Grantee Receives 2012 L’Oreal “For Women in Science” Fellowship

We are very proud to note that a former Wenner-Gren grantee, Dr. Erin Marie Williams, currently a postdoctoral fellow at The George Washington University, has been named one of five recipients of the 2012 L’Oreal For Women in Science Fellowship, awarded annually to outstanding women scientists making groundbreaking advances in their respective fields. In the wake of the award, we asked Williams about her reaction to receiving this honor and how it will aid her research.


Could you tell us a bit about what you work on? Which Wenner-Gren grant did you receive?

I’m continuing to work on the biomechanics of stone tool production, and expended to use of those tools, as well. We are in the midst of publishing our findings on manual pressure distribution during various types of stone tool use, following up on the results we published on pressure distribution during stone tool production. Next I’ll start writing up results from experiments we conducted this summer looking at the effects different raw materials have on aspects of tool production and use. We collected the data at Ileret, Kenya using some of the same raw materials our early human ancestors used, so I’m fairly excited about this set of experiments. We were also able to collect from a large sample size, the largest data set I’ve compiled thus far, which is another exciting aspect of the experiment.

This year I will continue looking at the effects of raw material on upper limb biomechanics, but I’ll be back in a motion capture laboratory rather than the field. Specifically, how do experienced knappers respond to different raw material types with distinct sets of material properties?

I received one of the Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grants while I was a PhD student in the Hominid Paleobiology Program at GWU, which enabled me to collect the first manual pressure and force data on stone tool production. We recently published the results of that initial study in JHE. Since then I have used the equipment obtained with this grant over and over again. I took the system to Kenya over the summer and I’m planning to take it to a few knap-ins next summer. It has made a huge impact on the research I have been able to conduct.


What was your reaction when you found out that you had been awarded the Fellowship?

The two women from L’Oreal that do much of the leg work for the L’Oreal grant called me together while I was on a Megabus from Pittsburgh returning to DC. I answered the phone even though I didn’t recognize the number because I was expecting a call from NYC, which matched the zip code on caller ID. When they told me they were calling from L’Oreal I initially thought that it was very kind of them, if not rather taxing, to call all of the applications that were not selected and tell them personally that others were chosen. So I was more than a little surprised to hear that I was one of the five. Surprised and extremely honored. The program that L’Oreal runs for women in science is amazing and I feel so fortunate to now be a part of it. Not only will the fellowship enable me to conduct research about which I’m very excited, but the series of workshops they put together for us were hands down the most useful professional conduct and guidance workshops I have ever attended. The people that run L’Oreal for Women in Science are serious about giving women the tools we need to succeed. I am very fortunate to now be able to work with them.


What are some possible next steps for your research? What are you excited to tackle next, and how will the Fellowship assist you?

With the funds from L’Oreal and from my NSF postdoctoral fellowship I am investigating early human decision making abilities as evidenced by the manner in which modern humans make and use stone tools and through the stone tools our ancestors left behind. Given the adaptive nature of stone tool behaviors, it follows that the anatomical changes and cognitive capabilities underlying tool strategies were subject to refinement by natural and cultural selection, and that they represent the optimal response available within a given ecological context. Within this frame work, raw materials selected for stone tool production may conform to the most physically (i.e., biomechanically) efficient option, such as the minimization of work required for production. Additionally, stone tool assemblages at any given archaeological site should represent the optimal strategy that was available to hominins within that specific context .

In order to determine whether this is the case, and to better understand the decision-making processes underlying early humans’ selection of particular materials for technological behaviors, we need to understand the variables relevant to the costs and benefits of stone tool behaviors. The selection of appropriate raw stone material for tool production was one set of challenges early hominins faced in regard to stone tool behaviors. Selecting a raw material meant balancing the costs and benefits of a number of variables, including the energy required for making a tool from a given material and other physical costs incurred by the tool maker and/or user.  Though frequently discussed, physical costs as a function of raw material type have yet to be systematically investigated. Further, we currently lack an expedient method for quantifying these physical costs imposed by various raw materials during stone tool behaviors. Therefore, we also lack a comprehensive means of determining whether or not early hominins consciously selected raw materials that would have offered the most efficient, or most effective, means of producing and using tools. This type of cost-benefit analysis is a key characteristic of modern human decision-making processes and understanding when this ability evolved is critical to our understanding of the archaeological record and to the evolution of human cognitive abilities.
Through the integration of fracture mechanics and biomechanics theory and experiments, my goals are to 1) investigate aspects of the fracture behavior of five raw materials representative of those commonly used in the Paleolithic for stone tool behaviors and 2) test hypotheses and assumptions regarding the effects raw materials have on upper limb biomechanics during stone tool production and use, in order to 3) develop an expedient method for evaluating raw material quality as a function of the “physical costs” each material places on the body during production and use.

