#NationalAnthropologyDay: The Best of Anthrotainment

For too long, anthropology-flavored entertainment has existed in the compound shadow of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. The blunt truth of the matter is that when most people, professionals and lay alike, think of the discipline, their thoughts first turn to the pulpy relic-hunting rollicks of that iconic hero. With nothing against the terrifically entertaining Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, Indiana Jones is, frankly, a terrible ambassador for anthropology, his degree more a passport to exotic locales than integral to his exploits.

In honor of #NationalAnthropologyDay, here are some entertainments that strike at the discipline from different angles, and might even have something interesting to say.

 

The Last Wave (1977)

Australian director Peter Weir is probably best known for his surreal takes on quotidian existence like The Truman Show and midnight-movie mainstay Picnic at Hanging Rock. He followed up the latter classic with psychological thriller The Last Wave (1977), one of the best films that actually brushes up against ethical and philosophical concerns in the practice of cultural anthropology. Centering on a public defender tasked with representing a group of Aboriginal men accused of murdering a compatriot, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) finds himself increasingly fascinated with the mythology of the tribe to which his clients belong. He devises a strategy to cite the victim’s purported powerful belief in magic, and thereby fear of a recent curse, as the clandestine true cause of death, thus exonerating his kinsmen. As he delves deeper into the case, strange events begin to infest his life, and a greater apocalyptic secret is revealed.

David Burton is not an anthropologist; indeed, there is only a brief, one-scene appearance of an anthropologist in this film. Nevertheless, as he plots his defense and is drawn ever deeper into the supernatural mystery underlying the case, Chamberlain’s Burton comes to exemplify many of the perennial issues that fascinate the discipline. For all his reflexive advocacy on behalf of his clients, his attempts to really understand what went through their minds the night of the murder, how much does David Burton believe the argument underpinning his “ritual” defense? Is he, in the paraphrased words of an interlocutor, just another wealthy, guilty liberal, flailing for a symbolic act of cross-cultural understanding while secretly pitying the primitives? Furthermore, as the story’s supernatural elements begin to unfold, David’s White Savior complex becomes even more literal. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say you’ll find plenty of interesting to chew on while watching this one.

 

Altered States (1980)

In so many ways, Ken Russell’s 1980 body-horror thriller represents the quintessential anthropological fantasy. Adopted from a novel by legendary television writer Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States scoops out every corner of the disciplinary pop-memory by way of mid-20th century counterculture, weaving together new-age psychedelia, human evolution, and hair-brained academic inquiry with a mad-scientist panache that honors science fiction’s speculative roots.

While researching abnormal psychology, brilliant-but-troubled physiologist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) commandeers a disused isolation tank in his institution’s basement to conduct experiments with an obscure hallucinogen sourced from rural Mexico. An increasingly untethered program of self-experimentation alerts Jessup to the secret correspondence unlocked by the drug’s combination with sensory deprivation – he begins to “devolve” – display the phenotype of an ancient human species. It appears as though racial memory is at the root of this bizarre mash-up of indigenous Mexican ritual and high-tech experimentation – and it could change the world, if it doesn’t destroy him first.

Altered States is made in the spirit of much of the greatest science fiction – the ecstasy of scientific pursuit, and its costs, exist at the center of the conflict. However, in the film’s selection of anthropologists and related experts as the occupiers of the intrepid-scientist archetype, it manages to subvert genre expectations in interesting ways. Despite its scientific protagonists, including Jessup’s physical anthropologist wife and frequent foil Emily (Blair Brown), Altered States’ vision of Cambridge, Massachusetts feels less like a deep-space craft or secret underground laboratory and more like an actual scholarly community. These career academics act like real career academics, sparring with colleagues over margaritas at happy hours and lit joints at house parties, name-dropping potential collaborators and relevant papers in rapid-fire banter, and tinkering around outside the watchful eyes of the IRB. Regardless of what you think of the film’s science-fiction elements, the sympathetic, slice-of-life depiction of anthropologists and allied academics is truly a rare find.

 

“Darmok” (Star Trek: The Next Generation) (1991)

Star Trek, as a media franchise, has enough examples of anthropology throughout its multi-series history to easily count as a single entry (and more) for the purposes of this list. From its origins as the Wagon Train to the Stars through its later incarnation as occupying imperial power, the colonial, anthropological eye has always been active in these sci-fi allegories of humans encountering the alien unknown. The Original Series’ Enterprise fielded a designated “A&A (archaeology & anthropology) officer” and the learned Jean-Luc Picard was well-known for his love of archaeology and decoding alien mythic systems.

