Archive for New York Academy of Sciences

NYAS @ WGF, October 26th: “Persistence between the Longue Durée and the Short Purée: Archaeological Perspectives on Colonialism and Indigeneity in New England”

The second installment of this season’s New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture Series will take place this coming Monday, October 26th, at our offices. We welcome Stephen W. Stillman, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Historical Archaeology Graduate Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, along with discussant Bradley Phillippi, Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University.

An anthropological understanding of colonialism and indigeneity in the Americas requires confronting several important questions about the connections between time, materiality, place, and people. How do archaeologists and other anthropologists measure culture change and continuity and at what scale, and why is the question framed in that way? How do people engage their pasts to live through their present and anticipate their future, and why has that been harder to visualize for archaeologists than for cultural anthropologists? What are the implications of these concepts and interpretations on pressing political and heritage issues today? This presentation will explore some potential answers to these questions, using an example of a collaborative archaeological project since 2003 between the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, a Native American community in Connecticut that has occupied its reservation lands since 1683. I argue that a notion of “persistence” may provide some relief to these questions (or more appropriately perhaps, dilemmas), not only as both an interpretive and a lived practice that resolves some tensions of the “longue durée” of indigenous history and the “short purée” of colonialism, but also as a perspective growing out of on-the-ground community engagement with indigenous communities today.

As always, the 7:00 PM lecture will be preceded by a reception at 6:00 PM. Registration with NYAS is not required.

NYAS @ WGF, September 28: “We are Not Red Indians” (We Might all Be Red Indians)

The NYAS Anthropology Section lecture series returns to Wenner-Gren for another great season of speakers! We kick off the 2015-2016 slate with Columbia’s Audra Simpson on Monday, September 28. 

Three Pueblo Indian women displaying their ollas for sale at the railroad tracks, New Mexico, ca.1900.

“We are Not Red Indians” (We Might all Be Red Indians): Anticolonial Sovereignty Across the Borders of Time, Place and Sentiment

Audra Simpson

Department of Anthropology

Columbia University

In a 2004 interview Yasser Arafat, in a state of near confinement and exhaustion, reflected upon his incapacity to move without the immediate threat of assassination, about the Palestinian right of return, about American elections, and his achievements. Among these achievements was the fact that “the Palestine case was the biggest problem in the world” and that Israel had “failed to wipe us out.” As a final mark of that success, he added the declarative and comparative and final point of distinction, “we are not red Indians.” This paper uses this point of comparison of a departure point to reflect upon the deep specificity and global illegibility of Indigenous struggle and life in the face of death and dispossession in North America. In order to do so I will choose a series of historical assemblages — of sociality, treaty-making, militarized pushbacks upon encroachment, spatial confinement (“reservationization”), and pushback for land, for life and for dignity within occupation to amend Arafat’s statement and reimagine “success.”  I argue that these assemblages are themselves a structure of political life that stand alongside and push against a “logic of elimination” – a logic that authorizes the removal, the attacking and “assimilating” of indigenous peoples for land. I consider these tangled processes in order to re-narrate the seemingly negligible political and corporeal life of Indigenous sovereignty within dispossession and settler occupation. This is an occupation that naturalizes itself through law and narrates itself as new, as beneficent and democratic atop the lands and lives of Indigenous peoples who persist, with sovereignties intact, in spite of this grinding historical and political process of settler colonialism. In order to put this point of comparison, and sentiment of Arafat’s achievement in relief the paper examines how is it that the very techniques of force, of pushback, of sociality and outright resistance receive the writ of dismissal within a global and comparative frame of resistance and (political life). At the end of the paper it is asked how these processes may be re-narrated and comprehended in a global, comparative frame of not only analysis, but struggles for justice.

As always, this event will take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street). A dinner and wine reception (free to students) will precede the talk at 6pm, with the lecture beginning promptly at 7pm.

NYAS @ WGF: Anna Tsing and “Life in Past and Coming Ruins: On living in the Anthropocene”

Tonight we have a special treat for fans of the NYAS Anthropology Section lecture series at Wenner-Gren and anthropologist Anna Tsing, as the University of California – Santa Cruz joins us to present her talk “Life in Past and Coming Ruins: On Living in the Anthropocene” at 7:00 PM at our offices at 470 Park Avenue South.

