anthro in the news 6/12/17

A scene in Kashmir. Credit: Images Commons

when a national army threatens its people

The Wire published commentary by Partha Chatterjee, professor of anthropology & Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University, in which he addresses the question: When does a nation’s army start to believe that to preserve its authority, it must be feared by its own people? He writes: “The example of Israel that is often cited these days as the model from which India should learn is, in this context, particularly troubling. Israel is, properly speaking, a settler colony that regards Palestinians as a hostile and rebellious other that must be subdued and kept apart. Is that what India’s political leaders believe their relation must be to the people of Kashmir or Manipur or Nagaland? One can only hope that as a nation, we have not reached the edge of a slippery slope.”

racial politics and university admissions

Brazilian people. Credit: Images Commons

The Guardian reported on challenges facing Brazilian higher education in improving enrollment rates of students in lower income categories and black, brown, and indigenous students. Brazil’s law of social quotas was passed in 2012 and was meant to be in full compliance by 2016.  A major problem is rooted in the practice of aspiring students reporting their own racial category. Abuses have been reported with white-looking students gaining admission by claiming to be non-white. The article quotes Rogerio Reis, an anthropology professor: “We saw the most incredible situations unfold…People would shave their heads, wear beanies, get a tan. Just a series of strategies to turn themselves black.” [Blogger’s note: self-stated “racial” identity and “looks” are extremely questionable criteria for determining access to a coveted university slot. Though far from perfect, an income/poverty measure seems preferable depending on the information source].


medical anthropologist, doctor, and inspiration

CNN carried an article related to its new one-hour prime-time special, airing June 17, at 9 p.m. ET on CNN and CNNgo, about leaders and volunteers behind inspiring organizations. The article focuses on Paul Farmer, medical anthropologist, medical doctor, and health activist through his work as co-founder of Partners in Health as well as health care lobbying in the U.S. The piece explores Farmer’s motivations for his humanitarian work: “When Farmer first came to Haiti in his early 20s, he couldn’t precisely identify his motivations. He said he felt ‘the desire to help people, especially people living in poverty,’ and that feeling has stayed with him. ‘I think I grew into the motivations I thought I had…’ Perhaps, it is the enormous pressure he may feel to live up to being the title figure in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, in which author Tracy Kidder calls on Farmer to be ‘a man who would cure the world.’…it may have to do with his own theory of being moved to correct the injustices he has seen and experienced his whole life.”

take that anthro degree and…

…work in journalism. Jing Zhang is the fashion editor of the South China Morning Post. She has interviewed and profiled industry giants from Donatella Versace and Ralph Lauren to Stella McCartney. In an interview, she talks about covering China’s emerging fashion scene as well as the most memorable interview that she has ever done.  She explains the connections between her education and her work: It’s all related…With my Anthropology MA – which was in visual and material culture and covers art, design and fashion – it gave me a great theoretical armory with which to unfurl the deeper issues within fashion and other creative industries.” Zhang has a B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in anthropology from University College London. 

…work in philanthropy. Jessica Malone is assistant director of development at the Philanthropy Institute of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. She supports the Clinic’s regional hospitals, family health centers, and the Medicine Institute, with a primary focus on raising funds from grateful patients. She says her background in anthropology fits incredibly well in her work, which requires sensitivity to family dynamics, cultural differences, and the context of health care: “It’s the study of people and cultures — how is that not fascinating?… And how does that not help make you a better person to be sensitive to those things and to learn from the best and worst of different

very old maps

The Lansing Star (Lansing, New York) reported on the acquisition of a set of three 18th-century maps by the American history and culture collections in Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. The maps are of three regions in what is now New York State, showing American Indian villages and footpaths as well as natural features. The article mentions Kurt Jordan, associate professor of anthropology and American Indian and Indigenous studies at Cornell University. His research focuses on the native people and archaeology of the Finger Lakes region, an area depicted in one of the maps.

