Anthro in the news 10/01/12

• Beyond Tsimane health as “yardstick”

An article in The New York Times headlines findings about the good health and longevity in an indigenous group of the Bolivian Amazon as a “yardstick” (presumably for “advanced” populations in “developed” countries). Since 2002, when the Tsimane Health and Life History Project was founded, more than 50 Bolivian and American researchers, doctors and students have participated in the health project, generating an array of landmark studies. The population of 13,000, which stretches along the Maniqui River, has become the most studied population in the Western hemisphere. ”This is the most productive research site in anthropology today,” said Ray Hames, an anthropologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Samuel Bowles, of the behavioral sciences program at the Santa Fe Institute, said, ”The Tsimane will soon become a basic point of reference for everyone studying small-scale societies.” Michael Gurven, an anthropologist at University of California, Santa Barbara, who is a co-founder and co-director of the project, said the primary focus of the Tsimane studies was aging. ”We look at what’s different and what’s similar between the Tsimane and Western populations,” he said. The Tsimane also have the advantage of variety within that population, said Hillard Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico and the project’s other co-founder and co-director. A small number of the Tsimane live in or around San Borja, the area’s only town; they own motorcycles and use cellphones. The contrast to the modern world provides a fascinating basis for study, with ”real public health significance for us,” said John C. Haaga, a program officer at the National Institutes of Health, which has supported the Tsimane studies for years. The studies have required time and personnel. Thesis students live in communities for up to a year. A roving medical unit visits almost all 90 Tsimane villages at least once a year. The infiltration of doctors and anthropologists has had some impact on the culture, the researchers acknowledge, but not as much as might be expected. The article goes on to discuss ethical issues of impact of the researchers’ presence and whether or not to provide health care interventions. [Blogger’s note: I hope the Tsimane can take the outsiders’ lifeways as a “yardstick” and try to protect themselves from the health downsides of modernity.]

• Anthropologist released from Turkish prison

Müge Tuzcuoğlu
Müge Tuzcuoğlu

A court in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır ruled to release anthropologist Müge Tuzcuoğlu and eight other suspects pending trial in the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) suit. Tuzcuoğlu said she was still in a state of shock due to her sudden release, after her life had turned upside down following her arrest on March 8, 2012. Tuzcuoğlu, a cultural anthropologist who wrote the book Ben Bir Taşım (I Am a Stone) added that she felt bittersweet despite her release, as a number of her friends still remained locked up behind bars. She is quoted as saying, “I was arrested seven months ago by [armed people.] This arrest has to do with what a social scientist…sees when they look at a poor neighborhood. Is that a community with a penchant for criminal activity, or is it the lives of people resisting against being drawn into destitution that seem so perplexing to us?”

• It’s not about religion for Muslims in Hong Kong

The South China Times discussed a book, Islam in Hong Kong, by Chinese University anthropology lecturer Paul O’Connor. O’Connor who moved to Hong Kong from England 12 years ago to study the city’s relationship with Islam. He writes that social friction for Muslims in Hong Kong is not based on religion, but on their struggle to contribute to society. Hong Kong’s Muslims have religious freedoms they cannot enjoy elsewhere in a unique city of hybrid cultures, but have to tolerate prejudice and often overt discrimination. O’Connor is quoted as saying, “Racism does exist and it’s a big thing in Hong Kong but the experience isn’t one of interpersonal problems; it’s more to do with a structural problem and a colonial hangover…The book is not just about religion, it’s about minorities, about the people that make up Hong Kong and give it its unique identity. This is what people are going out and trying to preserve at the moment,” he said, referring to the mass protests against proposed national education, labelled as brainwashing by critics.

• Guns, pigs, and traditional peace processes

In a study of war and peace over time among the Enga of highland Papua New Guinea, Polly Wiessner, professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, examines how an indigenous village court justice system sharply reduced wars among the Enga after 20 years of fighting killed 4,816 people. With the help of compensation rituals involving exchanges of pigs, tribal courts have put an end to much of the fighting that occurred between 1991 and 2010. “Social technology from generations past was adapted to contain the impact of adopted modern technology,” Wiessner said. Findings are reported in the journal Science.

• Forensic anthropology and the disrespected dead

The San Francisco Chronicle carried an article about the work of forensic anthropologist Thomas Holland. He attaches names to unidentified remains, interpreting bones that tell him their age when alive, their height, gender, race and whether they were buried respectfully. Even the long dead tell tales, and Holland advised investigators from the New York State Police and around the world last week how to listen more closely to what they say: “There’s a lot of information in the ground as to how people were buried. The posture of the body, for instance, can tell you whether they were buried by friend or foe…Whenever you see a time investment, it generally equates to respect.” So, he says, look to see if the hole is big enough for the body. Is the person buried on their back? Are their arms folded over their chest? The skeletons of the disrespected dead look like they were simply dropped or

• Archaeology as therapy

An archaeology group has been set up by the U.K.Ministry of Defence for wounded service personnel as a form of therapy and to help them develop new skills. The initiative was launched on board historic warship HMS Victory at Portsmouth Naval Base, Hampshire, by the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Sir Charles Montgomery.