Farming, fishing, and other human livelihoods have depended on the ability of forests, wetlands, oceans, and other multispecies ecosystems to rebuild themselves amidst repeated disturbances. I call such rebuilding “resurgence,” and I argue that humans as well as other species depend upon it. Yet industrial processes caninterfere with this kind of resurgence. This talk explores biological capacities brought into being by industrial processes—but outside human control. Think, for example, of industrially empowered pests and pathogens, from the virulent E. coli that emerged from beef-cattle feedlots to the algal blooms of sewage-saturated waterways. Thinking through fungi, my talk explores how industry sets loose feral forms that get in the way of the resurgence on which both humans and nonhumans depend.

Might it be useful to consider the forms of resurgence upon which we have historically depended “Holocene” forms now under threat from Anthropocene processes? Such Holocene resurgence is not over—but suddenly we have to fight for it. Furthermore, anthropological skills are needed. The threats I describe are neither universal nor limited to a single place; they travel. Anthropologists, I argue, are needed to investigate nonhuman as well as human Anthropocene travel, as this empowers still-mysterious feral biologies that are simultaneously local and global.

A dinner reception precedes the lecture at 6:00 PM. Registration is not required, and please DO NOT contact the New York Academy of Sciences or the Wenner-Gren Foundation regarding registration.


Next NYAS Lecture: Living in the Anthropocene

Join us in the Wenner-Gren Foundation offices on Monday, March 23rd at 7pm for the next installment of New York Academy of Science, Anthropology Section’s lecture series, when we welcome Dr. Sophia Perdikaris (Brooklyn College-City University of New York) presenting “Living in the Anthropocene: Long-Term Human Ecodynamics in Barbuda, West Indies,” with Dr. Pam Crabtree (New York University) serving as lecture discussant.

The island of Barbuda, on the outskirts of the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, served in Colonial times as a provisioning island rather than a site of sugar cane agriculture. As a result, many archaeological sites on low-lying areas occupied by pre-Columbian populations have remained relatively undisturbed. Traditional archaeological studies in the Caribbean focus on pottery, stone tools and bones, all of which are frequently encountered on Barbuda, yet provide limited understanding of past people’s daily lives. Highly integrated archaeological projects using cross-disciplinary methodologies and techniques have been developed as an effective analysis model in mostly temperate latitudes, including Iceland, Greenland, the British Isles and Scandinavia, but they have rarely been applied in the Caribbean. For the last 4 years, cross-disciplinary teams combining archaeology and paleoecology have been working in Barbuda examining the people/environment interactions from peopling (ca. 6000 BCE) to modern day. Extensive research in Barbuda finds that Barbudans perceive environmental changes in less urgent ways than those found in western society. As sea levels rise and a new government pushes for economic development, many archaeological sites are threatened and some have already been destroyed.

This event will take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street). A dinner and wine reception (free to students) will precede the talk at 6pm, with the lecture beginning promptly at 7pm.

NYAS @ WGF: The Energy and Climate Change Panel

After a winter-weather cancellation last month, the NYAS Anthropology Section triumphantly returns to Wenner-Gren for the next installment of this year’s lecture series this coming Monday, February 23rd, from 7-9 PM at the Foundation’s Park Avenue South offices. The Foundation and the Academy welcome David Hughes, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and author of Whiteness in Zimbabwe; Gökçe Günel, ACLS Teaching Fellow and Lecturer in Anthropology at Columbia University; and Stephanie Rupp, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Lehman College, CUNY, to share their ideas regarding the intersections of anthropology and climate change.

A reception will precede the meeting at 6:00 pm. Please do not contact the Wenner-Gren Foundation with inquiries regarding registration.


David Hughes (Rutgers University)

How solar became “alternative”: slavery and the making of energy flows

Willem Blaeu's map of northwestern South America, 1635.

