Anthro in the news 12/12/11

David Graeber

• And deliver us from leaders
CounterPunch carried a piece about OWS and commentary about one of its important non-leaders, cultural anthropologist David Graeber: “Mainstream liberals and the Institutional Left frequently criticize the Occupy movement for its lack of public spokespersons and its lack of clear demands. But according to David Graeber, it came very close to having those things — and to being just another protest that fizzled out after a few days.” Graeber, an anarchist University of London anthropology professor, attended a preliminary meeting in early August to prepare for the next month’s Occupation. As he recounts, it was shaping up as a typical top-down movement controlled by the usual suspects of the Institutional Left. So he returned to London.

• Our debt, our selves
The New York Times book review section included a one-page review of David Graeber’s new book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. According to the reviewer, the book “…reads like a lengthy field report on the state of our economic and moral disrepair. In the best tradition of anthropology, Graeber treats debt ceilings, subprime mortgages and credit default swaps as if they were the exotic practices of some self-destructive tribe. Written in a brash, engaging style, the book is also a philosophical inquiry into the nature of debt — where it came from and how it evolved. Graeber’s claim is that the past 400 years of Western history represent a grievous departure from how human societies have traditionally thought about our obligations to one another. What makes the work more than a screed is its intricate examination of societies from ancient Mesopotamia to 1990s Madagascar, and thinkers ranging from Rabelais to Nietzsche — and to George W. Bush’s brother Neil.” [Blogger’s note: Debt is a big book, about a big subject, and worth the time. I have made it only to page 120 so far, where Graeber asks, “What, then is debt?” I took a sneak peak to the end, on page 391, where he writes: “What is a debt anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, is the ability to make real promises.”]

• U.S. Christmas traditions
Benjamin K. Swartz, retired Ball State University anthropology professor, has long been interested in Christmas traditions in the United States. He presents his findings in “The Origin of American Christmas Myth and Custom.” He writes that “fundamentally, Christmas celebration is based on intertwining of two ethnic patterns, Roman transition rites and Germano-Celtic Yule (jiuleis) rites-feasting and mortuary practice.” He notes that the “first known use of the word Christes-Maess was in England, 1038,” and traces the holiday from when “Puritans passed an anti-Christmas law in 1659” to 1885, when “a law was enacted giving federal employees Christmas day off.”

• Dumpster anthropology
Gillian Tett wrote a piece in the Financial Times about the ongoing doctoral research of cultural anthropology student, David Giles, of the University of Washington. Giles is studying food waste by diving into dumpsters in Seattle and assessing their contents.

• Lap dancing as art?
The Bloomberg Times covered Judith Hanna’s research on lap-dancing and the controversy about whether or not it is an art form. Hanna, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Maryland, has spent almost 50 years studying the cultural expression of dance. Since 1995, Hanna, has helped clubs repel efforts to tax, regulate or close them, arguing more than 100 times that striptease is just as much an art as ballet. Next year, her lap-dances-are-art argument will be part of an appeal before New York’s highest court. A stripper in heels is like a ballerina en pointe, she says, and her communication of feeling is no different than that of the New York City Ballet— and no less protected by the First Amendment. “Patrons of gentleman’s clubs aren’t just there to look at nude bodies…They want to read into it. It’s not just the eroticism, it’s the beauty of the body, and the fantasy they create.” Hanna says she has observed at least 1,500 performances in her defense of the $12 billion U.S. exotic-dance industry, which comprises about 4,000 clubs. When a city or state passes a law to kick the clubs out of town, owners turn to Hanna. She sends clients an average bill of about $3,000, and estimates that she has 45 wins to 21 losses.

• Take that anthro degree and…
become an artist. San Francisco Public Defender Chief Attorney and collage artist Matt Gonzalez recently interviewed fellow artist Joanna Ubach. Ubach was born in Portugal and attended Colegio do Bom Successo in Lisbon where she studied anthropology and fine art and where she first began painting with oils. In 2007, she earned a B.A. in anthropology and fine art from the University of Arizona. She lives in San Francisco and is undertaking a masters degree in fine art at the Academy of Art. Examples of her work can be found at her website.

become an actress. Thandie Newton is known as one of Hollywood’s most intelligent actresses after studying social anthropology at Cambridge University in England. The Crash star has revealed that she first discovered reading because it allowed her to escape her tricky teenage years.

become an activist/entrepreneur. Hecky Villanueva was working for a doctorate degree in anthropology at the University of Arizona when he heard about the bamboo bike business in the United States. He surfed and searched the internet about bamboo bikes, since he wanted to start a similar business in the Philippines. He was finally able to contact a bamboo bike builder in California named Craig Calfee. In 2009, Craig visited the Philippines upon Hecky’s request and conducted a bamboo bike building workshop. This was how KawayanTech started. The company makes bikes for children and adults as well as mountain bikes for more adventurous types.