But perhaps no single episode better encapsulates Trek’s abilities to creatively riff on the discipline than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fifth-season episode “Darmok”, in which the crew is tasked with parsing an alien language previously thought unintelligible. Though handy 24th century translation technology allows vocabulary and syntax to pass unassailed, communication between the Enterprise and the Tamarians remains at loggerheads until the key revelation is made: the extraterrestrials lack a human-like sense of self, and make meaning exclusively through the metaphorical manipulation of their own mythology.

The mystery at the center of “Darmok” acts as both a trumped-up sci-fi illustration of how living languages can be pregnant with cultural meanings that escape mere syntax and grammar, but also evokes a sort of Levi-Straussian structuralism that outlines the thinking of the other as completely bounded (one might say hindered) by mythic frames. Regardless of the school of anthropological thought that the plot could be said to mimic, it’s delightful to watch the old sci-fi tradition of scientists solving a problem applied to aspects of culture and language.

 

Happy National Anthropology Day!

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.

In Memorium: Dr. Pamela Smith

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our colleague, Dr. Pamela Smith.  During her 16 years of service with the Foundation, she made many contributions to the Foundation’s programs and to its mission.  She served as an advisor to three presidents and coordinated the Foundation’s International Programs from 1995 – 2006.  Her greatest passion was helping international students and scholars, both here at Wenner-Gren, as well as through her work at Pace University.  On the occasion of Pam’s retirement from the Foundation in 2006, we received many beautiful notes from former Wenner-Gren Fellows expressing their gratitude for her support and kindness.  As a tribute to Pam, we include an excerpt from one of the letters below.

 

I am happy to say that Pam has been an anchor in making my career in anthropology what it is today. She embodies the warmth, care, and resourcefulness that makes Wenner-Gren such a great organization. She went out of her way to invite us to gatherings, to send us information about programs and opportunities and to just find out how we are which is rare in many organizations that give rather than receive money. Pam, you are a true friend of global anthropology and I know Wenner-Gren will miss you. But you will remain in our thoughts and our worlds.

 

- Dr. Mwenda Ntarangwi, WGF Wadsworth International Fellow, 1995-99

(Wadsworth International Fellowship, formerly known as DCTF Program)

 

On behalf of the Wenner-Gren Trustees and Staff, we send our deepest condolences to Pam’s family and friends.  We feel privileged to have had her as both a colleague and a friend.

Guest Blog: Deflategate, or Ballghazi, and the Conundrum of Expertise

"The Shannon Portrait of the Hon Robert Boyle" by Johann Kerseboom - Chemical Heritage Foundation, Photograph by Will Brown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

We here at Wenner-Gren love to support and bring attention to the latest in anthropology. While that usually entails work down in the scholarly settings of the field or the lab, we also enjoy learning about the more unexpected, ephemeral targets of our colleagues’ analytical eyes. The following post is syndicated with permission from the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC). Michael Scroggins is a Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University and CASTAC Outreach Manager. He lives with a Patriots fan.

It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by  the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?

It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by  the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?

The interesting question from an STS perspective, and the hinge which cheating allegations revolve around, is whether or not the atmospheric conditions at the AFC championship game could have caused a football to deflate what the NFL has called “a significant amount.” The question is a thorny one because it is entirely unclear who counts as an expert on football deflation, where one might turn to find an expert opinion, or even what criteria might be appropriate in determining who is, or is not, an expert on football deflation. Worse, how might one find a deflation expert who does not have a rooting interest for or against the Patriots at this late date? In short,  who may enunciate the truths of football deflation?
Patriots head coach, and noted gridiron alchemist, Bill Belichick was the first to turn to science for an explanation. Like a modern day Boyle, he held a press conference in which he detailed an experiment conducted at the Patriots facility which he claimed demonstrated that natural conditions caused “significant” football deflation at the AFC Championship game. His explanation was detailed and involved a special method of preparing the football for play (that is, getting the correct feel for the quarterback) that can change the psi level without manual deflation.

