Frederick Manthi and Teaching Evolution in Kenya

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

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Wenner-Gren and the “Closet Chickens”

In its ongoing commitment to the advancement of anthropology, the Wenner-Gren Foundation works to foster connections between researchers around the world through sponsorship of a wide range of conferences, workshops and events. Occasionally these projects take on a life of their own and expand greatly even after the original event has expired. One such offshoot project is known to its members as the “Closet Chickens”, an informal digital exchange between archaeologists interested in Native American participation in the discipline. Recently we reached out to the Network’s principle figures, Dr. Joe E. Watkins of the University of Oklahoma and Dr. Deborah Nichols of Dartmouth College, to talk a little about the Network, how it got started, and what it does.

 

What is the Closet Chickens network and how did it come about? What was the importance of Wenner-Gren in its origins?

The nucleus of the “Closet Chickens” developed out of conference held at Dartmouth College in May 2001 titled “On the Threshold: Native American-Archaeologist Relations in the Twenty-first Century.” The conference, funded by the Wenner-Gren Anthropological Foundation and led by co-organizers Deborah Nichols and Joe Watkins, brought together a large number of archaeologists of Native American heritage in an attempt to evaluate the relationships not only between archaeologists and Native American communities, but also to look at the impact of the discipline on Native Americans who practiced archaeology. Continuing discussion of the issues raised at the conference on emails during the following led to the establishment of a nameless listserv aimed at expanding not only the discussion but also the parties involved in it.

The Closet Chickens are “birds of a feather” who do tend to flock together. Many of its members are American Indians who practice archaeology, but there are non-Indian archaeologists, too. In general it is an online support group that discusses various issues as they arise. Often comments relate to contemporary issues that impact the practice of archaeology by American Indians, but as often other threads of discussion relate to repatriation, ethics, decolonizing the discipline, Indigenous Archaeology, and many other issues. Many of the established archaeologists on the listserv are mentors to the professionally younger archaeologists who participate.

The listserv also serves as an email discussion forum where topics are often subjected to scrutiny. Occasionally discussions become heated, but more often than not such discussions end when the participants have seemingly discussed the issues to completion. It is a support system which has helped young archaeologists who often feel to be on the outside of a general archaeological trajectory.

 

Why is it important in the context of contemporary American archaeology?

We feel the Closet Chickens is important in terms of contemporary American archaeology in a couple of ways. First, it provides a semi-protected forum for archaeologists whose perspectives tend to mesh with Indigenous ideas concerning the colonialist practices of anthropology and archaeology and who work closely with tribes and First nations and tribal communities. This forum allows members to openly discuss ideas and issues that might be too sensitive for discussion in a truly “public” forum. It also permits younger archaeologists to speak candidly about issues they have or are encountering in their readings, study, and early careers and discuss strategies to address them.

Secondly, and somewhat importantly, the listserv allows for ease of mentoring between those who have been “in the business” for longer periods to help others who are in the early stages of their careers or education tenure. Professional advice, open reading of materials, sometimes controversial discussion on topics, and even internal disagreements help us understand not only what our own perspectives and viewpoints are, but also to understand how our ideas have grown and continue to grow. It sounds a bit corny, perhaps, but it also provides a protected space within which to relax.

 

What has it accomplished so far and where do you see it going in the next few years? Next decade? Etc.

Its primary focus is on continuing conversations about the impact of archaeology globally on the heritage of Indigenous populations. Archaeology, once known as the handmaiden of colonialism, is continually challenged by Indigenous people to become accountable to the cultural groups whose heritage is under scrutiny. The group allows a safe area for discussion outside of formal academic settings, where students can gamble with ideas and points and where established authors also can openly discuss ideas without fear of retribution or ridicule.

The group has expanded each year since its inception and we hope that, over the course of the next decade, a larger group of younger archaeologists who are attentive to Indigenous concepts of culture will be able to contribute to a more rounded practice of anthropology and archaeology. Members “nominate” others who they feel would contribute to the discussions on the listserv. We have non-Natives, Natives, Australians, Maori, and a generous mix of non-described individuals who contribute to the discussion in numerous ways. The group has had some in-depth discussions about individuals who were precluded from the “flock” after some intense and often heated deliberations. The more established archaeologists try to stay outside of discussions as much as possible (perhaps too much on occasion) as we generally believe the Closet Chickens is a place for younger people to test their wings, but we do chime in as necessary, especially to encourage debate and discussion.