After my postdoc and fellowships are completed, I plan to use the equipment purchased with these funds to investigate chimp tool production and use in the wild. This project is still very much in the works, but I am hopeful that it will actually occur.

Interview: Oli Pryce and the Iron Kuay

An elderly Kuay lady and informant at the Sanlong Jaya iron smelting site, near Rumchek.

Oli Pryce is Junior Research Fellow at St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford. In 2009 he received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on ‘The ‘Iron Kuay’: Ethnoarchaeological Investigations of Technological Continuity and Socio-Economic Interaction with the Angkorian Empire’ In association with Dr. Mitch Hendrickson (University of Illinois-Chicago) and Dr. Stéphanie Léroy (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique). We asked Dr. Pryce a few questions about metallurgical archaeology and his research with the Cambodian Kuay.


How did you come to study Kuay metallurgy? In a nutshell, why do you find it interesting?

Prior to the Kuay project I had always worked in prehistoric archaeology: first in the Mediterranean and then in Southeast Asia for my Ph.D. from 2005. It was during my doctoral studies of predominantly 1st millennium BC copper production in central Thailand that I became aware of colleagues working around the world on the interpretation of social context of metal production through variation in the resulting slag chemistry and morphology. This may sound a little far-fetched but in many instances, and as was certainly the case for my Ph.D., slag is the most abundant archaeological material available on production sites, and thus we must attempt to squeeze the maximum possible cultural information from this outwardly unyielding waste material. Previous such case studies had naturally focused on much more intensively researched areas in Africa and Europe, but whilst these were of course very useful and made sophisticated use of rich datasets, I hoped to develop a more regionally-based methodology for cross-cultural ethnoarchaeological analogies. Southeast Asia is, or certainly was, extremely rich in metallurgical traditions but previous surveys of the available ethnographic and historical data by Bennett Bronson at the Chicago Field Museum indicated that the Kuay iron smelting tradition of north-central Cambodia, which ended only in around 1950, was the most promising.

It was at this juncture that good luck brought about the meeting of my former Ph.D. supervisor, Prof. Vincent C. Pigott (University of Pennsylvania Museum) with Dr. Mitch Hendrickson (University of Illinois-Chicago), one of the only Angkorian period (9th to 15th c. AD) archaeologists to work outside of the Angkor complex in Cambodia. Dr. Hendrickson’s «  Industries of Angkor Project  » or «  INDAP  » was established explicitly to investigate the economic, political, and social factors involved in the production and supply of raw and finished materials from Angkor’s hinterlands to the imperial capital. Iron and steel were of course essential materials for agriculture, building, and warfare, and the proposed major centre of production at the Angkorian complex of Preah Khan or Kompong Svay was situated 100km east of Angkor itself, but intriguing only 30km west from Cambodia’s largest iron oxide source, Phnom Dek or Iron Mountain, and the historic homeland of the Kuay ethnic minority. Given the convergence of our interests, Dr. Hendrickson and I set about investigating the hypothesis that the well-recorded 19th and 20th c. AD Kuay iron smelters around Phnom Dek were in fact the descendants of the Angkorian period iron smelters at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay. As it happens, we have so far established strong technological continuity – not stasis but gradual changes – going back to the 8th c. AD and thus pre-dating Angkorian state formation.


Your project intended to walk the line between cultural anthropology and archaeology, incorporating assemblage analysis within a more traditional archaeological framework alongside oral histories informed by the ethnographic tradition. What were the challenges of implementing such a research program, and how did you adapt to those challenges?

The IKP team of February 2010, Mitch Hendrickson, the author, Mr Chan, and the RUFA students.

Yes, the initial proposal did lay out a hybridised methodology, which had appeared to us as most suitable during reconnaissance work in early 2009 when we met several witnesses to Kuay iron smelting operations. However, once we arrived for our main field season around Phnom Dek it became apparent that we were late, much too late, for this type of work. One of our 2009 informants had regrettably died that year, and though we recorded an instance of a local lady who had been permitted to deliver food to the smelters as a prepubescent girl (thus respecting fertility taboos), the Kuay elders from numerous local villages who kindly agreed to be interviewed all transpired to have been too young to have actually participated in pre-1950 smelting activities. The last Kuay smelters, who would have been fit men to maintain an all-day relay for the bellows according to historical records, were not interviewed during the period when Cambodia was too politically troubled for foreign researchers. Particularly emblematic of the fragility of highly skilled technical traditions, the Kuay attempted to revive smelting activities in the mid/late seventies to comply with Khmer Rouge policies on self-sufficiency, but failed as all the smelting masters (chhay), the porters of at least 1200 years of metallurgical tradition, had died in the intervening quarter century. In response to this we decided to employ a solidly archaeological/archaeological science approach to reconstructing Kuay metallurgy, but continued to record the oral histories for the information they may reveal later and also because even the Kuay iron smithing tradition appears to be in terminal decline.


