Anthro in the news 2/25/13

• Human Terrain System update

According to an article in USA Today, a $250 million U.S. Army program designed to aid troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been riddled by serious problems that include payroll padding, sexual harassment and racism. The article cites Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University who has studied the program.

U.S. soldiers pass out toys during a Human Terrain Team site survey mission in Iraq, 2009. (Photo: Spc. Benjamin Boren)
U.S. soldiers pass out toys on a Human Terrain Team mission in Iraq, 2009/Spc. Benjamin Boren

In an email to USA Today, he said: “It’s another example of a military program that makes money for a contractor while greatly exaggerating its military utility … The program recruited the human flotsam and jetsam of the discipline and pretended it was recruiting the best. Treating taxpayer money as if it were water, it paid under-qualified 20-something anthropologists more than even Harvard professors. And it treated our [AAA] ethics code as a nuisance to be ignored.”

In Afghanistan, the Human Terrain teams feed information to military intelligence centers called Stability Operations Information Centers. The reports are designed to help determine potential targets and adversaries. “We don’t know how that information is useful in identifying a group or individual,” said R. Brian Ferguson, a Rutgers University cultural anthropologist who has studied the program. USA Today has obtained a soon-to-be published report by the National Defense University, a Pentagon-affiliated think tank, noting that Human Terrain System efforts “collectively were unable to make a major contribution to the counterinsurgency effort.”

• Follow the vodka

An article in The Atlantic described the growing role of sociocultural anthropology in marketing studies. It highlights the work of Min Lieskovsky, a 31-year-old straight New Yorker who mingled freely and occasionally ducked into a bathroom to scribble notes about a lesbian party in Austin, Texas, that was heavily infused with vodka.

Absolut vodka
Absolut vodka/Wikipedia

Liekovsky had recently left a Ph.D. program in sociocultural anthropology at Yale University, impatient with academia but eager to use ethnographic research methods. The consulting firm she worked for, ReD Associates, is at the forefront of a movement to deploy social scientists on field research for corporate clients. The vodka giant Absolut contracted with ReD to infiltrate American drinking cultures and report on the elusive phenomenon known as the “home party.”

The corporate anthropology that ReD and a few others are pioneering is the most intense form of market research yet devised. ReD is one of a handful of consultancies that treat everyday life — and everyday consumerism — as a subject worthy of the scrutiny. According to the article, many of the consultants have trained at the graduate level in anthropology but have forsaken academia—and some of its ethical strictures—for work that frees them to do field research more or less full-time, with huge budgets. And agendas driven by corporate interests.

• Improve Aboriginal children’s school attendance

Marcia Langton
Marcia Langton

ABC radio Australia carried an audio interview with professor Marcia Langton, foundation chair, Australian Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne, on how best to teach Aboriginal children. Langton argues that school attendance basic to improving indigenous education. She has been vocal in her criticism of treating Aboriginal children differently to other students and modifying curriculums to make lessons culturally sensitive. Instead she calls for a greater focus on one of the very basic elements of education: attendance.

• It’s my party: Ramphele enters South African politics

According to coverage in The Guardian and several other media, Mamphela Ramphele, social anthropologist and medical doctor as well as former World Bank director, is starting a new political party in South Africa that will challenge the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The election is little more than a year away. The Financial Times described her as “tough as nails” and her party not easily dismissed.

• No cholera compensation in Haiti

There will be no direct financial compensation from the United Nations for the more than 8,000 Haitians who died and the 646,000 sickened by cholera since the disease struck the earthquake-ravaged country in October 2010, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Haitian president this week.

More than 15 months after the United Nations received a legal claim seeking to hold peacekeeping troops responsible for setting off the epidemic, its lawyers declared the claim “not receivable,” citing diplomatic immunity. According to an article in The New York Times, Paul Farmer — medical anthropologist, medical doctor, humanitarian activist, and co-founder of Partners in Health — had no comment when asked about the decision.

• Fear of noisy flying

Setha M. Low
Setha M. Low/CUNY

The New York Times quoted cultural anthropologist Setha Low in an article about a new option from AirAsiaX for a quiet zone on its flights:

”The culture is changing on the airplane from a very polite space to one that’s much more culturally diverse,” said Setha Low, a professor of anthropology and psychology and the director of the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. ”And there’s a lot of difference between the norms.” Those differences can lead to conflicts, especially on planes where people from all over the globe converge. Some cultures, Spain’s, for example, are more gregarious than others, like Scandinavia’s.

• It’s in tents at Duke University

A tent community at Duke University is, according to students, a vital part of their education. No one pretends much studying is done, but they say it helps them with team building, time management and organizational skills. There are various self-imposed rules that must be followed in the village. An article in The New York Times quotes Orin Starn, professor cultural anthropology and who teaches the anthropology of sports at Duke: ”… tenting has become part of the Duke brand and undergraduate experience.”

• Keep building social bridges in New Zealand

Dame Anne Salmond, renowned anthropologist, says “building bridges” in a country so often divided along cultural lines has been her greatest achievement: “That has really been the pleasure in my life, working with all these different groups and trying to forge positive relationships across what sometimes seem like caverns.”

The professor of Maori studies and anthropology at the University of Auckland and the author of seven award-winning books on Maori life and early contacts between Europeans and Pacific Islanders, Dame Anne believes we often forget the similarities in our history and focus on our differences. Her Celtic ancestors were driven off their land during the Highland clearances and when her great-grandfather migrated to New Zealand he understood the dislocation suffered by Maori. A devoted environmentalist raised on the East Coast, Dame Anne has worked on the greening of New Zealand’s rivers and over the past 12 years has been restoring the Longbush Reserve near Gisborne.

• Studying meals, bite by bite

From The Guardian: Michael Nicod spent months in the homes of families he did not know, making detailed notes about everything they ate. Nicod was performing research for Britain’s Department of Health and Social Security in 1974.

He and his colleague, University College London professor Mary Douglas, wrote a report called Taking the Biscuit: The Structure of British Meals. They wanted to identify what typical British persons see as the essential parts of their typical meals. They drew on their training as anthropologists: “We imagined a dietician in an unknown Papuan or African tribe wondering how to introduce a new, reinforcing element into tribal diet. We assumed that the dietician’s first task would be to discover how the tribe ‘structured’ their food.”

Nicod lived as a lodger with “four working-class families where the head was engaged in unskilled manual labour,” in East Finchley, Durham, Birmingham and Coventry. He stayed in each place at least a month, “watching every mouthful and sharing whenever possible.” [Blogger’s note: it is not clear if the researchers, at that time, followed current research principles of “informed consent”].

• Protecting rock art in New Zealand

Jean Clottes is impressed with the 'powerful' cave carvings
Jean Clottes is impressed with the 'powerful' cave carvings. Photo / Alan Gibson

A visiting world-renowned French prehistorian has backed calls to protect New Zealand’s Maori rock art, describing some of our centuries-old works as powerful.


Dr. Jean Clottes was guided through Bay of Plenty bush to a cave carving in the Kaingaroa Forest, one of more than 600 known sites across the country. The impressive carvings — depicting waka and thought to be hundreds of years old – are locked away behind a steel cage, and Dr Clottes believes the same protection should be given to all such sites. “You”ve got an impressive body of rock art here,” said Dr Clottes, who has written more than 300 scientific papers and led studies into France’s Chauvet Cave, chronicled in a documentary by director Werner Herzog. Local iwi Ngati Manawa recently took over the land and, as kaitiaki or guardians, wish to protect it for future generations.

• Archaeology embraces cutting-edge computer technology

Technologies such as 3D imaging, agent-based systems, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), photogrammetry, laser-scanning, GIS (geographic information system) and modelled immersive environments are used alongside trowels and shovels by today’s archeologists.

Tom Whitley, who co-ordinates the University of Western Australia’s masters of professional archeology program, said as technology evolved more archeologists had been drawn to use it: “We tend to think of archeology as the Indiana Jones-type guy who goes out in the field and is digging up sites, and that is true, we do a lot of that sort of thing … But as computers have become more and more powerful we have been able to use them to do much more detailed and complex kinds of analyses.”

He said that 3D laser scanning was used frequently in many archeological applications, from scanning small artefacts to large structures and whole sites. Flying drones and kites are used to take high-resolution aerial imagery, which can be coupled with photogrammetry software to create surface topography maps that are comparable to, or even better than, LiDAR data.

• On the prehistory of not eating horses in the U.K.

A new study of the eating habits of the Anglo Saxons suggests that they may have developed a strong distaste for horsemeat because they saw it as a “pagan” food.

horesemeat. Flickr/smcgee

The findings, published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, could help explain the level of revulsion at the recent revelations that consumers have been eating horsemeat unwittingly.

Dr. Kristopher Poole, of Nottingham University, the author of the study, compared dated records of animal bones in former settlements. He found that almost a third of the sites from the early part of the period contained evidence of butchered horse bones. But evidence of horse butchery from the later part of the period is much rarer.

He notes that the decline coincided with a period when Christianity was becoming more firmly established. In Rome, Pope Gregory III condemned the consumption of horse meat as a “filthy and abominable practice.” Professor Helena Hamerow, of Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology, said: “This is an important paper that shows how far back in history the aversion to eating horses seems to go amongst the English … Although the custom of eating horseflesh appears to have been widespread in early medieval Northern Europe and early Anglo-Saxons on occasion consumed horse, it disappeared from the diet after the conversion, as church authorities tried to undermine the habit.”

The paper does not attempt to explain how the fashion for eating horsemeat re-emerged in other European countries, notably France.

• What a relief: King Tut’s parents were not siblings

A new thesis on Tutankhamun’s parentage suggests that his mother was not his father’s sister, as DNA evidence had indicated, but the famous Nefertiti, his father Akhenaten’s first cousin. Sibling incest to keep the royal bloodline in the family is one of the tropes of Egyptology, but in this case it may not have been true. The new interpretation was offered this week at Harvard by the French Egyptologist Marc Gabolde.

• Paleofantasy

José María Velasco. Scene from the Quaternary upper Paleolithic Period
José María Velasco. Scene from the Quaternary upper Paleolithic Period/Google Art Project

An article in The Chronicle for Higher Education by Marlene Zuk offers a critique of prevalent images of our paleolithic life. Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota, is the author of a forthcoming book entitled Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. Her article cites biological anthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and inventor of the term paleofantasy.

• Defensive wounds: more reviews of Chagnon’s memoir

Several more reviews of Napoleon Chagnon‘s memoir, Noble Savages, appeared this past week: in The New York Times, Nature, Insider Higher Ed, Counterpunch, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Economist.

[Blogger’s note: the most reasonable review is the one in The Economist; it dispenses with “Chagnon’s central claim — that Yanomami violence is evidence of humanity’s brutal origins — can be dismissed out of hand.”

Right, it’s about time a reviewer said that].

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