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2021 Mortuary Archaeology Field School

Please note the following email sent to our Department Chair, Dr. Csilla Dallos:

Dear Dr. Dallos,

We are again accepting students wishing to gain hands-on experience in excavating and studying human skeletal remains in the summer of 2021. The 22nd Field School in Mortuary Archaeology will be held in Giecz, Poland. If you have students interested in bioarchaeological field work, we would be grateful if you could spread this information through your LISTSERV. I am also including a 2021 flyer.

We anticipate that the summer of 2021 will be more or less back to normal and we will be able to return to the plans and lifestyles that we had cherished so much before the pandemic. We are committed to welcoming international students to our Field School in 2021, and with all of the additional COVID-19-specific sanitary protocols we have developed, there is no doubt it will be a safe environment.

You can get more info about this project by visiting our webpage:, finding us on Facebook: or by contacting me directly at

The inhumation cemetery in Giecz dating to the beginning of the 11th century AD provides a unique opportunity for students to practise bioarchaeology through learning archaeological fieldwork techniques and working with human osteological remains. Students will engage directly in supervised on-site excavation, getting hands-on experience in disinterment of human burials from their discovery to final removal. No previous experience is required. Staff ensures that all students are afforded equal opportunity to work on all aspects of human skeletal excavation. The field school is part of an international research project carried out by scholars from The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland, and the Slavia Foundation. English is the official language of the project. 9 academic credits (ECTS) are offered upon successful completion of the course.
Thank you for your time and attention,


Marek Polcyn
Dr. Marek Polcyn
Adjunct Professor
Department of Anthropology
Lakehead University
955 Oliver Rd.
Thunder Bay
P7B 5E1, ON, Canada
+1-807-3438275 (office)
+1-807-3438521 (fax)


Society for American Archaeology writes a letter to President Donald Trump protesting threat of destruction of Iranian cultural sites

On January 6th, 2020, Joe E. Watkins, president of the Society for American Archaeology, wrote to U.S. President Donald Trump to protest the latter’s threat of military action against Iranian cultural sites. As Dr. Watkins points out, such an action constitutes a war crime under international law, and is a severe affront to cultural identity and cultural heritage. Read the full letter through the link below:

Letter from SAA to Donald Trump

Renato Rosaldo – Ilongot Headhunting

Renato Rosaldo. Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980)

Rosaldo’s book is an illuminating example of what has been termed “microhistory”, tracing the lives of a relatively local group of people over less than a century not only as a way of explicating social processes in action, but to provide a fundamental reconsideration of the notion of social structure more generally. Based on fieldwork in northern Luzon in the Philippines, Ilongot Headhunting uses the titular cultural practice as a framework for the study of a people who “simply lacked the standard institutions—segmentary lineages, ranked age-grades, men’s houses, dual organizations, matrilateral cross-cousin marriage rules, and the like—that have so often given ethnographies their classical elegance” (Rosaldo 1980:9). The standard synchronic approach common to mid-20th century anthropology was simply inadequate to the task of elucidating Rosaldo’s field materials, which required a turn to ethnographic history.

A key feature of Rosaldo’s book was the careful analysis of groups called bērtan (class, kind, species, group), which the Ilongot used to refer both to co-residential and mostly endogamous groups, as well as to residentially dispersed groups that did not act together; the use of the same term for two very different modes of sociality was only intelligible for Rosaldo when he shifted to a diachronic analysis (ibid.: 15). Although the details certainly differ, the use of the term bäpurru among the Yolngu to refer to a range of differently-organized groupings (cf. Keen 1995) points to what is obviously a widespread issue in social anthropology: that is, how best to translate local ways of talking about the lived experience of sociality into the analytical modes of anthropology. Rosaldo notes that all bērtan are spoken of as enduring units that are clearly demarcated, although when examined historically it becomes clear that their social salience fluctuates over time (ibid.: 221).

Like the Yolngu term bäpurru, bērtan do not always refer to groups of people anyway. It is an “all-purpose classifier” (ibid.: 222) that references people who share a common name, names distinctive “kinds of people”, and may simply refer to place names. Roy Wagner (1974) has written about the dangers of conflating names and things named in social analysis, with the result that names associated with people are taken to refer to concrete, bounded entities whose “reality” in social analysis is not the same as it is in lived social life. Rosaldo notes that:

the sense of collective identity shared by residentially concentrated bērtan members derives less from co-residence at a particular moment in time than from their continuity over a series of residential moves. Concentrated bērtan are united by the diffuse enduring solidarity that grows among those who, as Ilongots say, hold hands and follow one another. Not their common roots in a particular place, but rather their shared histories of living together as they have moved together lend people…an enduring sense of collective identity. (ibid.: 226-7)

What is more, individuals may claim multiple bērtan identities (traced cognatically), which may be asserted strategically and contingently over their lives.

As a result of this recognition, Rosaldo needed to make an historical turn, but not before some admitted false starts. Stories provided a key for understanding Ilongot historical consciousness, but initially Rosaldo viewed them as “disposable texts” (ibid.: 16) that filled up his notebooks but provided little that appeared to be “data”. These stories often consisted of a sequential litany of places where people hunted, camped, or slept, as they did at the end of World War Two when the Philippines were occupied by retreating Japanese soldiers. According to Rosaldo, 

while people were moved to tears as they recited place name after place name—every rock, hill, and stream where they are, rested, or slept—my usual response was to continue transcribing in uncomprehending boredom. Unmoved by the endless, evidently aimless episodes of death and hunger, I failed to see the culturally distinctive sense of history that these tales embodied. (ibid.: 16)

Rosaldo came to realize that these stories were representations of a unique historical consciousness that in turn shed light on Ilongot social processes: “As the shape of Ilongot history began to emerge, my perception of Ilongot social structure started, quite unexpectedly, to shift at its very foundations” (ibid.: 18).

