Anthro in the news 5/5/14

  • President Obama in Indonesia: The son of an anthropologist
Stanley Ann Dunham (left) with her two children, Barack (middle), and Maya (right). Source: stanleyanndunhamfund

That’s meant to be a compliment! The Washington Post and other media covering the President’s trip to Asia noted that President Obama appeared to be especially comfortable during his visit to Indonesia:

“While Obama often utters a few halting words in the language of the countries he visits, he tossed off Malaysian phrases with ease during a state dinner in Kuala Lumpur. He also broke into a spontaneous exchange in Indonesian during a town hall meeting the next day. His personal connection to the region showed up in more subtle ways as well, as when he slowed his pace to keep in step with Malaysia’s king — a move many Malaysians saw as a cultural gesture of respect for an elder.”

Obama lived in Indonesia between the ages of 6 and 10. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a cultural anthropologist whose second husband was Indonesian. Their daughter, Maya Soetero, is President Obama’s his only sibling. Dunham spent two decades living in the region doing anthropological research on local artisans. She died at the age of 52 in Honolulu.

  • Vetiver: Wealth from Haiti’s land whisked away

According to an article in Reuters, the vetiver plant, a tropical grass, is a little-known Haitian agricultural treasure, producing one of the most prized essential oils for high-end perfumes. The crop is a major employer in southwest Haiti, where farmers have harvested vetiver for decades but earn little from it. Production of the plant in Haiti collapsed in the late 1960s during the three-decade-long dictatorships of Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) and Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc). Pierre Léger, a Haitian agronomist, revived vetiver farming in the 1980s. Léger took samples to the top French and Swiss perfumers. “The quality was so good, they couldn’t believe it was from Haiti.”

The question now is: given the global value of Haitian vetiver, how can Haitian farmers benefit from it? Critics say the fair-trade system may not help the farmers enough given the precarious situation of vetiver famers. Cultural anthropologist Scott Freeman, a visiting scholar at George Washington University and author of a 2011 paper on Haitian vetiver, said events often force farmers to dig up immature roots to cover medical care, school fees or a funeral: “When they find themselves in a tight squeeze, they dig up the vetiver.”

  • India: Home to the champagne of mangoes

An article in The Guardian describes the furor in Europe caused by the EU’s recent import ban on Indian mangoes due to reported fruit flies. It included a comment from Pushpesh Pant, a food anthropologist in New Delhi about the high value of India-grown mangoes:  “You get wine all over the world, but there is only one region where they produce real champagne…Mangoes from Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil, China, Thailand or Pakistan don’t even bear mentioning in the same breath as Indian mangoes.”

  • New cookbook for global foodies

The Philadelphia Inquirer provided a tantalizing snippet about a new cookbook compiled by the Women’s Committee of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The article, which includes three recipes, beckons you to: “Take a tasty journey from Mexico to Egypt and Africa via recipes from Culinary Expeditions, A Celebration of Food and Culture, a new book from the Women’s Committee to benefit the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.”

  • Take that anthro degree and…

…become a sound artist. Ernst Karel is a social anthropologist who manages the experimental Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University. The SEL promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnology. It conducts and sponsors sound and audiovisual projects that are exhibited across Europe and North America, and offers students assistance in the form of production equipment and faculty mentoring. Karel collaborates with video and filmmakers as a sound recordist, mixer and sound designer. His work and many of theirs give the audience an unusual and immediate sense of place, in which complex, but unidentified natural and man-made operations are occurring. He also works as a mastering engineer, preparing a wide variety of material for publication on CD, including folk music from various cultures, spoken word, new music and electronic music; he also has digitally re-mastered several Folkways recordings for first-time reissue on CD on the Locust Music label. In addition to his freelance work, before coming to Harvard Karel worked as a sound engineer and recordist at the Chicago Cultural Center and as engineer, recordist and editor at Chicago Public Radio.

Karel holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Human Development where his doctoral research connected cultural psychology, anthropology and ethnomusicology. His fieldwork-based dissertation, Kerala Sound Electricals: Amplified Sound and Cultural Meaning in South India, is a study in the anthropology of sound.

…work on reducing malnutrition in Rwanda. Michaela Kupfer is the Monitoring & Evaluation Fellow with Gardens for Health International, an organization that partners with families in Rwanda to provide lasting agricultural solutions to chronic malnutrition. She has a B.A. in anthropology from Washington University.

  • Will the real begging bowl of the Buddha be confirmed?

A team of Archaeological Survey of India officials will go to Kabul to assess whether the giant relic in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul is actually the ‘begging bowl’ that Lord Buddha used during his days in Vaishali in the sixth century B.C.E. The matter came to light after Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, raised a question about this in India’s Parliament in 2013, asking why India was not making an effort to bring it back. The ASI team will try to find out if the relic in question is the same that Chinese scholars Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang and British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham referred to in their writings.

  • Oldest known settlement in Britain

The tusk of a wild boar that was killed and eaten nearly 10,000 years ago is rewriting the history of the British Isles. The discovery has confirmed that the Wiltshire village of Amesbury, two miles from Stonehenge, is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Britain, and has been home to people since just after the end of the last Ice Age.

  • Don’t call your (Neanderthal) cousin stupid

The Huffington Post, among other mainstream media, reported on findings about Neanderthal intelligence published in the journal PLOS ONE. The study is based on archaeological evidence which shows the capabilities of Neanderthals. Key findings are that Neanderthals had complex hunting methods that required a group effort and planning in advance; likely use of spoken language; use of pigments probably for body painting; use of symbolic objects like eagle claws and perforated animal teeth, probably for pendants; and the sophisticated use of fire.

Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at the Leiden University in the Netherlands, is quoted as saying:
“We found no data in support of the supposed technological, social and cognitive inferiority of Neanderthals compared to their modern human contemporaries…The vision of primitive club-wielding brutes who in the end vanished when superior modern humans entered their world has been obsolete for a long time already. “

Co-author Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said the truth about the Neanderthals is more complex than the dismissive stereotype. Neanderthals prospered across Europe and Asia from about 350,000 to about 40,000 years ago, but disappeared after early modern humans trekked into Europe from Africa.

  • More on Neanderthal ingenuity: Inventors of “boil in a bag” meals?

The Daily Mail (U.K.) reported on findings by John Speth, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of Michigan, who told a meeting at the Society for American Archaeology in Austin Texas: “I think it’s pretty likely the Neanderthals boiled.” Neanderthals were skilled with the use of fire, and experts now think they may have invented a form of cooking food, akin to modern boil-in-the-bag cooking. If so, this finding shoots holes in the theory that modern humans were able to thrive, while Neanderthals died out, thanks to modern humans’ ability to process food through using heat. Speth speculates that Neanderthals boiled their food in skin bags or in trays crafted from twisted birch bark, citing as evidence animal bones at Neanderthal sites that are free of gnawing marks, suggesting that the fat had been removed by cooking. Grains found in the teeth of a Neanderthal from Iraq show signs of having been cooked. [Blogger’s note: Maybe it was Neanderthal women who invented the boil in a bag meal!]


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