Anthro in the news 7/15/13

• A bold target for the World Bank

The Globe and Mail (Canada) carried an article based on a lunch conversation with Jim Yong Kim, medical doctor, medical anthropologist, and former university president, marking the end of his first year as president of the World Bank. The article discusses the pros and cons of targets. Targets, even wildly improbable ones, can inspire action and achieve change, even if the target is not achieved. Or they can create embarrassment when failure is seen as the outcome.

World Bank Washington DC
The World Bank in Washington, D.C. on April 16, 2013. Flickr: Simone D. McCourte/World Bank

Kim explains his dedication to a new World Bank target of eliminating extreme poverty worldwide by 2030. He is quoted as saying, “What would be really frightening to me is if people like me, people like the World Bank staff, were so concerned about their own lives that they would not grab the opportunity to set a bold target … It took a very long time to convince people that we should have this target, but now that we do, I just see it as a huge gift…”

[Blogger’s note: no one would argue that eliminating poverty, especially extreme poverty, is not a laudable goal. The question arises, though, of the chosen policy pathways toward the goal. Unfortunately for many small scale communities in developing countries, Kim plans to promote large dam construction and hydroelectric development which will destroy such people’s livelihoods].

• World Bank in Africa on the decline?

The New York Times published an op-ed on the declining importance of World Bank loans to Africa in spite of new World Bank efforts, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The authors argue that: “The World Bank has done important work in promoting good governance and evaluating reform efforts. But its latest pledge of aid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo sends a very mixed message, coming at a time when the International Monetary Fund has been cutting its loan programs to the country because of concerns about poor governance.”

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon share stories while waiting for the state dinner in Kinshasa
World Bank Pres. Kim and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon laugh in Kinshasa. But the Bank's loan programs in Africa are declining. Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

World Bank Director Jim Yong Kim is quoted as saying: “There are always going to be problems and downsides with the governance of places that are fragile [but he adds that through investment and aid]…we can both reduce the conflict and improve governance.” The authors point out that Kim’s argument assumes that more World Bank spending means better government. Despite the billions in aid the D.R.C. has already received, however, “Kinshasa has not felt compelled to improve. It’s not clear why the bank’s new effort will be different.”

• Racial empathy gap

National Public Radio in the U.S. aired an interview with Harvard University anthropology student Jason Silverstein about a Slate article he wrote titled, “I Don’t Feel Your Pain.”

In the article, he draws on research published in 2011 in Italy. Silverstein connects the racial empathy gap to the recent trial of George Zimmerman and the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Silverstein says that much of the racist behavior in the U.S. may stem from the belief held by many white people that African-Americans do not feel as much pain as white people do.

• Land development dispute in South Los Angeles

On June 26, 2013, the public comment came to a close on the future of the South Central Farmers’ farm at 41st St. and Alameda Avenue in South Los Angeles. Under consideration is the building of four massive warehouses on an area encompassing 14 acres, the largest piece of contiguous real estate in South Los Angeles.

An article in Scoop provides extensive quotations from Devon Peña, a Chicano professor of anthropology and ethnic studies at the University of Washington and an activist in the environmental justice movement. Peña is also the founder and president of The Acequia Institute, the nation’s first Latina/o charitable foundation dedicated to supporting research and education for the environmental and food justice movements.

Peña highlights his concern with the process that the City of Los Angeles is following in this project: “I am objecting to the City of Los Angeles Planning Department’s lack of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) for a proposed industrial building development at the site of the vacant land that was the South Central Farm.”

• Relationships in the U.S. are complicated

Cultural anthropologist Michelle Marzullo published an article in The Huffington Post discussing the recent marriage decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court:

Supreme Court
Supreme Court. Flickr/Katie Harbath

“Complicated. This is the word that comes to mind when people ask for my opinion on the recent marriage decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). At first blush, the opinions of the high court in the cases of California’s Proposition 8 (Hollingsworth et al. v. Perry et al.) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (United States v. Windsor) seem clear. First, Proposition 8 remains unconstitutional based on the California Constitution (In re Marriage Cases), therefore marriages in California among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) couples may resume. Second, such couples married in the states allowing it may now be held to all of the federal obligations, regulations and benefits of marriage.”

Marzullo researches marriage, sexuality and the economy in the United States. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology focusing on race, gender and social justice from American University in Washington, D.C.