Rosaldo began to develop “an ethnographic history that seeks to follow a collection of lives as they unfold through time” (ibid.: 46), focusing on residential movements, feuding histories, and patterns of intermarriage. What he discovered were general patterns whereby the Ilongot moved from geographical peripheries to centres as a response to crises imposed from the outside (early 20th century American colonialism, WWII Japanese invasion, martial law and the encroachment of squatters in the 1970s). He also discovered that traditional cultural practices tended to rise and fall away in waves: cohorts of men of roughly the same age tended to “follow one another” in the taking of heads and in getting married, resulting in the long-term waxing and waning of inter-group relations of amity and enmity. His detailed analysis of one specific intermarrying cohort of 20 men and women is a fascinating example of a historical and biographical approach to social anthropology.

As for headhunting practices themselves, Rosaldo situates these within Ilongot cultural and historical processes as a prototypical case of making the strange familiar:

The point in Ilongot headhunting is not for one man to take more heads than others, but for all men who are peers to take at least one head and thereby lose once and for all their status as novices. To take a head is, in Ilongot terms, not to capture a trophy, but to “throw away” a body part, which by a principle of sympathetic magic represents the cathartic throwing away of certain burdens of life—the grudge an insult has created, or the grief over a death in the family, or the increasing “weight” of remaining a novice when one’s peers have left that status. (ibid.: 140)

Overall, Rosaldo’s treatment of headhunting is rather matter-of-fact, as indeed it seems to be for the Ilongot themselves. A multifaceted way of dealing with the emotional contingencies of life, and integrated in a variety of ways with subsistence, marriage, and the life cycle, headhunting and its cessation due to the widespread social changes brought by the integration into the modern nation-state provides a telling window into the consequential decisions that indigenous peoples must sometimes make to give up on their distinctive cultural practices. 

At the end of his book, Rosaldo recounts the story of a man named Radu, who lost his six-month old son to illness in 1974 (having previously lost six other children, including three in a matter of days in 1971). Such a burden of grief would previously have driven a man to take an enemy’s head, a course of action not available in 1974. Radu instead converted to Christianity, a move that Rosalso did not completely understand. He asked his friend Tepeg, “Can anybody be so blind as to believe that their children will never die if they accept the new religion?”

Tepeg, a reflective skeptic, told me I had missed the point: what Radu in fact sought in the new religion was not the denial of our inevitable deaths, but a means of coping with his grief. With the advent of martial law, headhunting was out of the question as a means of venting his wrath and thereby lessening his grief. Were he to remain in his Ilongot way of life, the pain of his sorrow would simply be too much to bear. (ibid.: 288)

So it goes. Cultural practices are often so deeply interconnected with one another that one cannot simply be given up without a profound cascading effect on social life more generally. Rosaldo’s appreciation of social processes in their historical trajectory not only provides an insight into the dynamics of social life, but also into how best to understand the widespread social changes affecting indigenous peoples as they face the challenges of nationalism, modernity, and globalization.

References Cited

Keen, Ian. 1995. Metaphor and the Metalanguage: ‘Groups’ in Northeast Arnhem Land. American Ethnologist 22(3): 502-27.

Rosaldo, Renato. 1980. Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wagner, Roy. 1974. Are There Social Groups in the New Guinea Highlands? In Murray Leaf (ed.), Frontiers of Anthropology, 95-122. New York: Van Nostrand.

Museum Disaster in Brazil

It has been almost three weeks since a massive fire destroyed the building and most of the collections at Brazil’s National Museum. It is an unmitigated disaster for the people of Brazil, especially its indigenous peoples whose cultural heritage was housed there, and it is also a disaster for anthropologists and anthropological research. Reports suggest that the museum’s anthropological collections were among the most hard-hit.

According to the New York Times, the casualties include, or may include:

  • a fossilized skull named Luzia, one of the oldest examples of human remains in the Americas (11,500 years old)
  • feather work, masks, pottery, and other artifacts from Brazil’s indigenous peoples
  • other artifacts from Pompeii, Egypt, and the Arctic

Also among the casualties is the museum’s collection of audio recordings of indigenous languages. A recent Facebook post from a scholar associated with the museum stated:

“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”

News reports and analyses of the fire and its impact can be found here, here, here, here and here.

Although the physical cause of the fire is still under investigation, a less proximate cause is the fact that the museum had been depleted of financial support from the Brazilian government for an extended period of time, resulting in the museum’s physical plant being less than ideal. Modern fire-prevention equipment was not in place, although earlier this year funding had been allocated for that purpose. Much of the recent commentary on the fire from around the world has taken the form of “Could it happen here?” worrying, contemplating what might be lost if a similar fire broke out at the Smithsonian, or the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

Cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, has been an increasingly prominent global issue, both for public policy practitioners and for academics. Its roots can be traced back not only to the first museums, but also to the emergence during the 19th century of public libraries and archives as part of a larger project of liberal citizenship. Cultural heritage as a concept also has antecedents in the development of copyright and intellectual property law, first designed to protect creators in a specifically European context, but more recently extended to protect non-Western “intangible” property like music. As I have written elsewhere, the notion of “cultural property internationalism” is a shorthand for a wide variety of practices concerning the protection of “the heritage of humanity”; the establishment of UNESCO in 1945 and the Hague Convention of 1954 were very important in making the protection of cultural heritage a global issue. Even though such instruments of neoliberal power may, in practice, be somewhat problematic in addressing the needs of the world’s indigenous peoples, nobody seriously questions the idea that museums and archives may play an extremely important role in indigenous empowerment and self-determination. Witness Wolastoq singer and composer Jeremy Dutcher’s recent Polaris Prize win, which was based on his discovery of his ancestors’ recorded voices on wax cylinders located at the Canadian Museum of History.

