Archive for Interview

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?

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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.

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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.


Are you a current or past grantee and want to be featured in a mini-interview on our blog? Contact Daniel ( to find out more.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Interview with Julia Chuang and “Scandals of the Absent”

Julia Chuang is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork grant to aid research on ‘Scandals of the Absent: Migration, Village, and Homecoming in Rural China,’ supervised by Dr. Michael Burawoy. We reached out to her recently to learn more about her ambitious two-sited ethnographic project.


Whom or what inspired you in choosing your specific research topic or area?

I think it initially reading life that drew me toward rural Chinese life. I love the genre of classic village anthropologies – there is something about the village as a container of endogamous, rich social life that has inspired the old studies of kinship – old-fashioned stuff, to be sure, but still I think the best of ethnographic writing. As a form, the village ethnography is old-fashioned, but rural life is ever important in the contemporary age – despite the fuss over urbanization, still most of the world’s population lives in rural settings, and actually, understanding what’s happening in rural settings helps explain why our urban settings look the way they look. Specifically, my work is about departures, about what happens to the people who go to cities, before they actually get to cities.

Reading that old stuff reminded me of a kind of a reverse analytic move I like which comes up a lot in the classic village ethnographies. It came up in various forms in ethnographies from the 1970s: how can we illuminate things about ourselves we take for granted? – we travel to distant edge civilizations. How can we understand the unspoken social norms of a community? – we look for people who violate those norms. How can we best understand migrations to cities? – we should look at the people who never left the countryside.

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Interview with Eric Plemons on “Making the Gendered Face”

Eric Plemons is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His project, “Making the Gendered Face” supervised by Dr. Cori Hayden, received a Dissertation Fieldwork grant in October 2010 and he is currently in the field. His research concerns the practice of Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS) in the context of transgender medicine.  The Wenner-Gren Blog recently contacted him to answer some questions about his investigations into the construction of gender at the level of surgical intervention.   


You hold that skeletal structure is a particularly potent site of articulating gender difference – partially because it is seen as being ‘ahistorical’. Could you elaborate on that?

Both of the surgeons with whom I conducted primary field research as well as those who publish professional articles on the technical practice of Facial Feminization Surgery cite primary and fundamental differences between the facial skeletons of males and females (yes, these are the only salient categories here). It is surgical alteration of the bony structures of the face that distinguishes FFS from other procedures meant to produce ‘feminine’ features. These surgeons describe the differences between male and female faces as absolute, universal and historical: male faces are like x, female faces are like y. Whereas ‘gender’ is a category that is understood to be locally and historically specific—especially by trans patients who tended to present well-developed though somewhat heterogeneous theories of gender—sexual dimorphism is recognized as a characteristic of the human species. The power of the skeleton in this story is pervasive. The human skeleton—and especially the skull—has appeared throughout my fieldwork as not only the analogy for, but the very definition of, the core of the human body. The skeleton is used to stand for the human form: we are all the same on the inside. This notion of the universal and ahistorical human form fits neatly with representations of sex distinction as universal and ahistorical. Although variations are acknowledged to exist, they are just as easily dismissed as a tiny fraction of the population, a simply unimportant variable for a project predicated on the existence and stability of two sexes, such that one can leave one and become the other.


What obstacles or challenges have you encountered so far in your research? How have you adapted?

One of my primary obstacles has been navigating the small network of surgeons who specialize in surgical sex reassignment—both genital and facial—in the United States. This is a well-connected and very small group of roughly eleven people (five who do FFS, and six who regularly perform genital sex reassignment). While they may not always consider each other colleagues, each is certainly aware of the practices of the others. One advantage that I have had in working this network is the reputation and influence of the surgeon with whom I conducted the bulk of my field research. As the most well known and widely respected US-based FFS surgeon, his personal and professional endorsement opened doors to people and places that would have otherwise been difficult to access. At the same time, his endorsement also came enmeshed in the politics of this small group of experts. It has been a challenge to know when and how to leverage the credit that I have through my association with him, and then to know how to assure other surgeons—and their assistants and patients—that I am not personally committed to his practices and philosophies as the ‘right’ way to approach FFS. As I have progressed through my fieldwork and come to better understand the personal and professional stakes of these relationships, I’ve learned how to communicate my personal and scholarly interests in order tread lightly when necessary. I have made a concerted effort to develop individual relationships with each person I encounter in my fieldwork—an effort that is helped most of all by listening more than I speak.


You aim to “start a conversation” between cultural and physical anthropology. In your view, how can the two fields best “speak” to one another?

In many cases, the ‘four fields’ of anthropology remain distinct because they either examine dissimilar objects and/or employ dissimilar methods of inquiry. Though our discipline is bound by a common effort to understand the diversity of humankind, the things that we study and the way we go about studying them are frequently radically distinct. As a cultural anthropologist, one of the things that excited me about this research project was the opportunity to engage anthropological literatures and discourses that were completely new to me. I got to explore the history of archeological and forensic sex determination, and engage more contemporary debates about the role of typically humanities-driven theories of gender construction and enactment in these anthropological sciences.

