Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Warfare and Complex Societies

I am seriously beginning to suspect that someone in the New York Times is taking our class and using it as their inspiration for articles in the newspaper. Today's paper has an article about warfare and the rise of the state. As you no doubt recall from our lecture, this theory, also known as Circumscription Theory, has been around for quite some time. According to the article, recent archaeological finds seem to support this hypothesis.
Dr. Stanish believes that warfare was the midwife of the first states that arose in many regions of the world, including Mesopotamia and China as well as the Americas.

The first states, in his view, were not passive affairs driven by forces beyond human control, like climate and geography, as some historians have supposed. Rather, they were shaped by human choice as people sought new forms of cooperation and new institutions for the more complex societies that were developing. Trade was one of these cooperative institutions for consolidating larger-scale groups; warfare was the other.

Warfare may not usually be thought of as a form of cooperation, but organized hostilities between chiefdoms require that within each chiefdom people subordinate their individual self-interest to that of the group.

“Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for social cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it,” the anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley writes in his book “War Before Civilization” (Oxford, 1996).
(Note the use of the term "complex societies" in this excerpt.)

To read the entire article, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Myth and Star Wars

Since we will not have a chance to watch this excellent film about myth in class, I thought I would place it here for you guys to see. The movie discusses the mythological elements of the Star Wars movie series. Please watch at least the first hour of the movie.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Love and Marriage in Afghanistan

We will discuss kinship and marriage in class today, so I thought it only appropriate to share this tragic love story that is making the rounds these days. Two Afghan teens who are members of different ethnic groups are currently sitting in jail in Herat for inciting a riot because of their unsanctioned relationship.
This month, a group of men spotted the couple riding together in a car, yanked them into the road and began to interrogate the boy and girl. Why were they together? What right had they? An angry crowd of 300 surged around them, calling them adulterers and demanding that they be stoned to death or hanged.

When security forces swooped in and rescued the couple, the mob’s anger exploded. They overwhelmed the local police, set fire to cars, and stormed a police station 6 miles from the center of Herat, raising questions about the strength of law in a corner of western Afghanistan and in one of the first cities that has made the formal transition to Afghan-led security.

The riot, which lasted for hours, ended with one man dead, a police station charred, and the two teens, Halima Mohammedi and her boyfriend, Rafi Mohammed, confined to juvenile prison. Officially, their fates lie in the hands of an unsteady legal system. But they face harsher judgments of family and community.

Mohammedi’s uncle visited her in jail to say she had shamed the family and promised that they would kill her once she was released. Her father, an illiterate laborer who works in Iran, sorrowfully concurred. He cried during two visits to the jail, saying almost nothing to his daughter.

“What we would ask is that the government should kill both of them,’’ said the father, Kher Mohammed.
Sadly, this story has it "all" - issues of ethnicity (Pashtun and Tajik), gender roles (honor killings, women's rights), marriage traditions (arranged marriage, endogamy), religion (sharia and Taliban), kinship, as well as ethnocentrism (how we react to the story based on our conceptions of love and our stories such as Romeo and Juliet).

Read it HERE.

Urban Foraging

In our subsistence strategy lecture, we mentioned that foraging is not something limited to the hidden corners of the Kalahari, but rather a practice that continues even in industrial societies. To prove this point, the New York Times published an article on Friday about foraging in New York parks. Either due to the continuing economic crisis or hipster appeal, there has recently been an upswing in urban foraging that has prompted New York City to enforce laws against this activity. As the article explains:
New Yorkers are increasingly fanning out across the city’s parks to hunt and gather edible wild plants, like mushrooms, American ginger and elderberries.

Now parks officials want them to stop. New York’s public lands are not a communal pantry, they say. In recent months, the city has stepped up training of park rangers and enforcement-patrol officers, directing them to keep an eye out for foragers and chase them off.

“If people decide that they want to make their salads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chipmunks,” said Maria Hernandez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages Central Park.
Yet, as Melissa Poe, a researcher at the Institute for Culture and Ecology points out, these arguments are not so clear cut and more often than not tangled up with cultural ideologies such as the nature-culture dichotomy and an underlying assumption that human use is necessarily destructive. She notes:
Urban foraging and gathering is a vibrant and important practice for diverse urban communities. People gather plants, plant parts, fruits, nuts, salvaged fiber, and fungi in cities to support livelihoods, provide essential foods, medicine, and materials for households. Urban gatherers also express a range of non-utilitarian motivations derived from participating in gathering, including pleasure and enjoyment, connecting with the biophysical world, strengthening social ties, and
maintaining cultural traditions. In Seattle, gathering is also be one avenue through which urban residents care for their environment, for example, many gatherers intentionally steward important species and have developed strong connections with nature through their gathering practices.

