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.

 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Matthew Walls

A screenshot from Adobe Premiere of a young kayaker learning to throw a harpoon.

Matthew Walls is SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in Arctic Archaeology at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Archaeology, and a recipient of the Engaged Anthropology Grant. In 2011, while a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Frozen Landscapes, Fluid Technologies: Inuit Kayak Hunting and the Perception of the Environment in Greenland,” supervised by Dr. Max Friesen.

“To me, it makes sense, and the meaning is there” one participant tells me, after reviewing a sequence of footage we have been working on (above). The scene we were watching is from 2010, and it shows him teaching harpoon throwing. This was is a typical moment in my engagement project, this summer, and we were in the final stage of editing a documentary film on Inuit kayaking. Using video clips from my doctoral project, the idea is to adapt my research and co-produce something of value to the community. It has been in production since 2011, and the Engaged Anthropology Grant allowed me to return to the towns of Ilulissat and Sisimiut in order to ensure that participants can hear their own voices in the final cut by opening the editing process to them.

The community I worked with, from 2009-2011, build kayaks and practice traditional skills as a way of exploring Inuit heritage. Specifically, they find meaning in the persistence of kayaking because the physicality of the skill involves forms of cultural and environmental knowledge that can exist only through practice. As an archaeologist, I was interested in the theoretical implications this idea has for understanding the relationship between people and materials through time. I conducted three seasons of ethnoarchaeological fieldwork which documented the process through which Inuit become skilled kayakers. In my dissertation, I argued that understanding how sensorimotor knowledge is constructed between generations allows for archaeological narratives that better emphasize the agency of skilled practice through time.

Co-editing the arrangement of a sequence.

As a partnership project, it was important for the community to have a voice in interpretation, and to produce materials they find meaningful and accessible. The film was one of several initiatives[i] to accomplish this, and the idea was originally proposed by an Elder as a way of creating something that would be valuable to future generations. Visual media was a prominent part of the research methodology, and this resulted in many hours of footage from interviews, community events, kayak construction, and training which could be used with informed consent. However, as I discovered, editing a film is a matter of weaving image and sound to create a narrative that smoothly conveys an intelligible message to the viewer. A challenge in assembling the film from excerpts was to ensure this process of selection and arrangement did not change the context of what participants had said or demonstrated. To navigate this, the film has been in a process of community review – as sections of the film were edited and sequenced, I showed them to participants via online streaming, which gave them the opportunity to comment and make suggestions for how it should be adjusted. This was a very slow but tremendously useful process, and over distance, it was possible to create a rough cut of the film.

So the Engaged Anthropology Grant gave me the opportunity to complete this process of co-production in person. Returning to Greenland this summer allowed me to show participants an assembled rough cut, to open the editing process to them by demonstrating how the software works, and to make changes together. This resulted in a number of significant developments in the film, ranging from small matters of arrangement to selecting new scenes of kayaking practices to match narration. In one case, a participant opted to re-record an interview to better capture his meaning. Language is a very important feature of the film – it will be in Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) with English subtitles – and during the visit, I reviewed the translations with participants who speak English, who helped me to refine them.

Opening the editing process to the community was also a chance to help develop their capacity to produce their own films. Through participating in the project, several community members became interested in the process of filmmaking and the possibilities it offers them for exploring and preserving kayaking heritage. For example, two participants are now making a film that documents different construction techniques, and another wants to make his own instructional videos about emergency rolls. During the visit, I spent some time helping them to get started with learning Lightworks – an open source video editing program. Returning to Greenland was also an opportunity to archive project materials in local museums, renew personal ties, and discuss possibilities for future research projects.

There are now some small edits and formatting necessary to complete the film[ii]; when it is finished, the community will be able to stream it in Kalaallisut online, and copies will be given to the kayak clubs and local museums.  I think that the finished film will achieve the goal of co-producing something with the community that will have value for future generations in Greenland. In reflecting on the project, it is interesting to see how important the film became as a way of doing the research. The collaboration and refinement it entailed was an important part of co-constructing an understanding of the knowledge involved in the skill. It was my first experience in creating a film, and I’m very excited to include it as a feature of future collaborations.



[i] Other initiatives included a new media project website in Kalaallisut and English (www.qajaq.utoronto.ca).

[ii] Sample scenes from the film can be viewed on the project website: http://www.qajaq.utoronto.ca/english_site/film_trailer/film_trailer.html

Wenner-Gren Sponsored Events at AAA 2014

If you are planning to attend the meetings, please join us at the following Foundation-sponsored events:

  1. Thursday, December 4, and Friday, December 5, 2014:
    Current Anthropology
    Office Hours
    (10:00 AM to 12:00 PM, Exhibition Hall, University of Chicago Press Booth)
    Stop by to meet Current Anthropology Editor Mark Aldenderfer and Managing Editor Lisa McKamy.
  2. Friday, December 5, 2014:
    How to Write a Grant Proposal: An Introduction to Grants and Programs at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation (8:00 AM-10:00 AM, Maryland Suite A, Marriott Wardman Park Hotel)
    Featuring Leslie Aiello (Wenner-Gren), Deborah Winslow (NSF), and Jeffrey Mantz (NSF). The workshop is free but please pre-register at the AAA website or stop by the Wenner-Gren or NSF tables in the exhibition hall.
  3. Friday, December 5, 2014:
    Wenner-Gren Foundation Reception (8:00 PM-10:00 PM, Palladian Ballroom, Omni Shoreham Hotel)
    Public reception with an open bar for the first hour. Come to meet other anthropologists and celebrate the Foundation’s ongoing support for anthropology.

Please stop by and visit us in the Exhibition Hall (Booth 518). We look forward to seeing you! Our staff will be there to answer questions about our grant programs and introduce some new initiatives leading up to our 75th anniversary in 2016. These include:

  1. The Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ethnographic Film. Next deadline: May 1, 2015.  More information can be found at: http://www.wennergren.org/programs/fejos-postdoctoral-fellowships .
  2. Innovations in the Public Awareness of Anthropology. To be launched in 2015. This new grant program is designed to fund innovative projects to raise public awareness of anthropology.

The Foundation is pleased to announce the publication of the following 2014 open access Wenner-Gren Symposium Supplementary issues of Current Anthropology. These supplementary issues highlight important and emerging themes in anthropology across the four fields and we congratulate the guest editors and contributors.

  1. Crisis, Value, and Hope:  Rethinking the Economy (Current Anthropology, Wenner-Gren Symposium Supplementary issue 9, Eds. Susana Narotzky and Niko Besnier). No. S9, pp. S1-S154 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/675941).

The Anthropology of Christianity:  Unity, Diversity, New Directions (Current Anthropology, Wenner-Gren Symposium Supplementary issue 10, Eds. Joel Robbins and Naomi Haynes). (http://www.jstor.org/stable/curranth.ahead-of-print)

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