Tag Archives: The Other Three Fields

What the well-dressed fieldworker is wearing this summer (i)

Planning a summer trip to a hot weather field site? Let’s punch up your wardrobe a bit prior to departure.

This is intended as the first in a short series of how-to posts for optimizing your clothing choices for the heat and humidity. The individual posts will be organized around a particular type of garment or gear, such as outwear and footwear. This post will discuss undergarments and headwear and neckwear. Prior to that, a few caveats about the series of posts as a whole:

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Leisure Class as anthropology class

I don’t ever teach an Intro to Anthropology, a fact for which I wake each day thankful and perform several ritual ablutions and say long meandering prayers to as many culturally specific deities as I can remember. But if I did, I would start with Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. In fact, I might even make it the only text for my awesome four-field anthropology class.

Thorstein Veblen
All you need is love. And one book by Veblen.

Economists think the book belongs to them–or those few evolutionary and/or institutional economists who take the book seriously (Geoffrey Hodgson leads this ragtag bunch of misfits and loyalists yearly into battle). But the book is anything and everything but economics. In fact, the book is a weird and wonderful combination of anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology and speculative phenomenology. One of the reasons people might not grok the fundamental wackiness of this book is Continue reading

Stone knappers of knowledge

The latest number of the Journal of Archaeological Science — yes, I read the Journal of Archaeological Science — has another ingenious piece on how people learn to competently knapp stone tools. For over a century archaeologists have been teaching their students how to make stone tools by hand, both as a way to learn about the techniques behind the tools as well as to get students interested in what might otherwise seem to be merely oddly shaped pieces of rock. As anyone who has ever tried to make a stone tool can tell you, there is nothing primitive about them — it takes a great deal of skill and craft to knock those things out.

I’ve always been struck by the duality I see in how archaeologists approach knapping. On the one hand, they produce articles like the one in the Journal of Archaeological Science, full of exhaustive and incredibly sophisticated methods to study the acquisition of knapping skills from the outside in. On the other hand, they round up a bunch of 20 year olds, give them some gloves (hopefully!) and make them knapp till they bleed — which often doesn’t take very long. This is knapping form the inside out, the skill passed down from one archaeologist to the other via bruised, calloused fingers.

Although there is a lot of variation within anthropology, I would have to say that one of the most distinctive things about our discipline is our commitment to learning about humanity from the inside out. It is surely one of the most unique things about our discipline that we are committed to the idea that being human with other humans is a far more sophisticated way of learning about them than any other sort of method that works from the outside in. Some methods distrust our intuitions and sympathies as biases distortions, but we feel that we are by ourselves infinitely more complex instruments for gathering data than the artifacts we make.

Of course, this commitment to learning from the inside out has its drawbacks. There is such a thing as bias, and there is a lot of value to be gained by using formal methods or advanced instrumentation — remember, I began this blog entry saying that I found the Journal of Archaeological Science worth reading! But on the whole we feel like if we can learn to make the arrowheads and hafted axes of social life, then we have something that counts as knowledge that we can pass on to others, and we can skip the meticulously recorded and coded video records of people knocking bits off the edge of a stone blank.

Admittedly, this means we often get little respect from people with much more myopic definitions of knowledge, but I think this demonstrates the limits of their vision, not ours. Like stone tools, there is nothing primitive about our discipline. Or, perhaps, there’s something primitive about it that’s worth holding on to.

Marc Hauser’s Trolley Problem

Many of you may be following the Marc Hauser case. If you aren’t: the NY Times has reported on it (here and here), the Chronicle of HIgher ed has published a leaked document from a former research assistant in Hauser’s case, Language Log, John Hawks and NeuroAnthropology have all posted some links, greg laden has a hilarious post about his perception that Hauser could make his new world monkeys consistently do surprising things. And so on.

I have a weak sense of the details, but I do know that accusations of fraud, regardless of whether fraud was committed, tend to have a range of effects on people involved, especially the administration of a university, the graduate students in a lab, and the fellow researchers in an accused’s field. One might think of this as Hauser’s trolley problem, a tool he’s fond of using himself in order to supposedly get at the basic biological modules or organs of morality. In this case, the person on the track, about to be flattened by a runaway trolley, is Hauser himself. One can imagine a number of scenarios: should one pull a lever to save Hauser? Should one push an unnamed (fat) graduate student or post-doc onto the track to save Hauser? Should one divert the trolley onto a track containing five other researchers who work on moral cognition, or leave it on the track towards Hauser to save those five? Should one derail the trolley and risk destroying a building (cognitive science at Harvard) that might contain sleeping researchers, etc. etc. etc.

