Anthro in the news 08/06/12

• You gotta shop around

Image courtesy of University of Missouri-Columbia
Kathrine Starkweather, anthropology doctoral student in MU’s Department of Anthropology

A new study suggests that a woman who marries multiple husbands at the same time (polyandry) creates a safety net for her children. A research are the University of Missouri (MU) finds that multiple husbands ensure that children are cared for even if the fathers die or disappear. Although polyandry is taboo and illegal in the United States, certain legal structures, such as child support payments and life insurance, fill the same role for American women that multiple husbands do in other cultures. “In America, we don’t meet many of the criteria that tend to define polyandrous cultures,” said Kathrine Starkweather, doctoral student in MU’s Department of Anthropology. “However, some aspects of American life mirror polyandrous societies. Child support payments provide for offspring when one parent is absent. Life insurance allows Americans to provide for dependents in the event of death, just as secondary husbands support a deceased husband’s children in polyandrous societies.” Starkweather and her co-author, Raymond Hames, professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska, examined 52 cultures with traditions of polyandry. “This research shows that humans are capable of tremendous variability and adaptability in their behaviors,” said Starkweather. “Human marriage structures aren’t written in stone; throughout history, people have adapted their societal norms to ensure the survival and well-being of their children.”

• It’s the Olympics stupid

Anthroworks contributor Sean Carey published a piece in The Independent about Olympian greatness, and he manages to bring Claude Lévi-Strauss into the discussion.

• A culture judged to be “boring”

The Baining, and indigenous group of Papua New Guinea, have the reputation among some researchers of being the dullest culture on earth. In the 1920s, the famous British anthropologist Gregory Bateson spent 14 months among them, until he finally left in frustration. He called them “unstudiable,” because of their reluctance to say anything interesting about their lives and their failure to exhibit much activity beyond the mundane routines of daily work, and he later wrote that they lived “a drab and colorless existence.” Forty years later, Jeremy Pool, a graduate student in anthropology, spent more than a year living among them in the attempt to develop a doctoral dissertation. He too found almost nothing interesting to say about the Baining, and the experience caused him to leave anthropology and go into computer science. Cultural anthropologist Jane Fajans of Cornell University studied the Baining in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. In an article in Psychology Today, Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston University, describes Fajan’s findings about child socialization among the Baining. [Blogger’s note: I wonder what a Baining person who came to my university for a year of participant observation would say about undergraduate culture and everyday life…]

• Diseased Peruvian mummy

An Inca girl who lived 500 years ago suffered from a bacterial lung infection just before she died, according to scientists who have examined her mummy. The girl, thought to be 15 years old at the time of her death, was likely sacrificed by the Andean Inca. Her mummy was found  at the summit of Llullaillaco, a 22,000-foot volcano in the province of Salta, Argentina, said Angelique Corthals, a forensic anthropologist at the City University of New York. The girl had a large sore on one leg, leading Corthals to believe she may have been unwell when she was buried, alive but unconscious, on the mountain.

• Possible very old chocolate mole (pron. molay)

Chocolate in the news! Many media sources picked up on this news, including ABC News, the Washington Post, and several other international media from Scotland to Australia. Archaeologists have found traces of 2,500-year-old chocolate on a plate in Mexico’s  Yucatan peninsula, the first time they have found ancient chocolate residue on a plate rather than a cup, suggesting it may have been used as a condiment or sauce with solid food. The discovery by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History expands the view of how chocolate was used in ancient Mexico and suggests ancient roots for traditional Mexican dishes such as mole, the chocolate-based sauce often served with meats. “This is the first time it has been found on a plate used for serving food,” archaeologist Tomas Gallareta said. “It is unlikely that it was ground there (on the plate), because for that they probably used metates (grinding stones).” “These are certainly interesting results,” said John S. Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and one of the foremost experts on ancient chocolate. Henderson, who was not involved in the Paso del Macho project, wrote in an email that “the presence of cacao residues on plates is even more interesting … the important thing is that it was on flat serving vessels and so presented or served in some other way than as a beverage.”

• Tomb fit for a prince

For the past four years, archaeologists from the Department of Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn have been working on a collaborative excavation project with the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History in the Maya city of Uxul in Campeche. The aim of the excavation project under the direction of Prof. Dr. Nikolai Grube and Dr. Kai Delvendahl is to investigate the process of centralization and collapse of hegemonic state structures in the Maya Lowlands using the example of a mid-sized classic Maya city (Uxul) and its ties to a supra-regional center (Calakmul). Since 2011, excavations have concentrated on the royal palace complex, which is located directly south of the main plazas in the center of Uxul. This year´s excavation has revealed  a richly furnished tomb. In the interior of this tomb chamber which dates back about 1,300 years, the remains of a young man were discovered who was buried on his back with his arms folded. Deposited around him were four ceramic plates and five ceramic vases some of which are decorated with spectacular paintings and moldings. A unique plate, painted in the famed Codex-Style, was covering the skull of the deceased. The exceptionally well preserved ceramics make this tomb one of the most significant discoveries of its kind in the Maya Lowlands.

• Aztec burials found

National Geographic Daily News presents findings from the research of physical anthropologist Jorge Arturo Talavera González who examined skeletal remains unearthed recently in Mexico City. The findings provide evidence of a merchant neighborhood of an Aztec people known as the Tepanec, who were prominent 700 years ago. Found with the remains of a newborn baby in her arms, one woman may have have died after giving birth, said Talavera González, who is affiliated with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Further analysis is required to pin down causes of death for the 17 burials, but holes in some of the skulls hint at human sacrifice. Around the bodies, experts also found an altar, fragments of rooms, and ceremonial objects. Arizona State University (ASU) anthropologist Michael Smith provides insights about why so little is known about the Tepanec.

• Giant Neo-Hittite statue found

A beautiful and colossal human sculpture is one of the latest findings unearthed by an international team working at the Tayinat Archaeological Project excavation site in southeastern Turkey. A large semi-circular column base, ornately decorated on one side, was also discovered. Both pieces are from a monumental gate complex that provided access to the upper citadel of Kunulua, capital of the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Patina (ca. 1000-738 BCE).

“These newly discovered Tayinat sculptures are the product of a vibrant local Neo-Hittite sculptural tradition,” said Professor Tim Harrison, the Tayinat Project director and professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. “They provide a vivid glimpse into the innovative character and sophistication of the Iron Age cultures that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean following the collapse of the great imperial powers of the Bronze Age at the end of the second millennium BC.

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