves Wikipedia
Niah caves/Wikipedia

Zoologist Christopher M. Stimpson said while the establishment of the park was commendable, it was a small area in the vast jungle: “The limestone quarry will encroach into the area and make the park smaller than before,” said Stimpson, who is with McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge. Stimpson did his doctorate on Niah Great Cave from 2006 to 2010, and is now back for further research, working with archaeologists from Sarawak Museum.

Stimpson urged the local government to stop the further destruction of the place: “The Niah Great Cave is biologically, archeologically and historically rich. It is important not only to the country but to the world.” The cave’s historical significance rose with the discovery of human remains, dating back 40,000 years, making it the oldest recorded human settlement in East Malaysia. It also houses rock paintings dating back 1,200 years.

• More on Nias: dig with care

The Borneo Times carried a piece about Visiting Sarawak Museum research officer, Christopher Stimpson, who spoke at the Sarawak Museum about the importance of caution when doing research work at archaeological sites, saying that any digging at the site must be done systematically to ensure that valuable data are not lost.

• So, it’s all about men, right?

Kate Clancy, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, published an essay for the Scientific American blog about the dominating male model in human evolution studies and her views on it: “Like most modern anthropologists, I have challenged the idea that human evolution is entirely motivated by men’s desires, interests, behaviors and strategies. But feelings of doubt have nagged at me for years – impostor syndrome, internalized sexism, and just a general feeling of inferiority and small-brainedness. Then, PLoS Computational Biology published a piece by Morton et al (2013) suggesting that men’s preferences for younger women are what drove the evolution of menopause.”

• Free the lab chimpanzees

A young chimpanzee at a laboratory in Sterling Forest, New York.
A young chimpanzee at a laboratory in Sterling Forest, New York. Credit: Steve Winter, National Geographic

News and commentary about the U.S. plan to free most of its lab chimpanzees continues to roll out. The latest is an article from National Geographic news which Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, referring to the new plan as “a step in the right direction … Hopefully in the future, the NIH will be spending less money on this aging infrastructure and resources that they didn’t need and more money in areas where we can do cutting-edge research.”

For example, Hare said, the NIH has not historically funded work that aims to eliminate the illegal trade of meat from great apes, including chimpanzees. He argued that such work would be well within the scope of the NIH’s mission because the bush meat trade is not only a conservation problem, but also a potential human health threat.

“Things like HIV, Ebola, and Marburg virus originated from great apes, and there are lots of other potential diseases that could lead to human pandemics that could be communicated by the bush meat trade…There is tremendous need for research on how to slow down and stop the bush meat trade and better understanding of what diseases we might be threatened by if great apes continue to be killed. This is directly in line with the NIH’s purview of what they are supposed to be doing.”

• Grief, the chimpanzee way

An article in The New York Times Magazine highlighted similarities between humans and chimpanzees, drawing in an account published in 2010 in the journal Current Biology about chimpanzee mourning. Chimpanzees have been seen to make loud distress calls when a comrade dies. They investigate bodies as if looking for signs of life. Mothers often refuse to abandon a dead infant for days or even weeks.

The NYT article turns to insights from Brian Hare, of Duke University, who says that an ape death he witnessed gave him a glimpse into something significant, especially because the animals acted so thoroughly against their own interests. Hare studies how chimpanzees and bonobos solve problems.

Mick Ashton
Mick Aston (center) with presenter Sir Tony Robinson (left) and Roman expert Guy de la Bédoyère (right) on the set of Time Team/Wikipedia.

In 2007 he happened to see one of our closest evolutionary relatives, a bonobo, die. He was at a bonobo orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Lipopo, a newcomer to the orphanage, died unexpectedly from pneumonia. Although the other bonobos could have moved away from his body and traveled anywhere in their very large, heavily forested enclosure, they chose to stay and groom Lipopo’s corpse. When their caretakers arrived to remove the body, the vigil morphed into a tense standoff.

• In memoriam

Mick Ashton, archaeologist, died at the age of 66 years. He gained much fame for appearing in Channel 4’s popular Time Team program. He combined a deep knowledge of history and a committed enthusiasm which much enlivened the series. He ensured the subjects were made understandable and entertaining and his informal manner.

His career also included teaching at institutions such as the Oxford City and County Museum. From 1970, he was the first County Archaeologist for Somerset. He was closely associated with Bristol University where he was a tutor in archaeology, and in 1996 was awarded a chair.

In 2004 he became an emeritus professor at Bristol University and also held posts at both Exeter and Durham Universities. He published many books including the popular title Mick’s Archaeology in 2000.

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