Anthro in the news 3/19/12

• Explaining human language heats up
A big debate exists among scholars who study human language. The extreme poles can be summarized as the Noam Chomsky position of innatism and a “language organ” and the basic similarity of all languages. On the other side is the constructivist, relativist position championed by Daniel Everett, a linguist and anthropologist at Bentley University in Massachusetts. Everett has published a new book called Language: The Cultural Tool. In it he argues that language is not the product of a “language organ” but an extension of general intelligence and contextually responsive. Everett began his career as a Christian missionary but abandoned his faith because of his extended conversations with the Pirahã Indians of Brazil. In his new book, he argues that speakers craft their languages to meet their needs. The Pirahã have no numbers beyond two because they have no money, engage in little barter trade, do not store food for the future and do not think about the distant past.

According to coverage in the Guardian, the language of the Pirahã is a unique cultural tool – like their knowledge of plant toxins, and their ability to fish with a bow and arrow – adapted for their particular circumstances. [Blogger’s note: stay tuned for more media coverage of Everett’s work: according to an email from Dan to me on Saturday, a film from the Smithsonian Channel will come out in May called Grammar of Happiness [this film has just won the Young Europeans Jury Award at the FIPA film festival in Biarritz]; this upcoming week the New York Times will have a feature article on him, his book, and the controversy surrounding his work; and the next week the Chronicle for Higher Education will carry a feature article].

• Homophobic language and gay men’s mental health in Ireland
The Irish Times reported on a four-year study of gay young men in Cork, Ireland, by Swedish anthropologist Felicia Garcia. She focused on suicidal men and learned that homophobic language inhibits gay men from talking about their feelings compared to young men she had interviewed in Venezuela. In the Cork city area, young men have suicide rates four times higher than young women. The article notes that, according to Garcia: “Young Irish men internalise the belief that they are untrained to cope with stressful situations and they also suffer from the perception that women are the mentally stronger sex.” [Blogger’s note: this piece is directly related to the findings of Nancy Scheper-Hughes in her first book, Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics.]

• Illegal organ trade
Several media outlets including ABC picked up on a recent publication by Monir Moniruzzaman, assistant professor of anthropology at Michigan State University, who studied trafficking in human kidneys and the experiences of those who were victims of organ trafficking. He interviewed 33 kidney sellers in Bangladesh and found they typically did not get the money they were promised. They are also plagued with serious health problems that prevent them from working as well as shame and depression. The study appears in the Medical Anthropology Quarterly. “This is a serious form of exploitation of impoverished people, whose bodily organs become market commodities to prolong the lives of the wealthy few,” said Moniruzzaman who delivered his research findings and recommendations on human organ trafficking to both the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

• Mothers are key
The Huffington Post praised an article in this week’s Times Higher Education supplement by anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson on the critical importance of mothers in the long-term wellbeing of children: “Johnson’s article is a powerful read. He suggests that effective motherhood, where emotional bonds are made early and encouraged by society is likely to lead to happier and better functioning humans. His point is clear. Mummy is the key.” [Blogger’s note: March 18 was Mother’s Day in the U.K. Happy Mother’s Day to all!]• Remember Chagos
Al Jazeera published an article called, Chagos: The Heart of an American Empire? It provides background on how the “shameful history” of the forced expulsion of the island’s population hangs heavily over the U.K. and the U.S. It then discusses cultural anthropologist David Vine’s book, “For several decades, the shadowy presence of Diego Garcia and a whiff of its disreputable acquisition lurked in the misty fringes of Western security studies. David Vine’s meticulously researched Island of Shame: the Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia provides a level of information about both the US and British policymakers and the human beings at the receiving end of their global power ambitions that had not been accessible before.”

A second article, in the Huffington Post, raises the question of impact of two recent Internet campaigns: “This is the story of two Internet activism campaigns. Both were launched on March 5. Both sought to gain attention and action for victims of human rights abuses in Africa little known around the world. One got more than 100 million online views in six days. The other got little more than 1,000. Why has one gone viral and the other not? Why did one story get the attention of the world and why — so far at least — has the other been largely ignored? First, the story that’s become known to millions. The message of the “Kony 2012” video is clear and simple: There have been horrific crimes in Northern Uganda — murder, rape, kidnapping, and the creation of child soldiers. There are clear victims — the children and people of Northern Uganda. There is a clear perpetrator — Joseph Kony. And it’s up to us — the viewers — to stop Kony and his bloody Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).”

