Homo Naledi’s other revolution

When the Homo Naledi discovery was announced I was excited to see that the initial publication was in an open access journal, eLife. In fact to me this was a huge relief for, now that my adjunct teaching days are done and I am gainfully employed in the museum sector, I no longer have access to journals through a university library. (But, then again, I won’t have to rewrite my human evolution lecture. So there’s that.)

One day at work I decided to abstain from my usual time wasting behaviors of Facebook and reading the comments section of the Washington Post, and instead invest my downtime in reading the Naledi piece. Look at me! I’m reading an article for fun! Truly this is one of the most liberating experiences of being outside the academy: now I read scholarship for pleasure.

I was proud of myself for making it all the way to the end, feeling like I got it. Okay, so I skimmed over some of the anatomy stuff, but not all of it. Nothing I can’t handle with a dictionary nearby. With no one to impress with my studiousness except my fellow librarians (who are all, of course, very studious), I looked forward to sharing a bottle of wine with my wife (a biologist and “real” scientist) and telling her all about the findings. We frequently have animated discussions about human evolution, so it came as a surprise when she didn’t want to talk about Homo Naledi rather what grabbed her attention first was that the authors had chosen to go OA.

Jessica has established herself an open access skeptic in our previous kitchen conversations, which unfolded something like…

Her: So where did they publish? Didn’t you say it was the cover of Nature?

Me: No. Cover of National Geographic. Lee Berger had a NGS Explorer grant.

Her: Where then? Science?

Me: No, they went open access. Something called eLife.

Her: Really?! Wow. But why? *gives side eye*
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Jack Goody (1919-2015): an oral history

[The following is an invited post by Keith Hart, Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and International Director of the Human Economy Program in the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria.]

It impressed me that in one version of the [myth of the] Bagre God and the spirits had organized life. Another version was about how the water-spirits, the fairies had helped mankind to invent culture. And in a third version man himself had gone out and invented how to build a house and the rest. All these were within the same myth, theological and humanistic versions together. It gave me a different idea about human beings, that the LoDagaa were always thinking “Was it god or was it mankind that invented this?”

It was very important to me that some of my friends could become university lecturers, having been brought up in a small, oral village and now learn everything from books. Certainly they lost a lot on the way, they lost the Bagre because Goody’s written version was the real one, done with old men whom they hadn’t known. I had to explain to them that my version was chance, I could have written down a hundred other versions if I had the time, the money and the energy. The written version was only one of many (J. Goody 1972, The Myth of the Bagre, Cambridge).1

So what follows is mostly based on oral memory. I have published four essays on Jack Goody’s writings and this one is something else.2

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Guava Anthropology Meets Savage Minds

Language choice can be an issue of access. In attempt to shorten some of the gaps, but mostly to highlight some of the awesome anthropology happening in Taiwan, we have taken on this exciting translation project. Beginning with last week’s article, The Riddle of Sean Lien, we will be translating a handful of articles written in Chinese from the Guava Anthropology blog for Savage Minds this September. The articles we have chosen range in theme, background, and chronology, and yet all remain, in our opinion, excitingly relevant. Continue reading

To Fieldwork, To Write

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Kim Fortun as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Fortun is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is the author of Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (University of Chicago Press 2001), former co-editor of Cultural Anthropology, and is now playing a lead role in the development of the Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography.]


Sometimes, to do fieldwork is to write. This was the way first fieldwork went for me, in the years in the early 1990s when I was working in Bhopal India, at the site of the “world’s worst industrial disaster,” resulting from a massive release of toxic chemicals over a sleeping city. The devastation was horrific, but debatable from the outset. Dead people and animals were strewn across the city, rows of the dead covered in white sheets paved hospital courtyards. The sounds of coughing and grief were overwhelming, and unforgettable.  Disaster was blatant and flagrant, yet it was still was a struggle to account for in words and politics.

It was years later I was told and read about the sounds and sights of Bhopal in the days just after December 3, 1984. Journalists, activists, academics, poets, and many who were tangles of all these helped with the accounting. Stories about the plight of gas victims were also, always, stories about cover-up and denial. Even the basics – the numbers of dead, the number exposed, the number injured – were (and remain) in dispute.   At the 30th anniversary of the gas leak in 2014, activists were still mobilizing to revise the death record. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of September 6

Aside from a flurry of archaeological excitement, the blogs seem a little less active this week… perhaps it’s early-semester stress. Please send me anything interesting at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com!

