Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Another Edition of the Four Stone Hearth

I was really distracted at the end of the semester, and since then I've been trying to catch up on other things... except for blogging.

Now I've managed to miss submitting anything for the latest Four Stone Hearth Anthropology Blog Carnival!

This one looks to feature some great stuff, so go visit this week's carnival hosted at Nomadic Thoughts.

I'll be sure to submit something in two weeks.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Little Foot no longer in the Human Family Tree?

A new paper in the journal Science says that the skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis found about ten years ago in South Africa is not between 3 and 4 million years old as originally thought, but is more like only 2 mya.

I've written an in-depth post on the subject of the skeleton known as "Little Foot" and its revised age over at

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Why the Maya Don't Need Apocalypto

I was fortunate to meet a few members of the faculty from ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change during a meeting of the Undergraduate Anthropology Association last week. Dr. Michael Smith, an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerica, shared with us how he got into archaeology, and also his thoughts after an early screening of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto.

In his word, the film was "terrible." He said it was a long portrayal of the Maya as bloodthirsty and extremely violent.

Today I stumbled onto a more lengthy (yet similar) review of the film by another anthropologist, Dr. Traci Arden from the University of Miami.

Arden, too, focused on the relentless violence, and the message that Gibson may be trying to send via the violent portrayal of Mayan Society. She believes Gibson is using the collapse of Mayan Urbanism as a metaphor for the decline of modern society. The Mayan civilization, and the Elite in particular, are unredeemable in Gibson's view, with the Maya being saved only by the arrival of Christian missionaries at the end of the film.

Arden worries that the visual beauty of the film's setting, combined with the authentic appearance of architecture, ceremonial clothing and accessories, will cement this story as truth in the minds of moviegoers.

I can't help it... I still want to see it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Anthropology on the Moon

I read a story today about NASA's plans to build a permanent base on the Moon by 2024. They plan to staff it continuously, beginning with a complement of four people.

How interesting that the likely location for such a base is Shackleton Crater, near the South Pole of the Moon. Sure, the crater is named for the renowned Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, but there is an even stronger connection between the scientific stations in Antarctica today and the planned Moon base.

Much like the "winter-over" workers and researchers who brave the cold of the entire Antarctic winter, waiting for the return of the full Summer staff to the South pole region of Earth, the personnel at the Lunar South Pole will be similarly isolated.

What's the anthropology angle? Well, this Moon base will be home to a small culture. It will certainly be very similar to ours here on Earth, yet the separation from Earth and the close quarters will give birth to new cultural manifestations we can easily imagine (an, no doubt, many we cannot).

Papers have been written about life at McMurdo Station during the Winter (e.g. here, here), studying the effects of isolation and harsh conditions, and the adaptations of those subjected to them. NASA itself has pulled together an enormous bibliography of scholarly works which hint at the problems to be faced by space-faring crews, and they actually list papers about the winter-over staff at McMurdo! NASA is nothing, if not thorough.

What might make the Moonbase culture distinct? Let's think about the many traits of culture that Anthropologists examine:


Nobody can beat NASA and/or the military when it comes to inventing their own words and acronyms for everything. No doubt a whole new vocabulary of Moon-specific terms (both slang and technical jargon) will emerge.


It would be interesting to see how this aspect of a culture develops. I'm certain that NASA ground planners and controllers will map out everyone's responsibilities, but once these people have been on the Moon for a while, they will probably be calling a lot of the shots themselves for the little things. Sure, each individual has job assignments, but they aren't just working there-- they are living there.


I would suspect that even though plans for an economy are probably missing from the NASA blueprint, exchange systems always arise. What could be traded on the Moon? What about work shifts, sleeping bunks, lockers, books, videos, personal food items, clothing, backrubs, radio time slots, and music?


Hmm... I'm not sure that NASA is ready for married couples in space, but relationships happen (both platonic and otherwise). I'm sure NASA has invested a great deal of research into this topic, and how to make sure the mission succeeds regardless.


