anthro in the news 5/21/18


anthropology in and for everyday life

A panel discussion on Maine Public radio included four anthropologists explaining how anthropology is part of our everyday lives. Discussion covered different areas of anthropological research including linguistics and archaeology, what we know about why humans separate into different groups, how anthropology informs our understanding of the human dimensions of climate change, and the anthropology of war. Speakers were: Scott MacEachern, Bowdoin College professor, department of sociology and anthropology; Cindy Isenhour, University of Maine assistant professor, department of anthropology and Climate Change Institute; cooperating faculty, School of Economics and Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions; Nadia R. El-Shaarawi, Colby College assistant professor of global studies, contributor to the blog Savage Minds; and Sara Lowden, University of Maine Ph.D. student in anthropology and environmental policy

Bullshit Jobs in the news

The latest book by David Graeber, London School of Economics anthropology professor book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, was published May 15 and is being widely reviewed and discussed. In The New Zealand Herald: “When anthropologist David Graeber set out to write his provocatively titled book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, he invited the internet to share stories of occupations that people believed may contain a high concentration of faecal matter. Among the hundreds who shared stories was an online marketer whose team spent its days crafting and designing online banner ads for pedantic clients, while being fully aware that no one ever clicked on their ads — at least not intentionally. ‘They later had to make up these new kinds of statistics and measures on how many people see these things from the corner of their eye,’ [comments Graeber…]. ‘They’re doing this tiny detail work because the customer wants everything to be perfect, all the while knowing it makes no difference.’’ This piece contains a short video interview with Graeber in which he differentiates between bullshit jobs and shit jobs.

The review in The Daily Mail included this insight from the author: “‘What I ended up doing, when I was researching the book, I created an email account [and]…advertised the account and invited people to share their experiences…‘I said, “Have you ever had a job that’s totally pointless? Tell me all about it.”’ The responses came rolling in – in their hundreds…I wrote them all in one giant file, and I color coded it for content,’ he says, clarifying that he’s not labeling any jobs ‘bulls**t’ himself; he’s only reporting the feelings expressed by people actually working in those positions. ‘Telemarketers were way up there…There’s nobody in telemarketing who doesn’t feel that their job shouldn’t exist … It’s also unusual because most bulls**t jobs pay pretty well and have good benefits; telemarketers aren’t like that. It’s the worst of the worst.’

A review in Bloomberg commented: “Graeber writes that the only people who’ve ever argued with his basic premise are business owners, the people who are in charge of hiring and firing. He says he periodically receives “unsolicited communications” from such people, who insist that no one “would ever spend company money on an employee who wasn’t needed.” LOLOLOLOL. Sure, corporations and private equity amassers are always laying people off in the name of shareholder value, but, as Graeber mentions, that’s usually a felling of  workers who are actually productive while the top layers of overpaid, unnecessary management are the last to go. (Or, if they go, it’s with severance packages.)”

Reuters’ review includes this point:  “The book’s main contribution is its highly entertaining definition of terms. A bullshit job is a paid role that’s “so completely, pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence” – even though the incumbent will typically pretend that’s not the case. Qualifying positions are numerous, from the bored receptionist whose main job is to wind up a grandfather clock once a week, to the unhappy employee in a warehouse full of clown noses. Anyone who works in public relations, or has “strategic” in their title, automatically joins the club.”

WGN radio (Chicago) carried an eleven-minute interview with Graeber about what kind of jobs fall into the category of bullshit jobs and how there are more unfulfilling jobs in the market now than in recent years. Not all jobs, he says, have to change the world. Many non-bullshit jobs, however, such as bus driving and nursing, continue to exist. Ironically, however, bullshit jobs often pay better than such useful jobs. 

playing the anthropology card and winning 

Quartz reported on

Since he became president of the World Bank, though, it’s been hard to see where his anthropological heart it


Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, offered a brief lesson in nailing a job interview earlier this week. Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Kim shared an anecdote about how he landed then-president Barack Obama’s nomination to his powerful position. At the time of his interview, Kim was president of Dartmouth College, but he was better known for his career within global health organizations. An anthropologist and physician by training, he held a B.A. from Brown, and an M.D. and Ph.D from Harvard University. Still, he was an unconventional candidate for the World Bank’s top position.

According to Kim, Obama looked at him and said, “So, Jim, why would I nominate you to be president of the World Bank? Why wouldn’t I nominate a macroeconomist?”

“Well, president Obama,” Kim replied, as he recalls, “have you read your mother’s Ph.D dissertation?” Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was an activist and anthropologist who spent years living in Indonesia, researching village craft industries, particularly metalworking, but also pottery and batik. Her PhD thesis, based on several years of field studies, was published in 1992, three years before her death. Kim says he was “one of, like, 10 people who ordered her 1,000-page dissertation” from her school’s archive, and he read every word of it. Kim had been inspired to find the thesis after Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, which made the Chicagoan a political star overnight, four years before he’d run for president. Kim became, he says, “obsessed with this guy.” And when he read up on the state senator from Illinois, he discovered that Obama’s mother was an anthropologist.