• Digging Gallipoli

Several media sources covered the finding of Roman relics and human bones during the third year of an official survey of the Gallipoli battle fields. The joint historical and archaeological survey of Gallipoli by the Australian, Turkish and New Zealand governments is using modern technology and old-fashioned field work to fill some of the gaps in the story of the disastrous 1915 military campaign that forged a young nation’s identity. Team leader and retired Rear Admiral Simon Harrington said bones that could be human had been found. The 16-person team includes 10 Australians, five Turks and one New Zealander. Lead scientist and University of Melbourne professor of archeology Tony Sagona said he loved getting into the scrub to trace the network of trenches, dugouts and tunnels and to collect and record artifacts.

A team was mapping a Roman fort when they found the medieval church at Stracathro

• One of Scotland’s saddest hours

Archaeologists working at the site of the world’s most northerly Roman fort may have found the remains of a key location in Scottish history. The team at Stracathro believe they may have discovered the church where King John Balliol abdicated his throne to Edward I in 1296, described as one of the saddest hours in Scottish history.

• Very old dental filling

Ancient dentistry has been discovered in a 6,500-year-old human jawbone from Slovenia: a lump of beeswax that appears to be the earliest evidence so far of a dental filling. Evidence of prehistoric dentistry is rare, but it exists. Tooth drilling, for instance, is known to have occurred in what is now Pakistan more than 7,500 years ago. The beeswax may have been applied to ease pain from a crack in the enamel and dentin layers of the tooth, said Claudio Tuniz, a nuclear paleoanthropologist at the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Italy. Findings are reported in the journal PLoS One.

• Cannibalism in England: practical or ritualistic?

In Gough’s cave in Somerset, England, 14,700 years ago, human cannibalism is proven to have occurred. The question is: was it for utilitarian or ritual purposes? New analysis provides insights into the human defleshing that occurred at this site and what motivated it, along with hinting that cannibalism may have been more common in prehistory than previously thought. Taphonomist Silvia M. Bello of the Natural History Museum in London presented findings at the annual meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution in Bordeaux. Bello argues that cannibalism at Gough Cave was both practical and ritualistic: people at Gough’s ate the bodies of their fellow humans for nutrition rather than letting good meat go to waste, and then produced the skull cups for ritual. Bello suspects that, given the practical benefits, cannibalism was relatively common in the past. In the question and answer period, paleoanthropologist Jean Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig asked what the evidence was for the fashioning of skull cups being a ritual endeavor as opposed to a utilitarian one.

• Love and peace in the Middle East back then

Archaeologists working on the site of Nahal Me’arot, or the Stream Cave, believe that 80,000 years ago this may have been the only place in the world where Neanderthals and early humans lived side by side, possibly even interbreeding. The findings, indicating that the two branches of the human race lived in relative harmony in a region where their modern relatives are in a constant state of war, earned Nahal Me’arot the distinction, in July, of becoming the latest Unesco World Heritage Site. According to Daniel Kaufman, one of the archaeologists working at the site, this is the likely place where interbreeding occurred. Archaeologists believe that while the cave dwellers did not share accommodation, they switched between communities, indicating that small populations of both inhabited the area over time. None of the bones so far found indicate lethal wounds, leading scientists to believe they may have lived in peace. With Unesco backing, the archaeologists hope that the site will be better able to compete with tourist destinations such as the country’s myriad holy shrines. However, Unesco itself fell afoul of the conflict when the U.S. cancelled funding last year in protest at the organization’s admission of Palestine as a member state.

• From planet of the apes to Robert Redford not so fast

The Philadelphia Inquirer covered findings from recent DNA collected from modern hunter-gatherers: the Pygmies of Cameroon, the Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania, and the Khoe-San of southern Africa. The studies suggest a more complex narrative of human roots. “There is a story of multiplicity of populations which is not well understood today,” said anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “There is no sort of magic moment where somebody became like Robert Redford and afterward it was done.”

• In memoriam

Robert J. Sharer, an archaeologist and authority on Mayan history and culture, and an emeritus curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, died at the age of 72 years. Mr. Sharer, a professor emeritus, spent 40 years as a professor of anthropology at Penn and conducted research in Central America for nearly five decades. He was the author, coauthor, editor, or coeditor of more than 20 books and monographs. In 2006, Mr. Sharer coauthored The Ancient Maya (6th edition) with his wife and collaborator, Loa P. Traxler.

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