Anthro in the news 12/2/13

• Breast cancer screening in Israel: opportunity or not?

In Israel, a push to screen for a breast cancer gene leaves many women conflicted, according to an article in The New York Times. Israel has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the world, and many scientists are advocating what may be the first national screening campaign to test women for cancer-causing genetic mutations that are common among Jews. But the tests mean that women have to choose between what they want to know, when they want to know it, and what to do with the information.

Komen Race Jerusalem 2012
Komen Race for the Cure (for breast cancer) in Jerusalem 2012. Flickr/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

Jews of Ashkenazi, or central and eastern European, backgrounds, make up about half of the Jewish population in Israel and the vast majority of those in the U.S. They are much more likely to carry mutations that pose risks for breast and ovarian cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The debate about screening is economic — will the state cover the costs of testing — and ethnic — will only Ashkenazi Jews be routinely tested? Israel is a melting pot of both Arab citizens and Jews from all over the world, and only half of the country’s six million Jews are of Ashkenazi ancestry.

Moreover, even though the testing would be voluntary, women could feel pressured to participate, said Barbara A. Koenig, a professor of medical anthropology and bioethics at the University of California, San Francisco. “When you institute mass screening, you’re making a collective decision that this is a good thing.”

• Sharing amidst poverty in the U.S.

An article in The Los Angeles times described how L.A.’s close-knit Tongan community struggles with poverty while maintaining their strong cultural tradition of sharing. Statistics show half of Tongan Angelenos live in poverty. But, they say, a culture of sharing means “no Tongan is here to get rich”—because even the smallest thing is given.

Scholars believe the numbers of people in the Tongan diaspora is larger than the population of Tongans on the islands. The article quotes Cathy A. Small, a Northern Arizona University anthropology professor who has long studied Tongan communities. When visiting a classroom in Tonga a few years ago, children were told to write letters to their mothers in New Zealand, saying what they wanted for their birthdays. “Nobody found the assignment strange.”

• A dose of anthropology recommended for psychiatry

An article in The Guardian noted that the new president of the World Psychiatric Association, Dinesh Bhugra, wants a radical rethink of mental illness and for the psychiatry profession to apologize for the harm it has inflicted on gay people and women. Further, he wants all medical, psychiatric and nursing students to be trained first in sociology and anthropology so they understand the culture in which they will practice.

• Two anthropologists speak out against banning of forced marriage in the U.K.: A thorny issue with no easy solution

Two cultural anthropologists argue that the proposed outlawing in the U.K. of forced marriage will fail because brides who get their relatives sent to jail will be rejected by their South Asian families. Roger Ballard, a consulting anthropologist living in England, and Fauzia Shariff, argue that South Asian culture has taken such deep roots in Britain that even cultural practices such as forced marriage, which dismay Western liberals, cannot be effectively forbidden without causing negative consequences for potential forced brides and their families.

Forced Marriage Unit
Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Forced Marriage Unit, 8 June 2012. Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office

[Blogger’s note: With apologies, I have not read the relevant policy and related anthropological writings, but it does seem that universal — not to mention British — norms about freedom and agency related to marriage need to be upheld, even though they don’t fit with certain cultural group’s perceptions and even though their enforcement will not be at all easy or non-problematic in the shorter term.

I assume there are dialogues going on in the U.K. and, I hope, possible progress coming out of such conversations in terms of South Asian immigrants’ accommodating to British norms about non-forced marriage?]

• Madonna in Haiti

According to several media sources including ABC News, Madonna recently visited Haiti to visit humanitarian projects that ex-husband Sean Penn has been overseeing since the Caribbean nation’s devastating earthquake in 2010. She posted several photos on Instagram including one of her at a new hospital built by medical anthropologist and public health pioneer, Paul Farmer, in the central part of the country.

•Challenging assumptions about aging in the U.S.

An article in The Tampa Bay Times highlighted the research of Jay Sokolovsky, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. When he began his career as an anthropologist, cultural anthropologists did not focus on the elderly – it was more concerned with “international populations and often small tribal populations in Africa, the Amazon or in Arctic areas where they still have hunters and foragers,” said Sokolovsky.

Jay Sokolovsky
Jay Sokolovsky. Credit: Cherie Diez/Times

He became involved in a field project in New York City with newly released mental patients living in residential hotels in Midtown Manhattan. Many of them were elderly, yet they were managing to survive with very little support and very little money. Sokolovsky was intrigued even through colleagues told him that wasn’t really anthropology. Over the next several decades he helped define the study of aging.

In November, Sokolovsky received the 2013 Robert B. Textor and Family Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology. The award recognizes contributions in anthropology that encourage informed policy choices. In an interview with him, he was asked if he looks back and says, “I told you so”? His reply: “It’s not so much a matter of ‘I told you so’ as I’m glad the discipline finally sees the merit of this kind of research.”

