Category Archives: Anthropology

Social networking in the past

Popular Archaeology has an intriguing article about social networking among the Hadza, a nomadic people living in East Africa whose primary form of subsistence is hunting and gathering. A team led by Coren Apicello found that the Hadza form social networks among themselves very similar to those formed using Facebook and other modern communications tools. The finding suggests that this form of human interaction may be very old.

I have one disagreement with the article, however, and that is that it too quickly assumes that the behavior of modern hunter-gatherer peoples is necessarily the same as that of peoples living thousands of years ago. This is not a valid assumption. It is widely recognized in archaeology that ancient cultures often differ in significant ways from those visited by anthropologists. This study of social networks therefore can only suggest how people might have interacted in the past, not definitely show that they behaved that way. Regardless of this, though, it is still a very interesting finding that should prompt further research.


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Highly recommended

We’ve been traveling through Northeastern California and Oregon over the past few days, taking a little vacation. Yesterday we were in Bend, so we went out to see the High Desert Museum. I was very impressed by the exhibit showing Indian Nations of the Columbia River Plateau. Far too many of the museums that I’ve visited focus almost entirely on Indian cultures before European contact, helping to perpetuate the “Vanishing Indian” myth that should itself have vanished long ago. This exhibit devotes most of its space to showing how Indian societies have adapted from the time the Europeans first arrived until the present, preserving some parts of their cultures while changing others. Surviving though numerous changes in both White social attitudes and government policies, it was the Indians themselves who decided how to adapt to new technologies and new ways of life without losing their identity in the process. This exhibit appears to have been designed in close cooperation with the various tribes of the Plateau region. The next time you’re near Bend, it’s definitely worth a stop.


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Evolution marches on

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anybody who understands how evolution works, but a recently published study led by a geneticist from the University of Quebec has shown significant evolution occurring in the population of a small Canadian town within just the past 140 years.

I’m not sure if this should properly be called natural selection, since deliberate choice is likely to have played at least some role. The process of evolution works the same way regardless of whether or not the selection mechanism is purely “natural”.

For anyone who wants to read the actual study, it can be found here.

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Dr. Donald Johanson

Last night Catherine and I spent a very enjoyable evening listening to Dr. Donald Johanson, who gave a talk at Truckee Meadows Community College. This was the first time I’d heard Johanson speak. His talk was both entertaining and educational, and of course, much of it was about Lucy and her significance in understanding human evolution.

There was, however, just one minor thing that bothered me a bit. When Johanson described how he first discovered the fossilized skeleton on Nov. 24, 1974, he mentioned several times that one of his students was with him, but he never once mentioned that student’s name (Tom Gray, according to other sources that I’ve read).

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Seeing and hearing in language

Here’s a great video illustrating an illusion called the McGurk Effect, in which a sound that is seen to be spoken overrides the sound that is heard. This touches on both the linguistic and the biological sides of anthropology. Not my particular specialty, but interesting nevertheless.

Interestingly, in an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, the character Mxyzptlk is first seen walking through town looking for somebody named “McGurk”. Given that the episode revolved around speaking a very hard to pronounce name, I have to wonder if the reference was simply a coincidence.

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More books

We had a little extra money, so I decided to spring for six volumes of the Handbook of North American Indians. They arrived today, and after looking though them all, I realize there are a couple more I really should get as well. But at least I’ve got something to keep me busy over the weekend.

Also, this is my 100th post!

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The evolution of complex systems

Economics writer Tim Harford recently gave a very interesting talk at TED about trial and error in the development of complex systems.

If I can go off on a tangent for a moment, while watching Harford speak, I was reminded Donald Hardesty’s discussion of evolutionary mechanisms in his Mining Archaeology in the American West: A View from the Silver State. (Yes, I’m aware that my brain works in strange ways.)

Drawing on work done by Patrick Kirch on cultural adaptation on islands, Hardesty describes three stages in the development of a mining district. Technologically, the first stage is characterized by low diversity and poor adaptation to the specific environment of the district. During the second stage, there is a great deal of experimentation with new techniques for both mining and milling. By the third stage, most people have begun to employ the best of the solutions worked out during the second stage. Technological diversity drops once again, but it is now much better adapted to the specific needs of the district. This sequence of development can often be seen archaeologically, as well as through historical documents.

Of course, even in the third stage some experimentation is still going on, although genuine improvement occurs at a much slower pace. The evolution of the technology continues as long as mining is still going on in that district. A similar process of technological evolution can be expected any time people colonize a new environment, although it is not always so clearly visible in the archaeological record.

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DIY defense force

Wired has this story of a town in the Central African Republic that has started using HF radios and homemade firearms to defend themselves against raiders. An article in Haaretz gives further details. Among other points, I see here an illustration of a very important, but frequently forgotten, aspect of technology: that a society may well have the knowledge to adopt a new (to them) technology without necessarily seeing any need to do so.

In this case, there were obviously smiths in Obo able to manufacture firearms. But they were clearly not doing so on any significant scale, since the townspeople were not armed at the time of the first raid. Prior to that time, people were presumably able to purchase, or otherwise obtain from outside, the few guns they needed. Afterward, townspeople quite understandably perceived a much greater need to acquire firearms, and so they began local production.

This must also be kept in mind when interpreting the remains of past societies. The fact that a particular group did not, for example, practice agriculture or use pottery in no way proves that they were unaware of these technologies. In many cases, supposing that people were aware of the technology in question but chose not to adopt it may give rise to productive research questions. (Such as, how was the steatite trade along the Southern California coast managed? Steatite was used in that region to produce a number of the types of items that elsewhere were made from fired clay.)

As an aside, one possible way for the government of the CAR to respond to local militias like the one in Obo would be to deputize them. That is, declare them to be part of the National Home Guard, or some such, and give them whatever training and equipment can be afforded, but otherwise let them continue doing what they have been doing. This would allow the government to retain its sovereignty, while simultaneously helping foster trust by making it less likely that the army – made up of local residents – can be used to oppress or terrorize the people of that region. (Of course, this assumes that the government doesn’t want to oppress or terrorize the locals, which, sadly, is far from certain.)

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More old ethnographies

I’ve discovered that the Internet Sacred Text Archive hosts a decent collection of ethnographic works dealing with American Indian religions and oral traditions. Scanning the available titles, I see works by Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, C. Hart Merriam, Edward Sapir, Constance Goddard DuBois, Julian Steward, Frank Cushing, James Mooney, and a number of other well respected and careful researchers. This looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun to explore.

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Anthropology quote of the day

Guilt may be good for contemporary American souls; but guilt, as much as pride, is a way of asserting one’s own version of history. The current liberal preoccupation with the conquest of America as a scenario of the triumph of white greed over red innocence too often serves merely to cast the Indian as a straw man of defeated virtue. One does not have to learn about the Indian himself; it is enough to find out that our grandfathers killed him and then go off to feel sorry for it. – Stefan Jovanovich (From the introduction to Adolf Bandelier’s The Delight Makers.)

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