Belichick’s experiment caused an immediate reaction. Science celebrities Bill Nye, the Science Guy (a well-known Seahawks fan and mechanical engineer) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (a theoretical physicist and perhaps a Giants, or Jets, fan) both weighed in on Belichick’s experiment, the former taking to morning television to rebut Belichick and the latter to twitter to voice his doubts.  The next day support for Belichick’s experiment appeared in the form of three Boston area professors (at least one of whom is a Bills fan).  Not one to miss a bandwagon, the NFL is currently consulting with the physics department at Columbia University (could they be Giants or Jets fans?) about the role of atmospheric conditions on football deflation.

While many mined theory for an explanation, others tried to replicate Belichick’s experiment.  The experimenters at HeadSmart Labs claimed to replicate Belichick’s claims about atmospheric conditions causing deflation. Meanwhile, a series of posts by Chad Orzel on his football deflation experiments are summed up here. The HeadSmart Labs experiment included inflating the football in a 75 degree room, soaking the footballs in water, which they claimed made them expand, then moving the footballs to a 50 degree room prior to measuring psi. Doing this, they claim psi was lowered by .9 to 1.8 psi per football, which is in line with the deflation claimed at the AFC Championship game. Orzel, for his part, notes that the series of experiments he conducted, which did not show significant deflation, were performed using a pressure sensor that measures absolute pressure, not gauge pressure. This is a critical difference when atmospheric conditions form part of the argument. No word on the HeadSmart Labs gauge, but a safe guess is that their gauge did not use absolute pressure.

Throughout this crisis of knowledge, Belichick has proved to be a savvy experimenter with a feel for the difficulties of the experimental method and the role of contingency in knowledge production (theoreticians beware!). Take note of this quote from his press conference on the localization of experimental technique and material, and the difficulty of replication:
When you measure a football, there are a number of different issues that come up. Number one, gauges. There are multiple types of gauges. The accuracy of one gauge relative to another, there’s variance there. We’re talking about air pressure. There’s some variance there. Clearly all footballs are different. So, footballs that come out of a similar pack, a similar box, a similar preparation, each football has its own unique, individual characteristics because it’s not a man-made piece of equipment. It’s an animal skin, it’s a bladder, it’s stitching, it’s laces. Each one has its own unique characteristics. Whatever you do with that football, if you do the same thing with another one, it might be close, but there’s a variance between each individual football.
If this is the state of the atmospheric conditions argument, the argument for human intervention has been moving forward as well. As of this writing the NFL has reviewed video footage showing the movement of the footballs in question prior to kickoff. The investigation has now centered on the 90 seconds a Patriots employee spent in a locked bathroom with the footballs later found to be deflated. Here, it has been argued, in a space free of video cameras the employee had time, opportunity, and motive to alter the footballs. Where the physicist has been the default expert for the atmospheric argument, the detective has emerged as the default expert on human motivation.

Not wanting to be left out, over the last few days, data scientists have weighed in on a statistical analysis claiming the Patriots fumble rate over the last few seasons (very low by NFL standards) cannot be explained by random fluctuation. Hence, as the dim logic of data science tells us, there must be foul play!

American football, as the saying goes, is a game of inches. Increasingly, it is also a game of expert witness.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Lisa Trever

Lisa Trever is Assistant Professor of Visual Studies in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010, while a doctoral student at Harvard University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The Agency of Images: Mural Painting and Architectural Sculpture on the North Coast of Peru,’ supervised by Dr. Thomas Bitting Foster Cummins. In 2014, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to Peru and organize a series of scholarly events and community-focused projects tied to her dissertation fieldwork.

My dissertation research project was an interdisciplinary study of wall painting, architectural configurations, and archaeological contexts at the Moche (or Mochica) site of Pañamarca (ca. 600–850 CE) on the north-central coast of Peru. This project consisted of archaeological reconnaissance, mapping, and excavation of ancient adobe temple walls painted with scenes of ritual processions, presentations of goblets, and mythological cycles of divine battles. Some of these mural paintings had been documented before, in the 1930s by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe and in the 1950s by American archaeologist Richard Schaedel and Italo-Peruvian archaeologist Duccio Bonavia. Others were discovered by our field project.

Lisa Trever and Peruvian archaeology student Lussiana Medina Apí excavating a mural painting at Pañamarca in 2010.

