anthro in the news 12/11/17

Kutupalong, the world’s fastest growing refugee camp, is located in Bangladesh’s Chittagong province. Credit: U.K. Department for International Development/Flickr [no changes were made to this photo]

we were going to be killed

The Toronto Star reported on the research of Nasir Uddin, professor of anthropology at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh, who spoke at the Asian Institute at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He has recorded the stories of over 500 Rohingya who have fled to Chittagong. He asked them where they lived, what situations they left their home in, and how they crossed the border. When he asked why they fled, the answer was always: We were going to be killed. The narratives are filled with instances of unimaginable trauma.  “This is 2017.” said Uddin. “This is the twenty-first century, this is not Middle Ages…and we’re not doing anything substantial to solve the problem.”

power to the person of the year

December 14, 2017 cover of Time. Credit: Time.

The Salt Lake Tribune (Utah) published a piece about Time magazine’s naming of The Silence Breakers as 2017 Person of the Year. The author discusses the silencing of women in many cultures, drawing on insights from cultural anthropology: “In the mid-1970’s, social anthropologist Edwin Ardener noted that fellow anthropologists claimed they had ‘cracked the code’ of a society they had been studying without actually talking to any women of that society or culture. Ardener pointed out that the ‘high status groups of a culture largely determine the communication system of that culture. At the same time, subordinate groups in the society are rendered inarticulate.’ In other words, they were silenced. Muted.” He and his colleague Shirley Ardener “…came to realize that the group or groups were silenced not because they lacked language but because they lacked power…muted group theory holds that people belonging to anything but the dominant class are disadvantaged (muted) when communicating, either orally or in written form. Power, therefore, belongs to those who control communication.”

insights into disaster planning

An article in Horsetalk (New Zealand) reported on research findings about how to more effectively evacuate horses during bushfires. Given the complexities involved such as the time it takes to load horses in stressful circumstances, “We want people to think through multiple scenario-based planning,” says cultural anthropologist and study co-author Kirrilly Thompson, who is a senior researcher with Central Queensland University’s Appleton Institute.  “The point is that we focus too much on having a single plan…and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter how the plan translated into action. That shouldn’t be a metric for helping to prepare the community. The plan is a proxy for people being prepared and people having thought through what they would do under different scenarios.”  Findings are published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. [Blogger’s note: anthro in the news focuses on coverage of anthropology and anthropologists in the “mainstream” media, and Horsetalk is a stretch in terms of being “mainstream.” I think, however, that this example of anthropological research contributing to an important problem is worth the stretch].

deadly contact

The South China Post reported on how the formerly “remote” Mashco Piro tribe of the Peruvian Amazon is increasingly coming into contact with outsiders, with lethal consequences for them. The article quotes Miguel Macedo, an anthropologist with the Institute for the Common Good in Lima, He notes that the government will end up integrating the Mashco Piro into society, rather than enabling some of the world’s last human populations to maintain their original state of being: “If you’re more focused on putting out fires than taking long-term action for the future, it’s going to be a lot more complicated…” But it is the government’s support for exploitation of the Amazon that is most damaging, he said: “State investment in the energy sector, mining and forestry has much more weight than the ministry of culture”…adding that this could be leading to land conflicts, like those in Brazil. “I can’t tell you for certain that what’s happened in Brazil hasn’t happened here in Peru. If it happens in a remote zone nobody finds out.” 

slow research needed in fast times

BBC News published a piece by Ruben Andersson, anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development, and winner of the BBC’s 2015 Thinking Allowed award for his ethnography, Illegality, Inc.:  “It may be messy and imperfect, yet it opens up worlds that will otherwise remain locked to outsiders. Ethnography, then, is straying out of our comfort zone in order to understand another social world…This understanding cannot come about through a social survey or a piece of investigative reporting alone. We have to stick around and listen, observe and participate, one awkward step at a time. It may be messy and imperfect, yet it opens up worlds that will otherwise remain locked to outsiders. Ethnography is research on the slow boil – something that’s getting harder to justify at a time when our public debate increasingly favours the quick flash in the pan. Yet amid calls for more media soundbites, ready-made research metrics and pre-cooked policy ‘solutions’, this is precisely why we need it more than ever.” [with audio]

rethinking the culture concept in challenging times

The Express Tribune (Pakistan) published a column by Syed Muhammad Ali, adjunct professor of anthropology at George Washington University: “Our world is full of cultural distrust, misunderstands and biases. These cultural misperceptions result in simplistic and often faulty assumptions about other people. Western cultures, for example, often assume that their cultural norms and values are superior to those of many developing countries. So-called ‘developing countries’, like our own, are also prone to adopt simplistic cultural stereotypes, such as the assumption that Western societies are too individualistic, and they do not have the deep family bonds or a true appreciation of moral values. Many of these negative perceptions about other people can be dispelled if we begin paying due attention to the issue of culture.”

