Archive | March, 2014

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.

Site Formation Tragedy

27 Mar

Site formation processes are of great interest to archaeologists. So much that we often excitedly talk about past tragedies for their resulting “perfect preservation.” Sites like Pompeii or Ozette on the Washington coast reflect moments frozen in time. Such “moments” are good for archaeologists, but generally catastrophic and/or fatal for the people involved.


This was tragically apparent after this week’s mudslide near Oso (northeast of Seattle) in my home state of Washington. Though we recognize our shared humanity with the victims of ancient “Pompeii events”, this mudslide hits a lot closer to home; people are still missing, friends and relatives are still grieving.


If you are able to financially contribute to the Mudslide Relief Campaign through the Washington State Combined Fund Drive, please do so. (And beware of scammers capitalizing on people’s generosity).

The Growing Threat of Archaeonudists*

20 Mar

Machu Picchu from Wikipedia.

Machu Picchu from Wikipedia.

I spend a lot of time thinking about threats to the global archaeological record, but, until today, I was unaware that public nudity at famous sites is such a threat. Granted, naked people don’t damage the physical integrity of the sites. It just, understandably, makes other visitors uncomfortable. And, evidently, it has gotten to be a serious enough problem at Machu Picchu that an official from Peru’s Ministry of Culture publicly commented:

“There are places in the world that people can get naked, but not all places are (appropriate) for getting undressed” (Alfred Mormontoy Atayupanqui to CNN).

I think we can get considerable cross-cultural agreement with that statement. But then Atayupanqui adds, “Tourists should comply with local rules and regulations when they are traveling, otherwise there will be thousands of problems.” As if traipsing naked through archaeological monuments is accepted in Canada and Australia (where the most recent violators were visiting from)!

Worse, CNN ends their post with the prompt: “Where do you stand on ‘naked tourism’? Share your thoughts in the comments. Who has a formal stance on “naked archaeo-tourism”? I guess I’m against it, but laughing, and not too worried about those archaeonudists* who are for it. At least they’re excited about archaeology!


*If the term “archaeonudist” takes off and starts appearing on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs, I want credit for coining it 🙂

Our Place in the Universe

9 Mar

Cosmos promo

Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos (1980) featured many anthropological themes and set the bar for much of the educational programming that has aired since. Hopefully, this updated version, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, will spark renewed public interest in the science of humanity!

Drought and the Decline of Indus Valley Civilization

5 Mar

Archaeologist Brian Fagan wrote a broadly informative book called Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind. Arguably, no other variable has had such a significant impact on the rise and fall of civilizations than water. The Indus Valley Harappan civilization appears to be no exception.

Indus Valley city of Mohenjodaro ("Mound of the Dead"; Wikipedia)

Indus Valley city of Mohenjodaro (“Mound of the Dead”; Wikipedia)

Environmental variables, such as unpredicted changes in the availability of water, have been implicated in the declines of most pre-industrial civilizations. These variables are often compounded by sociopolitical factors (warfare, internal strife, etc.), but the role of resource shortage is undeniable. Paleoclimatic data published recently in Geology – and summarized this week in Nature – indicates that drought hastened the decline of Harappan civilization:

“The decline of Bronze-Age civilizations in Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia has been attributed to a long-term drought that began around 2000 bc. Now palaeoclimatologists propose that a similar fate was followed by the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilization, at about the same time. Based on isotope data from the sediment of an ancient lake, the researchers suggest that the monsoon cycle, which is vital to the livelihood of all of South Asia, essentially stopped there for as long as two centuries” (Emma Marris; Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2014.14800).

Check out the Nature summary for a quick read, or the Geology article for complete (though quite technical) results.