Anthro in the news 2/16/15

  • Cultural anthropology expertise essential

An article in The Guardian on global mental health aid following disasters and crises noted that: “The best experts to bridge the gap between international and local experience are those who might not have a health or psychology background, but have deep knowledge about cultural differences: anthropologists.”

And more: “Since the Ebola outbreak there is a growing recognition of this discipline’s role in emergencies. The American Anthropological Association has asked its members to become more involved in the West African countries hit by the disease. It argues that if anthropologists had been more involved from the start of the outbreak more people wouldn’t have caught the disease due to misunderstandings over traditional burials and conspiracy theories about westerners spreading the illness.”

[Blogger’s note: I am happy to report that my Institute, at the George Washington University, co-hosted the meeting in November in Washington, D.C., that was supported by the American Anthropological Association, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and other organizations. See the You Tube videos, Part 1 – Panel 1 and Part 2 – Panel 2 of the event and the recommendations].

  • Hope for return to Chagos
Diego Garcia

The New African magazine published an article by Sean Carey, of the University of Roehampton,  summarizing the current status of the Chagossians’ claims for the right of return to their homeland. Carey discusses the legal shenanigans at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and other parts of the Empire. Leaders of the return movement are cautiously optimistic.

  • No religious basis for anti-vaxxers

An article in The New York Times reviews the issue of formal exceptions in New York state, allowing parents to not have their children vaccinated for medical or religious reasons. Recent outbreaks of measles and mumps in ultra-Orthodox communities in the Brooklyn area have prompted discussion among rabbis about possible underpinnings for anti-vaccine attitudes in interpretations of Jewish law. At one school the proportion of students receiving vaccine exemptions more than doubled to 12 percent during the 2013-14 school year. The article quotes Don Seeman, a rabbi and professor of Jewish studies and medical anthropology at Emory University: “I don’t think there’s much rabbinical support for not vaccinating…What does exist in certain communities is a lot of anxiety about science and the risks we are exposed to through technology.” The texts of most major religious were created before vaccinations were invented, so interpretations have to rely more on teachings about health and well-being in general.

  • Mardi Gras shooting

The Acadiana Advocate (Louisiana) reported on the shooting Thursday night of two people during the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. It quoted Rocky Sexton, a professor of anthropology at Ball State University who has researched the effects of alcohol consumption at Mardi Gras:

“At a parade, you have thousands of people you’re drawing from a cross-section of society and a cross-section of neighborhoods in New Orleans, so that could be the place you’d come across somebody you’ve got some sort of beef with…When you’re in a setting like that, where things are already chaotic, it sort of sets the tone.”

  • Asserting adulthood through smoking

Inside Higher Education carried a review of a book about campus smoking by Mimi Nichter, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, Lighting Up: The Rise of Social Smoking on College Campuses. Nichter focuses on group situations and norms in which college student smoking it is embedded. In addition to conducting surveys and drawing on the work of other researchers, she gathered detailed accounts of social smoking from students (freshmen and sophomores) and checked her ethnography by presenting draft chapters to her classes: “Students have told me that my descriptions of student life and smoking and drinking on campus are quite accurate.”

The students feel the allure of smoking while knowing better. They distinguish between social smoking at parties, where they enjoy a few cigarettes, versus being addicted to nicotine. Social smoking is never done alone, thus no stigma applies.

“Young adults have the highest prevalence of smoking of all other age groups,” Nicheter notes, “with approximately 35 percent reporting that they currently smoke.”

  • Prayer is widespread though often disappointing

The American Association of Retired People magazine included an article about how older people in the U.S. pray more than younger people. It quotes cultural anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann of Stanford University on the global importance of prayer:  “Aside from Buddhists, and even there you’ll find exceptions, I don’t think there’s any society on earth that doesn’t interact with gods and spirits.”

  • Take that anthro degree and…

…become a surgeon. Scarlett McNally is consultant orthopedic surgeon at Eastbourne District General Hospital, England, and she is also Director of Medical Education (East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust). Among her several degrees, she has a B.Sc. in basic medical sciences and anthropology from University College London. McNally coordinated the Integrated Care Pathways for patients with hip fractures at Eastbourne and has written patient information leaflets for patients with common conditions. She was recently profiled in The Guardian with a focus on her advice to people to get regular exercise.

  • Gone to the dogs: What happened to the Neanderthals

The Boston Globe published an article discussing the similarities between modern humans and Neanderthals and then poses the (so far) unanswerable question of why Neanderthals went extinct, apparently after contact with modern humans. The article mentions the work Pat Shipman, emeritus adjunct professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University who has written a new book about on the demise of the Neanderthals, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. She builds on recent findings that the domestication of dogs occurred at least 36,000 years ago, rather than the 10,000 years ago previously believed. Shipman asks what advantages quasi-domesticated “wolf-dogs” might have given humans in hunting, and speculates that this factor could explain the triumph of modern humans over Neanderthals.

The article quotes Steven Churchill, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University:  “It’s a great time to be researching Neanderthals because we’re learning so quickly…But it’s a horrible time to write a book…” because new information is arriving at such a fast pace that it’s difficult for even scholars to keep up.

Clive Finlayson, director of the Heritage Division at the Gibraltar Museum, and a longtime Neanderthal researcher comments: “What we’ve been showing slowly is, we’ve been making the Neanderthals more and more like us, human in a sense…Of course they were different; people in different parts of the world have differences in culture and so on. But they’re human. And we’ve brought the Neanderthal closer to us.”

  • More and more, we find that Neanderthals are like us (but they didn’t have dogs)

The New Yorker magazine carried an article about Neanderthal capabilities and closeness to modern humans. The article starts by discussing a recently announced discovery that the earliest known encounters took place in Israel. A fifty-five-thousand-year-old skull found in a cave near the Sea of Galilee was identified as that of a modern human. It is the first evidence that humans were living in the region at the same time Neanderthals are known to have inhabited it. It also discusses the finding by researchers at the University of Montreal of a fifty-five-thousand-year-old tool made of bone in a cave in France. Because, at that point, modern humans had not yet reached France, the tool, fashioned from a reindeer femur, must have been made by Neanderthals. Six months before that announcement came news from a team of European researchers about the finding of an engraved design made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar.

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