Excluding gathering as a legitimate activity presents a number of disadvantages for urban greenspace managers: 1) It creates confusion about what kinds of plant material are acceptable to remove (invasives, tree fruits, berries?) and who can legitimately do so (restorationists? educators?); 2) It criminalizes what are often otherwise benign gathering activities occurring on public land; 3) It adversely impacts lower-income and food-insecure individuals who may make use of products in urban forests to meet some of their nutritional and medicinal needs; 4) It reduces the urgency for land managers to avoid using toxic herbicides and other chemicals in vegetation management; and 5) It fails to create incentives for gatherers, who often possess sophisticated local environmental knowledge, to become involved in broader city forest stewardship initiatives.
To read the article in the New York Times CLICK HERE.

Melissa Poe's comments appeared in the E-ANTH listserve (

Friday, July 29, 2011

Homo sapiens Outnumber Neandertals.

A recently published article contends that the extinction of Homo neandertalensis was due to the fact that they were outnumbered and outsmarted by Homo sapiens.
Mellars and French analysed archaeological evidence in PĂ©rigord, a former province of southwestern France, which is renowned for its neanderthal and early human sites. They found that the population of homo sapiens that arrived in the region was at least ten times larger than that of the neanderthals already settled there.

In particular, the area saw a sharp rise in the number and size of early human sites and the detritus of life they left behind, such as stone tools and the remains of animal carcasses, according to a report in Science.

The researchers believe the sheer pressure of being outnumbered was exacerbated by the social and technological advantages that modern humans displayed, from long-range hunting spears to stronger cooperation and communication. The arrival of modern humans coincided with the appearence of elaborate cave paintings, decorative stones and beads, and imported shells, suggesting homo sapiens had a more complex society than the neanderthals.
To read the entire article.

Higher Latitudes, Larger Eyes

This appears to be a newly established "Bergmann's and Allen's Rule" of eyes. Researchers now contend that people in Northern latitudes not only have larger eyes, but they also have larger brains because they need more processing power to see in dim lighting.
"As you move away from the equator, there's less and less light available, so humans have had to evolve bigger and bigger eyes," said Eiluned Pearce from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, a lead author on the study.

"Their brains also need to be bigger to deal with the extra visual input. Having bigger brains doesn't mean that higher-latitude humans are smarter, it just means they need bigger brains to be able to see well where they live."

This suggests that someone from Greenland and someone from Kenya will have the same ability to discern detail, but the person from the higher latitude needs more brainpower and bigger eyes to deal with the lower light levels.
Read the article HERE.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Post-processualism and Biblical Archaeology

In the last 20 years or so, there has been increasing awareness within the archaeological community that our cultural lens has a considerable affect on how we ask archaeological questions. Archaeological remains are now conceptualized by many workers in the fields as vehicles for how we construct our modern identities; for example, French national pride played a large role in the way that monuments to the ancient Gauls were constructed at sites like Alesia, where Vercingetorix made his last stand against Julius Caesar in the 1st century BCE. This ancient Gallic general is really much more than just a figure from history, now - he symbolizes French resistance to a foreign invader.

In this respect, the past becomes part of our modern cultural capital, and so has value not merely in the abstract, as part of some ostensibly objective history lesson, but instead as part of our subjective, constant creation of identity. This is no small thing in an increasingly globalized world where preservation versus progress creates a near-constant tension. In archaeology, this reflexive awareness that we create our past by how we frame our historical and archaeological questions has a name: Post-Processualism. Not only do Post-Processualists see the past as a cultural resource of the present, they also insist that due to our own inherent cultural lenses that we can never be fully certain that we have accurately re-constructed the past through archaeological remains. Their logic is as follows: if a researcher's cultural lens causes her to make certain choices about what questions to research, then other questions will remain unanswered, that might have provided a different picture. Further, the interpretation of a site is going to filtered through her cultural lens.