Identifying XXX

The Washington Post reported on how DNA research may help identify enslaved people buried in a cemetery in Maryland, and thereby reconnect them to their descendants. In Catoctin Furnace, the cemetery of the enslaved workers of the iron furnace was rediscovered in 1979. The local historical society knows the years slaves tried to escape the industrial site from the reward and wanted advertisements published in the newspaper. But dating when one of them died or finding a reference in a diary or ledger of when they left the area has eluded the historical society. “It’s not unusual at all for them to be lost in time,” said Elizabeth A. Comer, an archaeologist and member of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.

The history of the European-American owners and workers at the furnace is well-preserved, but the stories and lives of the black enslaved workers have vanished.

Much of the historical society’s current work is to merge the narratives of the Europeans with those of the black enslaved people, but with no collective memory preserved in black generations alive today and very sparse written records, that is hard to do. One of the biggest challenges has been the lack of last names, Comer said.

“We do not have — as I said earlier — an African-American population that has come forward and said, ‘I’m part of this landscape. I’m part of this history,’” Comer said. But research just completed on the DNA of half of the exhumed slaves may be the key to finding that link.

His name is David Reich, and from his laboratory at Harvard University, he is providing researchers a universal link: DNA.

On Feb. 21, 2017, Reich traveled to Washington, D.C., and collected samples from the bones of 14 of the Catoctin Furnace slaves. Collecting DNA from old bones is not as easy as it would be from a person who died today. The human DNA has to be carefully separated from extraneous environmental DNA from molds and other non-human sources, Comer said.

Now, with a pool of ancient DNA results, the historical society is going to load the existing genetic profiles of each of the enslaved people to 23andMe — a website and genetic testing company that analyzes people’s 23 chromosomes, which store all of a person’s genetic information. There they will be able to see if the genetic code of one of the slaves matches a person living today — with the hope to connect someone to their ancestor.


The Guardian reported on

An activity book that invites children to discover Prince Edward Island archaeology has received national recognition. The Canadian Archaeological Association named the provincial government’s Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat the recipient of its 2018 Public Communications Award for producing the book Archaeology in Action. Aimed at young readers, it highlights three case studies in Prince Edward Island.


anthro in the news 5/14/18

Flood damage along the Choluteca River caused by Hurricane Mitch. Credit: NOAA/Flickr.

immigration policy in the U.S.

The New York Daily News carried an article about the Trump administration’s decision to end protections for 57,000 Honduran immigrants in the U.S. who fled from the devastating floods caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Hurricane Mitch, the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, caused over 11,000 deaths  in Central America with over 7,000 occurring in Honduras. Immigrant advocates contend that revoking the status will simply drive people underground who have been establishing roots in the United States for years, including having American-born children. The article quotes Miranda Hallett, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Dayton: “Generally speaking, people make decisions about migration based on human needs and social connections over legal statutes.” 

book review: Barracoon

TIME published a review of a long-awaited book written by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston early in her career. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is about a man who was the last survivor of the last-known ship to bring enslaved people from Africa to America: “In 1927, a man in Alabama…received a visitor. A young anthropologist, working on her first big assignment, wanted to hear what he remembered of freedom, of bondage and of what came before. The aspiring scholar’s name was Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston returned several times, aiming to write a book about the man called Kossola…but never found an interested publisher. Even as she became an esteemed writer, his story stuck with her. His yearning for home, undimmed by time, was wedged in her mind. Now, about 90 years later, the book she had wanted, a nonfiction account of her interaction with a man who lived a vanishing history, has finally been released…

big money

The Daily Mail (U.K.) reported on a form of traditional money on the Pacific island of Yap where giant limestone discs, some as heavy as a car, were used to carry out transactions across the island for centuries. The article quotes Scott Fitzpatrick, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon: “It’s not really clear when it happened, but oral traditions talk about a famous navigator who voyaged to Palau and found limestone there…The navigator told his men to carve it in the shape of a fish. Then he looked up at the full moon and the stone reminded him of the bright shiny color of the moon. So he ordered his men to carve the stone into a shape of a disc and perforated it so they could carry it with a timber through the middle. The oral traditions behind each piece were extremely important in estimate to its value. At one point in time, each stone money had its own pedigree.”

pre-Clovis site in Texas

An article in the American-Statesman (Austin, Texas) described how an important pre-Clovis archaeological site is being protected through a private donation from research archaeologist Michael Collins of Texas State University. Collins inherited oil and gas holdings from his father, an executive of Humble Oil and Refining Co., a predecessor of Exxon Mobil Corp. “They pay me a comfortable living so I can afford to feed my archaeological habit,” he said. Collins purchased the site and then donated it to an archaeology conservation organization. Tom Dillehay, Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Religion, and Culture at Vanderbilt University, noted that few academics have such wherewithal and fewer still would spend it this way: “Most people would take the money and run off, go casino hopping, live in the Caribbean…This is a man who is modest and honest. I’ve seen Mike get up to speak in professional meetings in overalls and a straw hat.” David Meltzer, Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory at Southern Methodist University, said Collins’ financial support of the Gault site is “astonishing and admirable, both. It’s an extraordinary site and Mike’s an extraordinary individual for what he has done on behalf of that site and on behalf of archaeology.” Michael Waters, Center for the Study of the First Americans Endowed Chair at Texas A&M University and anthropology professor, said artifacts unearthed at the Gault site provide evidence that people were in North America by 15,500 years ago. He said it is “terrific” of Collins to preserve the Gault site “for future generations of archaeologists to study.”

primate conservation in Africa

USA Today carried an article about the results of a decade-long study on primate conservation in Africa showing that populations of gorillas and chimpanzees are still endangered. Comments from the researchers address what to do about the major problems of illegal hunting, disease, and habitat loss. Study co-author Hjalmar Kühl of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology said “protecting our gorillas and chimpanzees will require a major increase in political will at all levels — national, regional and global.” Another study co-author Liz Williamson of the University of Stirling said that “a combination of responsible industrial practices, conservation policies, and a network of well-managed parks and corridors would provide wildlife managers with a winning formula for conserving great apes in Central Africa. Our study has revealed that it is not too late to secure a future for gorillas and chimpanzees.”

clues to human language evolution from chimpanzee communication

Jane Goodall communicating with a chimpanzee. Credit:

The Conversation published commentary by Michael Wilson, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He writes: “When Jane Goodall gives public talks, she often begins by giving a pant-hoot: a loud call that begins with an introduction, followed by a build-up, a climax and a let-down. Pant-hoots are loud and enable chimpanzees to communicate over long distances through the forest. Previous studies have found differences in the pant-hoots calls from different regions…Chimpanzees communicate effectively with their various sounds, but in ways quite similar to those of other nonhuman primates. This suggests that our common ancestor with chimpanzees also had a fairly typical repertoire of vocal communication for a nonhuman primate. The really big changes in human language – such as a lifelong ability to learn to make entirely new sounds and a rich symbolic meaning of such sounds – likely evolved later, for reasons that we still don’t understand.”


anthro in the news 5/7/18

The ring. Credit Charley Marley/Flickr

sexism and the sumo ring

The Japan Times reported on current debates in Japan about the origins of the rule against women in the sumo ring along with current attempts to abolish the taboo. Some say that the unwritten rule is relatively recent, added sometime after the late 17th century to the sport which dates back more than 1,300 years.  Masataka Suzuki, professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at Keio University, observed that during that many ceremonies and taboos were gradually created during that period to “dignify” the main professional sumo league. According to him, the taboo, however, applied only to the professional league. Women were allowed to play sumo matches held at shrines during local festivals. 

bullshit jobs: book extract

The Guardian published an extract of David Graeber‘s latest book, which will be available May 15, called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. “What is a bullshit job? The defining feature is this: one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince themselves there’s a good reason for them to be doing it. They may not be able to admit this to their co-workers – often, there are very good reasons not to do so – but they are convinced the job is pointless nonetheless. Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless; typically, there has to be some degree of pretence and fraud involved as well. The employee must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason their job exists, even if, privately, they find such claims ridiculous…These considerations allow us to formulate what I think can serve as a final working definition of a bullshit job: a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

experiencing a rehab facility

WBUR (Boston) published commentary by Rosalind H. Shaw, associate professor of anthropology at Tufts University, on her experiences in a rehab facility in Boston:  “Recently, I fell, fractured my pelvis, and was admitted to the hospital. You have to go to a rehabilitation facility, my case manager told me. She handed me a list of facilities with stars next to them, so I chose the five-starred one near our home. ‘What exactly is a rehabilitation facility?’ I wondered as an ambulance took me over bumpy city roads…I learned some crucial differences between hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. Rehab facilities are often added on to nursing homes, sharing their institutional character. I felt more like an inmate than a patient in environments that were more authoritarian, less medically competent and more depersonalizing than anything I’d experienced before.”

making tourism work for the poor

The News Lens (Taiwan and Hong Kong) published commentary that originally appeared in The Conversation by Manini Sheker, doctoral candidate in social anthropology at the University of Sussex. Considering the case of Varanasi, India, she writes: Inclusive ‘pro-poor’ tourism, which creates employment for vulnerable residents is a priority in the government of Uttar Pradesh’s 2016 tourism policy and India’s 12th five-year plan. Yet there is a lack of clarity around what “pro-poor” tourism should actually achieve…[Further] the local government has not thoroughly mapped how much money from tourism goes to the poor in Varanasi, or other areas. Nor has it identified the bottlenecks preventing the poor from earning a greater share, which vary from one destination to another. A ‘value chain analysis’ – which describes the full range of activities required to bring goods or services from conception to completion – could help the government decide whether to invest in skills development or marketing, strengthen local food supply chains or reform local laws.”

remembering the 1918 influenza 

The Missourian carried an article about how, one hundred years later, researchers continue to study the flu epidemic of 1918 and its impact in the U.S. and internationally. The article quotes Lisa Sattenspiel, professor and chair of anthropology at the University of Missouri, whose research focuses on the 1918 flu, specifically in Newfoundland and Labrador provinces in eastern Canada. It’s important, she said, for researchers to study how medics then responded to the flu to help develop new strategies to combat diseases, particularly with the growing modern problem of antibiotic resistance. 