There will be a natural hierarchy of command determined by rank, even among civilians. But that doesn't stop people who live with one another 24/7 from creating their own social groups and hierarchies. Will there be any stratification? Military vs. civilian, officer vs. noncom, science vs. infrastructure? How will group decisions that do not affect the mission be decided? A political structure, no matter how informal, will likely develop.


Magic? I'll bet there are plenty of astronauts who are more superstitious than a major-league ballplayer. Whether they admit it or not, someone up there living with just a wall between them and vaccuum is going to avoid doing things they deem unlucky.

As for religion, we must expect that most (if not all) of the crew at the Moon basse adhere to one faith or another. How will that play out, assuming there are from differing religions? Will they hold unified services, blending traditions from each, almost creating a new type of observance? Or perhaps each will keep to themselves. One other possibility is that more than one person might be members of a single faith, and their combined practice (to the exclusion of the others) may lead to divisions within the culture.

If you ask me, the NSF should fund an Anthropologist to study the Moon culture. With a little notice, I could be available...

Monday, December 4, 2006

Good news, but still gotta do the work

It's been a wild ride this semester. In the last couple of weeks, I've been working on a research paper for Human Osteology Lab, and I finally finished it (the night before it was due, of course). You can read Bipedal Adaptations in the Hominid Pelvis here.

I'm studying for the final exam in the same course, but that hasn't stopped me from celebrating my good fortune: I won the Spring 2007 Undergraduate Research Assistantship Award from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change here at Arizona State University!

My research proposal was one of two chosen from a large field of entries, so I consider it a high honor. I'll be continuing to work with Dr. John F. Martin, investigating the connections between the sex ratio at birth and birth order in Africa. It's not a fortune, but the award will pretty much pay for my tuition and books this coming semester.

Saturday, November 4, 2006

Hopis and Navajos Settle Land Dispute?

The front page of Friday's Arizona Republic proclaimed the great news: "Hopis, Navajos End 40-year Land Dispute." When I saw it, I couldn't wait to read it. I had written a paper on the subject as part of an Indians of the Southwest course, and was well aware that no resolution had been found after more than 100 years of territorial disputes between these two groups.

Unfortunately, the news isn't as good as I had hoped. It is true that the two tribes have signed an accord establishing land use guidelines for the disputed area, but legislation which implements the agreement is far from becoming law.

Here's a quick background (for a more detailed look, try this short paper on the topic, also available as a PDF):
The Hopi have lived in villages atop Mesas in northern Arizona for centuries. The Navajo arrived in the region much later, and their subsistence strategies (e.g., herding livestock) involved the use of much more land area than the Hopi. They were also more numerous, and spread quickly to occupy millions of acres of land by the late 1800s, fully encircling the Hopi.

The Hopi repeatedly complained to the U.S. government about Navajo encroachment on the lands they had used for centuries, and a number of acts, lawsuits, and court rulings attempted to resolve the conflict.

Even so, two areas of dispute remained: 1. The Hopi wanted access to sacred (non-residential) ceremonial sites spread across the western portion of the now-expanded Navajo reservation; and 2. A small group of Navajo families still resided within the boundaries of the Hopi reservation, and refused to leave.

In 1966, BIA Commissioner Robert Bennett declared a freeze on all development within the two disputed areas, even prohibiting maintenance of existing buildings or infrastructure. This is what the article refers to as the "Bennett Freeze." In spite of numerous attempts since then to resolve these issues, very little has changed, and the freeze is still in place.

Okay, back to today. Even though the two sides have signed an agreement to put and end to the dispute, there are still dissenters who may fight the outcome. Also, legislation is required to fund the $50 million escrow account and actually lift the freeze. As noted in the article, a bill introduced by Rick Renzi last summer would do all of this, but it has only been approved by subcommittee, and is a long way from becoming law. J.D. Hayworth fought for years to get a bill passed to lift the Bennett Freeze, all without success.

