anthro in the news 3/26/18

Homeless. Credit: Julian Povey/Flickr

rethinking “the worst mistake”

One of the most influential articles in anthropology must surely be Jared Diamond’s 1987 piece, “The Worse Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” Diamond offered the startling, at the time, insight that the emergence of agriculture brought with it, along with higher food yields, entrenched social inequality. Diamond does not state that the relationship between agriculture and inequality is unavoidable, but the implication is there. Now, David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, and David Wengrow, professor of comparative archaeology in the Institute of Archaeology of University College London, have joined forces to ask if the emergence of agriculture necessarily involves social inequality. They write in Eurozine: “For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking…Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story. There is a fundamental problem with this narrative. It isn’t true.”

being African in China

Sixth Tone (Shanghai) carried an interview with American anthropologist Gordon Mathews of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He discusses the research findings in his book, The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace, focusing on the business dealings of Guangzhou’s African traders, their relationships with local people, and their future in China. The African community in Guangzhou has changed the social fabric of the city. The mostly male entrepreneurs have started relationships with Chinese women, and some are now raising mixed-race children. Despite the close ties between Chinese and Africans in the city, racism persists, and racial awareness in the nation generally remains low. “Chinese see somebody like me, and they’re aware of whiteness, but they are simply not aware of Africans, South Asians, and these other groups,” Mathews says.

snow on daffodils

The Village Voice published a piece on the spring snow storms in northeast of the U.S., called nor’easters, appropriately enough. The article cites sociocultural anthropologist Ben Orlove, a senior research scientist in the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and a professor in the School of International and Public Columbia University: “People throughout the metro area are conscious of snow, but for those who live in coastal locations, there’s the big risk of flooding, which is what we’re seeing with more of these storms as well… “We’re only beginning to realize this is a problem with winter nor’easters…We’re all just depressed at this point…No one wants to see snow on the daffodils.” [Blogger’s note: Orlove was a professor at the University of California at Davis for 36 years before moving to New York City. In Davis, daffodils don’t know what snow is].

shameful neglect: Anthropological Museum at Lucknow University

The Times of India reported on the state of disrepair of the K.S. Mathur Anthropological Museum at Lucknow University in northern India. Some artefacts are housed in make-shift glass cases while others, hung on walls or placed on tables or the floor, are covered with a thick layer of dust. Some artefacts had to be thrown away because they were eaten by termites, according to an unnamed source associated with the museum who further states: “I have been looking after the museum since 1991. The main reason why it is in such a bad state is because of improper allocation of funds…Since there is no proper lighting and ventilation, there is a lot of dampness in the museum, which is not good for these precious artefacts.”

LiDAR technology reveals an African city

Quartz published an article by Karim Sadr, senior lecturer and associate professor in the School of Geography, Archeology and Environmental Studies Sciences at the University of Witwatersrand. He describes research findings using LiDAR technology: “Now the same technology which located…Mayan cities has been used to rediscover a southern African city that was occupied from the 15th century until about 200 years ago. This technology…was used to ‘redraw’ the remains of the city…near Johannesburg. It is one of several large settlements occupied by Tswana-speakers that dotted the northern parts of South Africa for generations before the first European travellers encountered them in the early years of the nineteenth century. In the 1820s all these Tswana city states collapsed in what became known as the Difeqane civil wars. Some had never been documented in writing and their oral histories had gone unrecorded….from ground level and on aerial photos the full extent of this settlement could not be appreciated because vegetation hides many of the ruins. But LiDAR, which uses laser light, allowed my students and I to create images of the landscape and virtually strip away the vegetation. This permits unimpeded aerial views of the ancient buildings and monuments. We have given the city a generic placeholder name for now – SKBR. We hope an appropriate Tswana name can eventually be adopted.”

mammoth tusks returned to Canada after 50 years

Woolly mammoth restoration at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia. Credit: S.F. Wolfman/Wikimedia Commons

CTV News (Canada) reported on the discovery by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation of mammoth tusks in a private collection in an Indiana home. The individual had them as part a massive collection that included indigenous arrowheads, fossils, and shrunken skulls. Federal and provincial laws were enacted in the 1990s to restrict the movement of artifacts across provincial and national borders, including mammoth tusks that are increasingly used to create ivory carvings for trade around the world, said Gerald Oetelaar, a professor of archeology and anthropology at the University of Calgary. After years of work, the FBI and the U.S. State Department began making phone calls in July to figure out how to return the tusks, which are likely between 12,000 and 20,000 years old. The collector, who was 91 years old at the time of the FBI discovery in 2014, died in 2015, and no charges against him were filed.

primatologist works for orangutan survival

The Boston Globe carried an interview with Cheryl Knott, associate professor of anthropology at Boston University, a primatologist whose fieldwork contributes to orangutan preservation:  “I feel rewarded knowing that I’ve helped to protect this critical population of wild orangutans, and made a significant contribution to our understanding of orangutans, great ape biology, and human evolution.” Over her two decades of observation, Knott says, orangutan numbers have declined, but the population she studies in Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia remains a stronghold for the species. Her research project is one of the longest running studies of wild orangutans. Her organization, the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program, works to promote orangutan preservation.

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