Once excavated, my project’s work with the murals entailed conservation, extensive documentation through photography, pencil drawing, and watercolor, and my own close art historical study of the form and facture of each painted wall. The data gathered from this project formed the foundation of my dissertation “Moche Mural Painting at Pañamarca: A Study of Image Making and Experience in Ancient Peru,” which I completed in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Harvard University in 2013. This dissertation is a study of the Pañamarca mural paintings within the physical and social contexts of their architectural settings and the evidence for ritual activity documented in the form of material offerings within the painted temples.

I am now working with collaborators Jorge Gamboa Velásquez, Ricardo Toribio Rodríguez, and mural conservation advisor Ricardo Morales Gamarra to complete the book manuscript containing the complete findings of our fieldwork. The Archaeology of Mural Painting at Pañamarca will be published with a specialized press. At the same time, I am completing my own synthetic and analytical volume on wall painting and indexical evidence for ancient reception of and responses to painted images, tentatively titled Image Making and Experience in Ancient Peru.

Although these two publication projects are well under way, academic publishing of course takes time. It was thus very important for me to be able to return to Peru this year with the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation to begin to share the results of this project with academic and regional audiences there. The Engaged Anthropology Grant allowed me to fly from San Francisco to Lima to present color photographs and prints of the watercolor illustrations of the murals that my project created to scholars and officials in the Ministerio de Cultura, the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, the municipal Museo de Arte de Lima, and the Museo Larco. Each of these presentations began a series of conversations that continue to bear fruit as we think collaboratively about how best to exhibit the results of this project in Peru in the near future and how to plan for the future preservation of the site.

Excavation of the painting of a Moche priestess on a temple pillar at Pañamarca.

From Lima I then traveled north six hours to the city of Casma, where the archaeological collections from our project are stored in the Museo Regional “Max Uhle” at the site of Sechín. There I was again able to present photographs and images produced by my project to the museum director. The Engaged Anthropology Grant also permitted me to support the museum and other archaeologists working in the region of Ancash by funding the construction of a new storeroom for collections on the grounds of the museum. Secure storage space is at a premium at this small regional museum, as at many others. The new space will be a real benefit to the museum and to other research projects working in the region.

Also while in Casma I was able to assess the conditions of the packaging and storage of our collections to ensure their long-term preservation. I took the opportunity to perform some conservation work on the feathered shield we discovered at Pañamarca in 2010. This work consisted primarily in rehousing the shield in a sturdy archival box and with acid-free paper that I brought with me from the United States. I also installed a temperature and humidity monitor within the storeroom. During this museum stay I selected carbon samples from our collections and began the process of requesting government permission to export them to the United States for radiocarbon dating. That process was completed in November and the samples are presently on their way to the laboratory for testing.

The feathered shield discovered at Pañamarca...

Traveling further north from Casma to Trujillo, I continued my series of meetings with archaeologists and conservators working in the area, including some members of my own project whom I had not seen in nearly four years. The culminating moment of this two-week visit to Peru was a public, Spanish-language, lecture that I gave to a standing room only audience on a Friday evening at the Museo de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo. It was a tremendous honor to be given this forum to share the results of our intensive research project with colleagues, with anthropology and archaeology students, and with the community of Trujillo.

...and its new acid-free storage.

I am immensely grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for its support of these activities and continued conversations about this research with Peruvian colleagues and stakeholders. These conversations are still ongoing several months later, as we are making new plans for future endeavors, conferences, seminars, and publications. The Engaged Anthropology Grant gave me the opportunity to cultivate these relationships, which are essential to research and to our common mission to discover and make known as much as we can about the ancient American past and the cultural and artistic traditions of its people.

July 2014 lecture announcement in Trujillo, Peru

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.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Dina Makram-Ebeid

Location of the former Helwan Governorate in Egypt. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Dina Makram-Ebeid is Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. She joins us today to relate her experience working with our Engaged Anthropology Grant in her fieldsite south of Cairo.