How did other anthropological studies of metallurgy in other regions of the world influence your project?

Massively. Research into traditional and ancient metallurgy has been carried out extensively from South America, to Europe, to South Asia, but where the deep-time perspective has been most intensively reconciled is in Africa with literally hundreds of case studies involving informant interview, experimental reconstructions, and archaeological excavations. Though I am obviously not expert in all these regions, through my general training in ancient technologies at the University of Sheffield and at University College London I was able to bring to the Kuay study an awareness firstly of the key thermodynamic principles that must be obeyed for iron metal to be produced, but also the simply staggering variety with which these challenges have been overcome in very different cultural contexts through time and space. The key insight for our interests was that as a  skilled technology with numerous possible technical solutions, chronologically and spatially persistent traits in iron production may indicate the close and cooperative teaching environments to be expected of ‘social continuity’ at some level – i.e. we wouldn’t want to define ‘a people’ based purely upon their metallurgical tradition but we would expect technological changes over time consistent with innovations in response to cultural, economic, and physical environments for which we can investigate corroborating evidence.


What can study of the interactions between the iron smelters of the Kuay and the Angkorian Khmer teach us about imperial power? About modern-day Cambodia?

Local map showing the geographical relationship between Preah Khan of Kompong Svay and the Phnom Dek area sites. Courtesy of Dr. M. Hendrickson.

Although work is very much ongoing, what is fascinating about the Kuay study is that following Dr. Hendrickson’s work we can see that the architectural expressions of Angkorian state infrastructure (roads and bridges) do not extend beyond the Preah Khan of Kompong Svay complex in to the forested territory surrounding Phnom Dek: Preah Khan seems to mark a frontier of the Khmer Empire. My own iron smelting reconstructions, with the help of Dr. Michael Charlton, do not seem to suggest any substantial technological discontinuity between production sites at Preah Khan and those around Phnom Dek, but the work of Dr. Stéphanie Leroy certainly indicates that two different sources of iron oxide were used. At this stage then we might propose that Khmer workers at Preah Khan imitated Kuay practice with local materials, or that Kuay workers were active in a very much state-oriented production there; either as paid, indentured, or slave labour. What does seem more clear though is that the hundreds of smelting sites of various sizes all around Phnom Dek represent Kuay family or community-level production; with the resulting iron supply reaching Angkor c. 130km east through either tribute, taxation, or free market operations. This provisionally shows us that although the Angkorian Empire is celebrated for having extended over much of mainland Southeast Asia between the 9th and 15th c. AD, the precise configuration and penetration of imperial power probably varied quite significantly by region and period. At a more general level we might conclude that no imperial territory maybe under total control all of the time, but that once stabilised economic activity involving established or mobile populations is a prerequisite for long-term success. In terms of modern countries like Cambodia or its neighbours, the characteristics of national identity (culture, history, and language) are usually drawn largely from those of lowland governing majorities but through the careful coordination of archaeological, ethnological, and historical records we may be able to demonstrate that geographically marginalised minority groups have long participated in and contributed to the development of nation states.


What are some next steps for this research? What do you see in the future?

At present we are broadly happy with our research questions and methodology but recognise the need to ‘thicken’ the dataset with higher density chronological and spatial coverage of Kuay production and settlement sites, and to increase the resolution of technological reconstructions by ever more careful excavation techniques and bringing in other expert opinion. The project is also amenable to geographic expansion: iron smelting material excavated by the Thai/Khmer Living Angkor Road Project are currently being studied by Mr. Pira Venunan, a Thai Ph.D. student at University College London, some of whose sites are located in linguistically ‘Kuay’ areas in northeast Thailand. Kuay sites are also known or suspected all the way up to and beyond the southern Lao border, so there is plenty of work to do! Although decades of research lie before us we share the ambition of being able to contribute towards a detailed long-term understanding of which social groups in which areas were providing which goods and services to each other and thus how their combined economic and political interaction contributed to the rich history of Southeast Asia.

Are you a current or past Wenner-Gren grantee and are interested in being interviewed for the blog? Contact Daniel Salas ( for more information.

Interview: Aisha Ghani and the Difficulties of Terrorism Discourse

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is captured consulting with his attorney in a courtroom sketch from a military commissions hearing in the prosecution of the 5 9/11 co-conspirators.

