Anthro in the news 8/16/10

• Put out the fire
Experts are debating how to stop the fires in Russia which are now spreading under the surface and how to deal with the smoke and fumes. Lisa Curran, professor of environment and anthropology at Stanford University, studies peat fires. The Wall Street Journal quotes her on their health effects: “There are a lot of really nasty things that are given off when peat is burned–carbon monoxide, sulfates, nitrous oxide…They cause respiratory problems and burning eyes when smoke is in the air.”

• Many meanings of the Muslim headscarf
An article in the New York Times about multiple and shifting meanings of Muslim women’s headscarves quoted Hanan Sabea, an anthropology professor at the American University of Cairo. She explained that in Egypt, no clear consensus exists about the headscarf’s meaning in a time when the majority of women have adopted the practice–whether it’s about religiosity or simple conformity to public rules: “it’s an incredible moment..still very mushy and uncertain.” A small percentage of young Egyptian women are now starting to wear the niqab.

• Salvage anthropology in the Arctic
Linguistic anthropologist Stephen Pax Leonard of Cambridge University will spend a year living with the Inughuit people of north-west Greenland to document their unwritten language. He told the Guardian that “Climate change means they have around 10 or 15 years left” to live where they are. Once they move, their entire culture and language will be lost. The Inughuit are the world’s most northern people.

• Ancient meat eaters
The hottest news item of the week, by far, was the pushing back by 800,000 years of the date of earliest tool-using, animal butchering and likely meat-eating to 3.4 million years ago, the era of Lucy and our small-brained early human ancestors. The evidence is cut-marks on an animal bone from Dikika, Ethiopia. Leader of the research, Ethiopian paleoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged who is with the California Academy of Sciences, is quoted in the New York Times as saying: “Our future work will be to find those stone tools that have shifted the framework for such an important transition in the behavior of our ancestors.” The findings are published in Nature.

• Ancient people eaters
Not just as an occasional snack, feast item or famine food, Homo antecessor inhabitants of the Atapuerca cave complex in Spain practiced “continuous cannibalism” as indicated by thousands of bones with cut marks. USA Today covered the story, and the findings are published in Current Anthropology.

• Olde home in Britain
A team of archaeologists from the Universities of Manchester and York announced the discovery of the remains (postholes and a depression) of the oldest house site in Britain. Located at Star Carr in North Yorkshire, it had a lake view.

• Even older Neanderthal bedroom
A cave in Cantabria, Spain, offers insights into Neanderthal lifeways between 53,000 and 39,000 years ago. Their beds were made of grass and may have served as sitting areas during the day. Findings are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

• Get a job
MSNBC carried an article describing various “jobs” available in prehistory, drawing on findings of several archaeologists from several sites and eras. They include ornament maker, weaver/fashion designer, brewing alcoholic beverages, and manufacturing what may be very early sex toys.

• Early trade links between east Africa and China
Archaeological discoveries in coastal Kenya show that trade with China existed in the 10th century.

• Orangutans not loners by choice
Documentary sources from the 19th century indicate that orangutan populations were much larger 150 years ago than they are today, raising the likelihood that the current solitary lifestyle of orangutans may be caused by anthropogenic destruction of their habitat and other human practices resulting in significant population decline.

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