• What lies beneath the dunes
New research is being carried out on artifacts recovered from a site in the Western Isles, Scotland, where evidence exists spanning the Neolithic to the 20th century. Archaeologist Ian Crawford excavated Udal between 1963 and 1995. Money from a grant will also be used to investigate the potential for an archaeological resource center on North Uist.

• Cooked food said to have more energy than raw food
Discover magazine provides commentary from Richard Wrangham, chair of biological anthropology at Harvard University and author of the popular book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. He describes his position that cooked food provides more energy than raw food and the role of cooked food in human evolution. “When I was studying the feeding behavior of wild chimpanzees in the early 1970s, I tried surviving on chimpanzee foods for a day at a time. I learned that nothing that chimpanzees ate (at Gombe, in Tanzania, at least) was so poisonous that it would make you ill, but nothing was so palatable that one could easily fill one’s stomach. Having eaten nothing but chimpanzee foods all day, I fell upon regular cooked food in the evenings with relief and delight.”

• Jane Goodall at 77: so much to do
The Washington Post carried an interview with world renowned primatologist and conservationist. Having studied chimpanzees in the field for most of her life, she is now turning her attention to humans, especially youths through her Roots and Shoots program.

• Newest ancient “earth mother”
French archaeologists have discovered a Neolithic “earth mother” figurine on the banks of the Somme River. It is 6,000 years old and 8 inches tall.

• Witches’ cottage unearthed
While working on a reservoir in Lancashire, England, engineers discovered a 17th century witches’ cottage with a mummified cat in one wall. The Pendle Hills region of Lancashire is apparently “one of Britain’s most notorious witching hotspots.”

• Earliest plant “bedding”
Science Daily covered findings about the earliest evidence for the intentional construction of plant “bedding.” An international team of archaeologists, with the participation of Christopher Miller, of the University of Tübingen, reports on 77,000-year-old evidence for preserved plant bedding and the use of insect-repelling plants in a rock shelter in South Africa. This discovery is 50,000 years older than previous reports of preserved bedding. The team is led by Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Findings are presented in the journal Science, available online.

• Oldest mattress also found in South African rock shelter
An international team of archaeologists has found the oldest prehistoric bedding used by humans, dating to 77,000 years ago. It was made of layers of compacted stems and leaves with insect-repellant properties. Professor Lyn Wadley led the study and comments in the journal Science about how this was a kind of herbal medicine to protect against pests.

• It works: data supports great ape conservation
Science Daily carried an article on a recent study shows that, over the last two decades, areas with the greatest decrease in African great ape populations are those with no active protection from poaching by forest guards. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have carried out an international collaborative project together with field researchers and park managers. The project aim was to evaluate how the lack of conservation effort influences the extinction risk of African great apes. The researchers found that the long-term presence of local and international non-governmental organization support and of law enforcement guards are the most crucial factors affecting ape survival, and that they have a clear measurable impact. Conversely, national development, often cited as a driver of conservation success, and high human population density had a negative impact on the likelihood of ape survival.

• Kudos

Doctoral students from the National University of Singapore and students from the National University of Vietnam-Hanoi.

Congratulations to the Department of Anthropology, National University of Vietnam-Hanoi, recipient of the 2011 Institutional Development Grant from the Wenner-gren Foundation. The grant will enable the development of a doctoral program in anthropology.


Ken Mulvaney, a Western Australia archaeologist, has won the Bruce Veitch Award for Indigenous Engagement for his working fighting for the protection of rock art on the Burrup Peninsula. Mulvaney is a cultural heritage specialist working with Rio Tinto.

Student prize winner: covered in the Washington Examiner is Tim Quinn’s first place in the advanced division at the Jiangsu Cup Chinese Speech Contest held on the George Washington University campus. Quinn is a senior at GW, majoring in anthropology and international affairs.

• In memoriam
Alex Morrison, a key figure in the development of archaeology at the University of Glasgow, died at the age of 79 years. His work established the value of rural settlement studies in Scottish archaeology, particularly the study of Highland crofting culture. His book, Early Man in Britain and Ireland, became a standard textbook. According to his obituary in the Guardian, “Alex revelled in good company and an amusing story.”

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