Aisha Ghani is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Stanford University. In 2011 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Conflated Identities: ‘Muslim’/’Terrorist’ and the Difficulty of Producing a Genuine Discourse about Terrorism,’ supervised by Dr. T. M. Luhrmann. We chatted with Aisha over e-mail to learn more about her fieldwork in the courtrooms of U.S. domestic terrorism trials and the role that legal proceedings play in shaping national terrorism discourse.


Tell us a little about the project that you’re working on.

Through observation of courtroom proceedings and case material in domestic terrorism trials and Guantanamo and Bagram detainee litigation, I examine how the Global War on Terror (GWOT) is imagined, articulated, challenged and reinforced in various kinds of U.S. Courts. I ask how the state’s “foundational” discourse in the Global War on Terror has 1) shaped and limited the nature of legal challenges that can and have arisen in courts, and how the discursive limits of the litigation have 2) worked in determining the kinds of ‘terrorist’ subjects who are called upon – and can call upon – the law.  A crucial element of my research involves observing the ways in which ideas about Islam — including the Muslim sociality and subjectivity of accused terrorists– enters into legal spaces. What is the work of these socio-religious claims, and how do they relate to the legal and political claims being articulated in and through these cases? How do accused men, if and when given the opportunity to speak, choose to situate themselves in relation to the explicit and implicit legal and political claims of the state in the GWOT?

Outside of courtrooms, my research involves ethnographic interviews with family members of accused and convicted men, as well as interviews with lawyers and civil rights activists involved in litigation and/or advocacy efforts around particular cases and broader national security law and policy issues after 9/11.  In engaging with these different kinds of people, I attempt to understand the ways in which their narratives of experience and public advocacy efforts, destabilize and nuance the meta-narratives of the state with respect to what Islam is, what terrorism is, and who accused men are, in ways that cannot perhaps be achieved through the language and processes of the law.


Interview: Haagen Klaus and “Escaping Conquest” in the Lambayeque Valley

a view of the Chapel of the Niño Serranito before excavation in Sept. 2010.

Haagen Klaus is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Utah Valley University. In 2010 he received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to aid research on his project ‘Escaping Conquest: Human Biology, Ethnogenesis, and Indigenous Engagement with Colonialism in Eten, Peru’. Recently we spoke to Dr. Klaus to learn more about his excavations in Peru’s Lambayeque Valley, and the unexpected turn his research took there.


Why did you choose the site that you did? More specifically, what is significant about the Lambayeque Valley and why did you select that particular church?

Several factors influenced the careful selection of Eten for this study. Ten years ago, I chose to dedicate a large part of my career to working in the Lambayeque valley of Peru’s desert north coast. Lambayeque was the center of key and influential pre-Hispanic developments from at least 2500 BC – most of which are incompletely understood but are vital to reconstructing the odyssey of human history that unfolded in ancient Peru. My research questions and methodology unite bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology, so the usually excellent preservation of human remains and funerary contexts in the Lambayeque valley makes it almost a natural laboratory to explore all sorts questions regarding ancient health, disease, social organization, lifestyle, diet, economy, ideology, ecology, adaption, violence, microevolution, and cultural change in ways that few regions of the Americas can provide.

Using a technique that we developed in 2005, one of the few Late Historic coffin burials in Eten is shown here being recovered en toto before it was transported to the laboratory for detailed study and later reburial at the site.

Eten was chosen as the setting for my project’s second stage of investigating European contact and colonization of what came to be known as Peru. Eten featured two church ruins and the remains of its town under the seaside dunes that preserved the site for more than 250 years.  Even at the outset, the combination of architectural, mortuary pattern, skeletal biological, settlement pattern, dietary remains, and ecological data present in Eten seemed hard to beat regarding our research design which sought to develop the most holistic reconstruction to date of society, life, and death in this region of Colonial Peru.


Your excavation at the original site lead you to discover something far more interesting – and valuable. Can you tell us about what you found, and how you adapted to such an unexpected change at the site?

During our second and third field seasons at Eten, attention turned to the second of the two church ruins at Eten, which was constructed around A.D. 1776, not long after the colonial town was abandoned. We aimed to document a small number of Late Colonial burials to augment our very basic knowledge of burial patterns and human biology during this later era. Indeed, we encountered such contexts under the brick floor and I think they represent the most exquisitely preserved burials ever found in Lambayeque.

an Early Colonial burial of a late adolescent woman who probably died towards the end of the 16th century A.D.

But as we excavated deeper into the site, we found ourselves digging through a fairly hard clay-like layer of fill that was not natural to local geology. We then identified a second, simple earthen floor nearly two meters below the surface, and then, below that, a hyper-dense cemetery. As we expanded outward, it became clear that what we found were the walls and floors of second church within and under the other church. The deeper we went, the more indications from the burials, the architecture, construction techniques, burial styles, and even grave goods indicated the deeper buried church was very old indeed, and clearly dated to the Early Colonial era. It is probably the mission church described in local oral histories founded by a Franciscan missionary in the 1530s.  It was abandoned and fell into ruins when a much larger church was constructed in Eten in the 1600s (which was excavated over five months in 2009). When the final church was built in 1776, it appears to have been placed on top of the ruins of the abandoned mission in a recycling of sacred ground.

Finding this completely unexpected mission church and its cemetery took us all off-guard. However, it took little time to realize what it meant – we quickly shifted to adding a whole series of new questions to the work, especially about what life and society was like immediately following the Conquest, and how indigenous Andean survivors of contact and the first few generations of their descendants dealt with their cultural reality and social order being turned upside down.

A section of one of the smaller Early Colonial mass graves in the east side of Unit 4 (center of the church). Taphonomic evidence indicates almost all of these bodies, which included men, women, and children, were buried and stacked atop each other at the same moment in time.

However, some of the native people in Eten did not survive the experience. Among the 254 burials we documented, there were at least six mass graves, the largest containing 22 people. Whatever killed them was acute, and did not leave any marks on their bones. These mass graves point to the likelihood of epidemic disease driving aspects of mortality patterning in early Colonial Eten.  However, this appears to have been one kind of health stress functioning on a very particular episodic or acute level. When we examined more than a dozen markers of childhood and adult health that are recorded in the bones and teeth of the people of Eten, it was clear they had lived lives characterized by generally good health and nutrition. This is very different from our previous study in nearby Colonial Mórrope (2004-6), where we found extremely high levels of stress and disease. So, while episodic impacts of European diseases may have been unavoidable, Eten in general had evidently “escaped” many of the negative chronic health consequences of living in the 16th century colonial world. They were quite healthy overall. The native people of Eten actively adapted to and buffered against the negative impacts of conquest, no doubt aided by the fact that Eten was located in a region rich with nutritional resources and other favorable ecological conditions.


You consider “the grave” and mortuary patterns in general to be a unified “datum point” where biological and cultural anthropological concerns can meet and play off each other. Why are graves particularly well-suited?

Burial CNS U4-36 in the early process of excavation, May 2011.

As a number of my colleagues have stated in the past, burials are by far the most information-packed kind of deposit in the archaeological record. I can only echo that vision with conviction and passion.  But it’s not only the quantity of information about the past that can be gained by such an approach – it the quality, and what it tells you. The rituals that human beings weave around death, and the traces that are left in or around a grave, are exceptionally rich windows to begin building a holistic understanding of an extinct society and their ideas and understandings about themselves.  The human remains in a grave provide direct evidence about the social ways people lived their lives. All forms of archaeological evidence are important, but burials are particularly vital to an archaeology that is humanized, and whose purpose is to explicitly tell a part of the story of the human experience.

I would argue that an integrated approach towards burials in anthropology is necessary, logical, and just makes sense. It can be something that erases the traditional boundaries between mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology, which I think is an important theoretical and methodological development that is beginning to emerge among some anthropologists. It is a particularly vital perspective and conceptual “toolbox” to bring to Andean archaeology, partially due to the nature of the archaeological record, burials, and human remains that still await discovery here.


Your work eschews the popular colonial contact model of “collapse” for a more complex outlook. In your view, what is wrong with the former paradigm, and what would you like to see change in popular understandings of postcontact Latin America?

Burial CNS U4-38 in the process of excavation by project members Scott Applegate and Hector Llauce.

The former paradigm was built on earlier ideas, and as time, evidence, and science has progressed, anthropological understandings of contact and collapse have shifted from universalist and positivist perspectives to one guided by the last 25-30 years of evidence (especially bioarchaeological evidence) that shows contact was such a dizzyingly complex phenomenon. Contact was fundamentally something that unfolded differently everywhere, especially on local levels, as our work shows. This means we have to abandon preconceived notions about contact and conquest.  It was also a foundational event and process in the formation of our present world, culture, and patterns of modern human biology (which are not simply limited to the effects of demographic collapse on indigenous genetic variation, as is often assumed).

For me, one of the most intriguing elements about conquest deals with the meeting of disparate cultures and peoples. Rather than one society  overwhelming or annihilating another (as is so often imagined by our popular culture), archaeology and biological anthropology are in increasingly telling us that fledgling, constantly transforming, hybrid societies emerged from the so-called “collision of worlds.”  Such social formations are born through the negotiations and tensions of colonial settings, creative forms of native resistance, the ambitions and agendas of the colonizers and the colonized, local ecology, other factors leading to a kind of fragile and tentative “in-between-ness.”  I am speaking directly to the concept of ethnogenesis: sustained colonial encounters tended to create new societies, new kinds of cultural realities, and new kinds of people that never had existed before, and in some cases such as Eten, exist no longer.  These were the bridges between pre-Hispanic worlds and the one we live in today.


What’s next for you and your research? How do you see this project developing in the future?

With the conclusion of the past three years working in Eten, the first order of business is to finalize the analysis of a broad spectrum of archaeological, bioarchaeological, zooarchaeological,  paleobotanical, and biogeochemical data. By the end of 2013, I aim to have a major monograph manuscript completed describing our findings along with several other related writing projects.

the crew at the end of the first excavation season, December 2010.

However, the findings from Eten generate nothing short of an entire spectrum of new questions about the Early Contact period in coastal Peru. About a week ago, I believe I have possibly located the buried ruins of one of the earliest and most important colonial settlements in this region of Peru — a town called Lambayeque Viejo — which was abandoned around 1578.  I think Lambayeque Viejo has the potential to provide an exquisitely detailed snapshot of the initial colonial conjunction here, and provide vital new perspective about the nature of cultural change, religious conversion, indigenous resistance, health, epidemic disease, and mortuary practices that emerged just after the conquest.  This may well be the setting in the next stage of our investigation.

After that, I have a tentative list of Colonial and pre-Hispanic sites in the Lambayeque region to excavate over the next 25 years… But how exactly that will unfold is yet to be seen. Field archaeology can be unpredictable and lead one in unanticipated and exciting directions!

Are you a current or past Wenner-Gren grantee and would like to be interviewed for our blog? Contact Daniel ( for more information.

Interview: Jonah S. Rubin and “Re-membering the Spanish Civil War”

Jonah S. Rubin is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. In 2010 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Re-membering the Spanish Civil War: Thanatopolitics and the Making of Modern Citizens in Spain,’ supervised by Dr. Jean Comaroff. We reached out to Jonah to learn more about how Spain’s war dead are now being increasingly mobilized in public memory and civic education.


Relatives of victims look on as ARANZADI scientific society exhumes a mass grave in Urzante, Navarra, 2011.

There have been many scholarly studies of the (re)formation of historical memory in the wake of repressive regimes, in places like Latin America, the former Soviet bloc and South Africa, to name a few. What makes the Spanish case stand out as unique or noteworthy to you? 

When Spain underwent its transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s, contemporary democratic theory emphasized the need to “forget” a divisive past in order to build a common future together. Therefore, Spain undertook a tacit “Pact of Oblivion,” in which the various political and media elite agreed not to debate, discuss, or litigate the crimes of the fascist state. This means that in a very real sense, the successes of the Spanish transition to democracy depended upon the continuation of the violence of the fascist state against the families of Republicans and civilians who were murdered by the Franco regime. While many in the Spanish political elite continue to cling to the pacts of the transition, since the year 2000 families of victims and the NGOs they have formed have sought to import the sorts of forensic, documentary, and historical practices that have been developed in subsequent transitional justice processes, most notably those of Latin America, but also those developed in South Africa, Rwanada, and the former-Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, these efforts remain almost entirely funded and conducted by civil society organizations, as state aid has been tepid at best.

From an anthropological and broader social scientific perspective, however, this affords a unique opportunity to reexamine some ongoing debates about historical memory in post-conflict societies. Much of the existing literature on forensic practices focuses in on the inevitable conflicts that occur between the often bureaucratic forensic practitioners and the relatives of victims. In Spain, however, the NGOs can be far more flexible and responsive to the needs of family members. While continuing to follow standard forensic practices, these NGOs can afford to be far more flexible and responsive to the needs of families than state- or UN-sponsored efforts that inspired it.

In terms of transitional justice policy, then, while the Spanish model of democratic transition may appear to be anachronistic to most contemporary observers, the innovations of the Spanish memory movements may yet provide insight for governments designing forensic programs around the globe.

This unique situation opens up novel perspectives on certain very basic anthropological questions: What role do the dead play in the construction, circulation and authorization of historical narratives? How do the dead continue to play active roles in liberal democracies like Spain? And how do we explain the compulsion towards forensic evidence – even in the absence of the sorts of juridical forums, such as Truth Commissions or war crimes tribunals, in which such evidence might actually be applied?


Interview: Uddhav Rai of Tribhuvan University

The Wenner-Gren Institutional Development Grant supports universities across the world as they develop their doctoral programs in anthropology and related sub-fields. Currently, there are five active grants, one of which is for the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tribhuvan University in Nepal. The department at Tribhuvan is working in close partnership with the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University. There have been faculty meetings in Nepal where Cornell Anthropologists have contributed towards developing and expanding the Curriculum at Tribhuvan. Another important component of the award is that faculty and students in Nepal have had the opportunity to spend a semester at Cornell. The Visiting Fellowship in fall 2011 went to Mr Uddhav Rai whose PhD dissertation topic is “Food Security and Exclusions among the Chepangs in Nepal.” On his return to Nepal, Wenner-Gren wanted to find out more of his impressions of his stay at Cornell.