Note: As part of the American Anthropological Association’s Open Anthropology project that works to bring anthropological knowledge to the general public, a recent co-authored article by Marzullo on the marriage movement’s effect on youth attitudes toward marriage is available without charge here.

• Careers: Anthropology useful in becoming an expert computer programmer

An article in Forbes Magazine included the study of anthropology as a component of becoming an expert computer programmer because it is important to understand people.

• Careers: in museum anthropology

An article The Chronicle for Higher Education notes that M.A. graduates in anthropology seeking museum work may learn about openings by joining the American Alliance of Museums.

• Careers: related to linguistics and linguistic anthropology

The Times of India published an article by Saumya Sharma, assistant professor of linguistics, English, and Foreign Languages at the University, Lucknow, India. She discusses many career options for students who study linguistics and then focuses on connections to anthropological linguistics:

“Sociolinguists study patterns of different languages and dialects, their evolution or decay, the effect of race, age, class, gender and prestige on the use of language and steps that can be taken for language promotion and maintenance. A related area is of anthropological linguistics that examines the languages used by different communities and ethnic minorities, particularly languages that are near extinction. Insights gained from these sub-disciplines have direct impact on language planning and policy-making.”

• Take that anthropology degree…

Jane Campion
Jane Campion. Photo: See Saw Films/Parisa Taghizadeh/BBC

…and become an Oscar-nominated director. Jane Campion earned a degree in anthropology and then went on to study art at both Chelsea Art School in London and Sydney College of the Arts, and then on to film school. She is currently promoting her newest work, “Top of the Lake,” a crime drama she has co-written and co-directed for BBC2, which stars Holly Hunter. It is their first work together since “The Piano.”

• Thumbs up for new documentary on Australia’s prehistory

First Footprints
First Footprints. Source: Sydney Morning Herald

A brief review in the Sydney Morning Herald of a new four-part documentary on the prehistory of Australia’s indigenous people, “First Footprints,” referred to it as “ambitious and often very beautiful.”

Further, “One of the many fascinating things here is how closely scientific work coincides with traditional Dreamtime stories and Songlines remembered and repeated today. The science backs up the stories, but the stories also illuminate the physical evidence and that confluence gives this series a depth and clarity we’ve rarely seen before.”

• “Vampire skeletons” found in Poland

Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931)
Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931)/Wikipedia

USA Today reported on findings in Poland of four burials found with the head placed between their legs. According to tradition, this burial arrangement would ensure that the vampire could not find his head and come back to life. So far the burials have not been dated, but they are likely pre-20th century. The skeletons were found on a construction site near Gliwice, in southern Poland.

• Medieval town discovered in Somerset

According to an article in the BBC History magazine, housing construction unearthed remains of medieval buildings under farmland in Somerset. Experts from Wessex Archaeology believe that the glazed ceramic roof tiles and decorated floor tiles point to the structures being of high status.

Bob Davis, from Wessex Archaeology, said: “This is a significant find and therefore very exciting, particularly as there are no documentary records that such a site ever existed here. Preliminary dating of pottery shards…suggest[s] that the buildings were occupied between the 12th and 14th centuries. At some stage, however, the buildings were abandoned, the useable building materials were robbed and recycled and the site was forgotten.”

• Early Scots the “first masters of time”

The Australian carried an article on how prehistoric hunter gatherer tribes in what is now known as Scotland, may have been among the first humans to create an annual calendar. Archeologists have found evidence of a giant “year clock” capable of tracking the passing of lunar months and linking these to the changing of the seasons, enabling them to prepare for changes in food supply.

The structure, in a field near Banchory in Aberdeenshire, dates back 10,000 years, meaning it predates the calendar systems created by the ancient Mesopotamians 5,000 years ago, which had been thought the world’s oldest.

• “Primitive writing” on stone axes debated in China

Stone axes
Stone axes. AP, via BBC

The Las Vegas Sun and several other media reported on the discovery of what may be the oldest writing found so far in China, dating to about 5,000 years ago. The inscriptions, found on more than 200 pieces excavated from the Neolithic-era Liangzhu site south of Shanghai, are 1,400 years older than the oldest known written Chinese language and around the same age as the oldest writing in the world. Chinese scholars are divided on whether the etchings amount to actual writing or a precursor to words that should be described as symbols. the incisions.