Experts who describe solar energy as an “alternative” – that contributes only a small fraction to our oil-driven economy – are measuring the wrong thing.   Every day, the sun gives us 20,000 times the wattage we consume in oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power.  Bizarrely, the entire conventional calculus of energy omits the overwhelming bulk of it, the elephant in a small room.  This paper examines an instance of such forgetting: the transition from solar energy to something like oil in the Orinoco Basin of colonial South America.  In the 1740s, the Jesuit missionary and geographer, Josef Gumilla marveled in the God-given fertility of the tropics. Solar rays and Spanish settlers, he hoped, would turn the Orinoco into a breadbasket for cacao.  Forty years later, the governor of Trinidad, Josef María Chacón proposed a second plan for colonization. On this island of the Orinoco delta, he identified tropical fertility with disease and overly dense vegetation.  Instead of solar rays, Chacón’s promotion of sugar required enslaved Africans, and lots of them.  The governor calculated employment rates per land area, death rates, and replacement rates through imports.  In so doing, he helped create the modern, narrow concept of energy: a transportable, storable commodity unrelated to either the landscape or to God.  One could almost squeeze exploited labor into barrels and sell it by the gallon.  When geologists discovered oil – on Trinidad, in fact, in 1859 – the energy experts were ready for it.  In cultural terms, slaves served as the bridge fuel from solar energy to petroleum.  Remembering this history adds a span to the bridge back in the other direction.


Masdar City under construction, 2012. Photo courtesy Jan Seifert via Wikimedia Commons

Gökçe Günel (Columbia University)

Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change and Green Business in Abu Dhabi

At the face of growing concerns regarding climate change and energy scarcity, investors and governments started promoting smart and eco friendly urban developments as sites of value production and potential salvation from a seemingly apocalyptic future. As part of this trend, cities built from scratch offer a vision of technologically complex, eco-friendly, and enjoyable modes of living, and serve as engines for economic growth. In exploring this trend more closely, this talk centers on oil-rich Abu Dhabi’s eco-city project, Masdar City. Drawing on seventeen months of multi-sited fieldwork at Masdar, as well as at MIT and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, this talk demonstrates that the Masdar City project attempts to generate “an economy of technical adjustments,” a means for vaulting over to a future where humans will continue to enjoy technological complexity, without interrogating existing social, political and economic relations. Invested in an image of the future drawn from science fiction, the economy of technical adjustments serves as a method for concentrating on modifications that bring forth promissory capital, enabling a multiplicity of actions and nonactions to be taken in the face of global environmental collapse. Yet this talk demonstrates that professionals at Masdar not only advocated such market-oriented technological solutions for climate change, but also consistently crafted justifications for their projects in light of the various contradictions that they saw exist in such a perspective. Analyzing the metaphor of “spaceship in the desert,” which the producers of Masdar City popularized, it inquires into the forms of temporality and spatiality the eco-city engendered. In this way, the talk seeks to draw attention to the alternative futures rendered invisible by the dominant drive for an economy of technical adjustments.


Stephanie Rupp (Lehman College, CUNY)

Blackouts: Illuminating Structures of Power in New York City

power station on Staten Island, 1970s

Energy provides the underlying power of New York City.  Energy runs throughout our city, mediating our work through electricity and technology; connecting us socially to neighbors and networks; sustaining our lives in every more intricate, invisible, and seemingly inevitable ways. Thomas Edison designed the municipal electrical grid in New York City to ensure that urban consumers of electricity would come to consider its flow to be inexpensive and indispensable as the primary force of individual power in society.  Edison’s vision of inexpensive, irresistible energy fueling urban society has been realized to an extent that might have surprised even him.  It is in the context of the absence of energy and the disruption of infrastructure—during blackouts, for example—that lines of social, economic, and political inequality become suddenly visible.  This paper proposes that notions of energy as a physical force, as technological innovation, as political control, as social agency, and as cultural metaphor are intertwined.  Energy is a social, economic, and political issue, as much (or more) as it is a technological issue.  This project illuminates that it is in the darkness of blackouts that these otherwise invisible and ignored structures of power are abruptly made visible. And it is in the blacked-out context of a massive rupture that sedimented relations of agency, structure, and power rise to the surface of individual, public, and institutional awareness, giving us a chance to reconsider and even renegotiate our attitudes towards energy, towards infrastructures that are technical, economic, and social, and towards underlying structures of inequality.