This September 11th anniversary week makes me think about the significance of markers of Islamic faith in the U.S., which resonates with this post on the Leiden Anthropology Blog about the contestations over such markers in another context: Beards and Holy Sites: Competing Over True Islam in Kyrgyzstan 

AnthSisters features this post from a thin researcher reflecting on her body privilege in her work on the lived experience of fatness (the reclaimed term). I think it could have gone even further in reflecting on why we’re completely comfortable with researchers working across certain gulfs of unknowability (for example, me working in Guatemala as a white researcher from the U.S.) while we are skeptical of other similar leaps, such as a male researcher investigating women’s experiences or an able-bodied researcher investigating disability: Theory Thursday: Reflexivity

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Anthropologies #21: Why do we need to teach climate change in anthropology?

Our next installment in the climate change series comes from Katherine J. Johnson, who is currently a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of Maryland. –R.A.

College students have acquired a lot of useful information, but a limited ability to utilize that knowledge–and sometimes a surprising lack of perspective on real world problems. Many of the students I have taught in Anthropology and Climate Change courses seem to have little factual and context-specific understanding of climate change, despite growing up in an era of public contestation around this issue. Anthropology has a lot of strengths stemming from core theoretical tenants such as holism, reflexivity, and concern for marginalized populations. We can easily leverage these strengths to aid students in better understanding of climate change issues within relevant contexts, and to build on their weak knowledge of accepted science.

Lisa Bennett makes several important points in her Grist article: “10 things you want to know about human nature if you’re fighting climate change.” A key point (and I think all of them are relevant) is #2: “We can be blasé about the most important issues in the world because the global perspective is way beyond ordinary human scale”. She argues that we need “human-sized” stories to teach lessons around climate change. This is something at which anthropologists excel. Many ostensibly well-educated students have no sense of the scope of human history on Earth, our interrelationship with our environment through time, and the dramatic effect we have had on our planet. There are a lot of ways that climate change intersects with real life and our understanding of our human past and present. Making sure that we are developing these lessons into cogent and easily understandable stories (ahem, case studies) will provide students with information they can latch onto and remember. Continue reading

#OpenAccess as Famine

The current state of thinking about open access today is a lot like our contemporary understanding of famine.

In the early 1980s Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze published the ground-breaking book Hunger and Public Action. In it, Sen and Drèze made the unexpected and original argument that famines are not caused by lack of food. Rather, they are caused by lack of entitlement — when famines occur, there is typically enough food to feed everyone, but the social system that distributes it is out of whack. Prices change such that poor people can no longer afford food, and there are not enough (or not correctly designed) social programs that ensure the food is distributed to the poor. It’s not the food that’s missing, it’s the justice.

The metaphor can be run several ways. From one point of view, our closed access world is one in which there is more knowledge than ever, but paywalls ensure that most people are starved for it. While some brave souls continue their long tradition of smuggling, most people starve or watch ad-supported TV, which is the knowledge equivalent of eating mud to feel full (apologies to the legitimate geophages out there who find this an invidious comparison).

In another version of this metaphor, it’s the resources needed to publish — money, manpower, software — that’s the food and it’s the scholarly ecology that doesn’t provide the entitlements necessary for open access publishers to get the resources they need to survive and thrive. That’s why so much of the recent work on open access has now moves to understanding the scholarly ecosystem as whole. Projects like Libraria are trying to see if we can rearrange the existing relations of production (ahem) to create cheaper, more free research. In the Netherlands, the univerisites are realizing that cancelling the Elsevier subscription would liberate enough money to make accessible all those articles the Netherlands currently publishes with Elsevier. In this case, the money to publish open access is in place, but the existing system runs this money through for-profit publishers whose profit margins are too large.

Once, we had to face the claim ‘there’s no money to pay for it’. Now, we know the question is ‘who is entitled to access it?’ Of course, open access advocates have long looked at the big picture when it comes to what needs to change in scholarly publishing. But I do feel that in the past couple of years there has been a shift away from the basic groundwork of developing software and making arguments for the legitimacy and feasibility of open access. It could have been that open access remianed a fringe idea pursued by those without a lot of institutional power. Now, however, as governments, funders, universities, and publishers take open access seriously, it’s increasingly the systematics of entitlement that’s being examined and rethought. It’s an exciting time for open access, and I hope to see even more exciting times ahead.

Anthropologies #21: ‘Patabea se bariu’–Rethinking environmental change

Our next essay comes from Elena Burgos-Martínez, who is currently completing her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at Durham University. Her research explores local conceptualisations of the environment at the intersection between cultures in coastal Indonesia. She is interested in linguistic variations brought about by semantic expansion and new forms of rationalization which define local senses of modernity and belonging. Elena has background in Education, Geology, Chemistry, Sociolinguistics and Social Anthropology and strives to integrate different scientific paradigms when undertaking research. –R.A.