The tragedy at the National Museum of Brazil highlights the need for collections of cultural heritage to be protected to the best of our abilities, and not to be lulled into a “it-can’t-happen-here” mindset. What is much less understood is that many countries in the so-called developing world lack museums and archives of any kind, leaving indigenous communities and researchers without a functioning repository for their collections. An anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, or linguist working in Australia, for example, can deposit her sound recordings in the archives at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, whereas a colleague working in the Solomon Islands cannot deposit her collections in any similarly-functioning archive in that country. This kind of situation led to the establishment of the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), a digital archive that provides accessioning, documenting, and digitizing services for audio-visual materials originating in the Pacific region, ensuring the digital preservation of cultural heritage materials that are otherwise vulnerable to damage or loss. However, even though digitization offers a wide range of advantages for the preservation of cultural heritage materials, it is not a magic bullet due to high infrastructure costs, instability of storage media, and the near-constant need to backup digital files and transfer to new file formats.

Museum professionals associated with the National Museum of Brazil are currently attempting to document their losses, salvage what is salvageable, reconstruct exhibits, and even recover copies of materials that visitors to the museum have made in an effort to retain some small fraction of their collections, even if only in virtual form. It is unlikely that a phoenix will arise out of the museum’s ashes. But it may be that this becomes a cautionary tale and a resounding wake-up call for museums, archives, researchers, and the communities they work with to work to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

W. Lloyd Warner, A Black Civilization

Although perhaps best known in the social sciences for his Yankee City series of books, W. Lloyd Warner’s first ethnography was his still-impressive A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe, first published in 1937. Based on fieldwork conducted in northern Australia in 1926-29 with people he called “Murngin” (who now refer to themselves as “Yolngu”), A Black Civilization is among the earliest and most influential early ethnographies of an Australian Aboriginal people, one characterized by detailed data and a sophisticated theoretical framework. Although clearly dated, A Black Civilization still holds up well today, and remains essential reading for anthropologists working with Australian Aboriginal people.

In many ways, Warner was a product of the age in which he lived and worked. His approach to matters of local organization and social structure are clearly indebted to British structural-functionalism, most especially his supervisor in Australia, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. In The Social Organization of Australian Tribes, Radcliffe-Brown stipulated that the most important social units among Australian Aboriginal people are “(1) the family, i.e., the group formed by a man and his wife and their children, and (2) the horde, a small group owning and occupying a definite territory or hunting ground” (1931: 4). In stating that the horde is a land-owning, patrilineal, and exogamous group, Radcliffe-Brown set in motion a systematic conflation of the local group and the “clan”, which can in fact be quite different from one another and can be based on quite different principles of sociality. In emphasizing the significance of the family, Radcliffe-Brown focused on the nature of the wide-reaching classificatory kinship system, especially kinship terminology and the reciprocal behaviours expected of individuals in particular kinship relations (ibid.: 12).

In his emphasis on the “clan” as a primary unit of social organization, Warner departs from Radcliffe-Brown to some extent. Warner indicates that the clan is an exogamous, patrilineal group that owns land in common, as well as a number of totems related to the land, but states that only male clan members may be permanent occupants of the clan’s territory (Warner 1969: 16), and that all of a clan’s married women go to live patrilocally on their husband’s territory after the first year or two of marriage (ibid.: 19). In this recognition Warner very importantly departs from Radcliffe-Brown, in that the latter assumed that land ownership and land occupation were the same, whereas Warner identified a principle whereby a clan-based spiritual connection to land and the occupation and use of that land overlapped, but were not exactly the same thing. Nevertheless, a focus on the “clan” as the primary unit of Aboriginal social organization has led to its own set of interpretive problems, with alternative interpretations and correctives offered by Hiatt (1965), Myers (1986), and Keen (1994, 1995). Warner further departs from Radcliffe-Brown in giving only slight attention to the “horde”, calling it an unstable economic group that varies considerably in size and composition depending on the seasonal cycle (1969: 127), although it is composed of members of closely intermarrying clans (128). On matters of family and kinship, Warner follows Radcliffe-Brown more closely in his attention to kinship structure, terminology, and the normative behaviour expected between kinship reciprocals (father-son, brother-sister, etc.).

A particularly fascinating chapter of the book is on “Warfare,” a social institution that was clearly important in Warner’s time, but which is no longer practiced (although contemporary Yolngu memories of animosity and feuding between groups still affect sociality to some extent). Warner is unequivocal about its significance:

Warfare is one of the most important social activities of the Murngin and surrounding tribes. Without it, Murngin society as it is now constituted could not exist. Any social change consequent upon the loss of the trait would demand a decided alteration in the fundamental structures of the civilization. Warfare prevents modifications in the society that would possibly destroy it. (1969: 144)

For Warner, warfare was a primary determinant of sociality, as he states that it is the clan that is the largest social unit without internal armed conflict, but which makes war on other groups. Because the main motivation for inter-clan fighting is not land (which cannot be ceded by force of arms among the Yolngu) but rather competition for women, as a result it is more common for clans who share mythological bonds to be those engaged in conflict, as those groups may also seek wives from the same sources due to clan exogamy and the moiety system (two clans of the Yirritja moiety, for example, may be connected through the mythological journeys of certain ancestral beings and therefore cooperate in ritual, but members of those two clans also may seek wives from the same Dhuwa clans, putting them into potential conflict with each other). Warner also accounted for the possibility of age-based polygyny (where relatively older men were married to most younger women, leaving most young men without a wife) as a function of regular feuding (ibid.: 147), as even a small number of deaths among young men could reduce demographic pressure on the marriage system. Warner postulated that the cessation of warfare would increase the proportion of marriageable men in the population and would likely do away with age-based polygyny as a system. Methodist missionaries who arrived in northeast Arnhem Land at around the time Warner worked there were in fact successful in substantially reducing warfare and feuding, but high levels of age-based polygyny persisted for at least another generation, likely because older men could still dominate marriage arrangements by controlling access to religious knowledge (Keen 1982). But it seems to me that the full societal impact of the end of warfare as a widespread social institution among the Yolngu has yet to be systematically examined.

Warner’s detailed account of the history of one particular extended “clan” feud (ibid.: 166-179) makes for fascinating reading, and his own conclusion is that “clan” solidarity is very important, but that the kinship system breaks down these solidarities (ibid: 179). A close analysis of this feud certainly bears this out. The “clans” involved include the Dhalwangu, Warramiri, Ritharrngu, Madarrpa, Guyula Djambarrpuyngu, Marrawungu Djambarrpuyngu1, Ngaladharr Djambarrpuyngu, Daygurrgurr Gupapuyngu, Gälpu, and Marrangu, among others. A Dhalwangu man killed a Warramiri man over a woman; a Ritharrngu man killed another Dhalwangu man as an act of revenge, motivated by mythological connections between the Ritharrngu and the Warramiri. The deceased Dhalwangu man’s father-in-law sends goods to a Madarrpa man to solicit revenge, resulting in a Madarrpa man killing a classificatory brother of the Ritharrngu killer, which in turn results in that man’s father’s brother killing the Madarrpa man’s father, who had received the goods from the Dhalwangu man’s father-in-law. A separate series of tit-for-tat killings between the Guyula and the Marrawungu and Ngaladharr leads eventually to the killing of yet another Ritharrngu man, the brother of the man killed by the Madarrpa man. This leads to a Marrawungu man killing the Madarrpa killer many years later, spurred on by a pair of Dhalwangu men, which leads to him being stabbed by a Gälpu man, after which he stabs a Marrangu man before disappearing into the bush. The Marrawungu settle with the Gälpu man by subjecting him to a makarrata peace-making ceremony, which concludes with the culprit being speared in the thigh. If this all seems incredibly complex, that is simply because it is incredibly complex. In my analysis, however, it seems clear that the “clan” is not an analytical unit that can adequately explain it, at least not compared to an individual’s kindred. Affinal networks played a significant part in how these events transpired, and indeed Warner himself noted that competition for wives motivated much feuding and that different affinal networks within a single “clan” led to different allegiances. “Clan” identity certainly seems to play a role in motivating social action, but it is only one relevant identity among many. If “solidarity” is the glue that holds social groups together, those groups are not “clans”, but rather networks based on kindred.

Warner’s later chapters on magic, totemism, and ritual owe a great deal to Durkheim’s analytical framework in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1965), but greatly augment this framework based on his detailed and first-hand ethnographic research. Even where he is critical of Durkheim, he seeks to improve upon Durkheim’s basic analytical framework rather than to replace it, as when he indicates that Murngin magic functions the same way as ritual (ibid.: 219). Indeed, Warner’s analysis of totemism runs to about ⅓ of the total length of the book, and must have been something of a tour de force when first published. Developing an extremely detailed account of the connections between the Wawilak myth (“The Wawilak myth is of extreme importance to the Murngin and is always present in their thinking” (ibid.: 238)) and its related ceremonies (the Djungguwan, the Gunapipi, the Ngulmarrk, and the Mandayala), Warner explicates the story of the Wawilak Sisters and its main themes (equating the myth with the libretto of a Wagnerian opera). He then analyzes each stage of four different but linked ceremonies, juxtaposing his own descriptive passages with sections of “native interpretation” for each major stage of each ceremony. His overall concern is to demonstrate that mythology and ritual function as “the expression of social logics” (ibid.: 234), but he seems often to be trying too hard to be Durkheimian. In his chapter on “An Interpretation of Murngin Totemism” Warner writes:

The spiritual life of a Murngin…is entirely made up of totemic elements, and his whole participation within that part of the community which makes him a social man…is within the totemic complex itself… As a male social personality, a man is part of the totem, and in all his social relations with the male part of his group he is identified with the totem… It is the sacred tradition of clan groups, as held in the minds of the individuals of the adult male age grade…which forms the totemic configuration. The group in this sense does unconsciously worship itself. (ibid.: 380-81)

Clearly, attention to individual agency is entirely lacking here, and we know from subsequent work on Yolngu religion that individual interpretive freedom is an essential part of negotiations over religious doctrine and practice (Keen 1994). Yolngu spiritual life cannot be reduced entirely to “totems” in isolation, as they form part of a much broader land-based system of cosmology. Warner’s analysis specifies the symbolism of every major aspect of ritual in relation to mythology, without providing an explicit justification of why everything in ritual has to “symbolize” anyway, at least in the way he proposes. Warner’s conclusions about the relationship between the Wawilak myth and its related rituals and the cycle of seasonality between wet and dry seasons represents an elegant analysis and has merit, even if one can reasonably critique certain aspects of his overall analytical process.

There is much more to be said about this quite fascinating book. It is somewhat dated now, but retains its importance in the Arnhem Land ethnographic literature because of how groundbreaking and comprehensive it was at the time of its publication. Radcliffe-Brown and Durkheim were clearly the two most important intellectual influences over Warner’s interpretations, but it is equally clear that he offered corrections or amendments were necessary, and above all that he sought to fill out their theories with the robust ethnographic data that they lacked. On a more personal level, it is also an important book because Warner’s informants are among the most distant ancestors that my own Yolngu research collaborators memorialize by name in their own oral histories, and in some cases knew personally. In that sense, A Black Civilization opens a door on an era that contemporary Yolngu may still discuss as a threshold to community memory.


Although Warner uses the name “Djirin” to identify this group, the fact that he identifies Banggaliwuy (Bengaliwe [sic]) as a Djirin clan member (Warner 1969: 171) indicates that members of this group now identify themselves as Marrawungu Djambarrpuyngu.

References Cited

Durheim, Emile. 1965. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

Hiatt, Les. 1965. Kinship and Conflict: A Study of an Aboriginal Community in Northern Arnhem Land. Canberra: The Australian National University Press.

Keen, Ian. 1982. How some Murngin men marry ten wives: the marital implications of matrilateral cross-cousin structures. Man 17(4): 620-42.

Keen, Ian. 1994. Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion: Yolngu of Northeast Arnhem Land. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Keen, Ian. 1995. Metaphor and the metalanguage: “groups” in northeast Arnhem Land. American Ethnologist 22(3): 502-27.

Myers, Fred R. 1986. Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place, and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1931. The Social Organization of Australian Tribes. Oceania Monographs No. 1. Melbourne: MacMillan & Co.

Warner, W. Lloyd. 1969. A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe. 3rd edition. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith.

Another re-launch…

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho)

It has been almost two years since STUAnthroBlog was last functioning regularly. Anthropology at STU rolls on, but sadly our engagement with the blogosphere succumbed once again to the business of the teaching year, administrative duties, and research & writing whenever possible (not nearly enough). So it goes. No matter. Fail better.

And so the blog rises up the priority list once again, with a rededicated effort. Comments always welcome.


Social Anthropology in the Classroom

Very interesting and productive class this morning in ANTH 2523, Social Anthropology. The class worked in three groups to analyze exchanges and kinship relations as described by Annette Weiner in the chapter “Marriage and the Politics of Yams” of her book The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. I asked the class to (individually) free write about exchanges between kin in the context of marriage, and then (in small groups) brainstorm to produce nicely messy kinship diagrams showing the items moving around between kin. I also asked them (again as a group) to brainstorm a single-sentence statement of the main argument of the chapter, and, as a bonus (and partly in jest), to come up with a haiku expressing the main argument. They all did! Unfortunately, the photos are a little blurry:


The haiku reads:

If we give you yams

You will give us shells and spears

Is this a fair trade?

[I think the reference to “spears” here refers to the green stone axe blades exchanged for yams in the context of the first exchanges marking a Trobriand marriage.]



Trobriander life

Central on yam exchange

Is complicated.


Yams are not just food –

They hold great power and wealth.

So many arrows!

[The “arrows” here refers, naturally, to the arrows on the diagram representing items moving from one person to another.]


Since they took me up on my haiku challenge with such enthusiasm, I might have to reciprocate by cooking yams during our next class.

And my own haiku about Trobriand exchanges in the context of marriage, as analyzed by Weiner (scratched at the bottom of a page of my copy of the book)?

Sister’s husband,

Here is your yam house.

I will fill it with yams for you.


On “Barbaric Cultural Practices”

According to the most systematic early study of the subject in cultural anthropology, “barbaric cultural practices” include:

  • the invention or practice of the art of pottery
  • the domestication of animals
  • the cultivation of maize and plants by irrigation
  • the use of adobe-brick and stone in house building
  • the process of smelting iron ore

So said Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1877 book Ancient Society, the most comprehensive account of the world’s societies using an evolutionist theoretical framework. Morgan’s account had the older, middle, and later periods of barbarism sandwiched between the older, middle, and later periods of savagery, which were lower down on the evolutionary ladder, and the “status of civilization” at the top, defining all of these largely in technological terms. The various barbarians, therefore, included the ancient Britons, some of the indigenous peoples of North and South America, certain tribes of the Eastern hemisphere, as well as “the Grecian tribes of the Homeric Age, the Italian tribes shortly before the founding of Rome, and the Germanic tribes of the time of Caesar” (Morgan 1877: 11).

As an anthropologist and educator, I am very happy that the Conservative Party here in Canada has chosen to devote valuable time during an election campaign to promoting the history of anthropology by its renewed emphasis on the campaign trail of “barbaric cultural practices”, its abhorrence of them, and its commitment to their eradication, even promising to set up an RCMP tip line for Canadians to report any such practices undertaken by their neighbours. I saw my neighbour smelting iron ore in his adobe-brick house just the other day, so I will be sure to call. It’s a small price to pay to live in a free and secure society.

The Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act (Bill S-7), however, was not introduced with these kinds of practices in mind—if so, the Prime Minister would have had the Canadian Federation of Agriculture outside his office in a heartbeat. Instead, it had in its sights a range of “cultural practices” that were already illegal under the Criminal Code, like polygamy and honour killings (otherwise known as “murder”). Regardless of the efficacy or need for that particular legislation, however, the notion of “barbaric cultural practices” has recently reared its ugly head again, this time in reference to something as sinister as the smelting of iron ore: the niqab, and a Muslim woman who wants to wear it during her citizenship ceremony. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander used a range of rhetorical strategies in this context: standing up for something called “Canadian values”; “protecting” Muslim women; and conflating the separate issues of wearing the niqab, “barbaric cultural practices” more generally, and the revocation of citizenship of convicted terrorists. This conflation of issues is dangerous because of the implicit and explicit dot-connecting that is being done or encouraged: that is, that women wearing the niqab are representative of a group of Canadian citizens or prospective citizens who are linked to terrorism. The scientific terms for this kind of thing are “dog-whistle politics” and “wedge politics”, whereby a divisive cultural issue is used to divide a population for political gain, quietly stirring the pot to get a reaction.

As this is a blog devoted to anthropology and anthropological issues, I will leave it to others to discuss the politics of all of this. But there is much here of anthropological interest. It is not every day that the term “barbaric cultural practices” is so prominent in public discourse, a term that fairly begs for some analysis.

I am not a scholar of Islam or of gender issues; but some basic background information on the niqab seems called for. Most introductory anthropology textbooks include some information on the practice of purdah, the veiling and seclusion of women practiced by both Muslims and Hindus. According to John Bodley, purdah “means ‘curtain’ or ‘veil’ and refers to the physical separation of the living spaces used by men and women, as well as the actual veiling of a woman’s face and body” (2005: 311). Purdah varies substantially from one society to another in terms of how strictly seclusion is enforced, and through which exact means. In terms of manner of dress, there is a similarly wide range, from the burqa (a garment that covers the entire head, face, and body), through the niqab (where the lower face is covered but the eyes are visible), the chador (a cloak covering the head and body but leaving the face exposed), to the hijab (a term referring to any modest covering worn by a Muslim women, but usually referring to a head scarf).

When I teach my 1st-year students about cultural relativism, I emphasize that it is not the same as moral relativism or moral nihilism, and that it does not mean that anthropologists do not make judgements about cultural practices and adopt a “live-and-let-live” approach to cultural difference. I tell my students that cultural relativism as an anthropological principle is about an analytical process of at least temporarily suspending judgement for the purpose of obtaining an informed and contextualized understanding of cultural practices. In some cases, that contextualized understanding may indeed result in the anthropologist deciding that a personal moral or ethical judgement on the matter is not required or appropriate; in other cases, the anthropologist may feel compelled to pass judgement, but he or she is able to do so, in part, because of the informed and contextualized understanding that cultural relativism enabled. It is also a discussion that inevitably emphasizes the complexity and multivalency of cultural practices and beliefs, and that it is rare indeed to make unqualified judgements. In the case of the niqab debate, the purdah in its various forms clearly contributes to institutionalized inequalities based on gender, but it is also a part of a whole complex of beliefs about the division of labour, economic interdependence, dangers to which women may be subjected, and notions of honour, modesty, respect, and shame (Bodley 2005: 312). A detailed study of purdah in all its forms may still yield up the interpretation that it is a form of “oppression against women”, but at least this would be an interpretation based on a contextualized understanding of the data, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction.

I also teach my students that one of anthropology’s unique contributions to the liberal arts is a methodology based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation, which can provide insights into the human condition that other methods cannot. So, with the debate swirling about the niqab and other “barbaric cultural practices”, I was quickly drawn to one ethnography on my bookshelf that considers these matters in elegant detail: Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. What lessons about veiling among Bedouin women in Egypt might help to inform this debate from a uniquely anthropological perspective?

Abu-Lughod describes Bedouin social hierarchies and inequalities in terms of a “moral discourse of honour and modesty” whereby “maleness is associated with autonomy and femaleness with dependency” (Abu-Lughod 1986: 118). She notes that agnatic descent, virilocal postmarital residence, and the control of resources by males form part of a larger social system that underscores this ideology, but indicates that the association of femininity with reproduction, menstruation, and sexuality as a powerful cultural force driving women’s social behaviour, including manner of dress. The practice of veiling is not a cultural isolate, but is one element among many in Bedouin society whereby the realms of male and female are differentiated in terms of social value. Abu-Lughod describes both Bedouin men and women expressing a preference for sons over daughters (ibid.: 119-23); she notes a “natural” basis for female inferiority in Bedouin values and beliefs concerning fertility, and the inherent tension between fertility (which is socially valued) and sexuality and menstruation (which are not) (ibid.: 124-30). These beliefs also relate to Muslim religious practice, in that men and postmenopausal women can pray regularly and demonstrate their piety, whereas menstruating women are not allowed to enter a mosque or touch the Koran (ibid.: 130).

A visible manifestation of Bedouin gender ideologies and hierarchies is the traditional garb worn by adult women of a black veil and a red belt. Marriage and the onset of sexual activity are, for Bedouin women, supposed to commence concurrently, and this is marked by newly-married women immediately beginning to wear the black headcloth (which is also used as a veil) and a red wooden belt. Both are laden with symbolism. The red belt is associated with fertility, and some kind of belt is required for girls from the onset of puberty; going without a belt, reports Abu-Lughod, is considered shameful and indecent because it implies that the woman is “ready for anything” (ibid.: 136). The headcloth, as everywhere in the Muslim world, is associated with modesty, and Abu-Lughod points out that Bedouin men also cover their heads. While white is a colour associated with religion and purity, black has negative connotations (ibid.: 137).

Abu-Lughod explores veiling practices partly through an interpretation of the Bedouin concept of hasham, which she says “lies at the heart of ideas of the individual in society” (ibid.: 105). Meaning “propriety”, but also related to words meaning “modesty”, “shame”, and “shyness”, Abu-Lughod writes that “hasham involves both feelings of shame in the company of the more powerful and the acts of deference that arise from these feelings” (ibid.: 107). Hasham is linked to another term, ‘agl, which she defines as “the social sense and self-control of honourable persons” (ibid.: 108), in that Bedouin society values a person’s abilities to control their actions, but also to perceive their place in the social order and act accordingly—including especially acting with hasham (tahashsham). Abu-Lughod describes hasham as “the sine qua non of virtuous womanhood” and states that describing a woman as one who tahashashams is a great compliment (ibid.: 152). The display of sexual modesty in the presence of males who are considered superiors is a way of showing respect for the social system more generally (ibid.: 157), an interpretation that Abu-Lughod justifies by examining the fact that veiling is “voluntary and situational” (ibid.: 159). Women only begin veiling upon marriage (as marriage is itself associated with the onset of sexual activity), but older women who are not sexually active veil less often. Women veil for certain categories of their male kin (fathers, elder uncles, lineage elders, elder cousins) but not others (younger brothers, husbands, or dependents of their husbands) (ibid.: 161-2). Abu-Lughod also states that the system is flexible, with women making their own judgements about whether or not to veil and to negotiate social status through these actions (ibid.: 163). In concluding her discussion, Abu-Lughod writes:

“Veiling…is best understood as a vocabulary item in a symbolic language for communicating about morality… sexuality is the most potent threat to the patrilineal, patricentered system and to the authority of those who uphold it, namely, senior agnates, and women are those most closely identified with sexuality through their reproductive activities. Therefore, to show respect for that social order and the people who represent it, women must deny their sexuality. They do so by denying sexual interests—avoiding and acting uninterested in men, dressing modestly so as not to draw attention to their sexual charms, and veiling. By distancing themselves from sexuality and its antisocial associations, they escape moral stigma and gain the only kind of honor open to them: modesty, the honour of voluntary deference, which is the moral virtue of dependents in Bedouin society.

Morality is by definition voluntary. As with forced obedience, the modesty of women coerced into seclusion or into veiling would be worthless, both to the women and to those whose status is validated by the deference they receive from their dependents. Hasham cannot be forced; others can only suggest that a particular situation is a context in which one should feel shame and act modestly. A person with ‘agl, or social sense, a person who wants to be good, will tahashsham when it is appropriate” (ibid.: 165).

Abu-Lughod’s “thick description” of Bedouin veiling practices need not be used to “convince” anyone to alter their own opinion of the suite of cultural practices falling under the umbrella of purdah, and Abu-Lughod does not try to deny that veiling is part of a system of social inequality based on gender. What such detailed ethnographic accounts should do, however, is encourage us to pause for the contextual understanding of unfamiliar cultural practices, and to realize that they are always embedded in wide-ranging, complex, and nuanced values and beliefs. It is incredibly simplistic, unsophisticated, and ethnocentric to merely attach the label “barbaric cultural practice” to the wearing of the niqab without seeking to understand it more fully.

A plea for a more contextualized understanding of cultural practices (“barbaric” or otherwise), however, is not the only contribution anthropology can make to this debate. Anthropological perspectives have also been brought to bear on the social practices and cultural values surrounding the public debates about the niqab and other varieties of purdah in Western European societies—otherwise known by the term “anthropology as cultural critique”.

French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray describes “headscarf hysteria” as a type of political hysteria, in which a community substitutes a fictional problem, “which can be mediated purely through words and symbols”, in place of a more substantive problem which it finds insurmountable (Terray 2004: 118); he notes quite correctly that anthropologists have explained non-Western magical practices in the same way, as calling upon invisible powers to defend themselves against that which they cannot control. Debates in France about the Muslim headscarf in the early 2000s, culminating in legislation banning them in February 2004, bear a striking similarity to the Conservative Party’s stance on the niqab. Terry points out the the real, substantial social problems—the “breakdown of integration” between the Muslim community and the wider French society, and the slowdown or stagnation of equalization between the sexes (ibid.: 120)—proved themselves to be beyond the capabilities or imagination of the political class. So, in an act of political hysteria, this political class focused instead on “a fictive problem that can be solved purely in terms of discourse and symbols” (ibid.: 121): that is, the Muslim headscarf. Despite a tiny proportion of France’s population actually wearing the headscarf, it was elevated to an issue of major national significance requiring a 20-person commission to investigate, with virtually no sustained attention giving to solving the real problems of discrimination and exclusion. Terray identifies a two-part tactic that applies equally well to the Conservative Party’s discourse about the niqab: “Firstly, a principle is invoked to which one attributes an absolute, universal value. Secondly, and in short order, its application is essentially limited to schoolgirls’ headgear, to the exclusion of virtually all other objects and occasions” (ibid.: 124).

In our case here in Canada at the present moment, the Conservatives have also invoked principles of universal value, namely “Canadian values” (as if such things are easily defined and widely shared), the “protection of women”, and “national security”; but then these values are focused entirely on a woman wanting to wear a niqab at her citizenship ceremony. According to Terray’s analysis, this process then allows the government to pretend to be dealing with the problems, when in fact avoiding them or denying them. In this case, questions can be legitimately asked about the government’s track record over the past decade on women’s issues and the funding of women’s support services, on their response to an epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and on undermining the values that many Canadians share through their obsessive focus on “national security”. All that apparently matters is that the current “niqab hysteria” be made to last until voters cast their ballots on October 19th.

Anthropological attention has also been brought to bear on similar issues about the face-veil in the Netherlands. Although only 0.002% of the Dutch population wears the face-veil, it has been the focus of considerable attention, debate, and parliamentary action to ban it (Moors 2009: 393). Moors writes of the “culturalization of citizenship” that highlights the tensions inherent in the contrast between “nation” (an imagined community who share feelings of national belonging)  and “state” (an entity based on territorial sovereignty and a social contract with its citizens)—particularly, the tension inherent in some citizens of the state being marginalized from the nation (ibid.: 394). As a result of international events and the rise of right-wing political parties, public discourse and state policies in the Netherlands have become more assimilationist, “placing increasingly high demands on Muslims to prove their belonging to the nation and their loyalty to the state” (ibid.: 395). Notably, Dutch politicians used very familiar language, discussing the burqa in terms of women’s oppression and their perception of standards of behaviour appropriate to Dutch society, and also used a highly affective register of feelings and emotions. Moors notes that politicians’ arguments “are variants of the colonial trope of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman’ who needs to be saved by an enlightened Western government from the pressures her male kin, husband, or the Muslim community at large exert on her” (ibid.: 402). The Dutch politicians also invoked tropes of national security  and the idea that those who choose to remain anonymous in public must be considered potential suspects in criminal acts. Moors concludes that the debate over face-veiling was a case of media hype created by politicians themselves, using highly affective discourse as a tool of national bonding, but barely disguising their own feelings of discomfort, resentment, and anger (ibid.: 406-7).

A final word should go back to Lila Abu-Lughod and her article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others”. Examining the American intervention in Afghanistan and its justification on the grounds of saving Afghan women, Abu-Lughod is unwilling to allow cultural relativism to be used as a “free pass”. She indicates that much discourse in the aftermath of 9/11, by focusing on the “culture” of the Middle East as an explanation for what was going on there, was thereby absolved from the detailed scrutiny of “the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history” (Abu-Lughod 2002: 784). The contextual understanding of cultural difference, which I advocated above, is not enough in itself, and we must be especially attentive to broader patterns of global interconnections. She notes that a range of range of cultural practices (of the kind the Conservative Party would call “barbaric”) are invoked for political gain using the familiar trope of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (ibid.), also noting that such “selective concern” about the plight of Muslim women, focusing on veiling practices, frequently stands in contrast to other, much more substantive reforms that could improve women’s rights in society. Abu-Lughod also refers to Hanna Papanek’s description of the burqa as “portable seclusion”, a potentially liberating cultural practice enabling women to leave segregated living spaces while still abiding by their notions of morality, and asks why we should expect Muslim women to simply throw off their burqas (or niqabs) and suddenly choose immodesty, especially when we have in our own society very clear standards of dress for particular social contexts (ibid.: 785). In the end, Abu-Lughod argues against “the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s unfreedom”, and that “we must take care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing” (ibid.: 786).

Abu-Lughod leaves the reader with some thought-provoking questions:

“Can we only free Afghan [Muslim] women to be like us or might we have to recognize that even after ‘liberation’ from the Taliban, they might want different things than we would want them? What do we do about that?… we need to be vigilant about the rhetoric of saving people because of what it implies about our attitudes… What I am advocating is the hard work involved in recognizing and respecting differences—precisely as products of different histories, as expressions of different circumstances, and as manifestations of differently structured desires. We may want justice for women, but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envisions best? We must consider that they might be called to personhood, so to speak, in a different language” (ibid.: 787-8).

What Abu-Lughod suggests here is equally applicable to all invocations of cultural difference for political gain. We need to be open to the contextual understanding of cultural difference as an essential first step toward an informed positioning in public discourse, but we cannot let our cultural relativism or the politician’s cynicism and opportunism distract us from the more substantive issues at stake. Canada has played (and continues to play) an active part in Western military interventions in the Middle East. Canada has an increasingly bad track record on a range of women’s issues here at home. Both of these fundamental facts point to complex structural issues at the global and national levels, issues that require serious and level-headed debate and, in at least some cases, substantive reform. The invocation of “barbaric cultural practices” is not only anthropologically naive, but a distraction from issues that really matter.

References Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2002. Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others. American Anthropologist 104(3): 783-90.

Bodley, John H. 2005. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. 4th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Moors, Annelies. 2009. The Dutch and the Face-Veil: The Politics of Discomfort. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 17(4): 393-408.

Terray, Emmanuel. 2004. Headscarf Hysteria. New Left Review 26 (March-April 2004): 118-27.

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: