Happy Easter (Island)

20 Apr

Okay, it’s a pretty tenuous link between the holiday many of you are probably celebrating and Easter Island. But it is a good excuse for me to learn a little bit more about a place that I’ve always found fascinating. Obviously, the famous moai statues are the most striking feature of the island to an archaeologist (I first saw them in a comic book as a child and only later learned that they’re real!). They’re probably some of the most recognizable prehistoric monuments in the world, notable for their stylized faces and massive size. I suppose there’s some “mystery” about their construction (safe to say, not aliens).


Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia


But, backing up a bit, “Easter” seems like an odd place name for ancient Polynesian peoples. And, of course, current residents call it Rapa Nui. There’s some ambiguity about its previous name and meaning. A Dutch explorer sighted the island on Easter Sunday, 1722 and…why does no one ever ask local people what they call their land?…dubbed it Easter Island.


Jared Diamond’s account of Easter Island’s collapse (2004) is a powerful cautionary tale. The ecological and cultural issues faced by the island today are a continuation of those identified by Diamond, and a microcosm of global issues. Gideon Long of BBC News provides an excellent summary of the troubles of sustaining a small, remote island population. Easter Island is both blessed and cursed by the massive tourist interest in its sites. I’m personally stretched between wanting to see moai before I die and not wanting to contribute to the island’s tourist-related problems. According to National Geographic, January-March is the peak tourist season, so, if I’m ever fortunate enough to visit, it will probably be another time of year.


Have any readers ever visited Easter Island? Please share your stories in the comments!

Is the Affordable Care Act Really Affordable?

11 Apr


It’s Anthropology. It’s Now. Check out this thought-provoking post at the American Anthropological Association.

Originally posted on American Anthropological Association:

The newest issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly , a journal of the Society of Medical Anthropology, offers an in depth look at both the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and national health care systems worldwide.

Several of the articles in the journal offer a critical look at the ACA as the United States embarks its first health care reformation in over half a century. One article in particular, Critical Anthropology of Global Health “Takes A Stand” Statement: A Critical Medical Anthropological Approach to the U.S.’s Affordable Care Act looks at the driving force behind the ACA, it’s uneasy compromise with the insurance industry, the unconstitutionality of the original planned expansion of Medicaid, and the shortfalls the ACA imposes on the American population.

Written by Sarah Horton (UColorado, Denver), Cesar Abadía (UNacional de Columbia), Jessica Mulligan (Providence College) and Jennifer Jo Thompson (U Georgia) the article encourages anthropologists to join in the…

View original 58 more words

Your Inner Fish Tonight

9 Apr

A three-part documentary called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name begins tonight on PBS (Check local listings). Must-See TV for anyone interested in vertebrate evolution!


Nobu Tamura (spinops.blogspot.com)

Nobu Tamura (spinops.blogspot.com)

The Archaeological Record: Making Things Right

7 Apr

I came across a couple of news articles over the weekend that are worlds apart, but with a similar theme: damage done to the archaeological record and what’s being done to mitigate the harm. Both reflect cooperative efforts to make things right.


Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu (Wikipedia).

Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu (Wikipedia).


The first story involves the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa. Many shrines, dating to the 14th and 15th Centuries AD, were destroyed by Islamic militants who view local Sufi practices as sacrilegious. It’s a tragic, and all-too-common, pattern; erasing the past in an attempt to make way for a new view of the future. I can think of hundreds of examples of such desecration occurring throughout history and prehistory. And there are many more examples we’ll never know about because the “visionaries” were so thorough in their destruction. In Timbuktu, hope arises as a result of committed local and international efforts to rebuild, made easier by the fact that Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage site.


The second story comes all the way from the U.S. state of Indiana. The FBI uncovered thousands of artifacts in the private collection of a 91-year-old man, many of them illegally acquired from around the globe. Anthropologist Larry Zimmerman from Indiana University -Purdue University Indianapolis said: “I have never seen a collection like this in my life except at some of the largest museums.” The LA Times is running the story, by Paresh Dave, under the headline “Indiana Jones? FBI finds thousands of artifacts in 91-year old’s home.” Archaeology. State of Indiana. I guess that headline writes itself… I’d call it Indiana Looter’s Last Crusade, myself! But here’s the bright spot, the man is cooperating in a massive effort to repatriate as many artifacts as possible. Dr. Jones would approve of this part since these cultural items belong in a museum!