agriculture and the rise of social inequality

The Guardian published commentary by James Suzman who heads the Cambridge-based research and support organization Anthropos and is the author of Affluence without Abundance:  “Most people regard hierarchy in human societies as inevitable, a natural part of who we are. Yet this belief contradicts much of the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens. In fact, our ancestors have for the most part been ‘fiercely egalitarian’, intolerant of any form of inequality. While hunter-gatherers accepted that people had different skills, abilities and attributes, they aggressively rejected efforts to institutionalise them into any form of hierarchy. So what happened to cause such a profound shift in the human psyche away from egalitarianism? The balance of archaeological, anthropological and genomic data suggests the answer lies in the agricultural revolution, which began roughly 10,000 years ago.”

women in early agriculture

Research led by Alison Macintosh, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge on the relationship between prehistoric farming women’s bones and their labor continues to attract media attention this week. National Public Radio (U.S.) discussed the findings under the headline, “working moms nothing new.” The article notes that archaeologists have uncovered a “hidden history of women’s manual labor,” from the early days of farming about 7,500 years ago up until about 2,000 years ago. It quotes Macintosh linking women’s work contribution to innovation: “Hours and hours of manual labor…provided the driving force for the expansion of agricultural economies and innovation…” [Blogger’s note: Anthropologists, and probably anyone who has taken Anthropology 101, know that throughout prehistory, women have done productive work, and that only with the emergence of certain types of agriculture in conjunction with the rise of social inequality and leisured elites did some women in some places withdraw from arduous productive labor. The importance of this new study is that it links women’s work roles to upper body strength and helps fill a gap in scholarship on women’s roles and, as evidenced by the media attraction, it contributes to public understanding of the importance of women’s prehistoric roles. They weren’t just sitting around doing the prehistoric version of painting their nails and taking selfies]. 

agriculture and the obstetric dilemma

The Atlantic carried an article reviewing theories about why contemporary women often have difficulty giving birth. The author traces the phrase “obstetrical dilemma” to Sherwood Washburn, a physical anthropologist, who first published his theory in a 1960 issue of Scientific American:  “in man, adaptation to bipedal locomotion decreased the size of the bony birth canal at the same time that the exigencies of tool use selected for larger brains. This obstetrical dilemma was solved by the delivery of the fetus at a much earlier stage of development.” The assumption that “women are compromised bipedally in order to give birth,” is widely accepted, says anthropologist Holly Dunsworth, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Rhode Island, who has pursued research to assess the validity for the claim and found little support for it. Related research on human skeletons by Helen Kurki, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria, shows that the size and shape of the human birth canal vary widely. Cara Wall-Scheffler, an evolutionary anthropologist and associate professor of biology at Seattle Pacific University, says: “The obstetric dilemma, in its definition, has housed this idea that women aren’t as good as men in some things because they have to give birth…[in fact] women are great walkers, and in some particular tasks women are better—they don’t use as much energy, they don’t build as much heat, they can carry heavier loads with less of an energetic burden.” Jonathan Wells, professor of anthropology and pediatric nutrition at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health at University College London, offers a competing hypothesis based on how the emergence of agriculture and transition to cereal-based diets around 12,000 years ago likely played a role in changes in both maternal pelvic dimensions and offspring brain size.

sexual harassment and evolution

Time published a piece by Richard Bribiescas, professor of anthropology, ecology, and evolutionary biology at Yale University:  “As an anthropologist who studies the evolutionary biology of men, I have followed with distress the recent spate of reports on the sexual harassment and abuse of women by high-profile men, and the inevitable question that follows: Are men simply prewired to behave badly towards women?…Can we simply say ‘boys will be boys’ and explain sexual harassment as the natural extension of maleness? The answer is no…As a species, we have not shed the influence of evolution by natural selection — both bad and good. But evolution has not only led to challenges in our ability to behave morally. It has also endowed us with the abilities to think critically, to reflect and to manage our actions. Collectively, the evolution of culture and social norms allow us to hold ourselves accountable. The issue is whether men are willing to leverage the morally desirable traits that natural selection has provided to all humans — care, empathy, social responsibility and accountability — and whether we all can better nurture their expression.”

welcome Little Foot

In the Sterkfontein caves, entrance to the cave where Little Foot was discovered. Credit: Mike Peel (

BBC reported about the unveiling of an Australopithicus skeleton, nicknamed Little Foot, which has been painstakingly retrieved from a cave near Johannesburg, South Africa, over a period of twenty years. The remains are 3.67 million years old, making Little Foot about 500,000 years older than Lucy. The finding in South Africa, far from Lucy’s location in Ethiopia, greatly expands the spread of early human ancestors across Africa and suggests there were a diverse number of species. Research team leader, Ron Clarke, of the University of the Witwatersrand, is quoted as saying: “It might be small, but it might be very important. Because that’s how it started, with one little bone. And it helps us to understand our origins…“We used very small tools, like needles to excavate it. That’s why it took so long. It was like excavating a fluffy pastry out of concrete.”




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