• Cooking for crowds: 40th anniversary edition

An article in The Boston Globe talks about the 40th anniversary edition of Cooking for Crowds, by cultural anthropologist Merry White, professor at Boston University. Forty years ago, White was a graduate student who liked to cook. She took a job at Harvard’s Center for West European Studies, preparing meals for $6 a person. About 50 people would show up for lunch and 25 for dinner. “I was earning money to go to graduate school and taking intensive Japanese,” says White.

Her cooking impressed a New York publisher who dined at the Center, and he told White that he wanted to put them in a book. Cooking for Crowds was published in 1974 with drawings by cartoonist Edward Koren. The 40th anniversary edition will be published soon.

• Merry White in the news again

USA Today carried an article about trends in dining in or eating out on Thanksgiving. The article quotes Merry White: “Thanksgiving is an archetypal home festival,” says Merry White, author of Cooking for Crowds and a professor of food anthropology at Boston University. She recalls one year when a friend served lamb shish kebabs for Thanksgiving: “There was such a feeling of transgression … Everyone felt slightly uncomfortable. It was delicious, but it wasn’t Thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving Pizza
Thanksgiving Pizza. Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski

Nonetheless, White ate out on Thursday to make things easier on her boyfriend’s elderly father, who can’t manage stairs. But she hosted a second Thanksgiving at her house on Friday. “I have to have it,” she says. “I can’t bear the idea of no leftovers.”

• Take that anthro degree and…

…become an actor, voiceover artist, and author. Alicia Coppola has a dual degree from New York University in political anthropology and philosophy. Coppola has attracted legions of fans during her runs on CBS’s Jericho and on the soap opera Another World on NBC. Coppola published her book, Gracefully Gone, in June.

The subject is one that the age 45+ audience, comprised of many caregivers, can definitely relate to: The book chronicles a decade-long dialogue between Coppola and her father as he battled, and ultimately succumbed to, brain cancer. The book is a fusion of two journals, she says: her father’s writings from his 1980 diagnosis until his 1983 remission and her own journal from 1989 to 1991 while she cared for him until his death. Now energized by the love of writing, Coppola is charting future works influenced by her “other jobs” of being a wife and a mother to three daughters.

• St. Peter’s bones or not?

An article in The Guardian described the Vatican’s plans to display fragments discovered in a Roman cemetery in 1959 that some say are the remains of St. Peter, considered by the Roman Catholic Church as its first pope. Others say they are not. According to Pope Paul VI in 1968, fragments found in the necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica were “identified in a way that we can consider convincing.”

The Denial of Saint Peter-Caravaggio
Caravaggio's Denial of Saint Peter/Wikipedia

Some background: Overseen by German monsignor Ludwig Kaas, eleven years of digging led, in 1950, to a stunning papal radio broadcast that “the tomb of the prince of the apostles” had been found. But despite the discovery of human bones, the pope was forced to admit that his team had not been able to prove that they were those of the apostle Peter.

Years later, archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, the first woman to lead excavations of the Vatican, became convinced the bones were indeed those of Saint Peter.

To the outrage of Antonio Ferrua, the Jesuit father who had been the chief archaeologist on the initial excavation, Guarducci convinced the pope to say the bones were believed to be Saint Peter’s – which he did. Since then Kaas, Ferrua and Guarducci have all died. The relics live on.

• What would the Buddha say?

Ongoing archaeological excavations at the supposed birth place of the Buddha claim to push back the date by at least 300 years. The Japan Times featured the research of archaeologist Robin Coningham of Durham University in Lumbini, Nepal. Lumbini has long been considered a sacred place to Buddhists as Buddha’s birthplace. After a three years of excavations on the site of the Maya Devi temple at Lumbini, Nepal, Coningham and his team of 40 archaeologists discovered a timber-structured tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years. Their conclusion: the birth date of the Buddha is far earlier than legend indicated.

In coverage by the Guardian Express (Las Vegas), several scholars expressed skepticism. South Asian archaeology lecturer Julia Shaw of the University College London called the discovery speculative and was cautious on the claim of the team about the oldest Buddhist shrine they have found. She added that the worship of trees is common during the time and that the Buddhist ritual may have overlapped with other pre-existing traditions. But she maintained the findings presented new insights for further study.

Buddha birthplace at Lumbini, Nepal
Buddha birthplace at Lumbini, Nepal. Credit: Guardian Express

Historian emeritus of Buddhism Richard Gombrich of the University of Oxford meanwhile said of the discovery of Buddha’s birthplace as “rubbish.” He added that there was no evidence that what was previously in the site was a Buddhist shrine. Donald Lopez of the University of Michigan and author of the history of the Buddha also expressed caution to relate the earlier structures to Buddhism saying that this could have come from other religions as well.

Nancy Wilkie, professor emeritus of Carleton College in Minnesota, noted that the excavations were done in a very small and limited area. The wooden structures the team found are based only on five holes and can only be considered a small evidence to draw any conclusions from.

