Archive | December, 2012

Anthropology as a Candle in the Dark

20 Dec

It’s been 16 years since the astronomer Carl Sagan died on December 20, 1996.  Dr. Sagan might seem like an unusual hero for an anthropologist, but he was, and is, mine.  His blend of skepticism and wonder were unparalleled and inspiring.  I dedicated my doctoral dissertation to him because, without such inspiration, I would never have taken on something so challenging or seen it through to completion:

Dedicated to Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Who first opened my eyes to the wonders of the Cosmos

and our extraordinary species Homo sapiens.

So many of Sagan’s works hit me like a flash of enlightenment, making knowledge fun and accessible.  They created a confidence that reality is knowable, and that we have a reliable method of growing our understanding of humans and everything else in the cosmos: science.  Carl Sagan had a charming way of encouraging rationality and skepticism without belittling people.  (Oh, how I wish he was still here on the eve of December 21st to kindly and eloquently explain why doomsday scenarios are such “baloney”).

Sagan also sparked my ongoing fascination with everything.  As some of you probably know, it can be difficult to choose a college major when you have a passionate interest in everything.  Eventually, I chose anthropology because of its emphasis on people (my “favorite animal”) and its holistic perspective: “The study of the whole of the human condition: past, present, and future; biology, society, language, and culture” (Kottak 2012).

A holistic perspective is integral to anthropology.  It is anthropology’s greatest strength.  Whether examining human behavior or our planet as a whole, considering things in the context of the “big picture” makes understanding possible.  Perspective changes everything!  The images and words of Sagan’s (1994) book Pale Blue Dot illustrate this very effectively:

Blue Dot with arrow

Image Source:

“From this distant vantage point, the earth might not seem of any particular interest.  But for us, it’s different.  Look again at that dot.  That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Sagan 1994:8).

Click here to see an animated presentation of this quote.

Just as looking at the planet Earth from a different point of view changes our perspective, the discipline of anthropology offers a different vantage point from which to view humanity.  Anthropology isn’t just about far away people and places – we can apply the holistic perspective of anthropology to both global and local issues.  It can change the way we view the world, help us develop a greater appreciation for being human, and demonstrate the power of culture to shape the future.

That’s why I love talking, teaching, and writing about anthropology so much.  How about you?  What motivates your interest in the science of humanity?

Happy Holidays!


Homo floresiensis: An Unexpected “Something”

14 Dec

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit



Image Source:

Today the highly-anticipated movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in U.S. theaters.  It seems as good a time as any to revisit what we know about Homo floresiensis, the fossil hominin popularly called “hobbit.”

The quote above is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, but it also perfectly describes the initial discovery of Homo floresiensis bones at Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia.  The specimens of this diminutive hominin species were indeed something; something wonderfully unexpected!

First of all, the bones date to about 18,000 years ago.  In the whole scheme of hominin evolution, 18,000 years is not very long ago at all.  It is after Neanderthals had gone extinct and represents a period in which, we once thought, anatomically-modern Homo sapiens were the only remaining bipedal hominins on the planet.  This may hold true for most of our world, but, in the exceptional case of Flores Island, we shared an environment with “little people” in the not-too-distant past.

And they were little: averaging about one meter (3’ 6”) tall, weighing about 30 kg (66 lbs.), and having surprisingly small brains (about 400 cc).  But here’s the real mystery: despite these very small brains, Homo floresiensis is associated with tools reflecting a technological (and behavioral?) sophistication previously only seen among larger-brained hominins, like us.

How were these hobbits able to achieve so much with so little?  Were there encounters between Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis?  If so, were they hostile or cooperative?  If we let our imaginations run wild, could the prevalence of small humanoid creatures in world mythology reflect ancient memories of actual encounters with Homo floresiensis?  (Doubtful for many reasons, but it is fun to speculate about).

I’ve just briefly introduced a few of the unexpected traits of the Flores Island hobbits.  Much remains to be learned about them.  In the meantime, the Smithsonian’s Human Origins website includes an excellent overview of the current state of floresiensis research.  Enjoy!

Nobody Ever Had a Pet Dinosaur

11 Dec

If you read my April 30th post “Archaeologists (Still) Don’t Dig Dinosaurs,” you already know that the conflation of archaeology and paleontology – and the popular misconception that people and dinosaurs coexisted – bothers me.  It would bother me less if not for the constant reminders of this misconception in children’s programming.

I was watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with my one-year-old son this morning.  It’s a cute, wonderful, and generally educational show for preschoolers.  Both of my kids have loved it (try getting the “hot dog” song out of your head after hundreds of viewings.  It’s impossible).

In today’s episode, “Pluto’s Dinosaur Romp,” Professor Ludwig von Drake built a time machine in order to travel back to “dinosaur times.”  When exactly were dinosaur times?  “A long time ago,” explained the cartoon duck professor.  Vague, but not inaccurate.  Unfortunately, later in the show, “Caveman Pete” arrived from dinosaur times to retrieve his dinosaur pet.  I hate it when prehistoric humans – or even anthropomorphic cats, like Pete – are portrayed alongside dinosaurs!

Picking apart cartoons for factual accuracy is all too easy.  Maybe it’s not a big deal.  After all, in an animated fantasy world populated by talking animals, what’s one more inaccuracy?  Are Caveman Pete and dino pet any more worrisome than, say, “A Message from Mars,” an episode where Mickey and friends encounter little green-tinted versions of themselves on the red planet?  If Mickey Mouse Clubhouse ends up being a primary source of scientific information for the next generation, then we’re in bigger trouble than I thought!

The storyline of “Pluto’s Dinosaur Romp” is one example of a minor pet peeve.  In contrast, the recent Gallup poll, showing that 46% of Americans believe that humans were created sometime within the last 10,000 years, is a major concern.  We Homo sapiens are much older than 10,000 years, but not so old that we extend back to “dinosaur times” over 65 million years ago.

I sometimes worry that all the little things (TV shows, toys, movies, etc.) depicting humans and dinosaurs together contribute in small ways to our embarrassing national misunderstanding of prehistoric time.  They help take a knowable, and increasingly well-understood, past and turn it into a compressed, hazy “long time ago.”  The history of life on Earth is pretty easy to comprehend if we just attach some numbers to guide us as signposts back into the past.  A simple clarifying statement from Professor von Drake, like “dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, before people,” would help.

What do you think?  Are Caveman Pete and his dinosaur pet a minor annoyance, indicative of a public education crisis, or something in between?  Please share your thoughts below.