Kala ale’ boe mecin’, shouted Ila, while starting a Bajo song which is intended to ask the wind for help in very hot days. Wind, as stated in the song, travels from deep under sea water up to the surface, all the way through to what is above sea level. Winds mimic humans and humans mimic the wind – each featuring different attitudes towards what is in between wind directions (‘barat’/’west winds’ tends to be a bit volatile and impatient). Winds are an important feature of the environment for the Bajo of Nain Island, in North Sulawesi (Indonesia) and as such they regulate socio-ecological understandings and practices. Although intimately connected to conceptions and representations of climate change, this essay centres its critical consideration on environmental change rather than climatic discourses. I approach my subject by looking at ethnographic data collected through participant observation and posterior analysis on different conceptualisations of the environment and perceptions of the physical environment as un-detachable from the social. Continue reading

The Riddle of Sean Lien

[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Renée Salmonsen and Chuan-wen Chen.]

Originally posted on the Guava Anthropology Blog 28 September 2014

Author: Hsiu-Hsin Lin
Translators: Renée Salmonsen & Chuan-Wen Chen

Translator’s note: Contemporary youth and amateur politicians are taking an increasingly active interest and role in Asian politics. We feel it is important to translate this article because the result of Taipei’s mayoral election last year was a significant milestone for Taiwan. This article was written in the month leading up to the election. Many people view the result, independent candidate Wen-je Ko winning the capital city mayoral election, as a reflection of voters seeking change and expressing their dislike for both major political parties, the Kuomintang party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The election was held on November 29th, 2014. The two most popular candidates were Wen-je Ko and Sheng-wen Lien. Neither of the leading candidates had previous significant administrative or management experience in government institutions. Ko, a former surgeon, won the election with 57.16% of votes. Sheng-wen Lien, a.k.a. Sean Lien, is the son of Lien Chan, the former Chairman of the KMT and the Vice President of Taiwan. Sean Lien won the KMT mayoral primary, but lost the 2014 Taipei City mayoral election with 40.82% of votes.

The idea for this article stems from a class discussion. Taipei’s mayoral election has been the hot topic for weeks now. Anything seemingly unrelated to the election is now related. Due to recent circumstances, I haven’t logged-on to Facebook or watched TV lately which has enabled conversations with my students to skip over the hot, trending topics of the election and return to the greater issue of the “Sheng-wen phenomenon”. In other words, whether Sheng-wen is elected or not the emergence of a figure like Sean Lien is a very important phenomenon for the social sciences.

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Partha Chatterjee: Why I Support the Boycott of Israeli Institutions

[Savage Minds is honored to publish this essay by Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, and of the Centre for the Studies of Social Sciences in Calcutta. He is a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective.]

Having taught for a lifetime in Indian institutions and, alongside, about two decades in US universities, I have a position on this question that is somewhat unusual from the point of view of most American anthropologists. My political views were formed in the course of growing up in a country that was once the classic colonial possession of the British Empire, achieving its independence in the year of my birth. I grew up with the marks of colonial rule scattered all around me – equestrian statues of colonial governors and generals at street corners, all-white sporting clubs and swimming pools where native youngsters were shooed away by turbaned gatemen, rows of office buildings with names like McKinnon and McKenzie or Jardine and Henderson whose top officers, I was told, were still spotlessly white. I went to an elementary school run by an English couple whose son – I still remember his name, Stephen Hartley – was routinely awarded the top prize by our Indian teachers at every school competition. Ever since, no matter which country I have visited, I have rarely failed to recognize the signs of colonial superiority.

I first came to know about the fate of European Jews in a roundabout way. Sometime in my childhood, I came to hear the phrase notun ihudi – the new Jews. It was probably the title of a movie. It referred, I was told, to people like us, thrown out of our homes in the eastern half of Bengal which had now become part of another country called Pakistan. Both my parents came from there. Once every few months, I would wake up in the morning to find the house full of strangers – relatives from Pakistan who stayed with us for a few days and then moved to a more permanent dwelling. We were, I heard, the new Jews – refugees, forced to make a new life in a strange land. Continue reading

Anthropologists Writing: The Fall 2015 Writers’ Workshop Essay Series

It is my pleasure to announce the fourth (and final) season of our Writers’ Workshop series. Each Monday we will share a new essay reflecting on some aspect of the writing process. We invite you to follow along, and to make these essays part of your weekly writing rituals. This fall we have a fantastic group of contributors:

September 14—Kim Fortun, “To Fieldwork, To Write”

September 21—Daniel Goldstein, “Real Writing”

September 28—Sasha Su-Ling Welland, “List as Form: Literary, Ethnographic, Long, Short, Heavy, Light”

October 5—Gabriella Coleman

October 12—Paul Tapsell

October 19—Victoria Massie

October 26—Carla Jones

November 2—Katerina Teaiwa

November 9—Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

November 16—Ieva Jusionyte

November 23—Gastón Gordillo

November 30—Bhrigupati Singh

December 7—Barak Kalir

December 14—Stuart McLean

December 21–Sara Gonzalez

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Around the Web Digest: Week of August 30

Send along anything interesting to rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com!