Creation Myths and the Cosmos

4 Apr

Evidently, Biblical literalists are upset that Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey introduces the Big Bang and evolution without giving equal time to “alternative” explanations. The difficulty, of course, is that pseudoscientists never think of themselves as such, but as a suppressed (but vocal!) minority view. Many of us spend time arguing why “teaching the controversy” in science classes – or on science shows – is not warranted (because there is no scientific controversy). Amanda Marcotte at Alternet has an intriguing solution: Why not take an anthropological perspective and devote one episode of Cosmos to creation myths…all of them? That way everyone can be offended by having their literally-true-in-all-respects origin lumped in with the obviously-culturally-constructed stories of other cultures. I’m not sure if that would make anyone happy, but it would be illuminating to watch!

National Geographic Channel International Cancels “Nazi War Diggers”

2 Apr


Nice to see professional organizations working to promote responsible popularization. Although protesting every example of pseudoarchaeology on TV would take a very long time!

Originally posted on American Anthropological Association:

To AAA members:
This letter was sent on March 31st, 2014, to the National Geographic Society, National Geographic Channels and National Geographic Channel International to protest a program aired in Europe (with a trailer briefly available on YouTube), by the presidents of six anthropological and archeological associations based in the United States and Europe, including the AAA. The effort was spearheaded by Jeff Altschul, President of the Society for American Archeology. The content of the letter provides, I think, sufficient information for you to understand why this program is of concern to all anthropologists. Shortly before the letter was sent, Dr. Altschul received the following statement from John Francis, Vice-President of National Geographic:

“National Geographic Channels International, in consultation with colleagues at the National Geographic Society, announced today that it will pull the series Nazi War Diggers from its schedule indefinitely while questions raised in recent days about allegations about…

View original 138 more words

How to dress and act “more female”

29 Mar

Every introductory anthropology class covers the distinction between sex and gender. Chromosomal sex (XX or XY) is biologically based, and both are necessary for human reproduction. Even this XX/XY dichotomy is more variable than we generally assume (for example, see Alice Dreger’s TED Talk “Is anatomy destiny?”). Contrary to the M or F choices available to us on standardized forms, gender is incredibly diverse and culturally constructed. Anthropologist Kenneth J. Guest defines gender as “The expectations of thought and behavior that each culture assigns to different sexes” (2014:271. Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age). In other words, within any given cultural context, what does it mean to be male, female, or other gender classification?


Every time I cover gender in cultural anthropology courses, I seek real world examples of how sex and gender differ – and how people, groups, and institutions sometimes misunderstand the distinction. This morning’s newspaper provided a gold mine of ignorance: “‘Tomboy’ transfer edict upsets family: School wanted girl, 8, to dress, act more female or leave.” The 8-year-old in question has short hair, wears “boyish” clothes, collects hunting knives, and shoots BB guns. (I’m more concerned about an 8-year-old collecting hunting knives than any other aspect of that description!). As a result, Timberlake Christian School has given her an ultimatum:

“we believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education” (cited in Larry O’Dell AP article).


Considering the administration’s mindset, I suspect TCS is not the best place for anyone’s future education. It seems as if the poor girl’s options are to grow longer hair, wear dresses, and find different hobbies or find a new school. Evidently, TCS has interpreted God’s sense of gender as skewing heavily toward mid-20th Century American norms. (Doesn’t Jesus have long hair in most depictions? Would that be too “feminine” for Timberlake Christian School?).


The actions of TCS are a perfect example of taking culturally-specific gender norms, roles, and stereotypes, assuming they are universal (and, in fact, divinely ordained), and forcing people to adhere to supposedly “natural” ideas of the way males and females should be. I’d like to see TCS worry less about this kid’s fashion choices and more time clothing the needy in their community.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers