Anthro in the news 8/18/14

Anonymous members protest corrupt governments and corporation in Washington, D.C., in 2013.
  • Anonymous group, transparency, and Ferguson, Missouri

The fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, by a police officer raises deep questions about police racial bias and public transparency following the shooting. The New York Times and other media described the role of Anonymous, an international hacker group, which claimed to have the name of the police officer responsible for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. “We have the name of the shooter,” the group tweeted. “We just can’t verify. We need to either talk to witnesses or get a second leak source.” Since then, the authorities in Missouri released the name of the office involved in the shooting but the incident is still shrouded in mystery and the town of Ferguson a site of unrest.

Gabriella Coleman, a professor of anthropology at McGill University who studies Anonymous, said she was taken aback that members of Anonymous would be so quick to release unverified information, and would speak so openly about their methods in online chat channels: “My jaw was dropping…because what I was seeing was suggestive but not definitive. Anonymous tends to care about its image quite a bit, and if they were wrong, it would be really bad.” Coleman is author of the forthcoming book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: the Many Faces of Anonymous.

  • Is the world ready for Ebola?

Mike Callaghan, a doctoral student in medical anthropology at the University of Toronto, published an article in The Province (Canada) addressing key questions about the response to infectious disease in Canada. He says, “More and more Canadians are scared of Ebola, but few of them are scared for the right reasons. Ebola is definitely deadly, but catching it is actually quite difficult. The virus is transmitted only through the contaminated body fluids of people who are visibly sick. Patients usually die so quickly that outbreaks burn out quickly. Further, the virus is effectively contained by modern health systems.”

He poses these questions for Canadians and others: How do we balance safety and freedom? What is the role of science? How can ethics guide us? When should we risk rolling out untested drugs?

Callagan concludes: “Behind Ebola, a long list of contagions lie in wait. Their arrival will bring a whole set of difficult questions about governance, science and ethics that we do not currently have answers for. That is worth worrying about.”

  • Drones for cultural heritage survival

In Peru (and elsewhere), land grabs for urban development, for tourist sites, for mines, and more threaten cultural heritage site. The New York Times carried a front page article about how drones are a new tool for archaeologists, helping them to find sites and record them with hundreds of photographs. The article profiles the work of Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, Peru’s vice minister of cultural heritage, an archaeologist who is also a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. He points to a series of stone walls built more than a thousand years ago by the Moche civilization that now gives way to a grid of adobe walls put up recently by land speculators. “This site is threatened on every side,” he said.

Archaeologists around the world are now turning to drones to explore and protect endangered sites. In Peru, Castillo has created a drone air force to map, monitor and safeguard his country’s heritage. Castillo and several other experts will describe the use of drones at a conference in San Francisco next year. [Blogger’s note: The article includes a link to a video].

  • Climate change, drought, and beer in early civilizations

Beer, scientists have long argued, helped give rise to civilization in an arc of land that sweeps from modern-day Egypt to the border between Iraq and Iran. NBC News picked up on a new chemical analysis of barley grains, one of beer’s key ingredients, which reveals the role of climate change in the collapse of societies in the region. “There has been a longtime debate about the relationship between climate and…the development and in some cases demise of cultures,” Frank Hole, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University, and a study co-author, said. “The research that we did is attempting to pinpoint this more directly.”

He and colleagues collected samples of modern and ancient barley grains throughout the region and analyzed them to reveal the impact of “mega-droughts” over the past 10,000 years. The barley analysis indicates that drought stress was a problem for these societies, “but its regional impact was diverse and influenced by geographic factors,” according to the report published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Coastal farmers were largely unaffected by the droughts and grew copious amounts of barley for beer, bread, and other staples. Inland societies were forced to adapt when rains failed. Some developed irrigation systems while others migrated out or switched to more drought tolerant crops. The evidence stems from the way carbon isotopes in barley vary with water availability. “Together with other archaeological information they can provide a clearer picture on the fate of ancient societies,” said study leader Simone Riehl, an archaeologist based at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

  • Neanderthal-style pigeon wings: No fries with that
Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar. Source: Wikipedia.

The Guardian reported on discoveries in sediments in Gorham’s Cave on the east face of Gibraltar, where Neanderthals lived for nearly 100,000 years. Researchers have found pigeon bones, some of which show tooth marks, cuts from stone tools, or signs of charring, perhaps created when the meat was left to cook on the glowing embers of a fire. Most of the marks were on pigeon wing and leg bones. The findings add to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthal diets included far more than large mammals. Those living in the caves of Gibraltar left behind butchered bones from seals and dolphins, and even had shucks for prising open shellfish.

“The picture that is emerging is that Neanderthals had a diverse larder outside their cave window and they were exploiting all these things,” said Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, who took part in the study. Burn marks left some of the bones unevenly discolored, which may have happened when wing or leg bones were cooked. “We think they are putting them on embers in the fire. If you have a bone with lots of muscle on one side, the bone more exposed to the fire becomes more cremated.” A report on the work entitled “The Earliest Pigeon Fanciers” appears in Nature Scientific Reports.

  • A troublesome book

The Independent (U.K.) carried an article on the response by nearly 150 population geneticists to A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, a book by former New York Times science writer, Nicholas Wade. His thesis is that economic success can, at least in part, be attributed to racial differences with a genetic foundation. The scientists have signed a letter criticizing Wade. They claim that Wade has misappropriated research from their field to support his arguments about inheritable differences among human societies and a biological basis for “race.”

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