How did you get interested in Anthropology in Nepal and what led you to the graduate program?

When I got my bachelors degree from college, I came to pursue higher degree in the only university of Nepal and knew Anthropology was a new subject to study. I also learned that this subject was the study of indigenous people like me. Because of these two reasons – a new subject and study of my own culture attracted me to be an anthropologist.


Interview with Elise Kramer on “Mutual Minorityhood”

Elise Kramer is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She received a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant in May 2010 to assist research on ‘Mutual Minorityhood: The Rhetoric of Victimhood in the American Free Speech/Political Correctness Debate,’ supervised by Dr. Susan Gal. Below is a short interview we conducted to dig deeper into Kramer’s interest in the complex dynamics of victimhood in American public life.


What first drew you to study the ACLU in an anthropological capacity?

It was definitely a case of my topic driving my field choice rather than the other way around. Starting from my observations of mutual minorityhood (see below), I wanted to study the ways that the concept of freedom of speech is invoked in political debates in the U.S., with an eye toward the ways in which accusations of censorship stand in for more fraught and fundamental disagreements over who truly has power in American society. I had noticed that many political disputes in the U.S. seemed to boil down to competing claims of being silenced—and this raised some interesting questions for me about a) why this was an intelligible and persuasive direction to take a political argument, and b) what this focus on censorship can tell us about the nature of the modern American political field.

The ACLU’s place in the political landscape crystallizes many of the seeming paradoxes at the center of my project. In theory, the organization’s guiding principle is the defense of the Bill of Rights, which is a cause one would expect to gather almost universal support among Americans (especially when it comes to freedom of speech). But in practice the ACLU is a highly contentious organization: for some it is the embodiment of unbiased justice for the underdog; for others, an anti-religious stalwart advancing a hegemonic liberal agenda. Studying the process by which which the ACLU’s choices of which issues to take up get refracted and reframed both within and without the organization seemed like a good place to start in tackling such broad and omnipresent questions.


Could you briefly explain what is meant by “mutual minorityhood”? How does it manifest itself in American public life?

By “mutual minorityhood” I mean the phenomenon that so often occurs in American politics where each side of a debate perceives itself as a victimized minority and its opponent as a hegemonic majority. There are examples of this pretty much everywhere you look: the immigration debate, the gay marriage debate, the debate between feminists and men’s rights activists, etc. In each of these instances, you will find people on each side of the debate claiming that theirs is the beleaguered—even iconoclastic—underdog fighting a burgeoning superpower.

The phenomenon is worth studying for at least a couple of reasons. First, that the mantle of “true” victimhood would be so appealing and highly-contested raises important questions about American ideologies of power, agency, and dominance. Second, I think it’s vital to have an anthropology of power that is cognizant of actors’ self-reflexive beliefs about their place in the sociopolitical landscape; whatever “real” power dynamics may exist, the ones that people perceive and act in relation to are just as analytically significant when trying to understand the cultural processes in play.


Many Americans would hold that Freedom of Speech is a relatively straightforward concept. You propose that the understanding of that concept is shot through with a number of “folk beliefs”. How does your work in Linguistic Anthropology draw this out?

Though freedom of speech may seem like an ahistorical and objective concept, if one looks at even the short history of first amendment doctrine in the United States, one will find that “freedom of speech” has meant very different things at different moments. The free speech clause of the first amendment was originally interpreted as protecting primarily the press and even then only in a “no prior restraint” capacity (it was considered perfectly constitutional to punish someone for printing something so long as you didn’t actively prevent him or her from printing it in the first place). This now seems unbelievably savage to most Americans, who generally see free speech as an unfettered individual right. (See Stephen Feldman’s Free Expression and Democracy in America for an excellent history of the evolving American understanding of freedom of speech.)

As a linguistic anthropologist, I am interested in what language ideologies (taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions about how language works and how people use it) underlie the many ways of thinking about and talking about “freedom of speech” in the U.S. Different rationales for why free speech is important (e.g. the “marketplace of ideas,” self-governance, the self-actualizing nature of civic participation) highlight different “functions” of language, privileging some categories of language and leaving others unprotected. And because language ideologies often link certain “types” of people to certain “types” of language, it is difficult to talk about freedom of speech without implicitly making judgments about who has the right or privilege to speak. Using a linguistic anthropological approach that is sensitive to the hidden assumptions undergirding debates about censorship specifically and about “voice” and power more generally, I hope to render well-worn political stalemates in a new light and maybe even create new possibilities for understanding in an especially fractious climate.


