Anthro in the news 3/25/13

• Genocide trial in Guatemala

Map of Guatemala

An extensive article in The New York Times described how Guatemala’s justice system is changing: ” In a show of political will, prosecutors are taking long-dormant human rights cases to court, armed with evidence that victims and their advocates have painstakingly compiled over more than a decade — as much to bear witness as to bring judgment.”  Early on, victims were afraid to speak out, but the United Nations truth commission helped to break that silence. Evidence emerged from the work of forensic anthropologists who have been exhuming the bodies for 20 years. Fredy Peccerelli, the head of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation is quoted as saying: “This is terror…This is a strategy to make sure that anyone and everyone who is opposed to you is afraid of you; not only now, is afraid of you forever.” Peccerelli will testify at the upcoming genocide trial.

• Follow the cheese

The Boston Globe carried an article about the research of Heather Paxson, an anthropology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her recent book, The Life of Cheese.  Exploring the modern American artisan cheesemakers, “the book profiles people who make cheese and delves into the science, art, politics, and culture, as it were, of these artisan products.” Paxson is quoted as saying: “What attracts a lot of people to cheesemaking…is that it’s magical: the transubstantiation of fluid milk to solid food. A lot of people [I interviewed] described cheese’s liveliness and used developmental metaphors like ‘hitting puberty’ and‘maturity.’ They anthropomorphize the cheese.”

• Autism numbers up or not up?

Several media sources, including USA Today, covered a new study claiming substantial increases in the numbers of children in the United States with autism:  “Autism rates in the USA may be substantially higher than previously estimated, according to a new government report that found that one out of every 50 school-age children — roughly one on every school bus — have the condition. That’s dramatically higher than the one in 88 announced by a different agency last year.” Some experts say, however, that the higher numbers suggest that officials are getting better at counting children with autism. For example, “I don’t see any evidence that there’s a true increase in the prevalence of autism,” says Roy Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

• Sotheby’s versus Mexican heritage claims

Sotheby’s in Paris went forward with a sale of pre-Columbian artifacts despite claims by four Latin American countries that many of the 313 items had been illegally exported. Costly items sold were a ceramic Tarascan flying duck which sold for about $2 million and a ceramic Chupicuaro ”Venus” statuette which sold for about $2.6 million. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and Archeology (INAH) had urged Sotheby’s to cancel the auction. Sotheby’s said that during the last six months it ”thoroughly researched the provenance of this collection and we are confident in offering these works for auction.”

• Very old seaweed beds

Michael Gibbons at the seaweed farm site at Aughinish (photo by Joe O’Shaughnessy).

Archaeological fieldwork on south Galway Bay, Ireland, has uncovered a tidal complex of middens, cairns, quays and a late medieval seaweed farm, suggesting a thriving inshore economy for over some 7,000 years. The seaweed farm at Aughinish island is the largest and best preserved of its kind on the entire coastline, according to archaeologist Michael Gibbons. The long parallel banks of stone placed on the foreshore to encourage plants to grow indicate that Ireland might have been as advanced then as Japan and China were now in seaweed cultivation.  He believes the Aughinish beds to be of national importance, and warned they were “extremely vulnerable.” Some sites may date back to Mesolithic times, when Clare and Connemara were first settled.

• Neanderthal genome updates

Scientists in Germany completing the genome sequence of a Neanderthal report progress in making the entire sequence available to the scientific community for research. Svante Paabo and  colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig presented the first draft version of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 from data collected from three bones found in a cave in Croatia.

• In memoriam

Thurstan Shaw, an archaeologist whose pioneering work on the prehistory of West Africa laid firm foundations for the subject, has died. According to The Times, “Thurstan Shaw was probably the only man to have occupied both an African university chair in archaeology and the ceremonial throne of a Nigerian tribal chief. He was the first trained archaeologist to work in what was then British West Africa, and he devoted his long career and equally long retirement to teaching and research of the region’s prehistory. West African archaeology is, to a large extent, Thurstan Shaw’s creation, and it is certainly his legacy.”


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