Category Archives: Anthropology in the News

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.

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:


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:

Anthropology takes first hit in gubernatorial cleanup of liberal arts

Tampa, Florida, Friday, Oct. 15 — Florida Governor Rick Scott’s war against the liberal arts claimed its first victory today as anthropologists at the University of South Florida began packing up their offices containing artifacts, skeletal remains, and items of material culture collected from cultures around the world.

The move comes in response to Governor Scott’s decree earlier in the week that Florida tax revenues would no longer be used to support degree programs that only offered intellectual stimulation, the capacity to develop skills of critical thinking and writing, and engagement with all of the other peoples who currently inhabit, or have inhabited, our planet.

“We’re spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it’s not great,” the governor told a luncheon crowd of the Northwest Business Association in Tallahassee. “Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

As a result, anthropology departments across the state will be shutting their doors. At USF, the Department of Anthropology will be sending their students across the quad to the Faculty of Business, where they will change their major to Hotel and Restaurant Management, a prospect that has many students excited.

“Well, I was planning to do my anthropology honours thesis on the impact of wetlands management on rural communities in the Sun Belt,” said 3rd-year former anthropology student Kristen Myers. “But that’s not possible any more, so I’m going to complete my major in bartending. I do it part-time anyway.”

Governor Scott is not singling out anthropology for long, however. Other liberal arts disciplines in the University of South Florida’s College of Arts and Sciences are also on the chopping block, with Classics to shut next week, followed by Drama, French, and History.

The diabolically alphabetical academic house-cleaning plan took at least one observer by surprise, a faculty member in the Department of African-American Studies who asked not to be identified.

“We knew this was coming down the line for a few weeks,” said the professor. “I was desperately trying to figure out what to do with my National Endowment for the Humanities grant that I was intending to use to study the continuing effects of racism on the criminal justice system. We were all getting ready to pack up. Then the announcement came that Anthropology was getting the axe, then Classics. I guess we slipped under the radar.”

Not all “A” disciplines are worried, though. The Department of Accounting is facing a funding windfall, and has plans to expand their PhD program. “Remember, we’re producing critically-thinking, theoretically-engaged accountants, who are trying to relate accountancy to the deeper significance of the human condition,” remarked accounting professor Deborah Jones.

For more on this story, see the following links:

Neuroanthropology: Understanding the Encultured Brain and Body

Meet My Daughter, The Anthropologist

USF Anthropology Students: This Is Anthropology

Huffington Post: What Anthropologists Can Do for Florida

Mother Jones on Governor Scott’s Plans for the Liberal Arts

Calligraphy-Inspired Stocks Trade at $416 Per Share




Dust-up in the Faroes

STU anthropology alumnus Josh Green, currently undertaking his MA fieldwork in the Faroe Islands, is attracting some attention from Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (the folks who confront Japanese industrial whalers in the Great Southern Ocean). An essay that Josh wrote on anti-whaling protests in the Faroes has generated an interesting Facebook discussion (same paper as above, so scroll down to the comments), with Watson himself weighing in. Sadly, Mr. Watson seems to be reluctant to actually read the essay in question. Oh well…

This seems to be an example of what I have come to think of as “the conflict of leftist causes,” whereby people on the political left (and I am one of them) can get themselves tied into knots when one cause to be supported or celebrated conflicts with another…like opposing whaling, on the one hand, and supporting traditional cultures on the other. Let’s not forget, though, that environmentalism, human rights, and many other important causes are, nevertheless, mainstream Western constructs, and the imposition of those constructs on other peoples may indeed be usefully thought of through the framework of cultural imperialism.

You pick your poison. A blanket ban on, say, the hunting of marine turtles would put in jeopardy traditional Yolngu subsistence practices (which include species management practices anyway). At any rate, what Mr. Watson may be overlooking are the differences between large-scale, industrial, “scientific” whaling by Japan, and relatively small-scale, traditional whaling in the Faroes. What is the appropriate balance between environmentalism, animals rights, and cultural survival?