anthro in the news 8/3/15

  • Seeking Angelina lips

The Globe and Mail reported on the growing use by women in Canada of cosmetic surgery, pointing to a look that is called “richface.” The article includes insights from Alexander Edmonds, professor of social and medical anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and author of Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex and Plastic Surgery in Brazil. She says: “Part of the draw of duck lips is that some people like the artificial look. I am reminded of anorexia– which is not only a disorder of eating, but a disorder of perception. There is an addictive quality to cosmetic surgery that can alter, not just the body, but the perception of what is natural, artificial or beautiful.”

  • Military neuroscience: Too delicious to ignore

As reported by the Washington Post, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is increasingly funding research about the brain. One of its lesser known research endeavors is its Narrative Networks project which aims to understand how narratives influence human thought and behavior. Psychologists at the Georgia Institute of Technology recruited undergraduates to be hooked up to MRI machines and watch short movie clips. The excerpts featured a character facing a potential negative outcome and were taken from suspenseful movies, including Alfred Hitchcock movies as well as Alien, Misery, Munich and Cliffhanger. Researchers found that when suspense grew, brain activity in viewers’ peripheral vision decreased. Moments of increasing suspense were also associated with greater interference with a secondary task. Thus, an “emotional threat” affects a person’s attention both spatially (vision) and conceptually (across different tasks).

The article refers to a critical perspective on such research from Hugh Gusterson: “[m]ost rational human beings would believe that if we could have a world where nobody does military neuroscience, we’d all be better off. But for some people in the Pentagon, it’s too delicious to ignore.” Gusterson is professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University.

  • 100 years of occupation in Haiti

Mark Schuller published the second article of a three-part series in the Huffington Post. This piece looks at the role of outside actors such as the UN, the United States, and the EU, in terms of the current political and social situation in Haiti. Schuller is associate professor of anthropology and NGO leadership and development at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti.

  • Climate deniers, please hear this

Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College in Alaska, published an article in the Alaska Dispatch News which retells a Dena’ina story of a boy who dies as a result of his failure to listen to advice from knowledgeable elders. Boraas writes:

“When someone does something dumb in modern mythology (movies, novels, etc.), they are often rescued and live happily ever after. In the old Dena’ina world, actions have consequences. Bad things happen when decisions are made that ignore observed reality — true in the past, just as true now. Modern times are notable for dumbing down science, the humanities. It’s not just the short news cycle and the sound bite. It’s a systematic and purposeful effort to manipulate information, causing people to ignore reality and to not act in their best interest to achieve the goals of those who would dominate.”

The “stupid boy” story has a lot to say to climate change deniers.

  • We are all Lucy’s children

The Bloomberg News and other media reported on the meeting between President Obama and the fossils of Lucy, our 3.2 million year-old ancestor. “Amazing,” he said. Zeresenay Alemseged, senior curator of anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and Obama’s tour guide, said: “Every single person here, 7 billion people, including Donald Trump, came down through the chain.”

  • A nod to the Nacirema

An article in the Daily Beast about opposition to racism in America led off with mention of the classic 1956 article by Harold Miner, Body Ritual among the Nacirema (American spelled backward). Point being that it’s often very hard to understand what people in this culture are thinking and doing and why.

  • Caring about animals is a good thing
Ernest Hemingway, 1934. Credit: Wikipedia.

For National Public Radio, biological anthropologist Barbara J. King of the College of William and Mary spoke out on the death of Cecil the lion by trophy hunters in Zimbabwe and the ensuing social media commentary, much of which asked why people were so concerned about the death of one animal:

“In addition to the outcry on behalf of Cecil on social media, there’s a competing chorus that I have noticed, primarily in my Twitter feed. It takes the form of a question worded along these lines: “You raise your voice for this lion, but where was your voice for __________?” (Insert in the blank the name of a well-known human being who has suffered or the name of a social justice cause related to human suffering.)”

King offers three compelling points in response and reminds us of comments she made previously: As I said in 2013 to NPR’s Petra Mayer, each one of us can do something of significance. Maybe you’re all about educating children in wildlife conservation, or working to get cats and dogs spay-neutered. Or maybe you decide not to eat so many animals anymore. Whatever works for you, it all makes a difference.”

  • How about a cricket muffin with your coffee?
Credit: The Detroit Hour.

The Detroit Hour carried an article about the work of Wayne State anthropology professor Julie Lesnik in promoting more insects in American diets. Crickets, for example, are a complete protein and a sustainable food source. “It’s one thing to tell people, ‘Oh, eat crickets they’re sustainable,’ ” Lesnik says. “It’s another to be like, ‘Here’s a food item you can share with your family.’ ”

To help raise awareness of crickets as food, she organized a bake-off last spring. WSU student teams competed to find out whose cricket cuisine reigned supreme. The teams came up with baked goods using cricket flour (or more accurately cricket powder). Detroit is “well suited for bringing in this conversation,” Lesnik says, especially because of existing local sustainability/urban agriculture efforts and a thriving food entrepreneur community.

  • Take that anthro degree and….

…become a communication coordinator. The March of Dimes North Dakota Chapter recently hired Chantel Carlson as the communication coordinator. Carlson is a graduate of the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, where she earned a B.A. degree in anthropology and religious studies. She previously worked as a leadership development consultant for a nonprofit leadership and philanthropic organization in the state of Washington.

  • Historical archaeology in northern New York State

The Albany Times Union reported on a current archaeological project in the southern Adirondacks, the focal point of the warring British and French empires more than 250 years ago. Led by David Starbuck, professor of anthropology at Plymouth State University, who has done research at the region’s 18th century military sites for more than 20 years, the battlefield project seeks to identify the footprint of a sprawling encampment known to have occupied high ground east of Fort William Henry, built in 1755.

  • A preponderance of scrapers: New findings from Swartkrans

Reuters reported about ongoing excavations at Swartkrans, an important site of early human cultural evolution in South Africa. The current research on a rocky hillside 25 km (15 miles) northwest of Johannesburg is revealing the material culture of our ancestors a thousand millennia ago, shortly after they had evolved into Homo sapiens. “In this area we have what are mostly called scrapers, a certain form of stone tool,” said Travis Pickering, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. The scrapers are fairly basic: a piece of quartz worked so that the edge can be used to scrape a hide from an animal. But what is striking is the sheer number unearthed, and what that suggests about our social development 100,000 years ago.

“There is a preponderance of them here, and what we think is this is perhaps a specialization site, where they were working hides. And that is indicative of a very cognitively advanced sort of society,” said Pickering, who directs the research project at Swartkrans.

  • Chimpanzees turn to clay eating

U.S. News & World Report carried an article describing findings from a study of chimpanzees in Uganda showing that the chimpanzees eat clay perhaps to supplement the minerals in their diet or to detox and digest their food. The researchers observed wild chimps in the forest eating and drinking from clay pits and termite mounds. This behavior is new and may be partly due to the widespread destruction of raffia palm trees that the chimps typically relied on for their minerals.

“Raffia is a key source of sodium, but to our surprise, the sodium content was very low in the diet so this does not appear to be the main reason for the new clay-bingeing,” the study’s lead author, Vernon Reynolds, emeritus professor of biological anthropology at University of Oxford in England, said in a university news release. “Instead, the wide range of minerals present in their diet suggests that clay is eaten as a general mineral supplement.” Findings from the study were published online July 28 in the journal PLoS One.

  • In memoriam

Sir Jack Goody, social anthropologist, died at the age 95 years. Goody was a major figure in post-war British social anthropology. He taught at Cambridge from 1954 to 1984, succeeding his teacher, Meyer Fortes, as the William Wyse professor of social anthropology in 1973. Goody challenged the narrowness of an anthropological vision limited to local ethnography and non-literate societies. He emphasized the importance of history, rejecting simplistic dichotomies of “the West versus the Rest”, between simple and complex societies, logical and prelogical thought. Though he “retired” from his chair in 1984, he remained based at St John’s College, and continued to write, to explore new themes, to carry out research and to lecture abroad. From his study of LoDagaa funeral rites he proposed a general rule that the key to analyzing variations in kinship and family relations lay in the transmission of property, and he went on to explore the complex implications of this in Bridewealth and Dowry (1973), Production and Reproduction (1976), and Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (1983). He also published several articles and books on writing, rationality and modes of communication; of these The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977) is the most widely known.

Nancy Sullivan, cultural anthropologist and activist, died at the age of 57 years. Sullivan ran an anthropology consulting company in Madang province, where she had lived for 23 years. She was a staunch advocate for Papua New Guinea’s residents whose way of life is threatened by logging and mining. In an interview with Radio Australia, John Chitoa, an official with a Madang non-government organization, referred to Sullivan as “a great warrior” for the people. Sullivan spent much of the past decade working to document and preserve an extensive cave art system in the island nation’s Karawari region, where the images drawn on walls date back thousands of years.

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