The BBC reports that Chimpanzees and Monkeys Have Entered the Stone Age (by using relatively sophisticated stone tools). More interesting to me is the claim that they recognize the value of cooked food and seem to understand the process of cooking in experiments.

Science Daily writes that archaeologists have linked Mayan environmental alterations to the beginning of the Anthropocene. Clues from Ancient Maya Reveal Lasting Impact on the Environment 

A blog called Stuff Mom Never Told You featured the profiles of 9 Women Who Changed Anthropology, including some I had never heard of myself. As with any list, we can immediately begin questioning who was included or excluded.

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Embracing Impostor Syndrome

Cat posing as a meerkat
image source

It seems a fair amount of academics, especially women, suffer from impostor syndrome, “a constant fear of being discovered to be a fraud and a charlatan.” Self-doubt is surely a universal human trait, but we vary in our ability to suppress, ignore, and/or manage such feelings. What is perhaps somewhat unique about impostor syndrome among academics is that “it’s the successful who tend to suffer from it: In order to feel like you’re faking it, you need to have already reached a certain level in your discipline.” As Kate Bahn puts it, it’s “a twisted version of the Socratic paradox—the more you know, the more you feel like you know nothing.” I once calculated that for every book I read I find myself discovering at least ten new books or articles I feel I need to read. That means that if I read a book a week there are about five hundred and twenty new books on my list by the end of the year, each of which feels urgent and essential for my own intellectual development. One’s awareness of the vast body of knowledge we don’t know is actually part of what makes us “experts” but the price we pay for this expertise is a kind of self-doubt. It is always possible that the next book will contain the golden nugget we are searching for.

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Anthropologies #21: Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology?

Up next for this issue we have Todd Sanders and Elizabeth F. Hall. Sanders is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He has written extensively on African and Euro-American knowledge practices, and is currently collaborating with Elizabeth Hall on a project called ‘Knowing Climate Change.’ Hall is a physician-scientist and Research Associate at the Centre for Ethnography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She trained as a specialist in public health medicine and holds a PhD in epidemiology.  –R.A.

Global climate change is driving anthropologists in opposite directions. Some are enthusiastically adopting “the Anthropocene” – a “gift” from our friends in the natural sciences (Latour 2014) that might enable us to exit, at long last, our Modern world and its Holocene thinking (Hamilton, et al. 2015). The concept potentially dovetails with old and new concerns – networks, rhizomes and relational ontologies; more-than-human socialities; hybrids, nonhumans and the posthuman; multispecies, multinaturalisms and modes of existence – and promises critical purchase over today’s troubled times. For as we enter the Anthropocene, we’ll need new conceptual tools and ways of thinking to understand our new home. The familiar dualisms that have long dogged our discipline and world – Nature and Culture; local and global; Moderns and non-moderns; and so on – are not up to the task. Discard the Modern dualisms. Dwell on the emergent processes of their production. And reimagine worlds as partial and provisional, composed through multiple, heterogeneous entanglements. For many anthropologists, the time is ripe for such an Anthropocene Anthropology. Continue reading

Anthropologies #21: Agricultural Adaptations and their Socio-Political Parameters: Social Responses to Climate Change in Ghana and South Sudan

The next installment for the anthropologies issue on climate change comes from Douglas La Rose. La Rose is the regional coordinator for the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), a humanitarian organization operating in Northern Bahr al Gazal, Western Bahr al Gazal, and Warrap States in South Sudan. He has previously worked on food security and livelihoods interventions and research projects in Ghana, the Solomon Islands, and Ethiopia. He has a Master’s Degree in Applied Anthropology and lives with his wife and two children on their family farm in the Volta Region of Ghana, West Africa.


Climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable people in the world. In the sprawling global region where I have been working over the past decade, Western and Eastern Africa, it is even more biased against the fortunes of people struggling against parching droughts and sweeping floods. The ways that communities respond to these climate extremes are disparate and not established, but certain variables such as conflict and strong political social institutions have a profound influence on the suite within which communities can situate their responses. Communities that live in conflict zones often don’t have the ability to adapt to climate extremes, while communities facing similar problems in relatively peaceful areas with stability and stronger social and political institutions can take certain risks that increase their resilience and adaptability. Continue reading