Lead archaeologist Xu Xinmin said there is evidence of words on two broken stone-ax pieces: “They are different from the symbols we have seen in the past on artifacts … The shapes and the fact that they are in a sentence-like pattern indicate they are expressions of some meaning.” Archaeologist Liu Zhao from Fudan University disagrees: “I don’t think they should be considered writing by the strictest definition.” Chinese scholars have agreed to call them “primitive writing,” a vague term suggesting that the markings are somewhere between symbols and words. They also agree that the finding will help shed light on the origins of Chinese language and culture.

• Beyond the Fertile Crescent: Rethinking the origins of farming

According to an article in The Los Angeles times, excavations in southwestern Iran suggest that the prehistoric transition from hunting and gathering to farming occurred throughout the Fertile Crescent at roughly the same time, but gradually and over thousands of years, rather than in a few generations. The findings are published in the journal Science. An audio interview is available on NPR, and even The Financial Times chimed in.

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Western archaeologists were unable to analyze sites in the east with the same modern recovery and dating techniques used to study those to the west. Improved diplomatic relations between Iran and the West enabled archaeologists from the University of Tuebingen in Germany to visit the 12,000-year-old site of Chogha Golan in 2009 and 2010, which they excavated with counterparts from the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research. “I’ve never seen a site so rich,” said Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tuebingen and co-author of the study.

“The eastern Fertile Crescent has been treated as backwater,” said Melinda Zeder, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institute’s Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology, who was not involved in the study. Now, the understanding that people in the Zagros grew and ground cereal grains as early as their counterparts in the Levant has “democratized this situation where everyone in the region was involved.”

• Neanderthals of Gibraltar

In 1848, an officer in the British Royal Navy found the first Gibraltar Neanderthal fossil, the skull of an adult female
In 1848, an officer in the British Royal Navy found the first Gibraltar Neanderthal fossil, the skull of an adult female. Image: AquilaGib/Wikicommons

The Times (Gibraltar) carried an article called “time to meet the Gibraltarthals.” Archaeologists have identified the animals the Neanderthals of Gibraltar ate and the plants growing at the time. Radio carbon dating of a recently discovered hearth reveals that Neanderthals were living on Gibraltar as recently as 28,000 years ago, making them the last known survivors of their species by a few thousand years.

Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum and professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, heads the archaeological research project in Gibraltar. Now in its 22nd year, the project covers nine caves that make up the highest concentration of Neanderthal activity in the world. “It is a bit of an irony that having found some of the first fossil evidence of Neanderthals, we have also found the last ones to be alive,” Finlayson says.

• “Hobbit” argued to be new species

Fossil remains of tiny humanlike creature, nicknamed “Hobbit,” found in Indonesia are those of separate species, says Stony Brook biological anthropologist Karen Baab.

Some scholars say the tiny cave dwellers who inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores were simply small modern humans afflicted with a medical condition. New research of an 18,000-year-old skull, led by Baab and a team of Stony Brook scientists, put the prehistoric hobbit to a battery of modern tests. The researchers conclude, in a paper published in the journal PLoS ONE, that the creatures with tiny heads and oversized feet represent a new distant cousin of modern humans. Baab is quoted as saying, “It is not a modern human with a disease. It is a separate species,” referring to Homo floresiensis as a species within the Homo genus and an early human ancestor.

• Do you want grass with that?

Voice of America’s Science World covered recent findings by evolutionary anthropologists about the dietary transition of early human ancestors in Africa to eating grasses and sedges. A change in diet about 3.5 million years ago may have set early human ancestors on a path to becoming modern humans, according to a study led by the University of Colorado, Boulder. Grasses and sedges were readily available, but the hominids seem to have ignored them for an extended period, said anthropology professor Matt Sponheimer, lead author of the study.

Sponheimer is quoted as saying: “We don’t know exactly what happened … But we do know that after about 3.5 million years ago, some of these hominids started to eat things that they did not eat before, and it is quite possible that these changes in diet were an important step in becoming human.”

• Laetoli footprints in the news

An article in all.Africa raises the question of the preservation status of the 3.8 million-year-old footprints at Laetoli. An article in the Daily News (Tanzania) notes new efforts to find additional footprints in the area by a team of U.S. researchers including Charles Musiba of the University of Colorado at Denver.

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