Anthro in the news 2/18/13

• Gas company targets a protected park in the Peruvian Amazon

An article in The Guardian reported on how an energy company is eyeing the gas reserves of a Peruvian Amazon park where biodiversity exceeds any other place on earth and which is home to indigenous people who have little contact with the outside world.

Pluspetrol's Pagoreni-B gas well, part of the Camisea project in the Amazon jungle near Cuzco, Peru. Photograph: Cris Bouroncle/AFP
Pluspetrol's Pagoreni-B gas well near Cuzco, Peru. Photograph: Cris Bouroncle/AFP
The report is based on a leaked document. The revelation about Manu national park follows rumors and reports in Peru that the government is to create a gas concession bordering or including parts of the park, but which have not been publicly confirmed.

The Guardian quotes anthropologist Daniel Rodriguez, who has worked with indigenous federation Fenamad: “This is the first time we’ve seen evidence for plans to expand hydrocarbon activities into Manu.” Manu is home to 10 percent of the world’s bird species, 5 percent of all mammals, and 15 percent of all butterflies. Unesco has declared the park a World Heritage Site and biosphere reserve.

• Becoming a mother without a husband in Vietnam

The New York Times reported on northern Vietnamese war widows becoming mothers without husbands in order to avoid living without a child and dying a lonely death.

The article focuses on women in one village who “upended centuries-old gender rules and may have helped open the door for a nation to redefine parenthood.” Having endured the war, they developed a new strength and were determined not to die alone. They asked men, whom they did not interact with afterward, to help them conceive a child. The practice was known as “xin con,” or “asking for a child,” and it meant breaking with tradition, facing discrimination and enduring the hardships of raising a child alone.

“It was unusual, and quite remarkable,” said Harriet Phinney, an assistant professor of anthropology at Seattle University who is writing a book on the practice of xin con in Vietnam. Purposely conceiving a child out of wedlock, she said, “was unheard-of.” It was a product of the mothers’ bravery and a postwar society that acknowledged the unique situation of women across Vietnam, including thousands of widows who were raising children alone.

• Chagnon in the news

Biological anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon has published a new book, a kind of memoir, called Noble Savages: My Life among Two Dangerous Tribes — The Yanomami and the Anthropologists.

It has attracted mainstream media attention this past week, including a review by cultural anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli in The New York Times book review section, an article in The New York Times magazine, a review in the Wall Street Journal by historian Charles Mann, as well as an audio interview on National Public Radio. The Chagnon story in anthropology is complicated, and so is the story of the Yanomamo’s contact with him and other researchers, starting in the 1960s.

Blogger’s notes:

  1. I claim no expertise in the Amazonian anthropology and its history. I was surprised, however, that Charles Mann views Chagnon’s writings as providing “extraordinarily detailed picture of native lives that [he] has so carefully compiled…” while typifying current critiques as lacking substance and awaiting future commentary that may be more “level-headed.”
  2. In the public radio interview, the opening vignette suggests that the dogs didn’t notice the arrival of Chagnon and his companion(s) until they were inside the shabano; maybe the dogs were drugged, too;

• War, looting, and cultural heritage in Syria

According to an article in The Times (London), the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology reports that a third of the country’s 36 museums may already have been looted in the turmoil. In some cases the most prized artifacts appear to have been hidden away by curators for safekeeping.

Syrian rebels are also reported to have begun deploying “excavation teams” to search archaeological sites for gold, mosaics, statuary and other valuable items that can be sold to buy weapons and supplies to sustain the two-year-old insurgency. But while the rebels may justify looting to finance a just rebellion against a tyrannical regime, the sophisticated network of dealers, middlemen and buyers that enable the trade can make no such claim. “Whenever the security situation breaks down in a country, the opportunists go in,” St. John Simpson, a senior curator at the British Museum, said.

Mummified cat found in Cornwall, England. Geoff Hichens/SWNS
Mummified cat found in Cornwall, England. Geoff Hichens/SWNS
• 2,000 year-old mummified cat found in Cornwall attic

This Is Cornwall and People Magazine reported on the discovery of a cat mummy that was left in an attic for 40 years in Cornwall, England. It has been verified as 2,000 years old and Egyptian.

Robert Gray, a bed and breakfast owner in Cornwall, found the artifact in his loft, where it had lain since being given as a gift to his father, an Egyptologist, who assumed it was a fake. An x-ray revealed the remains of a cat, and the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro verified the find. [Blogger’s note: recent scientific studies have shown that cats are able to travel long distances and turn up in surprising places; this finding is further confirmation].

• Beothuk people and birds

Archeologists have shed new light on the extinct Beothuk nation of Newfoundland, revealing through a study of carved pendants unearthed from coastal burial sites that the people placed birds at the center of their complex religious cosmology, believing they were “spiritual messengers” that carried the souls of the dead to an “island afterlife.” The Beothuk inhabited the region for at least 1,000 years before the devastating arrival of Europeans in the 15th century.

Great Auks by John James Audubon, from The Birds of America
Great Auks by John James Audubon, from The Birds of America/Wikipedia
The findings are detailed in a paper published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal by University of Alberta researcher Todd Kristensen and his U.S. co-author, Donald Holly. Seabirds such as the arctic tern, black guillemot and the penguin-like great auk provided both “food and food for thought” for ancient island inhabitants, the authors state in the study.

The project’s authors conclude that the Beothuk believed their souls required “help from animals that can move through those worlds” of water and air to reach their culture’s idea of heaven.

• Jared Diamond as “patron saint” of anthropology

A review of Jared Diamond‘s recent book, The World until Yesterday, said: “Like Noam Chomsky in the field of linguistics, Jared Diamond is the modern patron saint of evolutionary biology and anthropology…” [Blogger’s note: I am working on forgiveness to the author of the review, but the awarding of “patron sainthood” is a challenge].

• Not tonight, honey: my tooth/foot/back hurts

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Alan Mann, professor of anthropology at Princeton University, described how impacted wisdom teeth are a result of changes in the shape of human skull and jaw bones that occurred during early human evolution.

Severely impacted wisdom tooth
Severely impacted wisdom tooth/Wikipedia
As a result, the last tooth to emerge ends up impacted: “This can lead to chronic pain and reduced reproductive fitness,” said Mann. He suggested new gene variants that cause carriers to lack a third molar appear to be becoming more prevalent. While infected or painful wisdom teeth are not fatal, they could decrease reproductive fitness, meaning that they could eventually be consigned to history. “Imagine, he said, “A partner suggests a bout of reproduction. The other partner, plagued by an impacted molar, says, ‘Not tonight dear, my jaw is killing me’.”

Another adaptation, the rapid transition from “grasping” feet for climbing trees to feet flat enough to enable us to walk upright, have left a legacy of foot ailments and weak ankles, according to professor Jeremy DeSilva, of Boston University. He said foot problems were the result of having to cope with a modified ape foot, which is a highly mobile structure. The medical consequences for modern humans are sprains, collapsed arches and Achilles tendinitis. Other problems of bipedalism include back pains caused by spinal discs wearing out.

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