Monthly Archives: September 2015

Podcast on forensic anthropology

There is an interesting podcast over at Slate as part of their “Working” series on the topic of “How does a forensic anthropologist work?”. It is an extended interview with Dr. Bradley Adams, a forensic anthropologist at the Office of the Chief Medical Officer in New York. He has some brief comments about anthropological work in the context of working at “Ground Zero” after 9/11, but most of the discussion is about working in the context of police investigations in New York City. This will all be very familiar to students of our own Moira McLaughlin, but perhaps worth a listen anyway. Like Moira, he also did his graduate work at Tennessee.

He does state that anthropology deals with “the weird, unusual stuff” – he was talking about forensic work specifically, but it seems to me such a statement applies to us all!


Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change

Over the past couple of days, I have come across a number of items pertaining to indigenous knowledge of, and responses to, climate change. Of course, climate change is an issue that affects everyone around the world, but the indigenous perspective is worth paying attention to for at least two reasons: first, indigenous peoples often have unique systems of traditional knowledge pertaining to the environment that can be essential to understanding the environment itself and changes that are occurring; and second, climate change will result in environmental and other (economic, political, etc.) changes that are likely to affect indigenous peoples disproportionately.

The whole area of “traditional ecological knowledge” or “TEK” is something of a “growth area” in anthropology, with many new contributions to the literature over the past two decades. The term “traditional ecological knowledge” has been defined as:

a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment (Berkes, Colding, and Folke 2000: 1252).

Such a definition encompasses far more than just climate change, but questions of climate change—indigenous knowledge of it based on detailed observations, indigenous beliefs about its causes and meanings, and indigenous practices in adapting to it—clearly loom large in studies of TEK in the present moment.

We can begin with a fascinating documentary film Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, which is based on interviews with Inuit elders about traditional ecological practices from their youth and young adulthood, and how those practices have had to undergo a variety of alterations to accommodate climate change. From changes in the predictability of the weather, to the deteriorating quality of seal skins, to the earlier and earlier breakup of the Arctic ice, the Inuit have been acutely aware of environmental change occurring all around them. Inuit elders also report their that “the earth has changed its tilt”, based on their perception of changes in the position of sunset over the past several decades and that the angle of the sun is generating greater heat now than in the past; that the prevailing wind directions, previously used for navigational purposes, have changed; that the stars “look different” and are “no longer in their proper positions”. The film makes it clear that the Inuit way of life is made far more unpredictable and fragile through the effects of climate change, generated by populations far away from them.

There is plenty of evidence that indigenous perceptions of climate change, as well as oral narratives that document climate change, coincide to some degree with Western scientific studies of the same phenomena. Indigenous stories from the Pacific Northwest about seismic activity and related flooding are underscored by geological studies, while Australian Aboriginal stories about sea level rises ( see here and here) seem remarkably good documents of scientifically documented sea level rises. A broad overview published in the journal BioScience provides a good review of the literature.

There’s a lot of good stuff out there to explore on this topic. Here are a few highlights:


Announcing the 100 Ethnographies Project

About 20 years ago, I attended some kind of workshop or gathering for postgraduate anthropology students at the Australian National University, where I was a PhD student in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology. I can’t even remember what this gathering was all about. But I do remember that one of the speakers was Professor Jim Fox, and I remember very distinctly what he had to say to our group of relatively new MA and PhD anthropology students. If you want to become an anthropologist, he told us, start by reading 100 ethnographies.

The ethnography, defined by Marcus & Cushman (1982: 27) as “an account resulting from having done fieldwork”, is one of sociocultural anthropology’s most important contributions to the social sciences and humanities. I have used the long-form ethnography—in other words, ethnographic monographs—as an essential part of my teaching here at STU since I arrived 12 years ago. It is my belief that the ethnography is an important representation of anthropological practice. We learn about other ways of life not by spending a week here and a week there in different places, but by a long-term immersion among particular groups of people. We do this because we are committed to the idea that unique aspects of the human experience can only be known in this way. So it seems to me that the ethnographic monograph is the best representation of how anthropologists come to know things about the world, although the broader question of “What makes something ethnographic?” is open to interpretation.

So Fox’s exhortation to read 100 ethnographies was, I think, an appeal not to immerse ourselves in other ways of life (which we all had either already done or were about to do), but rather to immerse ourselves in anthropology’s project to understand ways of life in the broadest sense, and to acquire professional competence, in part, by a virtual and literary  apprenticeship. To quote the late Clifford Geertz:

[I]f you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do. In anthropology, or anyway social anthropology, what the practitioners do is ethnography. And it is in understanding what ethnography is, or more exactly what doing ethnography is, that a start can be made toward grasping what anthropological analysis amounts to as a form of knowledge (1973: 5-6).

I think that, over the years, I have probably achieved Fox’s goal of reading 100 ethnographies (although he did say to “start by” reading that many, not “finish”), although somewhat haphazardly. And I regularly find myself dipping into ethnographies that I know I should have read but haven’t. So I want to embark on this journey a second time as a more self-conscious exercise to explore the foundations of anthropological knowledge.

I’m not entirely sure how long this will take—probably years, given the other demands on my reading time. But I will create a new post here on STUAnthroBlog for each one as I complete it, to share my thoughts and reflections. I invite any readers of STUAnthroBlog, especially our students,  to contribute as well—if for no other reason than to keep me company. I will happily post your thoughts and observations.

First up: W. Lloyd Warner’s A Black Civilization.

Homo naledi represents incredible new find

The next cover of National Geographic will feature a very exciting development in the world of physical anthropology, with the story of the discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of ancient human found in South Africa.

Almost everything about this story is superlative. The research team, led by palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, found the remains of 15 different individuals with a total of more than 1500 fossils. The excavation team itself consisted of six women (including Canadian Marina Elliott), all qualified in palaeontology or archaeology, and all quite small of stature because of the requirement to squeeze through an 18 centimetre opening into the cave system. The evidence strongly suggests that these remains were intentionally placed in the cave, which, if the fossils turn out to be very old, could represent a very early instance of organized human burial.

The find includes plenty of mystery. The fossils have yet to be dated, and could be less than 100,000 years old (in which case it is interesting that a distinctive species of Homo survived so close to the present day) or more than 2 million years old (in which case this species could be very close to the very origins of the genus Homo). Some of the physical features of the remains are similar to australopithecines or Homo habilus, and others very much like Neanderthals or modern humans. Much remains to be discovered as the research continues to unfold.

To read more about this story, have a look here:

Relaunch of STUAnthroBlog

After a lengthy hiatus, I am happy to report that STUAnthroBlog is set to relaunch for the 2015-16 academic year. The reasons for its temporary demise were multiple, not the least of which were my three-year stint as department chair and a subsequent one-year sabbatical. Be sure to check these pages for items of interest for, and about, anthropology here at St. Thomas University.

Peter Toner, editor, STUAnthroBlog