In December 2013 a large factory occupation took place at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company (EISCO) in Helwan. EISCO is Egypt’s largest fully-integrated public sector steel plant located in the south of Cairo. The December occupation was led by young workers that joined the plant from 2007 to work on temporary and daily-waged basis. The occupation lasted a month with demands raised ranging from receiving the unpaid sixteen months’ worth of bonus pay to the ousting of the CEO and the corrupt union. This was the largest collective action in EISCO since 1989, when workers staged a strike that ended with the state security storming the plant, killing one worker and detaining and torturing many, including members of the public who stood in solidarity. As a post-doctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany, I returned to my doctoral field site in Helwan, Egypt from August 2013 to May 2014 to conduct more fieldwork on labour politics during the revolution.  With the support of the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant I co-organised two workshops and an exhibition with my previous informants and with young members of the community.

The first workshop enabled the young generation of workers that led the recent occupation to exchange thoughts on their experience with the older workers who led the 1989 strike and to reflect on their demands, strategies and tactics. The exchange highlighted how each generation had different views on doing politics, which opened the space for more deliberation on the differences in opportunities and challenges each group had. Local academics, labour journalists and labour activists were present in various panels.

The platform allowed me to share with workers and others present in the workshop the findings of my PhD research, whose fieldwork I conducted on the shop-floors of EISCO and in the surrounding company town between 2008-2010. My PhD thesis focused on the place of the tenured work contract in public sector factories of Egypt, and how this form of contract comes to be a kind of potential property that crosses the boundaries of common understandings of “private property” and the “public sector.”  I looked at the fragmentation of the labour force along the lines of access to permanent employment and how it was central to the state’s reproduction of dispossession. My work highlighted how EISCO jobs were primarily bequeathed to children of existing workers, thus denying ‘outsiders’ access to stable work and conditioning them to a perpetual proletarian condition. I argued in my research that this ability to bequeath positions to children enabled steel workers to consider themselves part of the middle class, intensified conflicts between tenured and untenured workers in the locality and undermined the solidarities in labour movement. The thesis showed how the immaterial labour of expanding networks and relations is made into a resource that is part of calculations regulating labour regimes that turn what I called ‘the politics of stability’ into norm.

The research findings were thus discussed in the workshop hand in hand with strategies to build solidarity among workers. During the sessions we discussed how the legal modifications made by the state, including the new Labour Law of 2003, which introduced temporary and daily employment in public plants for the first time, created a politics around permanent work contracts and continued to affect collective politics in the plant. We also discussed the challenges in countering the practice of bequeathing permanent jobs to one’s children. The closing sessions located alternatives to the labour regimes that were instated under Mubarak and reflected on organising with more precarious workers outside EISCO. Together we learnt about the mechanisms of labour governance over the longue durée and came up with ideas on how to counter them in practice. During the workshop I also shared with workers documents that I had gathered for my PhD research and which could aid them in their struggle. The documents ranged from bylaws of the plant, to a book collectively edited by workers on the 1989 strike, to various legal and media documents around the 1989 strike. These proved quite helpful to those engaged in organising workers in the plant.

The second workshop included film makers, workers and young members of the community in Helwan. The members of the community were introduced to the basics of film-making, from filming with small devices to film editing and were encouraged to do their own films. Talented members continued to work on a low-budget film project about work politics in Egypt. The experience gave the participants the tools to document the injustices around them and to connect with those who have some access to mainstream media. A final photo exhibition of the plant was placed around the space of the first workshop. It enabled reflections by the group on labour histories, collective memories, and alternative imaginations. Overall the workshops and exhibition were a success, they acted as platforms for knowledge sharing, for reflections on the current predicaments and for imagining alternative futures.

Interview: Michael Chazan on “The Harvard Kalahari Project”

Dr. Michael Chazan is professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and director of its Archaeology Center. Dr. Chazan’s history with the Foundation goes back to 2007, when he received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research at Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape Province, South Africa, which helped establish it as one of the most important archaeological sites in Southern Africa. In 2011, he and colleague Dr. Susan Pfeiffer co-organized the 2012 Meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA) at UToronto with Wenner-Gren support. During the meeting, Chazan and Pfeiffer took the opportunity to organize a retrospective of the Harvard Kalahari project, commemorating its wide influence on the field, and saving for posterity the reflections of the scholars involved.

 

What is/was the Harvard Kalahari Project and why was it important in the development of archaeology and anthropology in Africa?

From 1963 to 1976 a team of researchers led by Richard Lee and the late Irv Devore studied the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari. Their collective work gave rise to insights about diverse topics from child care to nutrition.  For archaeologists this project, including the archaeological and ethnoarchaeological research by Allison Brooks and John Yellin, has been a critical resource for understanding hunter-gatherer societies.