object biography of a diamond

A book review in Dawn (Pakistan) of a new history of the Kohinoor diamond draws on commentary from archaeologist Jody Joy when considering how to read the book:  “One way is to focus on the diamond itself; as Jody Joy, senior curator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, UK, in his paper ‘Reinvigorating Object Biography: Reproducing the Drama of Object Lives’, writes: ‘Biography is relational and an object biography is comprised of [sic] the sum of the relationships that constitute it.’ This allows us to view the Kohinoor with its attendant symbolism rather than despite it.“

under the streets of Mexico City

The Japan Times reported on the discovery of the remains of a major Aztec temple and a ceremonial ball court in downtown Mexico City, shedding light on the sacred spaces of the metropolis that Spanish conquerors overran five centuries ago. The article quotes Diego Prieto, head of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH): “Due to finds like these, we can show actual locations, the positioning and dimensions of each one of the structures first described in the chronicles.” Archaeologists also reported on an offering of 32 severed male neck vertebrae discovered in a pile near the court.  “It was an offering associated with the ball game, just off the stairway,” said archaeologist Raul Barrera of INAH. “The vertebrae, or necks, surely came from victims who were sacrificed or decapitated.”

the west side story of Homo sapiens

Map showing site of Jebel Irhoud. Credit: Le

For long, the earliest location of Homo sapiens has been believed to be in Ethiopia, in eastern Africa, and dating to around 195,000 years ago. But now the origin story has moved west, to Morocco, and the date pushed back to some 300,000 years ago.  Several mainstream media reported on the research, including comments from many experts, most notably, Jean-Jaques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist and senior scientist on the team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. He has been doing research at the site of Jebel Irhoud since the 1980s.

Hublin told The Guardian: “My reaction was a big ‘wow’…I was expecting them [the fossils] to be old, but not that old…This gives us a completely different picture of the evolution of our species…It looks like our species was already present probably all over Africa by 300,000 years ago. If there was a Garden of Eden, it might have been the size of the continent.”

Comments in The Guardian from people not directly involved in the research:

John McNabb, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, said: “One of the big questions about the emergence of anatomically modern humans has been did our body plan evolve quickly or slowly. This find seems to suggest the latter. It seems our faces became modern long before our skulls took on the shape they have today.”

Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand is unconvinced that modern humans lived all over Africa so long ago: “They’ve taken two data points and not drawn a line between them, but a giant map of Africa.”

John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York, expressed caution whenever researchers claim they have found the oldest of anything. “It’s best not to judge by the big splash they make when they are first announced, but rather to wait and see some years down the line whether the waves from that splash have altered the shoreline.” He added that stone tools can move around in cave sediments and settle in layers of a different age. He is concerned about combining fossils from different individuals, and comparing reconstructions of complete skulls from fragmentary remains and about assigning the remains to Homo sapiens.

Jessica Thompson, an anthropologist at Emory University, is more positive: “These fossils are the rarest of the rare because the human fossil record from this time period in Africa is so poorly represented. They give us a direct look at what early members of our species looked like, as well as their behaviour.”

The Washington Post included comments from two researchers involved in the project. Shannon McPherron, a Max Planck archaeologist and study author is quoted as saying: “The overall picture that one gets is a hunting encampment…” The hunters carried the flint from a source some 15 miles away; they would have stopped by the cave to eat, light fires and retool their weapons. Shara Bailey, an anthropologist at New York University and a study author, argues for the Homo sapien attribution in pointing out that Irhoud mandibles, like human jaws, have a prominent chin, as well as several dental features found only in modern humans. The Post also quoted Richard Potts, a paleoanthropologist who directs the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program and is not involved in the research: The reconstructions of the Irhoud 10 face fall “right in the middle of the recent modern humans.” 

The New York Times quoted Philipp Gunz, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute and another study author: “We did not evolve from a single ‘cradle of mankind’ somewhere in East Africa….We evolved on the African continent.” And, from Christopher Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London: “We really are at very early stages of trying to explain these things.”

Two articles, describing and dating the fossils, are published in the journal Nature.

animals behaving like humans

The Washington Post carried a short piece announcing a special collector’s edition of Scientific American, Secret Lives of Animals, available on newsstands until July 10. Many of the articles highlight how much humans have in common with other animals: “One praises the architectural genius of termites, which build towering mounds that circulate air and offer protection from enemies. Another explains how wasps can recognize individual faces. There’s an examination of same-sex couplings in the animal kingdom, which details several of the reasons these relationships can evolve. Then there’s the tear-jerker When Animals Mourn by Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary. It includes an anecdote about a giraffe giving birth to an infant with a deformed foot. The mom stays close to the baby, even though that means not foraging with her herd — and potentially putting her life at risk. When the young giraffe dies after four weeks, the mom is joined by 16 other females, which all help protect the body from predators.“


An anthropologyworks post misattributed a quotation to cultural anthropologist Roxanne Varzi of the University of California Irvine. The error has been corrected. Apologies to professor Vargas and anthropologyworks readers.

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