Category Archives: Anthropology

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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Reading old ethnographies

For fun recently, I’ve been reading Isabel Kelly’s 1932 Ethnography of the Surprise Valley Paiute (yes, I’m aware that I have strange tastes in reading). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both amateur and professional anthropologists raced to document the cultures of what were considered to be “vanishing races.” Most of those peoples, obviously, did not vanish. Instead, they adapted to new circumstances, just as people have been doing throughout human history. The anthropological work of that era, however, has nevertheless proved in many cases to be invaluable, in that it gathered and preserved cultural information at a time when many indigenous peoples were under tremendous pressure to abandon their traditions and assimilate completely into American society.

Most of this work was not the “participant observation” that we tend to think of as stereotypical anthropology; where the scientist goes to live among an unfamiliar group of people, observing and taking notes on their day-to-day activities. Rather, anthropologists like Alfred Kroeber, John Peabody Harrington, and Isabel Kelly conducted extensive interviews with people old enough to remember the ways in which people had lived half a century or more earlier.

Apart from simply being fascinating to read, much of this material, if carefully used, is also invaluable to an archaeologist. One of the biggest caveats, or course, is time. In most cases, the interviews were conducted late enough that the informants would have had no personal memory of any time before contact with Europeans; they were born into societies that had already undergone profound changes. And, of course, these were human beings and not computers. They did not have perfect recall of events they had experienced decades earlier. It should also be considered that some informants may not have been completely forthcoming with information they considered private, and that some of what they reported might have been misunderstood by the anthropologist. But even after these and other limitations have been taken into account, these early ethnographies are often very helpful in interpreting what remains in the archaeological record, particularly from period shortly after European contact.

But mainly, I read old ethnographies because I enjoy it. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the past as it was actually experienced by some of the people who lived it.

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The rules of language are innate… unless they’re not

A study just published by a team of cognitive scientists at Johns Hopkins University has found evidence that humans are born with an innate sense of syntactical rules that makes it easier for us to learn languages. The findings are based on an experiment involving teaching groups of people various artificial languages that differ from one another only in certain grammatical rules.

What makes this finding particularly interesting is that just a little over a year ago a team at the Max Planck Institute found evidence that syntactical rules in languages evolve from each language’s unique historical context, and not from anything innate in the human brain.

And on the gripping hand, there was also a study published last June by Dr. Paul Kiparsky of Stanford University in which he found evidence that language change over time seems to follow universal principles.

I’m not a linguistic anthropologist, much less a formal linguist, and I certainly don’t understand the subject well enough to critique any of these papers. However, the question of whether or not universal language structures are innate to the human brain (as Noam Chomsky proposed almost 50 years ago) is a truly fascinating one, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the debate will continue to evolve.

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