NYAS @ WGF: Coastal Archaeology, the Anthropocene, and the Future of Island Ecosystems

Anacapa Island (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

PLEASE NOTE that Monday’s lecture (1/26) has been CANCELLED due to inclement weather. Stay tuned for more information regarding possible rescheduling or other announcements concerning the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section lecture series. 

Our popular lecture series with the New York Academy of Sciences’ Anthropology section resumes for the new year next Monday, January 26, 2015, when we’ll welcome Torben Rick, Director and Curator of North American Archaeology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, to discuss the Anthropocene and the present and future challenges it poses to coastal archaeology and historical ecology.

We live in a time of rapid global ecological change and degradation, prompting many to speculate that we have entered the Anthropocene, a time dominated by human activities. Coastal archaeology and historical ecology provide an important framework for understanding contemporary environmental problems and can help guide future conservation, restoration, and management. Drawing on examples from California’s Channel Islands and other island ecosystems around the world, I explore the ways that archaeology can help enhance contemporary environmental management and chart a course for future collaborative research around the world.

This event will take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street). A dinner and wine reception (free to students) will precede the talk at 6pm, with Dr. Rick begining his lecture at 7pm.  The event is free, but registration with the New York Academy of Sciences is required.

NYAS @ WGF 11/17: Audio Now Available

Monday evening saw November’s installment of our popular ongoing lecture series done in conjunction with the anthropology section of the New York Academy of Sciences. Audio from this panel discussion, featuring Daniel Goldstein of Rutgers University and Alyshia Gálvez of Lehman College, CUNY is available here.

NYAS @ WGF 10/27: Audio Now Available!

Left to right: Peter Siegel, Stuart Fiedel, Genese Sodikoff, Brian Boyd

Listen to last week’s New York Academy of Sciences anthropology section lecture featuring Stuart J. Fiedel, Senior Archaeologist at the Louis Berger Group and author of Prehistory of the Americas to discuss the challenges recent genetic, archaeological, and paleological evidence present to attempts to unambiguously document human occupations in the Americas prior to 13,500 BP and “break the Clovis Barrier” followed by comments by discussant Peter Siegel of Montclair State University.

Part 1 (Stuart Fiedel)

Part 2 (Peter Siegel)

NYAS @ WGF 10/27: Is Clovis Still First?

Our popular lecture series rolls on! Join us Monday, October 27, at 7:00 PM as we welcome Stuart J. Fiedel, Senior Archaeologist at the Louis Berger Group and author of Prehistory of the Americas to discuss the challenges recent genetic, archaeological, and paleological evidence present to attempts to unambiguously document human occupations in the Americas prior to 13,500 BP and “break the Clovis Barrier”.

Since the antiquity of the Monte Verde site in southern Chile was certified in 1997, most archaeologists have accepted that peopling of the Americas began more than 14,500 years ago. A few sites in North America also contain artifacts that seem to be older than Clovis fluted points (which date from ca. 13,500 to 12,800 cal yr BP). The Paisley Caves in Oregon have yielded 14,300-year-old coprolites from which human DNA of Native American types has been extracted. These ostensibly early sites have been linked to a model positing multiple early migrations down the Pacific coast. It has even been proposed that Clovis developed from the Solutrean culture of France and Spain (despite the intervening ocean and a temporal gap of 6,000 years). However, all of these pre-Clovis claims remain dubious. The most recent genetic, archaeological, and paleontological evidence shows that: 1) Native North, Central, and South Americans are all descended from a single founding population derived from northern Eurasia; 2) a child of that population was buried with Clovis tools at the Anzick Site in Montana 13,000 years ago; 3) interior Clovis-linked sites are older than any coastal sites; 4) a Clovis-derived population rapidly occupied South America 13,000 years ago; and 5) rapid human expansion caused an ecosystem catastrophe that entailed the extinction of some 80 genera of megafauna.

Fiedel’s talk will be followed by comments by discussant Peter Siegel of Montclair State University.

A reception will precede the meeting at 6:00 pm. Please do not contact the Wenner-Gren Foundation with inquiries regarding registration.

NYAS @ WGF 9/22 – Audio Now Available!

Listen to last Monday’s New York Academy of Sciences meeting lecture, featuring Nina Glick Schiller of the University of Manchester, the Max Planck Institute, and Oxford University.