I'd like to point out an inaccuracy in the article (even the title): It is not a 40-year dispute. Yes, it has been 40 years since the Bennett Freeze was put in place, but the dispute began with Hopi petitions to the U.S. government in the early part of the 20th century, and they filed a lawsuit in 1934 against the Navajo Tribe to regain access to the ceremonial sites. So the dispute is at least 72 years old, and actually much older.

One more detail: The Bennett Freeze was lifted in 1992 when the court finally ruled on the 1934 lawsuit. The ruling was seen as a loss by the Hopi, since they did receive access to the land where their village of Moenkopi has existed for hundreds of years, but lost access to the ceremonial sites. The Hopi appealed, and in 1995 the U.S. 9th Circuit granted them access to the ceremonial sites and also reinstated the freeze (So the freeze was actually lifted for threee years, only being reinstated 11 years ago).

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Not so fast there, pardner.

I met with my mentor the other day (all undergraduate anthropology majors at ASU have a randomly-assigned mentor) to discuss my future. As you might know from a previous post, I've been feeling a certain urgency to get moving toward grad school, so I thought I would float a few of my ideas with Dr. Schwartz.

He listened to my concerns and my ideas, and then said what he had already told me six months earlier: "You need to figure out what you want to do, and then go for it."


He's right, of course. I pointed out to him that even though I like the idea of doing something in Anthropology that can make a difference (e.g., Medical Anthropology), it still didn't excite me as much as reading about new discoveries such as the Olmec writing or the Dikika child.

So, even though I feel as though I must apply to graduate school Real Soon Now, perhaps I'm being a little hasty. I've decided to continue on at ASU for a while, taking interesting courses and hoping I get that one big inspiration. I have already pre-registered for next semester, signing up for two courses:

  • ASM 246 Human Origins (taught by Donald Johanson!)
  • ASB 362 The Neolithic Revolution and Its Consequences
My wife will shoot me if I don't drop one of them (she feels that a full-time job, three kids, one wife, and an ongoing research project with Dr. Martin means I can only handle one course at a time), so I better figure out which one has to go. If I win the Lotto between now and then however, I might actually add another course!

I can still change my mind, of course... applications are not due at NAU until February 15th.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Elephants join an exclusive club

I read with great interest this news item from Science Magazine's website: Jumbo Reflections.

It seems that researchers have run some experiments where they put a full-length mirror (which in this case is pretty darned big) in the elephant pen at the Bronx Zoo, and led three female Asian elephants up to it.

All of them seemed to recognize themselves, but one more than the other: After seeing her reflection, she reached the tip of her trunk up to her own face and touched a white mark the researchers had placed there... in a spot she could not have seen it otherwise. Until now, only humans, apes, and dolphins have demonstrated self-recognition.

The researchers propose that self-awareness is a necessary prerequisite for empathy and altruism, behaviors possibly seen in elephants.

The most startling idea in the new article for me was this:
If the findings can be replicated in other elephants, it would be a striking example of convergent evolution, Gallup1 says. "In evolutionary terms, primates and elephants separated an awfully long time ago," he says, but social intelligence evolved in both lineages.
The complete report is published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See a movie of Happy looking at herself in the mirror (the camera is behind the mirror).

1. Gordon Gallup, Jr. is an evolutionary psychologist at the SUNY Albany, and previously published a paper on self-recognition in Chimpanzees.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Medical Anthropology in the Spotlight

Medical Anthropology is a rapidly growing field, with more and more programs popping up at Universities around the country (Arizona State's SHESC has just proposed a new Ph.D. program in Social Science and Health). It is becoming clear that culture, health, and health care are highly interconnected in both developing and industrialized countries, and it is exciting to see it receiving attention outside of the field of Anthropology.

That's why I think the most recent issue of the journal PLoS Medicine is such a treat! The theme of this issue is "Social Medicine in the 21st Century," and it features research articles and essays which examine the importance of considering the cultural and social effects on health and health care.