stories matter

An article in BBC News described ongoing research by several social scientists including Daniel Smith, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College London, about the importance of certain types of stories in human evolution and contemporary life. Various studies have identified cooperation as a core theme in popular narratives across the world. Smith’s fieldwork among Agta hunter-gatherers of the Philippines revealed that nearly 80% of their stories concern moral decision making and social dilemmas. He argues that this pattern appears to translate to their real-life behavior. He found that groups which   invest the most in storytelling were the most cooperative during various experimental tasks. Findings are published in Nature Communications.

daggers made from human bones

A human bone dagger (top) from New Guinea and a cassowary bone dagger (bottom), attributed to the Abelam people of New Guinea: Credit: Copyright Hood Museum of Art/Dartmouth College; Dominy N. J. et al., Royal Society Open Science

CNN carried a piece about research that provides insight into the reverence with which people of the Sepik River area in northern New Guinea regarded daggers made from human bones. Warriors typically sourced human thigh bones from the skeletons of their fathers who had proven themselves in battle, or other men of status in the community, explained cultural anthropologist Paul Roscoe, one of –authors of the report:  “It was almost like a spiritual aura, like your father was watching over you, and you were carrying him into battle with you.” Biological anthropologist and lead author of the study, Nathaniel Dominy, first discovered a drawer full of bone daggers from New Guinea when “poking around in the underbelly” of the Hood Museum of Art in Dartmouth College, where he is a professor of anthropology. His interpretation is that the bone daggers confer status. The study appears in Royal Society Open Science.


anthro in the news 4/30/18

Shinonome-riken Canal Court housing, Tokyo. Source: Pinterest

what lurks behind the door

Oxy (California) reported on the role of beliefs about the dead in affecting rent prices in Japan. It is much cheaper to rent a place where the previous occupant died of unnatural causes like suicide or murder. In Japan such properties are known as jiko bukken, and the law actually recognizes them. Any property in which an occupant has died of unnatural causes means it has a defect that must be explained to the consumer. Stigmatizing property associated with a death is not, however, unique to Japan. Phillips Stevens Jr., associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo, says there are a couple of reasons why people generally shy away from such places. There’s the ghost factor. “In some cultures the mood of the ghost might depend on the way he died…A murdered person might be angry, wanting revenge; a suicide might be profoundly depressed and be dangerous for that reason.”

anthropology, the Nazis, and eugenics: book review

The Independent (Ireland) carried a review of a book about a 1930s Harvard-led research effort to determine a racial profile for the Celts by archaeologist Mairéad Carew: “In 1932, a group of scientists from the Ivy League college came to Ireland to investigate who the Celts were, where they had originated from and who were their descendants among modern Irish people…The overall manager of the Harvard mission was Earnest A Hooton, one of the leading physical anthropologists in America at the time. He was in charge of the bone laboratory at the Peabody Museum at Harvard which contained human skulls from all over the world. Hooton was a member of the American Eugenics Society, considered to be the key propaganda wing of the eugenics movement in America. Eugenics, the science of better breeding for human beings, was a variant of scientific racism. The American Eugenics Society supported Germany’s eugenic programme. However, Hooton claimed to be against Nazism but he still wanted to set up an American national breeding bureau in America. He was eventually disciplined by Harvard for his ‘inhuman’ teachings. The Harvard mission was part of a wider American eugenic project with investigators in Belgium, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany. Potential immigrants to the United States were ‘eugenically inspected.’ Harsh new immigration laws had been enacted in the 1920s, after vigorous lobbying by eugenicists, in an effort to keep ‘defectives’ out. Hooton believed the Irish to be a pure race and a major source of American racial inheritance. Ireland was also chosen because of the Irish language as Celtic was believed to be an ancient Aryan language once spoken all over Europe.”

careers of the future: anthropology among top ten skills 

An article in Axios described findings from a study undertaken at the University of Oxford in collaboration with Pearson to consider what projected careers will require once people start living and working for over 100 years. In researching the future of work, the asked this question: if a child were starting school today, what skills would he or she ideally learn in order to be ready for a possibly century-long career. According to the findings, the top 10 skills a child born today should learn in a normal basic education are: learning strategies, psychology, instructing, social perceptiveness, sociology and anthropology, education and training, coordination, originality, fluency of ideas, and active learning. [Blogger’s note: while I am delighted to see anthropology on the list, it seems a bit odd that three social science disciplines – psychology, sociology, and anthropology – are listed as “skills” like “coordination”(?) while the skill “social perception” seems to be part of them. But I haven’t seen the full study and so am just reacting to the list provided on Axios].

take that anthro degree and…

….become a heritage culture practitioner and activist. Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a Hawaiian hula and cultural practitioner, is executive director of the nonprofit organization Lalakea Foundation and project director of Ka ʻAha Hula ʻO Halauaola 2018. Wong-Wilson has a B.A. in anthropology specializing in Hawaiian cultural anthropology from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, an M.A. in Pacific Islands studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a Ph.D. in Maori and indigenous studies from the University of Waikato.

…become a professional photographer. Alyse Tomlinson is a photographer who combines commissioned work for editorial, design and advertising clients with personal work, which she publishes and exhibits. Tomlinson became fascinated with the concept of pilgrimage after seeing a documentary on Lourdes, which she first visited on a package tour for pilgrims. She was named Sony/WPO Photographer of the Year 2018 for Ex Voto, a deeply personal series of black and white photographs taken at pilgrimage sites including Lourdes in France, Ballyvourney in Ireland, and Grabarka in Poland. Tomlinson has a B.A in English literature and communications from the University of Leeds, studied photography at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and has an M.A. in the anthropology of travel, tourism and pilgrimage from SOAS, University of London.

protecting underwater cultural heritage

CTV News (Canada) reported on UNESCO efforts to protect a sunken ship found off the coast of Colombia three years ago. The 300-year-old wreck of the Spanish galleon San Jose is believed to contain a cargo worth billions of dollars. A UNESCO experts’ body protecting underwater cultural heritage sent a letter to Colombian Culture Minister Mariana Garces Cordoba expressing concern that recovering the treasure for sale rather than for its historical value “would cause the irretrievable loss of significant heritage.”

sloth-hunters’ footprints in the sand

The Washington Post reported on research and preservation challenges related to human footprints left at the site of White Sands in Utah, where humans hunted giant sloths. “Thousands and thousands of trackways” crisscross the area, said Vincent Santucci, a senior paleontologist with the National Park Service and an author of the new report. The official term for such concentrated pathways is a megatrack. The megatrack in White Sands “is the largest one that we know of in North America.” The tracks at the White Sands flats are remote, and, bordered by the military testing range to the north, mostly protected from human disturbance. The ancient walkers made prints in deposits of lake sediment, which were covered over time by a half-inch layer of sand. The tracks, if exposed to moisture, will crumble shortly after excavation. “The preservation of the footprints is not the best,” said Andrew R.C. Milner, a paleontologist at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site museum in Utah. Milner was not a part of this research team but had observed some of the animal tracks at White Sands. “We can definitely see large animals,” he said. Study author Matthew Bennett, a paleontologist at Bournemouth University in Britain, said that the bipedal prints were unmistakably human. Findings are reported in the journal Science Advances.

child sacrifice in Peru

Several media including The Guardian reported that archaeologists have discovered the remains of more than 140 children in Peru, children who they believe were sacrificed because of heavy rains and flooding. The burial site, known as Las Llamas, contains the skeletons of 140 children who were aged between five and 14 when they were ritually sacrificed during a ceremony about 550 years ago. The site, located near the city of Trujillo, also contained the remains of 200 young llamas apparently sacrificed on the same day. The burial site was apparently built by the Chimú empire. “They were possibly offering the gods the most important thing they had as a society, and the most important thing is children because they represent the future,” said Gabriel Prieto, an archaeology professor at Peru’s National University of Trujillo, who has led the excavation along with John Verano, professor of anthropology at Tulane University. Jeffrey Quilter, the director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, described it as a “remarkable discovery.” Quilter said the site provides “concrete evidence” that large-scale sacrifices of children occurred in ancient Peru: “Reports of very large sacrifices are known from other parts of the world, but it is difficult to know if the numbers are exaggerated or not.” Quilter is heading a team of scientists who will analyze DNA samples from the children’s remains to see if they were related and figure out which areas of the Chimú empire the sacrificed youth came from. Findings are published by National Geographic which helped finance the investigation.

massacre in 5th century Sweden

An article in The Guardian described findings from excavations of a mid-5th century site, Sandby Borg, in Sweden. Once a prosperous village built within the walls of a ring fort, it was the subject of a brutal attach after which no one returned to bury the dead, loot possessions or take livestock. Ludwig Papmehl-Dufay, an archaeologist from the team at the local museum, which began excavations after warnings that the site was being targeted by treasure hunters, said that while no written or oral history of the massacre survived, there were persistent stories that it was regarded locally as a dangerous place. “I do find it most likely that the event was remembered and that it triggered strong taboos connected to the site, possibly brought on through oral history for centuries.”  Findings are published in the journal Antiquity.

brains size: bigger not always better

An article in TRT World (Istanbul) described findings of an interdisciplinary team including experts in physical anthropology, mechanical engineering, and neuroscience, that while Neanderthals had larger brains than their early Homo sapiens cousins, their brains had a smaller cerebellum, the lower part near the spine that controls balance and movement. It is also involved in speech and learning. The distinction may have caused social and cognitive differences between the near relatives, and may explain why one went extinct while the other thrived, said Naomichi Ogihara of the Keio University in Japan, who co-authored a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. “Although the difference could be subtle, such a subtle difference may become significant in terms of natural selection.”

heat and early human evolution

Chimpanzees of Senegal. Credit: Jill Pruetz

The New York Times reported on research among chimpanzees in Senegal, led by Jill Pruetz, professor of anthropology at Texas State University, involving comparisons of chimpanzee behavior in forest and savanna environments. Forests are cooler than the savanna, and in forests, chimpanzees thrive on a diet of moisture-laden fruit which is rare on the savanna.  Peter Wheeler, of Liverpool John Moores University, has suggested that an upright posture would have helped hominins stay cool in a hot, arid environment. Pruetz suspects Wheeler may be right, and she hopes to study the Fongoli chimpanzees more to test his idea. The chimpanzees may shift their posture — as far as they can with an ape anatomy — in order to cope with the high temperatures. It is now possible to get close enough to measure the heat flowing from the chimpanzees with a thermal imaging camera. The research was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.


anthro in the news 4/23/18

Bison Truck! Central San Pedro, Los Angeles, California, 2016. Credit: Joey Zanotti/Flickr

the damage humans do

Several media, including  NBC News, reported on a study of the correlation between humans and the decline of large mammal populations, expanding previous analyses from North America all the way back to the earliest humans in Africa. Over the past 125,000 years, the average size of mammals has shrunk, due to humans, not climate change, according to research on the fossil record by paleo-biologist Felisa Smith of the University of New Mexico and her team. They found that, consistently, large mammals were abundant as people arrived and spread: “For example, a striking feature of the Pleistocene was the abundance and diversity of extremely large mammals such as the mammoth, giant ground sloth, woolly rhinoceros, and saber tooth tiger on all habitable continents.” When humans arrived, the rate of extinction for big mammals rose, and the process is still going on:  “Wild mammals are in decline globally because of a lethal combination of human-mediated threats, including hunting, introduced predators and habitat modification.” The study is published in the journal Science.

who cares about the environment

An article in The Christian Science Monitor pointed to the hypocrisy of environmentalism: Concern for the environment often rises alongside people’s material wealth, yet consumption of the wealthy in turn drives environmental destruction. Thus higher income people may support environmental causes but at the same time their lifestyle works against those causes. Studies show that low-income people are also aware of environmental problems and care about the environment, but they may be less financially able to act on their concerns. Just because there’s a kind of general prevailing idea of what sustainability and preserving the environment are, does not mean that people of color, poor people are not really concerned about the environment or involved in it,” says Melissa Checker, Hagedorn Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College and a faculty member in the Ph.D. program in anthropology at the City University of New York. “There are just different ways to think about nature and caring about it. All equally valid.”

university ethics and the environment

The St. Louis Dispatch (Missouri) reported on how activist students and faculty are questioning the ethics of Washington University’s fossil fuel connections, especially endowments and investments, and putting pressure on administrators to sever those ties. According to the article, the university’s many fossil fuel connections have sparked criticism across swaths of students and faculty members supporting divestment. While many at Washington University say climate change provides a moral argument to divert money away from those industries, some tout other, additional reasons for their support of the movement:  “The corruption of research ethics is what I harp on,” said Bret Gustafson, associate professor of anthropology. He, along with others on campus, suggest that fossil fuel influences compromise the school’s official research integrity policy.

environmental injustice

The Outline (New York) carried an article about the mismanagement of human waste in the United States and practices of transferring waste from more powerful areas, like New York City, to areas that are willing to take it, for a price. The specific case discussed is a train carrying 5,000 tons (or nearly 19 days’ worth) of processed excrement from New York and New Jersey that sat for two months at a railyard in a town in Alabama, waiting for a landfill site to accept it. The article quotes Kelly Alley, Alma Holladay Professor of Anthropology at Auburn University:  “That was the result of a deal that was done between the city’s managers and Chemical Waste Management, Inc. The residents didn’t find out about it until they saw the trucks coming into town.” Alley, who has done long term research on wastewater management in India, comments that the question of what to do with the stuff we flush down the toilet is a universally vexing one. “You flush your toilet, it goes away somewhere, it’s nasty, and people don’t want to think about where it goes…In big urban centers, there’s nowhere to put this stuff. They’re going to be shipping it out.” She added, “[New York] sends it to several states — it’s not just Alabama.”

seeking beauty in China

South Korean actress Rujia Baike. Credit:

The South China Morning Post reported on the role of social media site in shaping views about cosmetic surgery. Focusing on one site, it says that over 53 per cent of SoYoung’s users were born in and after the 1990s, while the oldest members turn 28 this year. To them, cosmetic surgery is just another luxury item that they are willing to spend on. Along with increasing affluence, social media enables the sharing of “beautified” photos, and the popularity of celebrities who have plastic surgery is also influencing the views of what is acceptable, according to Jianhua Zhao, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Louisville:

“Many people, especially the younger generation, are unapologetic about their ostensible favouritism toward beauty….It has almost become accepted that beautiful people are naturally entitled to an easy life, and those who don’t take advantage of their own beauty, but resort to their talents, are incomprehensible.” For young Chinese women, South Korean actresses offer an aspirational beauty image.

remembering the Waco siege

Lex18 News (Lexington, Kentucky) interviewed Emily Craig, forensic anthropologist and Kentucky State Medical Examiner until her retirement in 2010, about her role in the siege at Waco, Texas. Craig was there on April 19, 1993, the day the siege ended. New in her role at the time, she was brought in to help identify the remains of the men, women, and children killed at the Branch Davidian compound. Craig said that it was her first mass fatality and to date, one of her toughest: “The children were lead like lambs to slaughter, they had no idea what was coming, the adults were there by their own free will.” [with audio]

forensic anthropologist a featured speaker

The Stuttgart Daily Leader (Arkansas) reported on the latest event in a local speaker series in which Thomas Holland, author and Scientific Director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Central Identification Laboratory, gave a presentation on forensic anthropology and how it works to identify missing-in-action service men and women and other cases. In his position at the Central Identification Laboratory, the largest skeletal identification lab in the world, Holland has led forensic recoveries around the world, from Vietnam to Korea to Europe. He and his team continue to find America’s MIAs.

take that anthro degree and…

…work in business management. Guita Ranjbaran is director of operations and recruitment at Simpla, Inc., an IT consulting firm located in the greater New York City and Los Angeles areas. She plays multiple roles including operations, business development, recruiting, and public relations.  Using her understanding of diverse cultural settings, she works to build trusting relationship with clients, IT hiring managers, business teams, consultants, and third-party vendors. Ranjbaran has a B.A. in anthropology from the City College of New York and an M.A. in anthropology from the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

anthro in the news 4/16/18

encounters in anthropology

A triple book review in the New York Times looks at Katherine Verdery’s latest book, My Life as a Spy, and reflects on it in terms of two other new works: Matthew Engelke’s How to Think Like an Anthropologist, and Stuart Kirsch’s Engaged Anthropology. The driving question is about the relationships between sociocultural anthropologists and the people with whom they study. In the end, the reviewer notes the “benefit of the approach” of sociocultural anthropologists who get close to people in their research, with all the pros and cons for the researcher and the researched along the way.

talking hair

The Atlanta Journal Constitution carried an article about the cropped hair style of Emma González, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaker at the March for Our Lives, and a founder of #NeverAgain. The article points to her hair style as political and quotes anthropologist Grant McCracken who wrote in his book Big Hair, that hair is a “court of deliberation, the place where we contemplate who and what we are.” So, people may attribute many meanings to Emma González’ cropped hair. But here is what she said a few weeks before the shooting on her school’s Instagram account: “I decided to cut my hair because it was a pain in the neck, if you’ll forgive the pun. It was really hot all the time; it was very cumbersome and very heavy, leading to a lot of headaches. It was expensive to keep it up, and as prom time came around, I figured it would be cheaper to not have to worry about doing my hair.”

don’t want to go there

Hong Kong Free Press reported on the challenges faced by the many seniors in China who, according to longstanding traditions, want to age at home in the care of, ideally, a devoted son and his wife, and not in some institution for the aged. The article mentions preliminary findings of a joint study with the polling organization Gallup as reported by Jing Jung, professor of anthropology at Tsinghua University in Beijing: Only one percent of rural seniors said they were willing to live in nursing homes, compared with 10 percent in urban areas. Even if they were disabled, only 30 percent said they would accept to live in nursing homes. Aside from tackling the practical issues of quality regulation, cultural perception of the demands of filial piety also limits nursing homes’ appeal to Chinese people.

Nacirema in the news

Many, but not all, readers will know who the Nacirema are – if so, here’s an update for you. If not, welcome to their world. The Guardian carried a piece about a new book by social critic Barbara Ehrenreich in which, among other topics, she writes about the requirement in Western societies for regular health checks:  “There’s an argument that health checks have value as rituals, that beeping machines in sterile rooms provide the kind of reassurance to modern western consumers that shamanistic drumming and animal horns do in more “primitive” cultures. Ehrenreich quotes from a 1950s spoof anthropology paper, Body Rituals Among the Nacirema (“American” spelled backwards), in which supplicants lie on hard beds within temples, while magic wands are inserted in their mouths and needles jabbed in their flesh. Modern medicine invokes science in its defence. But whereas science is ‘evidence-based’, medicine tends to be ‘eminence-based’, with patients in thrall to the doctor’s superior prestige. It’s no coincidence, Ehrenreich thinks, that most American medical schools still insist on the dissection of cadavers. That’s how living patients are expected to be – as passive and silent as corpses.

marine archaeology

An article in the San Diego Tribune highlighted the work of several San Diego’s scientists who are traveling “the globe to unearth new discoveries, [to] solve deepest mysteries.” One of the scientists profiled is Tom Levy, Distinguished Professor and Norma Kershaw Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands at the University of California, San Diego. He is a member of the Department of Anthropology and Judaic Studies Program and leads the Cyber-archaeology research group at the Qualcomm Institute, California Center of Telecommunications and Information Technology. He will travel to Israel with a team from the university’s new Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology to conduct a marine archaeology field school. He will also lead an expedition exploring the question of how climate and environmental change affected the collapse of civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean region around 1200 B.C.E.

anthro in the news 4/9/18

Plate scraping. Credit: jbloom/Flickr

reducing food waste

Tri-States Public Radio (U.S.) reported on how the Food Recovery Network aims to reduce food wasted in college cafeterias. Food Recovery Network unites students on college campuses to fight food waste and hunger by recovering perishable food that would otherwise go to waste from their campuses and communities and donating it to people in need. The group delivers cooked but unserved food from the kitchen to local nonprofits, amounting to more than 13,000 pounds of food last year. Food waste is, however, not just a problem in college cafeterias. The article quotes Heather McIlvaine-Newsad, professor of anthropology at Western Illinois University, who said food waste is a global issue. It also contributes to global warming because discarded food from kitchens or grocery stores produces methane when it reaches landfills, and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. McIlvaine-Newsad noted that, at the household level, people can decrease the amount of food they waste: “If you go to a little more effort of planning your meals before going to the grocery store and buying exactly what you need, chances are you’re going to have less left on your plate after you finish.” [Blogger’s note: And let’s not forget composting]

