Anthro in the news 10/21/13

• Growing bias against Uighurs in China

Region of Uighurs. Photo courtesy of National Geographic education blog.

The New York Times reported on what is apparently growing discrimination in China against Uighurs (or Uyghurs), who live mainly in the northwestern part of the country and are Muslim. The article refers to Beijing’s “strike hard” internal security approach and rapid economic development, both of which increase resentment among Uighurs, who say the best jobs go to newly arrived Han.

Sean Roberts, cultural anthropologist and professor of international development studies in the Elliott School at the George Washington University, is quoted as saying: “The Chinese government is focused on a very outdated understanding of macroeconomic development, thinking that it will bring everyone up to the same level, but it’s clearly not working.”

• Belief in angels and ghosts as hard-wired?

Angel at the Vatican
Vatican angel. Flickr/Madison Berndt

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Stanford University cultural anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann considers various perspectives on how so many people in the U.S. believe in god and other aspects of the supernatural including angels and ghosts.

• Who’s crazy?

An article in Counterpunch about the recent killing of Miriam Carey in Washington, D.C., draws on insights from Luhrmann from her comparative study of narratives of schizophrenics in the U.S. and India.

The study showed that schizophrenics in both countries hear voices, “…but what was interesting was the voices were very different and clearly culturally generated. The Indian voices were ‘considerably less violent’ than the US voices. Americans heard voices suggesting suicide or violence to others, while Indians heard voices suggesting they do their chores or perform disturbing sexual acts. The voices mentally ill people hear are not completely generated from inside their heads; they’re based on things people have experienced in their lives or from the media.”

Implications are that it is important to pay attention to how culture constructs schizophrenia and learn to listen to the voices and respond to them in ways other than shooting them dead. The article raises questions about the voices that journalists do and do not listen to and the sanity of the police who killed Carey.


• Women, headscarves, and democracy in Turkey

A letter to the editor of The New York Times from cultural anthropology professor emerita of Stanford University, Carol Delaney, notes that the recent lifting of the ban in Turkey on women wearing head scarves in government offices is another step toward an Islamist state. According to Delaney, the Prime Minister claims the lifting of the ban is a step toward democracy.

• Take that anthropology degree and…

Adonia Lugo
Adonia Lugo. Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland

…become a community activist and transportation advocate. Adonia Lugo, received a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of California at Irvine. She has worked for several years as a community activist in Los Angeles and has recently emerged as a respected voice among transportation advocates due to her experiences and perspectives on how gender and race figure into bicycling policies, projects and priorities.

Lugo co-founded CicLAvia and City of Lights/Ciudad de Luces, a volunteer effort to provide bike lights and safe cycling information to Spanish-speaking immigrants in Los Angeles which has since become a stand-alone non-profit named Multicultural Communities for Mobility.

• Discovery of Angola community in Florida

The Bradenton Herald (Florida) reported on research by New College anthropology professor Uzi Baram who has found traces of the Angola community of escaped slaves, dating from 200 years ago near Manatee Mineral Spring after years of research. This piece of history, according to Baram, should be included in the school curriculum. Archaeologist Vicki Baram, an original member of the research team, created the Looking for Angola project in 2004 after reading scholarly works about escaped slave communities on the Manatee River.

• Rising sea level threatens Neolithic Scottish village

The Stone Age village of Skara Brae
The Stone Age village of Skara Brae. Picture: Jane Barlow

According to an article in The Scotsman, the 4,000-5,000 year-old World Heritage site of Skara Brae, in the Orkney Islands, is threatened by rising sea levels and increasing storminess. Julie Gibson, Orkney’s county archaeologist at the University of the Highlands and Islands, is quoted as saying, “There are significant threats and there should be planning to reduce these risks.

• Frogs’ legs à la Stonehenge

The Mail Online carried a piece about how the location of Stonehenge may be related to the nearby presence of warm water pools which would have supported dietary sources such as frogs and attracted grazing animals such as aurochs (the ancestors of cows).

David Jacques, senior research fellow in archaeology at the University of Buckingham, is quoted as saying: “It would appear that thousands of years ago people were eating a Heston Blumenthal-style menu on this site, one-and-a-quarter miles from Stonehenge, consisting of toads’ legs, aurochs, wild boar and red deer with hazelnuts for main, another course of salmon and trout and finishing off with blackberries. This is significant for our understanding of the way people were living around 5,000 years before the building of Stonehenge and it begs the question – where are the frogs now?”

Archeologists from the University of Buckingham discovered fragments of an 8,000 year-old charred toad leg at a site near Stonehenge, evidence that the early residents of the area may have a cultural claim to eating frogs’ legs that precedes that of the French.

• Prehistoric feast and mortuary site in Maryland

Archaeologists excavating a site in Maryland know Pig Point are excited because, while prehistoric burial sites in the area are relatively common, ancient ceremonial sites as deep and well preserved as the one believed to be atop Pig Point are extremely unusual.

Al Luckenbach, the archaeologist for Anne Arundel County, is quoted as commenting: “Habitation sites are everywhere [but] Ritual sites — that’ll only be a few places.” He believes that the hillside, on private land about eight miles west of Chesapeake Bay, may have been a regional mortuary, where objects like spearheads and stone jewelry were ritually smashed along with bones of the deceased.