Facial Feminization Surgery provides a critical point of access between cultural and physical anthropology. In the case of FFS, physical anthropologists’ indications of the sites of the skull’s distinctly sexed structures are not recognized as descriptions, but are operationalized as prescriptions for how to transform one sexed face into another. This is an example of something that has fascinated me throughout this research: FFS is the enactment of many forms of knowledge that have been combined in ways that their producers did not intend, and likely could not have imagined. Here, archaeological and physical anthropological knowledge is being used to (re)make faces, to literally produce gender. Our common object at the heart of this transformative project provides a means for common conversation.


How did the doctors, experts and physical anthropologists whom you encountered react to your background in cultural anthropology and the questions you were attempting to answer? Did you encounter any resistance to your ‘science studies’ critique?

To be honest, I was frequently struck by how quickly my interlocutors dismissed kinds of knowledge—and even kinds of questions—that were not immediately recognizable to them as ‘important.’ During interviews and observations, I tried to remain as neutral as possible, creating space for people to explain to me what they thought I should know about their own practice and experience as experts in a field, or patients undergoing procedures. Despite my sincere efforts to clearly explain the kinds of questions that guided my research, I found that people often simply wanted to tell me what they felt was important. The limitations of interest and of willingness to engage particular kinds of questions were quite enlightening in themselves. Physical anthropologists were not terribly interested in changing understandings of gender; they examined bones. Patients were not interested in the politics of trans embodiment; they were undertaking a very personal project that was about and for themselves alone. Surgeons were not interested in knowing too much about what an anthropological analysis of their practice might be; they were very skillfully performing a task at which they were expert, and were happy to allow me to observe. While I found people almost invariably willing to talk with me, their interests were limited to just that: their interests. The work of synthesizing and thinking across theses various realms of knowledge, experience and expertise is mine alone. This is, I think, what the work of anthropology is about.


Are you a current or past grantee and want to be featured in a mini-interview on our blog? Contact Daniel ( to find out more.


Interview: Linda Abarbanell on “Spatial Language and Reasoning in Tseltal Mayans”

Linda Abarbanell is a Postdoctoral fellow in Education at Harvard. In 2010 she received a Post-PhD research grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to aid research on “Spatial Language and Reasoning in Tseltal Mayans”. Recently we reached out to Abarbanell to learn more about her work in Chiapas, Mexico, examining the relationship between language, culture and thought in the area of spatial language and cognition.


Whom or what inspired you in choosing your specific research topic or area?

I’ve always been interested in knowledge – how it’s structured and learned, how concepts develop and change, where they come from. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, where one of my favorite works was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – all about a priori intuitions of space and time. Later, I worked as a fourth grade teacher in New York City, teaching mostly recent immigrant and second-generation children. I became curious about how context, particularly language and culture, interact with different types of knowledge to affect the learning of each child. When I went back to graduate school, I discovered that cognitive and developmental psychologists were finding answers to the questions that philosophers had debated for centuries by studying how infants and children perceive and reason about the world. I started working as a research assistant in a psychology lab at Harvard, helping with a study that was looking at how children learn spatial words – whether they interpret made-up directional terms like ‘ziv’ and ‘kern’ in terms of their own bodies (e.g., left/right) or the environment (e.g., north/south) – going back in a way to Kant. Because of my interest in language and culture, I was drawn to the cross-linguistic work on this topic, looking at how speakers of different languages use different frames of reference to talk about spatial relationships and whether and how this affects their nonlinguistic representations of space. In particular, I was drawn to a series of studies done with the Tseltal Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson that argued for rather strong effects of these cross-linguistic differences on speakers’ perception of and reasoning about space.

I decided to go to Chiapas the summer after my first year as a doctoral student to see if I could learn this language and to find out if the claims in the literature were really true. My mentor in the psychology lab, Dr. Peggy Li, had previously worked on this question, prompting English speakers to perform like the Tseltal speakers tested by Brown and Levinson by changing the availability of environmental cues. With her help designing the studies, I collected pilot data on that first trip. I remember boarding the plane the day after testing ten participants, watching the mountains getting smaller and smaller. From that first trip, I fell in love with the region, the language, and fieldwork.

You collected data from informants using a number of “fun games”. How did you design these games and how were they received?