Another example of how these issues play out in archaeology can be found in the Middle East today. There is perhaps no topic that inspires more impassioned debate in the West than Biblical Archaeology. We appear to be (pardon the pun) hell-bent on tying concrete archaeological remains to the histories recounted in the Bible. Furthermore, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis adds another, often acid-coated - layer to this debate. For a good look at how the fur can fly, follow the jump to an very interesting look at the New Biblical Archaeology of today, framed by the conflict in the Middle East.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hijras and Discrimination

As you recall from our reading about Hijras (eunuch/transvestite) in India, they are a marginalized community that has suffered a great deal of discrimination. Apparently 3,000 Hijras from all over the country met today in Kolkata to demand a separate quota for government jobs, health care, and subsidized food. It will be interesting to see if any of their demands are met, since I do not think that they have traditionally been recognized by the government as a "scheduled" caste (i.e. an official caste that is considered outcastes) or what is known as "other backwards castes" (officially recognized groups that are discriminated against or economically challenged.)

Evolution in New York City

In today's New York times there is an article that uses New York City as an example of how large urban areas act as selective pressures that propel the process of evolution. What they report seems surprising, but makes complete sense if you consider that it is consistent with both evolution and punctuated equilibrium. For example:
The researchers inspected 50 traps laid the day before and found seven mice inside. They plopped each mouse out of its trap and into a Ziploc bag. They clipped a scale to each bag to weigh the mice. Dr. Munshi-South gently took hold of the animals so his students could measure them with a ruler along their backs.

Dr. Munshi-South and his colleagues have been analyzing the DNA of the mice. He’s been surprised to find that the populations of mice in each park are genetically distinct from the mice in others. “The amount of differences you see among populations of mice in the same borough is similar to what you’d see across the whole southeastern United States,” he said.
Consistent with what the Hardy-Weinberg principle suggests, this example of Cadmium resistant worms shows how large randomly mating pairs will eventually result in stasis:
In 1989, Jeffrey Levinton of Stony Brook University and his colleagues discovered that a population of mud-dwelling worms in the Hudson had evolved resistance to cadmium. They lived in a place called Foundry Cove near a battery factory near West Point. Dr. Levinton and his colleagues found that the worms produced huge amounts of a protein that binds cadmium and prevents it from doing harm.

In the early 1990s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency hauled away most of the cadmium-laced sediment from Foundry Cove. Over nine generations, the Foundry Cove worm populations became vulnerable again. This shift occurred, Dr. Levinton and his colleagues reported last year, as worms from less contaminated parts of the river moved in. They are interbreeding with the resident worms, and the resistant mutations are becoming rarer.
Lastly, the article shows why it is not necessarily always a good idea to be a germophobe:
Evolution is not just taking place in New York’s rivers and parks. It’s also taking place inside its hospitals. In 1997, Dr. John Quale, an infectious diseases physician at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, discovered a newly evolved strain of bacteria in the city that is resistant to most

The bacteria, known as Klebsiella pneumoniae, is often found in hospitals, where it can cause pneumonia and other life-threatening infections. Doctors typically treat Klebsiella with an antibiotic called carbapenem. Dr. Quale and his colleagues discovered carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella in four hospitals in Brooklyn. The new genetic recipe proved to be a winning solution. Dr. Quale’s surveys charted the strain as it spread from hospital to hospital throughout New York. “It’s one strain that’s adapted very well to the hospital environment, and it clearly has a survival advantage over other bacteria,” Dr. Quale said.

Once the new strain had established itself in New York, it began to spread out of the city. It’s now reached 33 other states, and has become a serious problem in other countries including France, Greece, and Israel.
Dr. Quale and his colleagues found that this new strain of Klebsiella is especially dangerous. About half of patients who get infected die. Doctors can cure some infections, but only by using toxic drugs that can cause nerve and kidney damage.
To read the entire article, CLICK HERE.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Breaking the Clovis Barrier

If you wanted to start a bar fight at an archaeology conference even just ten years ago, all you had to do was bring up the so-called "Clovis Barrier." Clovis was, for decades, the earliest accepted culture of humans in the Western Hemisphere, dating to about 13,000 years ago. It is characterized by beautiful spear points and mass kill sites of megafauna like mammoth and bison. These big game hunters only flourished for about 750 years or so, until the last of the megafauna died out at the end of the Pleistocene. The early portion of the Holocene, analogous to the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age in Europe, saw increasing diversification of resource use and a highly visible change in stone tool (lithic) technologies, and the gorgeous, massive Clovis points were abandoned for toolkits more suitable to these new lifeways, to suit the changing environment and shifting climate.

So what is this "Clovis Barrier"? It's the idea that there were no people here in the Western Hemisphere before Clovis arose. Even today, some archaeologists absolutely reject the idea that there were any people here in the Western Hemisphere prior to about 13,000 years ago. Their reasoning is that there is just no hard evidence for a discernible culture prior to that point. However, there are a few sites that challenge this notion. Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania, Monte Verde in Chile, the Topper Site in South Carolina, and now Buttermilk Creek in Texas, all purport to contain pre-Clovis stratigraphic levels and artifacts.

Both sides of the debate have valid points. Those who reject pre-Clovis cite the seeming invisibility of these hypothetical pre-Clovis groups within the landscape. Where are the identifiable tool types, they ask? Where are the sites? Those who accept pre-Clovis point out that linguistic and DNA evidence now both support the idea that people entered the Western Hemisphere as early as 25,000 years ago, before the height of the last glacial maximum (LGM, in paleo-climatological speak, also known as Marine Isotope Stage 2, or MIS 2). We know that sites as old as 30,000 years have been found in Siberia, although it is open for debate about whether or not those were inhabited by modern humans, or Neandertals. And there's ample debate about exactly how people made their way into North America, and onward to South America, as well as how quickly.

While the Buttermilk Creek site may have settled the question for many, much more work on this question will have to be done. For example, if these people did not hunt big game using massive spear points, what did they do for a living instead? If the coastal migration model is correct, then maybe they fished - how visible will these activities be, archaeologically speak? Maybe people used multiple routes, both inland and coastal, to colonize this hemisphere. If so, the archaeological imprints of their activities will be varied accordingly. In summation, this issue isn't likely to become less complicated anytime soon.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Controversy Over the Morton Skulls

This article looks at the Morton Skulls controversy which revolved around the question of brain size and intelligence. As the article succinctly explains:
In a 1981 book, “The Mismeasure of Man,” the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould asserted that Morton, believing that brain size was a measure of intelligence, had subconsciously manipulated the brain volumes of European, Asian and African skulls to favor his bias that Europeans had larger brains and Africans smaller ones.

But now physical anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania, which owns Morton’s collection, have remeasured the skulls, and in an article that does little to burnish Dr. Gould’s reputation as a scholar, they conclude that almost every detail of his analysis is wrong.

“Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate his data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould,” they write in the current PLoS Biology.
To READ the whole article and watch the video about this fascinating controversy.

Children Share; Chimps, Not So Much

Here is a an interesting article about a recent study published in Nature about the difference between children and chimpanzees when it comes to collaborative work and sharing.
“Among great apes, only humans are true collaborative foragers.” Other species might look for food together, but being next to one another is not the same as working together. The only exception are the hunting parties of chimps, where several individuals work together to kill monkeys for food. The slain monkeys are shared, but either under duress or in exchange for favours.

With children, things are very different. Studies have shown that children as young as five to seven start sharing resources fairly among one another. On the other hand, when younger children come across a windfall of sweets, they tend to keep the majority for themselves. It’s tempting to think that children only develop a sharing ethic when they approach school age, but Hamann realised that something was missing.

In all the previous studies, scientists had given children an unexpected hand-out. What would happen if the kids had to work together to get their own rewards – a more common situation, and one that better reflects our evolutionary past.
To read the whole article, CLICK HERE.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Obstetrical Dilemmas and Human Culture

The so-called "obstetrical dilemma" is an area of great interest to several subfields of anthropologists, because it appears to have initiated a concatenating series of effects on human behavior. In short, this dilemma is caused by the constriction of the pelvic opening as a result of the shift to bipedal locomotion. In order for hominins to walk upright, this pelvic opening, also called the pelvic girdle, has become smaller. This means that considerably less room was left for an infant's head to pass through the pelvis during birth. Accordingly, the size of the infant's head has an upper limit, or the baby can't be born, and both mother and child will die during childbirth.

