Anthro in the news 10/29/12

• U.S. adults occupying Halloween

In the U.S., adults are making this holiday all about them. On Wednesday night in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a record 2 million people, about 90 percent of them grown-ups, are expected to gather and act like kids. A record $8 billion will be spent by U.S. consumers this Halloween, most by adults, for adults. Seven years ago, when the National Retail Federation asked adults if they planned to celebrate Halloween, 52.5 percent said yes. This year, it’s 71.5 percent.  Consumer anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I call it Occupying Halloween…We need to creatively express ourselves to find pure joy.” A decade ago, fewer than three in 10 costumes purchased at were for adults. Now, it’s more than six in 10.

• Halloween is big business in Hong Kong

Halloween now eclipses Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong as businesses seize the opportunity to make scary amounts of money from this Western festival. When cultural anthropologist Joseph Bosco moved to Hong Kong from the United States more than 20 years ago, Halloween was a non-event; a Western festival celebrated by the mainly American expatriate community. Bosco, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is quoted in China Daily: “You might find a few costumes in a small section at Toys R Us, but that was about it.” Now, 20 years later, the picture today is very different. Pumpkins, jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts, ghouls and monsters are everywhere this month. Restaurants offer specially-cooked up spooky dishes, shopping malls are decked out in Halloween decorations, bars invite customers to get into the spirit by dressing up, toy shops hosting Halloween parades, while ghosts, vampires and werewolves take center stage as the main attraction at theme parks. “Travel on the MTR over the next week and you see families with little kids dressed up in costume on their way to Halloween events, which I don’t remember seeing at all when I first got here,” said Bosco. The Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) may declare the city as Asia’s Halloween Capital and run special promotions in the six week run-up to the main event, to entice visitors from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, South Korean and the Philippines. More from Bosco: “I think people see it as being cosmopolitan. They know foreigners do this and want their kids to see it and participate in it and somehow be linked to this worldwide culture; the same way they do for Christmas…But what is surprising is that it has become so popular given that ghosts are not something you play around with in Chinese culture.”

• From Haiti with love

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Haitian President Michel Martelly at the Sae-A Administration Building at the Caracol Industrial Park, October 22, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

In an article in The Huffington Post, Mark Schuller, assistant professor of anthropology and NGO leadership development at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti, asks how U.S. foreign aid should be reformed.For those who have the time and resources to read it, I recently published a case study begun as my doctoral thesis in 2000 of two Haitian women’s NGOs, both working on HIV/AIDS prevention (in the interest of disclosure: all my royalties will be donated to grassroots groups in Haiti).” He offers a list of summary recommendations to the United States Agency for International Development.

• Drugs, khat, and debate

AllAfrica is running a series of articles and reviews commissioned to coincide with the launch of the latest book in the African Arguments series: Africa and the War on Drugs by Neil Carrier. Carrier is a lecturer in African Anthropology at the University of Oxford and author of Africa and the War on Drugs. This week’s piece focuses on an indigenous African drug that is causing increasing controversy both in and beyond the continent: khat. Opinions on khat are polarized: some prize it for its economic worth, ability to increase wakefulness and sociability, and even its capacity to induce peace; others lament it as the cause of health and social harms, a drain on economic well-being, and the cause of conflict. For some, khat is the root cause of many ills.  “However, khat has not hindered progress in all areas where it is consumed. In Nairobi’s Somali-dominated Eastleigh estate where I have recently conducted research, over forty shopping malls have been built in the last two decades, turning the estate into a major commercial hub. Capital from the khat trade helped fund some of these malls, and it is ubiquitous in the estate, chewing being one of the more popular leisure activities for its residents. While many in Eastleigh disapprove of it – the more religiously conservative seeing it as haram – others indulge avidly, many successful business people among them.” The article goes on to discuss khat use in the diaspora, and debates about it: “The ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric that we critique in our book gives far too much power to the substances themselves, leaving little room for understanding how substances and their pharmacological effects are molded by social and cultural processes. When substances are perceived as being highly potent, the standard policy prescription of prohibition often seems to be the only answer. The problem is that removing the substance itself through prohibition will not address the wider problems within which it was intertwined, while potentially causing greater harm through its criminalization. In the case of khat, encouraging a clearer appreciation of causality and the socio-cultural context of drug use might just lead to a different policy approach than that of prohibition. This would take the needs and views of farmers, traders, chewers and wider society seriously, while eschewing the ineffective drugs war the world has for so long waged upon itself.”

• Immigrant dream is to return home

Christine Kovic,  associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, joined Afternoon Shift Host Rick Kogan to talk about Central American immigrants who get caught up in Mexico on their way to achieving the American Dream. She has conducted research on human rights in Chiapas, Mexico for nearly two decades. Her current research addresses immigrant rights in Mexico and the United States. Kovic shared the experiences of Central American immigrants who risk being arrested or deported and sometimes even death. But they believe the American Dream is worth the risk:  “The migrants I spoke with regularly talk about searching for the American Dream. But they mean something significantly different than what we mean when we talk about the American Dream here in the United States. They commonly explain that their hope is to make it to the U.S., find a job, work for a number of years and then return to their home countries, open a small business, perhaps purchase a home…but the hope is to go back.”

• Workshop in India

The Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities in Manipal, Karnataka, is holding a three-day workshop on International Anthropology from October 28 to 30. It is the first of three workshops on collaborative anthropology, which is brings together scholars from India, North America, Russia and Africa to discuss the current understanding of anthropology and questions of ethical pluralism, systems of inequality, and their relevance to social science research methods. The other two workshops will be held in Cape Town in 2013 and Princeton in 2014.