• Amazonian toothache remedy
An ointment used for centuries by Inca tribes in Peru works through the gums and then enters the nerves and blocks pain receptors. Scientists say it could eradicate the need for gum injections or synthetic painkillers, and it can also treat other conditions. An anthropologist, Françoise Barbira Freedman, discovered the plant in 1975 when she suffered tooth pain while living with the Keshwa Lamas people in Amazonian Peru and was given the remedy by a shaman. She and a Cambridge University team have created a gel and hope to bring the product to the global market after clinical trials. [Blogger’s note: I hope the Keshwa Lamas have a lawyer to protect their intellectual/botanical property rights].

• Take that anthro degree and….
….become a social entrepreneur. Lauren Bush is co-founder of FEED Projects. In 2006, fashion model, designer and activist Lauren Bush designed a bag to benefit the United Nations World Food Programme’s (WFP) School Feeding program, which gives hungry children around the globe one healthy and nutritious lunch every day they go to school. After traveling throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America as an Honorary Student Spokesperson for the WFP and visiting sites where the program was operating, Lauren was inspired to do something more. She tapped into her own personal passion: designing. Her first design was the FEED 1 bag, a reversible burlap and organic cotton bag that takes its cue from the WFP bags of beans, barley and rice that she saw on her travels. On one side, she stamped the phrase “FEED the children of the world.” On the other side, she stamped the number “1” to indicate that each bag feeds one child in school for one year. It’s functional, sustainably-produced by local women. Built in to the bag’s affordable $70 price tag is an entire year’s worth of school lunches for one hungry child. In the words of Lauren Bush, “True human empathy and connection—and the level of dedication that can follow from that—comes from personal interaction.”

…become an environmental ethicist and teacher. Jason Brown was a Brigham Young University anthropology student working on a Guatemalan field study when he sensed that his spirituality and the natural world were tightly connected. The villagers he was living among had a vastly different view of a forest than most Americans. Thinking the trees around them were neither a dollar-valued commodity nor a nature preserve to be admired but kept separate, they cherished them for the firewood, shelter, animals and comfort they provided. Their ways led Brown to a new path with dual theology and forestry master’s degrees from Yale University. It informs the environmental conscience that he brings to religion and ethics and values classes he leads at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College.

• U.S archaeologists back to Iraq after two decades
A U.S. archaeology team that was one of the first to visit Iraq in more than two decades has just returned from a dig there. Archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University told USA Today: “There is so much gloom and doom in news from Iraq, this is a really hopeful moment…Iraq, Mesopotamia, is so rich in archaeological sites. It was wonderful to be back.” During December, Stone was in southern Iraq on a project co-headed by colleague Paul Zimansky. Sponsored by the National Geographic Society, their four-week visit marked the first U.S. archaeological efforts in the country outside of Kurdish regions since the 1990 Gulf War and one of the first foreign efforts in a decade. Stone and colleagues determined that robbers dug the equivalent of 3,700 acres of holes in archaeological sites across a region rich with ancient history.

• Anglo-Saxon “princess” burial in Cambridge
Aged 16 years when she died, an Anglo-Saxon “princess” was buried with a small solid gold, garnet encrusted, Christian cross on her chest. Along with other female burials at what appears to be a “high status” site, researchers at Cambridge University suggest that the settlement may have been part of a nunnery and that the princess’s family may have enrolled their daughter in the nunnery to demonstrate commitment to their new faith. Continuing scientific investigations over the next few months are expected to reveal more information about the princess, her companions and the site as a whole. Isotopic tests are likely to reveal their geographical origins by demonstrating where they had spent their early childhoods. Other isotopic analyses will reveal their diet. Efforts will also be made to reconstruct aspects of the princess’s clothing from fragments of mineralized textile which survived in her grave. “This is an incredibly important and exciting discovery which is already shedding remarkable new light on the early years of English Christianity,” said Alison Dickens, a senior manager at the Cambridge University Archaeological Unit.