As many journalists have noted, there is irony in the fact that Hauser’s forthcoming book is called Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad. But it’s more than irony, it’s a question of scale and temporality. Whatever evil is at stake here, it might have both a distant cause (evolution) and a proximate one (the institutional pressure to publish and the problem of being a star scientist), and neither Hauser nor anyone else seems able to mount a theory that would accommodate both. If there is a problem with Hauser’s style of research, it’s probably not that it is fraudulent. More likely, the problem is that his theories cannot explain the possibility of fraud arising as a result of the intense desire to prove that fraud has an evolutionary origin.

A Brief Note on Archaeology and Salmon

It is that time of the year again: another wave of Tables of Contents in my inbox. I subscribe to content alerting for a variety of archaeology journals and I’m always fascinated by the variety within the archaeological community today in terms of their ‘humanism’. Thus the same article published in different journals would be:

Journal of Archaeological Science: Use of Strontium Isotopes Reveals Extreme Salmon Specialization At Prince Rupert Island, British Columbia

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology: Do You Never Get Tired of Samon? Evidence For Extreme Salmon Specialization At Prince Rupert Island, British Columbia

Archaeological Dialogues: Salmon and Agency

Just saying.

Questioning Collapse

In an unfortunately-forgotten bit of 70s academic bloodsport, Marvin Harris and Marshall Sahlins battled it out in the pages of the New York Review of Books over the origin Aztec cannibalism: was it, as Harris argued, something Aztecs were driven to as a result of a protein deficiency? No, Sahlins answered, but even if it was all of the symbolism and institutions surrounding it would still have to be explained as a result of culture, not nutrition. Sahlins’s argument was devastatingly convincing because it explained two phenomenon with a single maneuver: Aztec cannibalism was a result of culture, not nutritional needs, just as Harris’s belief in it was motivated not by facts, but by his own (American) cultural tendency to see human behavior as shaped by biological factors.

A disagreement with similar contours is afoot today. The latest skirmish in the Jared Diamond wars deals not only with issues of scholarly accuracy, but also the cultural/personal motivation of the protagonists as well as the social effects of their arguments. The main protagonists are the authors of Questioning Collapse, an edited volume in which expert scholars take issue with Jared Diamond’s reading of their specialty topics: the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) specialist discusses Diamond’s use of the Rapa Nui data, the Incan specialist discusses Diamond on Pizzaro and Atahualpa, and so forth. The book is critical of Diamond, who has responded with a review in Nature that is none too friendly itself.

The Usual Denunciations are already issuing from Stinky Journalism.org, which mostly focus on how unethical it was for Diamond to write a review of a book that criticized his book without explicitly telling readers the book he was criticizing criticized him. You can check it out if you want, but I think its much more interesting to see how the back and forth between Questioning Collapse and Diamond exemplified some of the issues that played out twenty years earlier in the Sahlins/Harris debate. How do we tack between the social effects of our work and its accuracy? How can we address the cultural underpinnings that motivate an author’s writing without falling back into ad hominem attacks? How well does Collapse stand up to scholarly scrutiny? And how good a job does Questioning Collapse do of reaching out to Diamond’s popular audience? These questions are worth asking — even if you are a little burned out on the Jared Diamond wars.
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Ida, Sweet as Apple Cidah, and 47 Million times as old

Some of you might have noticed the stories circulating about the announcement of a paper about a 47 Million year old primate fossil which is causing various kinds of controversy. The first, and most important is that it is colloquially named “Ida”–which is also my 4 year old daughter’s name. Why? Well, this relates to the second controversy. One of the researchers named the fossil after his 6 year old daughter, (a common name in scandanavia thanks to Ida (pronounced ‘eeda’) from Pippi Longstocking). This was only the first of a series of self-aggrandizing moves surrounding the announcement, including heavy promotion by the History channel (A program called “The Link”) , a party at the American Museum of Natural History convened by Mayor Bloomberg, a book and probably a line plush toys, god willing. Add to that there is already a minor storm brewing about the scientific legitimacy of the research, which is published in the open access journal PLoS One, and stands to be a test of open access as a quality publication outlet. One hopes that this is a good test. It is puzzling that the paper isn’t in a paleontology journal, or a science/nature/PNAS… and it would be interesting to know the motivations for this. There is already one critique, and probably other critiques of the paper circulating.

I have next to no opinion on the scientific claims, though I do have a senstivity to just how hard it is to make convincing hypostheses from the fossil record. This is an event worth watching for how massively hyped science affects the outcome of research and discussion in a field. My suspicion is that no one will touch this for a while, it will turn out to be an exceptionally well preserved fossil, but not one that “changes everything” as the History channel would have it. Or at least if it “changes everything” it will be that students and amateurs all over the world will talk about Ida instead of Lucy, and my daughter will have to deal with it for years to come. This is the way we world our knowledge today.

Chocolate is the cherry on top of Southwest archaeology

Craig Childs in the LA Times:

North Americans in the early centuries AD were gathering into population centers, dabbling in metallurgy and domesticating animals such as dogs and turkeys. Public works were going full swing. Beneath the modern city of Phoenix you will find remains of several hundred miles of mathematically engineered irrigation canals that once fed a hydraulic society on a par with early Mesopotamia.

Structures now known as “great houses” once stood in the Four Corners region — where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet. They were masonry compounds rising as tall as five stories, their ground plans going on for acres, interiors honeycombed into hundreds of rooms including massive, vaulted ceremonial chambers.

Such an architectural landscape defies cliches about this continent’s history. Add into this picture trade routes extending more than 1,000 miles along which goods were being moved from Central America into what is now the United States. These goods included copper implements, live tropical birds and, now we know, chocolate.

Chocolate is the cherry on top of Southwest archaeology, and it tips the balance of perspective.

U Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

I recently shared the first results of last summer’s announcement that the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was going to digitize its collection and upload it to the internet. But while I was cheering for the museum, it seems a storm was brewing. As noted in Inside Higher Ed, the museum’s decision to fire 18 research scientists has led to a petition.

the University Museum has uniquely characterized itself, as stated on the museum’s own website, as a research institution to “advance understanding of the world’s cultural heritage” (see the Museum’s mission statement). We understand the dismantling of the research infrastructure of the Museum as a drastic surgical gesture, a decisive act that will discontinue the possibility of future archaeological research in the above-mentioned fields.

At the moment the petition has over 3435 signatures.

Are we causality crazy?

update: I forgot to post my amended picture:


Steven Pinker’s latest apology for behavioral genetics is in this weekend’s NYT Magazine. There are two things to pay attention to. 1) he’s right about personal genome sequencing: regardless of whether it’s correct, or the results can be properly interpreted for people, people are going to do it, and for all kinds of reasons, good and bad, and this is in itself something that will change behavior–call it proximate causality for individual behaviors. And the comparison with astrology, sorcery and other forms of readouts about your fate should probably be taken more seriously, especially by anthropologists, rather than used as a dismissal of genetic essentialism or determinism. 2) genetics seems to have become so confused with heritability that the claims about “what genes cause” have become incoherent; scales are routinely mixed up, which is what results in the manic fantasizing about why we conserve one gene or another (“gene so-and-so is correlated with baldness, therefore baldness must have conferred an advantage on our distant ancestors by serving as an effective way to deflect light before mirrors were invented” etc). As a result, our ability to argue about the roles that distant causality play versus those that proximate causality play have been compromised. Oh, and one other thing, There is no mention at all of epigenetics… is that deliberate, I wonder, or does it represent troubling ignorance on Pinker’s part?

and btw, I will note that our category for genetics at SM is “Race, genetics” which (and I’m not blaming anyone here) is interesting.

Free Webisodes of Pacific History and Archaeology

If you want to learn more about the Pacific then you are in luck — the Hawai’i State department of education has recently put together two locally-produced programs available on the web for free. “Stories to Tell”:http://wetserver.net/teleschool/pages/programs/program_home.jsp?programid=16&programpageid=29&programpagetype=programpages is a documentary about the little-known Pacific campaign during the American Civil war and focuses on Yankee whaling ships sunk by the Confederate navy in Micronesia in the 1860s. Its a fascinating story that helps remind us just how globalized our world has been, and how long the Pacific has been entangled in geopolitics.

The second show, “Pacific Clues”:http://wetserver.net/teleschool/pages/programs/program_home.jsp?programid=16&programpageid=30&programpagetype=programpages discusses the archaeology of the Pacific, with a special focus on Polynesia. The “first episode”:http://www.teleschool.k12.hi.us/tlc/IR_CR_PC_1.html features Terry Hunt discussing the destruction of Rapa Nui’s (Easter Island) environment, and his own interpretation of what led to its downfall. Terry’s objections to authors such as Jared Diamond’s interpretation of Rapa Nui’s history is well known, and now you can watch the man explain it in person.

All of these shows are available for free, as a series of 20 minute web episodes — so far only a few episodes are up, but as the season progresses more will be available. They’re meant for kids, so they are a great opportunity for you and your little ones to curl up together in front of a glowing LCD screen. But of course they’re great for people of all ages — especially people who want to know more about what the experts really think about the Pacific, but don’t want to read a bunch of scholarly articles.

Gratz to Stephen Houston on levelling

It’s MacArthur ‘genius grant’ time and this time around we have an anthropologist as a winner — “Stephen Houston”:http://www.macfound.org/site/c.lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.4537263/ won the award this year for his work on Mayan society. Anthropology has several MacArthur’s amongst its members but… it is always nice to have another! I’ve used Steve’s Annual Review in Anthropology article on communication technology to help decode my work on ‘semiotic technologies’ for my comrades over in archaeology. It just goes to show: never underestimate the power of epigraphy. Gratz Steve!