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Interview with Jessica Hardin on “Exchange and Health: Negotiating the Meaning of Food and Body among Evangelical Christians in Independent Samoa”

typical to'onai, 'Sunday lunch' including meat-based soups, umu, 'earth-oven,' foods like palusami, taro leaves cooked in coconut cream, ulu, 'breadfruit,' and fa'i, 'banana.'

Jessica Hardin is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Brandeis University. In 2011 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Exchange and Health: Negotiating the Meaning of Food and Body among Evangelical Christians in Independent Samoa” supervised by Dr. Richard J. Parmentier. We interviewed Jessica to learn more about the complicated business of food, reciprocity and disease in the Polynesian nation.




I’d like to start with a general question to “set the stage”. In Samoa, how do moral concepts come to bear in the consumption of food?

I think the best way to start answering this big question is with the words of my interlocutor and friend. During an interview, a physician I will call Tina responded to my question about risk and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including type II diabetes and hypertension, by saying  “just being Samoan, that’s the biggest risk factor [for developing NCDs].”  She went on to explain that the risk is tied to the pressures of food consumption and reciprocity. There is no better way to say this than to say that eating, cooking, and serving food in Samoa is complicated business.  Learning who to serve, when to serve, and what to serve are lessons first learned by youth as they crowd back kitchens while elders conduct the affairs of funerals, church openings, or title bestowals. Presenting and giving food gifts comes in two forms: trays of food for consumption and pigs and boxes of tinned food for exchange. On these trays are piles of foods cooked from the umu, ‘earth oven,’ including many different kinds of meat, and sometimes Samoan-Chinese foods. These trays and cases of food define hierarchies and provide individuals and families with a sense of food-based well-being. While anthropologists often focus on the hierarchy-making capacity of food gifts, what I have found striking is the degree to which my interlocutors experience the pressure to be sure everyone has the appropriate portions, and that the aesthetics of the tray are correct, as a moral issue.  When successfully achieved, individuals and their families are offered a sense of embodied wellness.


Interview with Benjamin Jewell and “Filling the Vacuum with Gardens”

Benjamin Jewell is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Arizona State University. in 2011 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to conduct research on ‘Filling the Vacuum with Gardens: The Political Economy of Food Access in Detroit, Michigan,’ supervised by Dr. Amber Elisabeth Wutich. In late 2011 we contacted him to ask him to shed some light on the moral economy at work underneath Detroit’s urban agriculture movement and how it’s affecting the city’s social and political landscape.


Could you explain what you mean when you say that there is a “moral economy” at work in the Detroit urban agriculture movement?

In essence, a moral economy is based on a mutually agreed upon set of norms and obligations between members of a community. Past scholars have used the concept of “moral economy” to characterize small communities that share a common, subsistence resource—i.e. land or a body of water. In order to be included in the community, individuals must adhere to rules governing the equitable use of the shared resource, and conflicts are often mediated via consensus or similar democratic principles. In these settings, the economy is often referred to as being “embedded” in the society, meaning that social relationships are the underlying fabric or connective ties of the economy. An individual works and produces not because they have been hired to do so or because they have monetary debts, but because they are socially obligated to do so. The rhetoric of local Detroit activists reflects these same values, and my dissertation research will examine whether the recent urban agriculture movement in Detroit fits within the rubric of previous moral economy examples. The production and distribution of food within the city is an important component of a larger objective in Detroit: the creation of a more just economy.

In the last decade, people across the world have been building alternative social and economic systems that seek to eradicate the exploitative aspects of modern capitalism (e.g. environmental degradation, poor labor conditions, lack of regulation and oversight, impoverishment of local communities). Many of these efforts are based on co-operative models, with explicit focus on community empowerment. Food is one of the central concerns that galvanize people from across the social and political spectrum. Americans are becoming more aware of the impact of their consumption choices, and are starting to demand that the food on their plates be free of not only chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics, but free from exploitation of farm laborers and workers across the food supply chain. Heeding this demand, Detroit urban agriculture advocates, push for a redistribution of power from corporations, which dominate the American political and economic systems, to local communities.


Frederick Manthi and Teaching Evolution in Kenya

Dr. Frederick Manthi is senior research scientist and head of the paleontology division of the Department of Earth Sciences at the National Museums of Kenya. He has been involved with the Wenner-Gren foundation since 2006, completing several post-PhD research grants aiding investigation of Pleistocene-era Kenya. Beginning in 2007, Dr. Manthi has conducted a series of Human Evolution Workshops in his country with the intent of arming high school teachers with the proper tools to teach human evolution effectively in their schools.