• Canadians find carving of Egyptian queen
A team of Canadian archeologists has unearthed a rare wooden statue of a pharaoh at a dig site in southern Egypt. It may be an important new representation of Hatshepsut, a great queen who enjoyed a long and successful reign about 3,500 years ago but who was almost erased from history by a male successor trying to secure his own power. Researchers led by University of Toronto archeologist Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner also exposed two previously unknown religious buildings and found dozens of animal mummies during an excavation last summer near the ancient city of Abydos.

• Reading the language in the cave
Previously overlooked patterns in the cave art of southern France and Spain suggest that people may have developed written communication 25,000 years earlier than previously thought. According to an article in the Guardian, Genevieve von Petzinger of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, points out that many symbols have been bypassed by attention to figural paintings: “For example, in Werner Herzog’s recent documentary about Chauvet, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he concentrates totally on the paintings of the horses and rhinos and lets his camera sweep past the symbols as if they simply are not there.” That is a mistake, according to von Petzinger. She argues that some signs appear to emerge from the use of truncated images of an animal and eventually come to act as a symbol for that animal in its entirety. For example, a wavy line used to depict the back of a horse in a larger painting eventually comes to stand for the entire horse in different sets of paintings. Working with her colleague April Nowell, Petzinger has created a database of all the signs found in more than 200 caves and other shelters in France and Spain. The database shows that many symbols are frequently arranged in specific clusters repeated over and over again in different caves. “What we found was quite remarkable,” says von Petzinger. “There is definite patterning in the way these signs were used.” In other words, these markings appear to be a code painted on to rock by the Cro-Magnon people, who lived in Europe 30,000 years ago. If experts will agree that these markings are a form of written language, that would push back the recognized origin of writing from about 6,000 years ago, as produced by the first agrarian societies, to 30,000 years ago. While von Petzinger and Nowell remain cautious, the evidence is striking. For example, von Petzinger has found one set of five symbols – “II ^ III X II” – to be especially common, appearing on walls like a recurring motif. She has recently found the sequence in another, unexpected location: “At St Germain de la Rivière, north of Bordeaux, the skeleton of a young woman – dated as being around 15,500 years old – was discovered with a necklace made of the teeth of red deer…Three of those teeth have markings on them: ‘II ^’ was on one; ‘III’ on another; and ‘X II’ on the third. We have our five common symbols appearing on a necklace.” Some that recur among Palaeolithic cave paintings and other artifacts.

• Reading the message in the obsidian
MSNBC picked up on a debate about the function of and social dynamics at a Neolithic site in Turkey. Ancient obsidian blades discovered at what may be the world’s oldest temple suggest that the site of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey was a pilgrimage hub attracting a cosmopolitan range of people 11,000 years ago who brought tools with them from far away. Another view says that tools could have been traded through complex, local networks, ultimately arriving at the site. Ted Banning, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, published a paper in Current Anthropology about interpretations of the site.

• Prehispanic cemetery found in Mexico City
A representative of Mexico’s main anthropology agency says the remains of 167 people found in a cave in the country’s south were part of a pre-Hispanic cemetery dating back some 1,300 years. Emilio Gallaga of the national anthropology institute says the first test results show the remains come from a still-unspecified pre-Hispanic community dating to the eighth century. Clay artwork found in the cave could also have come from a pre-Hispanic group.

• Possible new human species?
The remains of what may be a previously unknown human species have been identified in southern China. The bones, from at least five individuals, have been dated to between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago. The research team has told the PLoS One journal that more detailed analysis of the fossils is required before they can be ascribed to a new human lineage: “We’re trying to be very careful at this stage about definitely classifying them,” said study co-leader Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales, Australia. “It’s possible these were modern humans who inter-mixed or bred with archaic humans that were around at the time,” explained Dr Isabelle De Groote, a palaeoanthropologist from London’s Natural History Museum.

• To be human is to run
What is now simply considered a healthy habit was once a matter of survival, a skill that helped our ancestors hunt and elude deadly foes, says Niobe Thompson, an anthropologist and longtime runner who has studied the sport’s influence on human evolution. Running, she says, is part of what defines us as a species: “It’s our evolutionary heritage as human beings – we are specialized runners,” he said in a phone interview. “If we don’t understand that we need to run … then we’re completely ignoring who we are.” In a new documentary called The Perfect Runner, Thompson explores humans’ deep-rooted connection with long-distance running, from the early days of Homo sapiens to the next generation of Olympians. The hour-long film aired on CBC’s The Nature of Things on March 15.

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