The excavations were partially funded by the National Geographic Society and the Japanese and Nepalese governments. Results of the study will appear in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.

• The story of sweet potatoes

A note in The Times (London) on the origins of the sweet potato in Polynesia mentioned the research of Ian Barber on the subject. Barber is an archaeologist at the University of Otago.

• Very old javelins

According to an article in The Daily Mail, the oldest known stone-pointed javelins have been discovered in Gademotta, Ethiopia, dating to 280,000 years ago and thus earlier than modern humans by 80,000 years. The discovery of the spear tips, and the evidence that they were part of throwing tools rather than stabbing tools, means that their makers, Homo heidelbergensis, were far more technologically advanced than previously thought. Researchers believe Homo heidelbergensis is the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens in Africa as well as of Neanderthals in Europe and Asia.

Writing in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley’s Human Evolution Research Center, say the weapons were made from obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass known for its high blast resistance and strength: “[This] is significant because it provides direct evidence for a highly advantageous, complex technology that pre-dates the emergence of Homo sapiens.”

AllAfrica quoted Yonatan Sahle, archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley and lead author of the report, who said that “We were only interested in testing the hypothesis that these tools were definitely used to tip spears …The eureka came much later as we did the analysis and found out that the features we were dealing with were the result of throwing impact, not thrusting.”

• Star wars: Beyoncé vs. Egypt’s “Indiana Jones”

According to famed Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, Beyoncé arrived late for her tour with him of the Pyramids, and she did not apologize about making Hawass wait for her. Therefore he would not permit her to tour the ancient site because of her “rude” behavior.

Zahi Hawass
Zahi Hawass. AFP via Daily Telegraph

A representative for Beyoncé insists that Hawass is making up stories, stating, “This never happened. Nothing like this happened. Lies and more lies.” Hawass told British newspaper The Independent, “Most people I take on tours are very nice and we become friends. But this lady … She said she would come at 3 p.m., but she came late. I said, ‘You have to say I’m sorry I’m late’. But she didn’t open her mouth.”

• Jane Goodall’s worst nightmare: the future — unless things change

The Sydney Morning Herald environment section provided coverage of primate conservation issues including commentary from primatologist Jane Goodall. She will visit Australia at the end of May with a series of shows celebrating her extraordinary 80 years with youth events and corporate leadership seminars. The visit is likely to bring with it a political message for the Prime Minister.

CNN asked Goodall recently about Prime Minister Tony Abbott‘s stance on climate change and the abolition of the Climate Commission. The question posed to her was: was asked: ”If the new prime minister is dissolving that commission what does it say?”

She responded: ”What it says is what we all know and that is that industry and corporations have so much power, they have power over governments. We do everything because what happens is the bottom line, the next shareholders meeting … I think my worst nightmare is thinking of my own great, great-grandchildren and what the world will be like for them if we don’t change.”

• Kudos

This year’s Rutherford Medal, awarded annually to New Zealand’s foremost scientist, goes to University of Auckland professor Dame Anne Salmond whose research spans New Zealand history, Maori culture, Maori-Pakeha relations, and ecological restoration. Salmond, the first social scientist to receive the Rutherford Medal, was cited for her “eminent work on Maori social structures and interactions with the European world, and on European exploration and engagement in the Pacific.” She is the author of several award-winning books about New Zealand culture and history. In 2004, she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement. A fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, she was named Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year earlier this year, an award that acknowledges “an outstanding contribution to the well-being of the nation.”

American cultural anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd has been named to the Advisory Board of Healthy Mother Wellness & Care, a provider of holistic maternity and newborn care in India based on the Scientific Midwifery Model of Care. Davis-Floyd is Senior Research Fellow in the department of anthropology at the University of Texas Austin and a Fellow of the Society for Applied Anthropology. A world-renowned medical anthropologist, international speaker and researcher in transformational models in childbirth, midwifery and obstetrics, she is the author of over 80 articles and several influential books. Her current research focuses on paradigm shifts of holistic obstetricians in Brazil. Robbie serves as Editor for the International MotherBaby Childbirth Initiative (IMBCI): 10 Steps to Optimal Maternity Care, Board Member of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization (IMBCO), and Senior Advisor to the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction.

• In memoriam

Basil Hennessy
Basil Hennessy at a dig in Jericho in 1952. He had joined the team, led by Kathleen Kenyon, the previous year. Source: The Times (UK)

Basil Hennessy, emeritus professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Sydney, died at the age of 88 years. One of the great figures of Australian archaeology and noted expert on the Bronze Age in the Near East, Hennessy was admired both as a lecturer and expert field researcher. His publications include Stephania: A Middle and Late Bronze Age Cemetery in Cyprus, The Foreign Relations of Palestine during the Early Bronze Age, and Pella in Jordan I (with A.W. McNicoll and R.H. Smith).

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