However, the development of bipedal locomotion has resulting in increased opportunity to access a more diverse, and calorie dense, set of food resources, specifically more protein. One side effect of this is increased brain development, for several reasons: one, if you can get more calories, then your body can allocate more energy to developing a bigger brain; and two, if you are eating a more diverse collection of foods, you'll probably be more motivated to develop tools and strategies to consume them once you've walked or run there. So, more diverse foods and more tool use equals a bigger brain, but the foundation for these behaviors - bipedalism - equals smaller pelvic girdles. Clearly, this is a problem.

This means that human infants must be born at a very early stage, developmentally speaking. It is no exaggeration to say that a human infant is essentially still a fetus, given how completely helpless s/he is, and how dependent s/he is on her or his mother. A newborn human infant can't even cling onto his or her mother effectively until months after birth, and therefore must be carried by the mother. Further, s/he must be fed every two hours (in some cases, more). For a human infant to survive, the mother must focus a considerable amount of effort on the baby, night and day.

Human mothers must also have help to give birth, generally speaking. In some cases, this even involves dramatic surgical interventions like C-sections. At minimum, a human mother generally requires a birth attendant who can help deliver the infant and assist the mother, whose body must go through considerable trauma to successfully give birth to her child. In most cultures, these attendants are other women who specialize in this; these are midwives in our culture, and even today, many women in our society give birth with midwives in attendance (many of whom are also nurses or otherwise trained in modern Western medicine).

Some anthropologists think that these effects have had considerable impacts on human cultural developments. In 1996, Trevathan argued that birth in the bipedal hominin must needs be a social event, and that this difference from non-bipeds is at the root of a lot of culture (for full access to the Trevathan paper, you must have full access to JSTOR). Certainly, if you consider that a considerable portion of a population - pregnant and laboring females, as well as their small offspring - would need social support to survive, it's reasonable to speculate on the different social mechanisms that might develop to help achieve this goal.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Catching Evolution in the Act

A new study in the journal Current Biology demonstrates the concepts of micro and macroevolution that we have been talking about in class. A new "super" mouse that is resistant to the rat poison warfarin has been found in Germany. Upon DNA analysis it appears that the mouse has successfully hybridized with another mouse species from Algeria that had this resistance. The new species is a product of both globalization and natural selection. As the article points out:
At some point in the past, Kohn and his team believe the Algerian mice mated with European house mice, conferring their poison resistance to them. This process is called "horizontal gene transfer," and is usually only seen in microbes.

He added, "The process we describe (horizontal gene transfer) introduces more variation in the genomes of populations that would otherwise, by mutation alone, be available. In that regard it potentially could speed up evolution."

Humans appear to be driving the process. The mice from different regions likely would not have met, were it not for spreading via human agricultural practices. Our use of pesticides also played a part.

"Unprofessional and widespread use of poison seems to have favored the evolution and spread of resistant mice and rats," Kohn said. "However, the novel thing reported here is that it has also enabled a potentially important process (hybridization) to turn up something advantageous that usually is not."
To read the whole article, click HERE.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

DNA and the Traveling, Friendly Genome

Tracing the paths taken by human populations in prehistory is a subject of great interest to biological anthropologists and archaeologists. DNA is the key to understanding how, and when, people moved from one place to the other. The Human Genographic Project has been collecting DNA data from all over the world in order elucidate this subject, and their results so far can be seen here, after the jump.

But what about human ancestors? Can we get DNA for them? In fact, enough usable genetic material has been recovered from Neanderthal remains that researchers were able to sequence the Neanderthal genome last year. And what they found was remarkable - evidence that at some point, Neanderthal populations interbred with those composed of modern Homo sapiens sapiens.

These researchers found that somewhere between 1% and 4% of the genes in modern humans are inherited from Neanderthals. But here's the most remarkable part of their findings, in my view: only non-African populations interbred with Neanderthal groups. There are several logical conclusions to draw from this: one, that Neanderthals never encountered modern human groups in Africa in any fashion liable to promote intermingling (we can't say that they weren't there, just that the two groups didn't intermix on that continent); two, that two ostensibly different species of human not only co-existed, but managed to do so happily enough to swap a detectable amount of genetic material.

And finally, most humorously, it turns out that modern human groups from Africa have the "purest" DNA of all, if you consider that to mean that they have no genetic inheritance from older, allegedly more "primitive" human ancestors (the issue of how "primitive" Neanderthals really were is a topic for another post). I wonder what people who are biased against Africans will make of that?