culture and Irish literature

The Irish Times carried an article about a new book by Helena Wulff, professor of social anthropology at Stockholm University, about the culture of Irish literature and the Irish literary scene. The reviewer writes: “The patronising hauteur once maintained by anthropologists has long since been dislodged. In Wulff’s work, it is replaced by partisan but at times flinty commentary. In carrying out her fieldwork, she made friends, moreover, with many of the authors she dissects. Dinner party discussions as well as formal interviews form the basis of her analysis. As she admits, there is a fundamental kinship between authors and anthropologists; examining Irish writers involves ‘studying sideways’, making sense of one’s peers. But this closeness does not prevent her from grappling with besetting but seemingly jaded debates. Foremost among these is the question as to whether the term Irish writer carries any validity.”

dumpling complexity

Steamed dumplings (shu mai). Credit: America’s Test Kitchen

An article from SuPChina about the complexity of Chinese dumplings quotes Gene Anderson, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California Riverside and author of The Food of China: “There is a vast number of Chinese dumplings — at least three dozen canonical ones…I’ve lost count!”

hamburgers: masculine and violent

For National Public Radio (Illinois) Barbara J. King, professor emerita of anthropology at The College of William and Mary, reviewed a new, short book on burgers, including meat burgers and meatless burgers. She writes: “Consider this list of names for hamburgers that are now, or have been, on the market: Thickburger, Whopper, Big Mac, Big Boy, Chubby Boy, Beefy Boy, Super Boy. Notice a pattern there? Writer Carol J. Adams does. This list comes from her book Burger…As the hamburger business gradually grew over time, Adams explains, so did the size of the hamburger — and the gender associations…Adams approaches her topic as an animal rights advocate as well as a feminist. She reminds us what the  ‘everyday object’ of a hamburger really is: ‘The burger — minced, macerated, ground — is the renamed, reshaped food product furthest away from the animal.’ In this way, taking into account the lives of cows, as well as women, Adams convincingly explores the ‘violence at the heart of the hamburger.’

take that anthro degree and…

…become a researcher and social activist. Emile Schepers is a longtime civil and immigrant rights activist, now writing from northern Virginia. He has worked in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966 and is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, and other issues. Schepers has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University.

…become an herbalist and writer. Lisa M. Rose is an herbalist, forager, and author. An expert at using natural resources to make food and herbal remedies, she has been exploring the outdoors since she was a young girl living in Michigan. But it was not until college that Rose realized her passion for foraging: “It was during university that I studied anthropology and the rise of agriculture in the Neolithic age, which solidified my love of food systems and ethnobotany. It’s been a passion of my life ever since, a calling even…Eating foods from the wild binds me to where I live: the lakes, rivers, animals, smells, sights, and sounds. Ingesting bits of the land make the place literally a part of you…I think foraging wild foods is a skill that should be accessible to everyone, not an exclusive trend that is just featured in high-end markets. So, without getting into food justice issues, I like to make sure everyday people know how foraging and preservation can be tools to extend their family’s food budget and be healthful, too.” Rose has a B.A. in anthropology and an M.A. in public administration from Grand Valley State University.

long-awaited repatriation

USA Today reported on the return to Mexico of two Mesoamerican busts that had been missing since the 1980s. German authorities found the wooden pieces in 2008, when they seized them from an artifacts dealer. In a ceremony in Munich, German authorities returned them. The busts are from the Olmec civilization and are dated to around 1,200 B.C.E. Stolen from their excavation site, they eventually ended up in the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection. Maria Villarreal of Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology said that the return of the ancient pieces was important for her country: “The recovery is very significant, since Olmec culture represents one of the first civilizations in ancient Mexico and only 13 pieces exist with the same characteristics.” Mexican archaeologists believe that the Olmec people had wrapped all 15 pieces in a fiber-like material before burying them at El Manati. The find consisted of the two recovered busts, axes, knives made of stone, and wooden containers. The archaeologists believe that the theft of the two busts could have occurred shortly before the excavation that uncovered the remaining 13 pieces. The busts will eventually be exhibited at the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology.

modern humans out of Africa: follow the inner ear

United Press International reported on how the human inner ear changed as early modern humans migrated out of Africa. The article quotes Marcia Ponce de León, an anthropologist at the University of Zurich: “This typically human variation pattern is also known from comparative genetic data…It shows that all humans are very closely related and have their roots in Africa.” Researchers also found that the further away a population was from South Africa, the more likely the population’s bony labyrinth differs from a South African bony labyrinth. The pattern mirrors the relationship discovered between genetic and geographical differences identified by previous genomic surveys. Despite the important role the bony labyrinth plays in assisting balance and hearing, human evolution has allowed for a surprisingly large amount of variety inside the ear. “This is probably due to random changes in the genetic material,” said Christoph Zollikofer, professor of anthropology at the University of Zurich. “Such changes may have few or no functional consequences, but the associated structural changes provide a record of human dispersal and evolution history.” The study is published in the journal PNAS.