With my collaborators, primarily Peggy Li, we adapted tasks that had previously been used with this and other populations, such as the ones used by Brown and Levinson and colleagues, and also designed new tasks based on other studies of spatial reasoning. We’re testing things like memory for small-scale spatial arrays, mental rotation, and navigation, which adapt well to a game-like format. So we do things like arrange toy animals in a pattern, and ask participants to arrange the animals in the same way after moving to a new location and turning to face a different direction. Or we hide a coin in an array while the participant watches, blindfold the participant and rotate the array, then remove the blindfold and ask the participant to find the coin. The games are challenging enough to engage people, but also relatively easy and short so they can be used with children and adults, and with individuals that are less familiar with school-like tasks. Sometimes the tasks are too hard the first time I try them, or the directions are unclear. Designing is always a process of piloting, reviewing and revising. Once I collect reliable data on a particular task, the next step is to analyze it and figure out what to manipulate to address the next question that comes out of the results. I always work with a research assistant that is a native speaker of Tseltal and lives in the community – a woman I have worked with for several years. We go through the instructions and translations carefully and test everything out on family members first. I value her input greatly. I can’t speak for the participants, but I think they enjoy the games and like participating. It is something different and fun and doesn’t take up too much time. At this point, most people where I work know me and will sometimes ask if I am working on something they can participate in.


What was a major obstacle that you encountered in the course of your research? How did you adapt?

The biggest challenge, but also one of the greatest areas of interest, has been dealing with cultural and language change, and worrying about how my studies might be affecting the population with respect to the phenomenon that I am trying to study. Almost all children now attend school where they acquire Spanish, which uses an egocentric system (e.g., left/right). They also learn to read and write, where left-to-right and up-to-down orientations are important. And each year I see more and more infiltration of Western media and culture, particularly in the municipal center. You also see more and more migration of younger people to urban areas within Mexico and to the US for work. Many return to their community and families after saving money for several years. It would be inaccurate to portray these as static cultures or languages, cut off from the rest of mainstream Mexican society and the world. My data show that younger bilingual speakers who have attended secondary or high school use a combination of both left/right terms, generally in Spanish, along with geocentric directional terms in Tseltal, depending on the constraints of the task and who they are talking to. Younger children who have not yet acquired the use of a left/right system and older adults with lower levels of schooling who do not generally use a left/right system, provide stronger contrasts with speakers of languages like English, but it is still not clear cut. It is hard to know just how much exposure to Spanish and other cultural and environmental artifacts would be predicted to have an effect on patterns of spatial reasoning. It’s also a concern, where there is a limited participant pool, that participants who have been in multiple studies have been exposed to, or even taught the use of a left/right reference system though all the studies that they’ve done. They are also no longer naïve participants, but may think that I am looking for a particular response where I am not.

There is no easy way to deal with these issues, which are research questions in themselves. I always collect background information on the participants, including their educational level, knowledge of Spanish and literacy skills, and I try to conduct as many comparisons as I can, working with different demographic subgroups within the same general population and geographic region. They aren’t clean comparisons since many factors covary, but they do provide a snapshot of the range of individual variation in the population at this particular point in time.


The notion that language is deeply connected to thought is, as you recognize, the subject of heated discourse in both academic and popular science. What do you think is at stake, politically, in the tension between universals and particulars?

The region where I work is fraught with political tensions and divisions. As a researcher, I try to understand what is, rather than taking a position on what ought to be, but of course, the question of the relationship between universals and particulars is extremely political – or rather, can very easily be co-opted towards political ends. It cuts right to the question of how different groups of people differ as a result of the very things that define them as a group. In addition to the question of translatability and whether there can be true communication and understanding across groups, it’s a slippery slope to the question of whether one system or way of conceptualizing the world is in some way better or more optimal than another. Are speakers at a cognitive disadvantage if they have fewer number words in their language, or because they have no way of expressing “to the left of the tree”? Do such speakers not develop the same capacity to reason about large quantities or to remember where things are from the perspective of an independent viewer? Do mature speakers lose the flexibility to acquire categories and concepts that are not encoded in their language? While innocent in itself, taken to an extreme, the argument that we are locked into how our language and culture conceptualize the world can be used to deepen divisions and further oppress already marginalized groups.

In the region where I work, indigenous children were at one time prohibited from and punished for speaking in their native language at school. Today, individuals may be reluctant to admit they speak an indigenous language after moving to an urban or mestizo region. In the community where I work, parents have expressed that the monolingual schools (where the teachers speak only Spanish) are better than the bilingual ones since their children acquire Spanish more quickly. They know that Spanish is the language of currency if their children are to further their education and advance in the mainstream Mexican economy. Identifying indigenous and minority languages as a barrier to acquiring more Western concepts might further contribute to their devaluation and ultimate loss. On the other hand, we can focus on the range of possibility that different languages and cultures afford, the strengths and advantages of each system as a unique solution to an environmental and communicative problem, and find arguments for maintaining linguistic and cultural diversity, particularly if we take these differences to result in flexible shapings at the margins of a largely shared conceptual core. I prefer to avoid such discussions, both for the sake of remaining true to the scientific process and also because I believe the question of cultural rights is separate from the market value of any particular language or cultural practice. It does concern me, however, that the academic debate in this area has tended to be so polarizing, and in the process, to polarize certain languages and cultures by perhaps overemphasizing differences while overlooking similarities.

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