• Under Baltimore streets

Archaeologists have uncovered a trove of artifacts of early American slave culture under the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. University of Maryland archaeologists have discovered in Annapolis what they say is one of the earliest examples of traditional African religious artifacts in North America: a clay ”bundle,” roughly the size and shape of a football, filled with about 300 pieces of metal and a stone axe, whose blade sticks out of the clay, pointing skyward. Dated to 1700, the bundle appears to be a direct transplant of African religion into what is now the United States, said Mark P. Leone, professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland who directed the excavations. The bundle’s most striking component, a stone axe, may be related to the Yoruba and the Fon people of Benin who considered the axe blade a symbol of Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. Matthew D. Cochran, a doctoral student in anthropology at University College London, who uncovered the bundle, said it would probably prove to be associated with Yoruba practices related to Shango.

• Ancient temple in Bali

Construction workers in Bali have discovered what is thought to be the biggest ancient Hindu temple ever found on the Indonesian island, archaeologists said. The workers were digging a drain in the island’s capital, Denpasar, when they found stone construction remains. They reported the discovery to the Bali archaeology office, which then unearthed substantial foundations of a structure that the excavation team believes dates from around the 13th to 15th centuries. “We think this is the biggest ancient Hindu temple ever discovered in Bali,” commented Wayan Suantika, the head of the archaeology team.

• Doing the math on grandma

“Grandmothering was the initial step toward making us who we are,” says University of Utah anthropology professor Kristen Hawkes. She is a co-author of the new study that says, when grandmothers help feed their grandchildren after weaning, their daughter can produce more children at shorter intervals. The work was published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Hawkes conducted the study with mathematical biologist Peter Kim, a former University of Utah postdoctoral researcher now on the University of Sydney faculty, and James Coxworth, a University of Utah doctoral student in anthropology.  This study provides a mathematical model in support of the grandmother hypothesis that was originally proposed in 1997 by  Hawkes, University of Utah anthropologist James O’Connell, and UCLA anthropologist Nicholas Blurton Jones.

• Eat a balanced (prehistoric) diet

As reported in The Huffington Post, a new chemical analysis of modern diets suggests that the diet of prehistoric humans included less meat than previously thought. “When you look at estimates of people’s diets in early archaeological interpretations, it’s very animal-protein heavy, and that’s very hard to explain physiologically,” said study author Tamsin O’Connell, a University of Cambridge researcher. “We are suggesting that animal proteins were less important overall.” O’Connell and her team took human blood samples from a study where scientists meticulously re-created people’s usual diets, measured exactly how much they ate over a week, and took precise samples of each meal. By comparing the nitrogen isotope ratios in the food and human blood samples, they were able to estimate how much heavy nitrogen the human body stores. They then extrapolated their estimate for blood samples to human hair and to bone. O’Connell finds that previous estimates inflated how much animal protein human ancestors ate.  The diet of the first farmers, around 12,000 years ago, likely included no more than 40 to 50 percent of protein from animal sources, and it is likely that hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic period also ate less meat, “We are suggesting that animal proteins would be less important overall and that’s particularly true for interpretations of Neolithic farmers,” she said. “What that would mean is that they are having more of a balance of animal and plant proteins in their diet, suggestive of a mixed existence strategy.”

• Something’s cooking

An article in The Guardian focuses on a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examines the number of neurons in the brain. According to Suzana Herculano-Houzel and Karina Fonseca-Azevedo of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the human brain compared to other mammalian brains is very energy-hungry. With its 86 billion neurons, it is a “scaled up primate brain in its cellular composition and metabolic cost.” The authors ask how, during human evolution, the brain increased dramatically in number of neurons in modern humans. Their answer: cooking. The Guardian notes that the PNAS article builds on the earlier research by Richard Wrangham, a British primatologist and professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University who argues that the invention of cooking was a crucial turning point in human evolution. The Guuardian apparently contacted Wrangham who said he hoped later work would look at tradeoffs within the body allowing energy from smaller organs to be diverted to the brain.

• Hello, Selam

Dr. Zereseney Alemseged of the California Academy of Sciences with a cast of a 3.3 million-year-old fossil skull. Photo: Paul Chinn, The San Francisco Chronicle.

Selam was only 3 years old when she died in Ethiopia over 3 million years ago. Her fossil bones tell a story of early human ancestors who walked on two feet but also climbed trees. The analysis of these fossil remains contribute to the debate over whether early bipedal hominids still continued to climb trees, like their earlier ape ancestors. The partial skeleton was discovered embedded in the Afar desert a dozen years ago by Zeresenay Alemseged anthropologist with the California Academy of Science. He named the fossil Selam, meaning peace. After many years of painstaking laboratory analysis, Alemseged published his findings in the journal Science with co-author David J. Green, a specialist in ancient fossil bone structures at Midwestern University College of Dental Medicine in Illinois and Curator of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences.

• A long way to go for sex

Sumatran orangutans live on ever shrinking patches of rain forest. Photo: Ellen Meulman

Only about 6,600 orangutans left in Sumatra, living in a few forest patches on the northern tip of the island. Females always settle close to their mother. They spend their adult lives with their offspring and do not establish pair-bonds with males. So, how do these populations continue? Males travel. A genetics study reveals that the population patches are not as isolated as they seem, and that males cross rivers and mountainous areas to find females. Protecting the existing corridors among these small populations is important to ensure that the species survives, said Alexander Nater, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich and the study’s lead author. ”It is important that all Sumatran orangutans act like a large population for future survival,” he said. The research, reported in The Journal of Heredity, was part of Nater’s doctoral work at the University of Zurich Anthropological Institute and Museum.

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