What are the main legacies of the Harvard Kalahari Project? How does it relate to the Kalahari Peoples Fund, which is one of the oldest anthropological advocacy groups in North America?

There is of course a tremendous scientific legacy that stretches across the social sciences.  There is also the literary legacy left by Margerie Schostack’s book, “Nisa: the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, and the many other books and articles written by the members of the project.  What is clear in the film is that the research team collectively saw the need for social advocacy, leading to the establishment of the Kalahari Peoples Fund – still very active today.  This linkage between a strong program of empirical research and social advocacy is the hallmark of this group’s work. I think quite an interesting model for anthropology as a discipline.

Why was it important to hold a retrospective of the project 2012, who participated, and what were the outcomes of the meeting?

Susan Pfeiffer and I felt that the meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists in Toronto would be a great opportunity to bring together members of the Harvard Kalahari Project to talk about their experience.  Brooks and Yellen are active members, while Richard Lee and Nancy Howell are emeritus U of Toronto faculty. We thought that this would be a natural venue for a reunion. Once we suggested it, momentum arose within the group. All we had to do was secure a venue and arrange for the taping. Part of the motivation for me was the sense that there have been high profile negative stories emerging about anthropological fieldwork, so we can benefit from a reminder of how collaborative research teams can make a fundamental, positive contribution.  We also felt that the so-called Kalahari Debate that had swirled through the 90′s had simmered down to an extent where it would be possible to get a more balanced perspective on the experiences  of the members of the Kalahari Project.
What can we learn from the Harvard Kalahari Project as anthropology and archaeology move into the second decade of the 21st Century?

I think we learn quite a bit from the Harvard Kalahari Project and the initiatives it started.  The project shows the rich potential of collaboration. What we see in the film is how human this collaboration is.  For me, the film is quite inspiring.  We see a group of senior scholars who have been profoundly shaped by the experience they had doing fieldwork. At the same time, we see their deep conviction that research matters– that there is an empirical reality and that gaining new scientific insight is in and of itself important.  Their experience reminds us of the vastness of human experience and the vital contribution that anthropology can make.

WGF in the News: Grantee Habiba Chirchir Leads Important Study

Habiba Chirchir is a biological anthropologist and currently postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. A native of Kenya, Dr. Chirchir received the Wadsworth Fellowship which enabled her to complete her graduate education at New York University and George Washington University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology. A specialist in human bone density and skeletal anatomy, Chirchir is the lead researcher in this newly-published study tracing shifts in bone density in human populations and their relation to parallel changes in lifeways.

Lightweight Skeletons of Modern Humans Have Recent Origin

Decrease of “Spongy” Bone Related to Adoption of Sedentary Lifestyle

New research shows that modern human skeletons evolved into their lightly built form only relatively recently—after the start of the Holocene about 12,000 years ago and even more recently in some human populations. The work, based on high-resolution imaging of bone joints from modern humans and chimpanzees as well as from fossils of extinct human species shows that for millions of years extinct humans had high bone density until a dramatic decrease in recent modern humans. Published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings reveal a higher decrease in the density of lower limbs than in that of the upper limbs, suggesting that the transformation may be linked to humans’ shift from a foraging lifestyle to a more sedentary agricultural one.

“Despite centuries of research on the human skeleton, this is the first study to show that human skeletons have substantially lower density in joints throughout the skeleton, even in ancient farmers who actively worked the land,” said Brian Richmond, an author of the study and curator in the American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Anthropology.

Modern people (right) have unusually low density in bones throughout the skeleton, including the hand bone joints (metacarpal heads) shown here. This study shows that bone joint density remained high throughout human evolution spanning millions of years, until it decreased significantly in recent modern humans, probably as a result of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. From left to right: modern chimpanzee, Australopithecus, Neanderthal, and modern human. (© AMNH/J. Steffey, courtesy of Brian Richmond)

Compared to our closest living relatives—chimpanzees—as well as to our extinct human ancestors, humans are unique in having an enlarged body size and lower-limb joint surfaces in combination with a relatively lightweight skeleton. But until now, scientists did not know that human bone joints are significantly less dense compared with those of other animals, or when during human evolution this unique characteristic first appeared.