The Research Articles are going to keep me busy for a long time. I'm particularly interested in one piece which examines the impact to Tuberculosis care in the aftermath of armed conflict , and I also can't wait to read the article which looks at the connections between health and socioeconomic status in India.

There is an incisive opinion essay by Arthur Kleinman and Peter Benson which emphasizes the need for medical providers to have "cultural competency." Here's the opening paragraph:

It is clear that culture does matter in the clinic. Cultural factors are crucial to diagnosis, treatment, and care. They shape health-related beliefs, behaviors, and values. But the large claims about the value of cultural competence for the art of professional care-giving around the world are simply not supported by robust evaluation research showing that systematic attention to culture really improves clinical services. This lack of evidence is a failure of outcome research to take culture seriously enough to routinely assess the cost-effectiveness of culturally informed therapeutic practices, not a lack of effort to introduce culturally informed strategies into clinical settings.

The authors go on to outline their recomendations for a systematic approach to including cultural knowledge and context into everyday medical practice.

Kepe in mind that you can read all of the articles in PLoS Medicine in their entirety, as it is an online, open-access journal. Check it out.

Friday, September 1, 2006

The Clock is Ticking...

It's the Fall semester of 2006, and I'll still have three Anthropology courses remaining after it's over (Linguistics, another Physical Anthro course, and an elective). At the rate I'm going, even taking Spanish in the summers, I'm on track to graduate with my B.A. in the Fall of 2008.

By that time, my older daughter will have finished half of her Sophmore year in college, and my youngest will be only six months away from college. I'll be 47. And a half.

Could it be that I need to accelerate things?

The truth is, I do not need to have a B.A. in Anthropology to begin a Masters. By December, I'll have 37 credit hours in Anthropology, and sufficient coursework in the various fields to satisfy the entrance requirements of pretty much any graduate program.

So how can I begin my graduate work earlier?

I have found three options, all of which would allow me to begin my graduate studies in the Fall of 2007 (one year from now, not two or three):
  • Arizona State University - I know it's a long shot, but I'm no ordinary student. At least it's conveniently located! I'll need three letters of recommendation and excellent GRE scores.
  • Northern Arizona University - It's a second-tier (mayber third?) program, only offering a Master of Arts. It would be one hell of a commute, but since they offer each of their grad courses as 3-hour sessions on a single day, it's do-able.
  • University of North Texas - Now that's a tough commute! Just kidding... they have begun the nation's first Online Masters in Applied Anthropology. You visit campus for a couple of days at the beginning to meet the faculty and other students, and then again to defend your internship report. They claim it will be equivalent to their on-campus program.
All three options require me to do the following by the end of December:
  1. Write a statement of purpose. Yikes! I don't know if I want to do Medical Anthropology, Archaeology, or something else entirely. How can I write one of these?
  2. Get letters of recommendation. this could be tough, since not enough professors know me well enough... yet.
  3. Take the GRE. It's offered in October, so I better take a sample test this weekend.
  4. file all the appropriate applications with each institution's Graduate College, as well as with each Anthropology department.
There's more, of course, but these are the big items.

Even if I'm succcessful in getting my self accepted to at least one of these programs, it's still a long road. I can count on taking at least three years for the Masters, which means I would begin work on a Ph.D. at age 49... I better get started.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

That was fast... the semester has already begun.

It was nice to have the summer off, but now it's back to the quest.

This semester, I'm taking Human Osteology from Dr. Gary Schwartz. We've already had three lectures and one lab, and I'm loving it. I simply had no idea what was going on inside of bones! These puppies are extremely complex, dynamic systems, and we tend to think of them as being so static.

I'll probably end the semester ready to change my area of emphasis within Anthro again... or maybe even decide to major in Biology, or go to Med School! It's all quite exciting.

Here's a quick osteo-factoid: You have a completely new skeleton every ten years.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Summer is Here

My final exam is behind me, and I'm not taking any courses this summer. I really enjoyed Dr. Abbott's Quantitative Methods course, but I missed doing work on anthropological subjects.

I'm now helping Dr. John Martin with a new project, and it's quite interesting. I cannot disclose any details until he has published, but it deals with African countries and the practice of Female Gential Mutilation (FGM), which is also referred to as Female Circumcision, or Female Genital Cutting.

If you are looking for more information, Wikipedia has a good article which discusses the various types of cutting, the cultural origins, and the medical implications

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Some Good News from my Advisor

I stopped by my advisor's office today to discuss classes for the Fall semester, and received some unexpected good news: The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has changed the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts degree. The good part of this is that they have replaced the prescribed general studies courses with a simple "whatever your department says is ok" rule. As a result, I'm several hours closer to my second Bachelor's degree!

Now, I only need to take my three remaining Anthro courses, a related elective, and one "L" class (the "L" stands for "Literacy"). Oh... I do still need to demonstrate foreign language proficiency... but I'm planning to take Spanish at the community college.

Even better, it is possible to find an "L" class that also fulfills my "related elective" requirement, meaning I have only four courses plus Spanish remaining.

Now I have to figure out how to get into grad school earlier...

Friday, March 24, 2006

Reuters is reporting on the recent discovery of a hominid cranium in Ethiopia estimated to be between 200,000 and 500,000 years old.

The skull appeared "to be intermediate between the earlier Homo erectus and the later Homo sapiens," Sileshi Semaw, an Ethiopian research scientist at the Stone Age Institute at Indiana University.

There's not much meat to the story yet-- most of the report reflects on past significant discoveries in the Afar region.

The Stone Age Institute has posted a press release at their website which provide a bit more info. It says that the cranium, which consists of a complete braincase, upper face and upper jaw, was found in a sandy layer between two volcanic ash layers which allows for bracketed dating of the specimen. Also found in the same stratum were late Acheulean tools, and the fossils of several animals (pigs, zebras, elephants, antelope, cats, and rodents).

An Easy Semester... but what's next?

This semester I'm only taking one course: Quantitative Methods for Anthropological Research.

It's not really an Anthropology course (in spite of its name)-- it is a Statistics course. Dr. David Abbott, an experienced archaeologist and more recently a professor at ASU, has put together a course that wastes no time on theory. Instead, he is presenting us with increasingly complex and useful tools to solve practical problems encountered in the real world.

The textbook, Statistics for the Social Sciences, is rife with errors. In spite of the fact that it is a newly-issued third edition, there are more errors in the problems sets/answers than I can count.

Fortunately, I've been able to get through the material presented by Dr. Abbott quite well without paying too much attention to the text.

What's Next?

I've been struggling with the direction I should take, and now my time of decision is upon me (pre-registration opened yesterday). Should I continue on toward the B.A. (which means taking 4 semesters of Spanish, and about 12 additional hours of Liberal Arts coursework), or simply take all the undergraduate Anthro requirements and start applying to Graduate School?

If I stay the course for the B.A., it forces me to take courses that are expedient, rather than the ones I really want to take (e.g. I'm likely to take Disease and Human Evolution instead of Fossil Hominids for one of my Physical Anthropology courses because the Liberal Arts College says I need a "Bridge" course).

If I instead change my focus and work toward Grad School acceptance, it would free me to take courses I'm passionate about, and put more energy into finding good undergraduate research opportunities. This option has some problems, of course.

I'm still committed to remaining in the Phoenix area until June 2009, so my only option for graduate school is Arizona State. Sure, I'm getting to know the professors, and letters of recommendation mean a lot, but if I apply and I'm not accepted, I'm out of options (other than continuing to plod through the B.A. program).

Back to the present...

The Fall 2006 Schedule just came out, and there are NO Anthropology classes that fit well into my schedule. My two best options are ASB 337, Prehispanic Civilizations of Middle America, and ASM 341, Human Osteology Lab. Both of them will cause me to leave work in the middle of the day multiple times each week, and I'll need to make up the hours.

Things would certainly get better if I could just hit the lottery...