Anthro in the news 4/8/13

• Our guns, our legislators

PressTV interviewed cultural anthropologist William Beeman of the University of Minnesota on the topic of gun control in the United States. Beeman, via Skype, commented that :  90 percent of Americans when polled want guns registered, but the rich gun lobby has politicians in their pocket so the public is not represented. The difficulty in the United States is that legislators are heavily supported by the National Rifle Association and the National Rifle Association is an outgrowth of the gun manufacturing industry. Therefore, the gun manufacturing industry has a very strong hold on legislators. If you were to put this to a public referendum the public, Beeman argues, they would vote overwhelmingly for greater gun controls, but legislators in Congress feel that they are not able to support that because they depend so heavily on the financial support of the gun lobby.

• It’s dirty work if you can get it

An article in The Atlantic describes how a cultural anthropologist became a New York City sanitation worker and went on to write an “eye-opening account of the mysterious and dangerous world of trash. ” In her book, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, New York University cultural anthropologist Robin Nagle “lets the uninitiated in on the vital, hidden, and arcane system that enables cities to function–from the logistics to the slang and jokes to the places most of us never see. To study the mini-society known as New York’s Department of Sanitation, not only did she follow the men in the garbage truck around through their day–something that took years of trust-winning on its own–she also trained and sat for exams to become a sanitation worker herself.”

• Religious belief and schismogenesis in the U.S.

Gregory Bateson

Tanya Luhrmann, professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God, was a guest columnist in the Sunday New York Times. She described a recent experience on a talk show when she was grilled about her religious beliefs. The aggressive questioning, and her responses to it, reminded her of an anthropological term for the “racheting-up of opposition: schismogenesis.

Gregory Bateson developed the word to describe mirroring interactions, where every move by each side makes the other respond more negatively.” She goes on to say that  “I think that schismogenesis is responsible for the striking increase in the number of people who say that they are not affiliated with any religion. Since the early 1990s that number has more than doubled to 20 percent from less than 10 percent, and is close to a third for people under 30. We know that most of these people still believe in God or a higher power, whatever they mean by that. It’s just that they are no longer willing to describe themselves as associated with a religion. They’ve seen that line in the sand, and they’re not willing to step over it.” Her main message is the importance of maintaining a more measured kind of dialogue about religious beliefs in America in order to avoid schismogenesis.

• War vs. heritage in Syria:  heritage loses

According to a lengthy article in The New York Times, “Across much of Syria, the country’s archaeological heritage is imperiled by war, facing threats ranging from outright destruction by bombs and bullets to opportunistic digging by treasure hunters who take advantage of the power vacuum to prowl the country with spades and shovels. Fighting has raged around the Roman ruins of Palmyra, the ancient city in central Syria, once known as the Bride of the Desert. And the Syrian Army has established active garrisons at some of the country’s most treasured and antiquated citadels, including castles at Aleppo, Hama and Homs…Grave sites are potential spots to find jewelry or figurines, as some corpses were interred with offerings and possessions. This has made Ebla, like hundreds of other sites in a country that sometimes refers to itself as an open-air archaeological museum, a tempting spot for thieves.” Elba is especially famous for its many cuneiform tablets, the oldest in Syria. The article quotes Cheikhmous Ali, a Syrian archaeologist and an organizer of Protect Syrian Archaeology, an association that has been documenting damage and theft of Syrian antiquities: “Ebla was the most important and prominent kingdom in the era of 3000 B.C.”

• Very old stone heads unearthed

Shone Shibat, right, director, archaeology, National Directorate of Culture Heritage/Salvadorean Ministry of Culture

Excavations in Chalchuapa Township, west of San Salvador, has revealed two stone zoomorphic heads. They were found during an excavation by Salvadorean and Japanese archaeologists, according to an article in The Global Times.  The sculptures are dated to between 800 B.C.E. and 300 C.E. and are similar to those found at sites in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

• Not so maize-y after all

Science Daily reported on the research of Nikki Berkebile, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. She is studying the livelihoods of Pueblo people who lived on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon in the late 11th century. Traditional ethnographic literature indicates they were heavily dependent on maize as a food source.

A Pueblo Basket/Wikicommons, U.S. National Park Service
Berkebile’s findings indicate that while maize was part of the diet, livelihoods were based more diversity than originally thought. She presented her research, Investigating Subsistence Diversity in the Upper Basin: New Archaeobotanical Analysis at MU 125, at the 78th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), held April 3-7 in Honolulu.

• Getting the right date for a Neanderthal cave

According to a new study reported on in Science Daily, the age of the Neanderthal remains found in El Sidrón cave in Spain was not correct. The application of an improved methods reduces the margin of error from 40,000 to 3,200 years. El Sidrón cave in Asturias, in northern Spain, is one of the westernmost Neanderthal sites on the Iberian Peninsula. The research team is co-ordinated by the University of Oviedo.  The age of the El Sidrón remains could prove to be an important piece of information in the discussion about when the transition from Neanderthal to Homo sapiens in Europe. “Some previous datings that stated the remains were only 10,000 years old are inconsistent and cannot be considered credible. They would be highly disputed in the discussion about when Homo neanderthalensis became extinct,” as explained by Marco de la Rasilla, co-ordinator of the research team.

• In review: what is human morality?

A double book review in The Economist focuses on religion, humanism, and morality. The second book reviewed in the essay is by primatologist Frans de Waal who has devoted much of his life to fieldwork among our closest living relatives — chimpanzees and bonobos. De Waal argues in The Bonobo and the Atheist that key principles of so-called human morality, such as empathy, are not limited to humans.

• In memoriam

John Gumperz (front, right, with back to camera) at the Wenner-Gren conference, Cabo San Lucas, 1999.
John J. Gumperz, emeritus professor of sociolinguistic anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, died at the age of 91 years. According to an obituary in The New York Times, he was one of the leading authorities on discourse analysis, the study of who says what to whom, how it is said, and in what context.

The subfield he created, known as interactional sociolinguistics, studies verbal exchanges in a range of social situations. It is especially concerned with discourse as it occurs across cultures, seeking to pinpoint the sources of the misunderstandings that can arise. “He was one of the first people to look at how language is used by people in their everyday lives,” Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of popular books on language, said in a recent interview: “Gumperz was paying attention to the details of how language is used: your intonation, where you pause, the specific expressions that people from one culture or another might use.”

According to an article in UC Berkeley’s Daily Californian, “He brought this passion for language to UC Berkeley, where he taught for 35 years until his retirement in 1991 … ‘He was totally unpretentious,’ said lifelong friend and colleague Dan Slobin, who is a professor emeritus of psychology and linguistics at Berkeley. Among the focuses of Gumperz’s work was code-switching, a process in which speakers use multiple languages in one conversation. He also studied the way culture affects communication, finding that two people speaking the same language were in fact communicating very differently, depending on the different environments in which they learned to speak.

Barbara Miller dances with a star.

[Blogger’s note: I had the unforgettable privilege of meeting John Gumperz at a Wenner-Gren conference in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in 1999. I had admired his work since I was a graduate student, so spending time with him over several days was a great honor. I am including two photos from the conference. The first one was taken as I (background) gave my presentation (John is in the foreground). Following it, he said to me, “That was a lot of words.” I still don’t know if that was a good or bad thing.

Second photo: on the last evening of the week-long conference, the farewell event involved food, drink, music, and dancing. For some unknown reason, John was invited to lead the kick-off dance, and, for another unknown reason, I was paired up with him. Another unforgettable memory of John Gumperz — a great anthropologist and a great dancer! I imagine John is still dancing, somewhere, and also listening to what we say to each other, how we say it, why we say it, and what it all means].

Rachel Horlings, maritime archaeologist, died due to an accident in Ghana, at age 33 years. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in anthropology from Florida State University, focusing on maritime archaeology, and her doctorate from Syracuse University. She had worked on maritime archaeological projects in Turkey, Dominican Republic and Australia, but her passion was the Atlantic maritime trade in coastal Ghana, especially exploring shipwrecks. At the time of her death, she was director of underwater archaeology for the Bunce Island Coalition in Sierra Leone.

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