Darrin Lowery, a University of Delaware archaeologist and a former Smithsonian Institution research fellow, called the site “almost like a prehistoric funeral home.” But it is more than that, he said. “It’s a very sacred funeral home…Finding that is pretty rare — actually, virtually unheard-of in the archaeological record.”

• Denisovans crossing the (Wallace) line

ABC News (Australia) reported on findings published in the journal Science by Adelaide University archaeologist Alan Cooper and professor Chris Stringer of Natural History Museum in London that Denisovans, Asian cousins of Neanderthals, may have crossed the Wallace line and reached what is now Australia more than 100,000 years ago.

The research is based on genetic analysis. The only place where a Denisovan genetic signal appears is east of the Wallace Line which runs between Bali and Lombok and up the east coast of Borneo. This marine strait has never been bridged by land and is hard to cross, which is why the fauna on one side is so different to that on the other.

The findings have implications for understanding of the technological ability of Denisovans: “Knowing that the Denisovans spread beyond this significant sea barrier opens up all sorts of questions about the behaviours and capabilities of this group, and how far they could have spread,” says Cooper.

He added that analysis of gene flow shows that it occurred as a result of male Denisovans breeding with modern human females. The findings also mean that the diversity of archaic human relatives in the area was much higher than previously thought – with Denisovans joining the so-called Hobbits as another unexpected relative living east of the Wallace Line at the same time as modern humans.

• Very old recycling, sort of

An article in The Huffington Post reviewed findings by several archaeologists indicating that early prehistoric ancestors learned to recycle the objects they used in their daily lives. The researchers were speaking last week at an international conference in Israel titled “The Origins of Recycling,” which gathered nearly 50 international scholars. From caves in Spain and North Africa to sites in Italy and Israel, archaeologists have been finding such recycled tools.

Ran Barkai, an archaeologist and one of the organizers of the four-day gathering at Tel Aviv University, said: “For the first time we are revealing the extent of this phenomenon, both in terms of the amount of recycling that went on and the different methods used.”

Avi Gopher, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist, said the early appearance of recycling highlights its role as a basic survival strategy. While they may not have been driven by concerns over pollution and the environment, hominids shared some of our motivations.

Some participants argued that scholars should be cautious to draw parallels between this ancient behavior and the current forms of systematic recycling, driven by mass production and environmental concerns. “It is very useful to think about prehistoric recycling,” said Daniel Amick, a professor of anthropology at Chicago’s Loyola University. “But I think that when they recycled they did so on an ‘ad hoc’ basis, when the need arose.”

Participants in the conference plan to submit papers to be published next year in a special volume of Quaternary International, a journal focusing on the study of the last 2.6 million years of earth’s history.

• Very old dental care

Science Daily reported on the findings of Marina Lozano, lead author of the study, about how Neanderthals of 1.6-1.9 million years ago used toothpicks to cure swollen gums, Findings are based on examination of fossils from an archaeological site in Valencia, Spain, and are presented in PLOS One.

• Human family tree bushy or linear?

The debate between so-called splitters (bushy tree, many species) and lumpers (linear tree, one species) in interpreting the fossil record of early human ancestors has been going on for many years. The latest statement in support of a linear family tree appeared in an article in Science, with archaeologist David Lordkipanidze of the Georgian National Museum as lead author of a study that examines a skull discovered in 2005 at the site of Dmanisi. The authors argue for a single-line of ancestors.

[Blogger’s note: The New York Times carried a report on the Science article on its front page and above the crease, along with a striking and spooky photo of the skull. Can it be mere coincidence that The Economist, with its rather orthogonal interest in human evolutionary theory, published an article on the Science findings along with the same photo? Halloween effect?]

• Kudos

The Sword of Loyola recognizes notable achievements of outstanding leaders. This year’s recipient is Paul Farmer, medical anthropologist, doctor, and advocate, who was celebrated for his humanitarian efforts to bring first-world health care to people in third-world countries.

Farmer holds an MD and PhD from Harvard University where he is the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is also chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and co-founder of the internationally recognized non-profit organization Partners In Health.

From 2009 to 2012, Farmer served as the United Nations deputy special envoy for Haiti, under Special Envoy Bill Clinton. In December 2012, he was named the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Community Based Medicine and Lessons from Haiti. Farmer has written extensively about health and human rights, and about the role of social inequalities in the distribution and outcome of infectious diseases.

• In memoriam

Longtime Saddleback College anthropology professor Micael Merrifield

died at the age of 68 years. His interests ranged from Celts to chimpanzees. In 1981, he enrolled in a doctorate program at UC Riverside where he worked on a dissertation on the culture of Southeast Asian refugees in Orange County. He stopped his studies in 1985 and never completed his Ph.D. By that time, Merrifield was already working at Saddleback College where he taught courses on magic, religion and witchcraft; Celtic culture; cultural anthropology; linguistic anthropology; and biological anthropology. He researched the history and genealogy of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation, and its unsuccessful bid for federal recognition.

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