Anthro in the news 6/30/14

  • She said, he said, he said: Public debt is slavery or not?

As reported in an article in The Washington Post, last fall, at a fundraiser in Iowa, Sarah Palin said:

“Our free stuff today is being paid for today by taking money from our children and borrowing from China. When that money comes due and, this isn’t racist, so try it, try it anyway, this isn’t racist, but it’s going to be like slavery when that note is due. Right? We are going to be beholden to a foreign master.”

Then: The Baffler provides a transcript of a public conversation about the financial crisis between American anthropologist David Graeber, a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement and author of  Debt: The First 5000 Years, and French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century. They were in Paris talking about the financial crisis and its implications.

About half-way through the conversation, Piketty says:

“One of the points that I most appreciate in David Graeber’s book is the link he shows between slavery and public debt…As Graeber explains, the intergenerational transmission of debt that slavery embodied has found a modern form in the growing public debt, which allows for the transfer of one generation’s indebtedness to the next.”

In a follow-up to Graeber, he says:

“No…There’s absolutely no relation. Anyway, my reference wasn’t to slavery and public debt at all…I think it might be a bad translation or language problem…I have no idea what it could be referring to otherwise. I make no connection of slavery and public debt.”

  • More on David Graeber: Debt audits and debtocracies

An article in The Guardian on national debt and debt audits around the world mentioned cultural anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics. The article focuses on the recent French debt audit which is part of a movement of debt audits in more than 18 countries. Debt audits show that austerity is politically motivated to favor social elites. The article says:

“Anyone who has read a newspaper in recent years knows how important debt is to contemporary politics. As David Graeber among others has shown, we live in debtocracies, not democracies. Debt, rather than popular will, is the governing principle of our societies, through the devastating austerity policies implemented in the name of debt reduction. Debt was also a triggering cause of the most innovative social movements in recent years, the Occupy movement.”

  • Take that anthro degree and…

…become a doctor and medical researcherLarry Rand is director of Perinatal Services at UCSF’s Fetal Treatment Center and the Lynne and Marc Benioff Endowed Chair in Maternal and Fetal Medicine. A renowned researcher in the prevention of pre-term infant mortality, Rand is the co-director of a new $100 million research project from the Benioffs and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce the incidence of premature births around the world, particularly among low-income populations. While an undergraduate at New York University, he became an anthropology major. He says his eventual decision to go into medicine, specifically obstetrics, grew out of his love for anthropology and his fascination with pregnancy and the development of life within: “It’s truly so amazing, and I wanted to be a part of it, and help when things are not going well.”

…improve the lives of seniorsDavis Park is director of The Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing. His mission is to test technology that might help the older adults who have moved into Front Porch’s 12 retirement communities, live better. Front Porch has five continuing care retirement communities that provide a continuum of housing for seniors, from independent living to nursing care. Park studied anthropology.

  • Is it or isn’t it

An article in USA Today described the possible discovery in Lake Michigan of the Griffin, a vessel commanded by a 17th-century French explorer. The Griffin is believed to be the first ship of European design to sail the upper Great Lakes. It disappeared with a crew of six on its maiden voyage in 1679 after La Salle had disembarked near the mouth of Wisconsin’s Green Bay.

Steve Libert, a shipwreck hunter who has sought the wreckage for decades, said that his crew found the debris about 120 feet from the spot where they removed a wooden slab a year ago that was protruding from the lake bottom. Libert believes that timber was the bowsprit of Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s ship. Scientists who joined the 2013 expedition say the slab more likely was an abandoned fishing net stake.

“This is definitely the Griffin — I’m 99.9 percent sure it is,” Libert said. “This is the real deal.”

Dean Anderson, Michigan’s state archaeologist, said he hadn’t been notified of the find and could not speculate about whether the Griffin had finally been located.

  • Civilization and its worms: oldest human parasite found

According to coverage by CBC (Canada) and other mainstream media, a skeleton that is more than 6,200 years old provides the earliest evidence of infection with a parasitic worm that now afflicts more than 200 million people worldwide. Archaeologists discovered a parasite egg near the pelvis of a child skeleton in northern Syria and say it dates back to a time when settled societies first used irrigation systems to grow crops. The new farming technique meant people were spending a lot of time wading in warm water which is the ideal conditions for the parasites to jump into humans. That may have triggered outbreaks of the water-borne flatworm disease known as schistosomiasis. Scientists studied parasites in 26 prehistoric burials of people who lived at the site of Tell Zeidan in northern Syria. The findings were published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The article quotes Gil Stein, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Chicago, one of the report’s authors: “The invention of irrigation was a major technological breakthrough (but) it had unintended consequences.”

Piers Mitchell, who also authored the study, is quoted as saying that early farming societies could have inadvertently launched the global transmission of the flatworm parasites and which continue to afflict millions of people: “In many parts of Africa, someone clever decides to put in a dam or an artificial water source and then 10 years later, everyone’s getting schistosomiasis,”

  • Very old human poop: Neanderthal diet update

Researchers excavating at El Salt, a site in southern Spain where Neanderthals lived 50,000 years ago, were initially looking for remnants of food in fireplaces. They found tiny bits of poop which they believe is the oldest fecal matter from a human relation ever discovered.

Ainara Sistiaga, a paleoarchaeologist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who led the excavation, says that her team was surprised to learn that the poop contains phytosterols, cholesterol-like compounds, which come from plants. It also contains a lot of animal-derived cholesterol, confirming the presence of meat in their diet as well. The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

Sistiaga is quoted as saying: “This opens a new window into Neanderthal diet because it’s the first time we actually know what they digested and consumed.”

Several skeptical views have been voiced including that of Alison Brooks, paleoanthropologist at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She agrees that the new work by Sistiaga puts: “another nail in the Neanderthal carnivore coffin.” But Brooks raises some questions about the team’s methods for determining who — or what — produced the poop. She says it is possible the poop came from another omnivorous mammal, such as a wolf, bear or Macaque monkey:  “I don’t know what humans are doing defecating in a fireplace, but you could see a wolf doing that.”

  • In memoriam
Robert Gardner in New Guinea filming Dead Birds. Photo: Jan Broekhuyse.

Robert Gardner, an intrepid filmmaker who specialized in anthropological documentaries examining lives in remote societies around the globe, died at the age of 88 years. Gardner, who had been a student of art history at Harvard, began making films in the early 1950s after visiting Turkey with the archaeologist and scholar Thomas Whittemore and starting graduate school in anthropology at the University of Washington where he pursued but did not complete a degree.

Invited to take pictures and conduct research on an expedition in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, he then returned to Massachusetts and helped start a film production and research unit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. This became the Film Study Center, which he directed from 1957 to 1997. The Peabody Museum sponsored the New Guinea expedition in 1961 which led to the legendary documentary Dead Birds.

Gardner’s books include, Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age, written with Karl G. Heider, and Making ‘Forest of Bliss’: Intention, Circumstance and Chance in Nonfiction Film, with Akos Ostor. Through much of the 1970s, Gardner was the host of Screening Room, a television series devoted to interviews with independent filmmakers, on WCVB in Boston.

According to The New York Times: “His work is known for its sophisticated visual language and sparse narration, unveiled ethnographically distinctive peoples and practices with patience and a kind of objective astonishment.”


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