“Our study shows that modern humans have less bone density than seen in related species, and it doesn’t matter if we look at bones from people who lived in an industrial society or agriculturalist populations that had a more active life. They both have much less bone density,” said Habiba Chirchir, lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. “What we want to know now is whether this is an early human characteristic that defines our species.”

To explore this question, Chirchir, Richmond, and an international team of researchers used high-resolution computed tomography and microtomography to measure trabecular, or spongy, bone of the limb joints in modern humans and chimpanzees, as well as in fossil hominins attributed to Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus, Homo neanderthalensis, and early Homo sapiens. Their results show that only recent modern humans have low trabecular density throughout limb joints, and that the decrease is especially pronounced in the lower joints—those in the hip, knee, and ankle—rather than the upper joints in the shoulder, elbow, and hand. The appearance of this anatomical change late in our evolutionary history may have been a result of the transition from a nomadic to a more settled lifestyle.

“Much to our surprise, throughout our deep past, we see that our human ancestors and relatives, who lived in natural settings, had very dense bone. And even early members of our species, going back 20,000 years or so, had bone that was about as dense as seen in other modern species,” Richmond said. “But this density drastically drops off in more recent times, when we started to use agricultural tools to grow food and settle in one place.”

This research provides an anthropological context to modern bone conditions like osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disorder that may be more prevalent in contemporary populations due partly to low levels of walking activity.

“Over the vast majority of human prehistory, our ancestors engaged in far more activity over longer distances than we do today,” Richmond. “We cannot fully understand human health today without knowing how our bodies evolved to work in the past, so it is important to understand how our skeletons evolved within the context of those high levels of activity.”

In future studies, the researchers will explore the ways in which the bones are less dense than those of our evolutionary relatives.

This work was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation Wadsworth Fellowship, The Leakey Foundation Baldwin Fellowship, Smithsonian’s Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation grant #s BCS-0521835 and DGE-0801634.

WGF Symposium #150: “Integrating Anthropology: Niche Construction, Cultural Institutions, and History”

Front: Leslie Aiello, Cristina Moya, Doug Bird, Ashley Grimes, Kathryn Coe, Mary Shenk, Maurice Bloch, Polly Wiessner, Beverly Strassmann, Laurie Obbink. - Back: Agustín Fuentes, Greg Downey, Pierre Lienard, Ben Purzycki, Alan Barnard, Lee Gettler, Barry Hewlett, Scott Atran

Wenner-Gren Symposium #150, “Integrating Anthropology:  Niche Construction, Cultural Institutions, and History” was held this past October 17-23 in Sintra, Portugal. Like all of our symposia, the work presented here will be featured in a future special open-access issue of Current Anthropology!

All anthropologists, no matter their subdiscipline or field, are interested in why humans do what they do.  In past decades, anthropologists, and particularly those in North America, worked across disciplines drawing on many applications of evolutionary, economic, and cultural theory.

In the 1980s and 1990s a broad diversity of new theoretical approaches emerged.  More humanistically oriented anthropologists, rejecting metanarratives, focused on how humans create complex cultural meanings and realities. Scientifically oriented anthropologists focused on evolutionary and biological influences. Hostilities grew and even in North America, where the Boasian tradition of broad-based anthropology was the norm, some departments split and the discipline divided.

These divisions are devastating to anthropology’s ability to confront the many critical problems in the world today.  There are pressing issues that demand generous engagement between ethnography, social theory, evolutionary theory, biology and socioecology.  These include globalization, environmental degradation, growing inequalities, the impacts of new technologies, and social strife.

The many methodologies and theoretical investments of our diverse practitioners have led to rich understandings of human beings and being human, but at different explanatory scales. To integrate these perspectives we need a starting point. The goal of this conference, and the special symposium issue of Current Anthropology to follow, is to assemble researchers working across sub-fields and theoretical orientations and invite them to collaborate on developing ideas for integrating anthropology that run deeper than many current “biocultural approaches,” and realize these ideas via concrete case studies and innovative methodologies.

The framework we are seeking to build will include evolutionary influences, ethnographic realities, ecological niches, technologies, and cultural institutions. We need to explain gene-culture interactions as well as the sources of enormous cultural diversity in human societies. Research strategies to address the big questions require theoretical plurality and diverse methodologies. This mode of integrating approaches in anthropology will have much to offer the discipline, the academy, and society.