Grant Season Journal, Part 3: Resubmitting

Please note: the application procedures described in this article are no longer applicable.  Please refer to the Programs section of the Foundation’s website for current application procedures.

Our President continues her series of columns with more invaluable advice for building a competitive grant proposal.

The topic for this installment: Resubmitting a previously declined application and how to prepare a convincing resubmission statement.

Last time, I advised you not to despair (too much) if your grant application is declined for funding. No one likes to be declined, but it is a sad fact that Wenner-Gren only has funds to support about 15% of the Dissertation Fieldwork and Post-Ph.D. Research grant applications that we receive.  However, the good news is that resubmitted applications have a significantly higher success rate than first-time applications. The simple truth is that applicants who seriously consider the reviewers’ comments and take the time and effort to rework their applications produce stronger and more competitive proposals.

To give you an idea of how significant this is, in 2011 the success rate for resubmitted Dissertation Fieldwork applications was almost twice that of first time applications (resubmissions = 23.0%, 59/257 applications; first time = 12.3%, 83/674 applications).

It is definitely worth the effort to resubmit – but don’t think that you will be successful if you simply resubmit the same application. Wenner-Gren puts considerable effort into reviewing proposals and we have a team of about 60 international anthropologists who help us do this. Our aim is to give constructive criticism to every applicant, and although you might not always agree with our funding decision, at least you know its basis.  It is also very important to us to make our decisions in time for you to meet the next application deadline if you want. Our aim is to get you funded and into the field as quickly as possible.

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Interview with Julia Chuang and “Scandals of the Absent”

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

 

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

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

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

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NYAS @ Wenner-Gren 2/27

Dr. Carolyn White (U. Nevada - Reno) & Dr. Brian Boyd (Center for Archaeology, Columbia U.)

Monday night marked the second packed house in a row for the monthly meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences’ Anthropology section, hosted as always at the Wenner-Gren offices. This time, the hot topic (no pun intended) was Burning Man, the infamous counter-cultural event which metastasizes for months in the Nevadan desert before evaporating without a trace in the early autumn after a week of come-as-you-are celebrations of free expression.

Burning Man devotees make much of the gathering’s commitment to zero impact on their natural surroundings – the grounds, known as “Black Rock City” after the desert they are situated in, are meant to be absolutely scrubbed clean of any evidence of human habitation after Burning Man comes to a close each year, chording with the event’s larger themes of self-reliance and harmony with the environment. Cultural anthropologists have been fascinated by the social structure and practices of “burners” for years. But what can archaeologists, who study traces, add to the story of a phenomenon which is expressly committed to never leaving a trace?

To help answer that question, we welcomed Dr. Carolyn White, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada – Reno, and Dr. Brian Boyd of Columbia University’s Center for Archaeology. The talk was very well-attended – particularly by Burning Man alumni.

Download a MP3 of the talk now!

The Anthropology section of the New York Academy of Sciences will be holding more meetings at our offices through May. Stay tuned to this blog and our twitter feed to get the heads-up for the next session, coming late March.

Anthropology Around the Web, Friday 2/24

Another fine edition of Anthropology Around the Web!

Popular imagination and scholarship alike have long imagined prehistoric Eurasian steppe nomads as highly militaristic and mobile societies of horsemen perpetually threatening the “classic” ancient civilizations such as China, Persia, and Greece. But recent inquiries into the nature of small-scale societies and pastoral economies have challenged this dominating stereotype. PhysOrg.com reports on a piece by WashU’s Michael Frachetti appearing in the February issue of Current Anthropology.

 

The first line of Savage Minds’s Adam Fish’s advice for job-seeking PhDs and ABDs? “Stop being an Anthropologist”.  

 

It seems we cannot approach any popular discussion of pleasure or pain (or indeed of anthropology itself) without appealing to the old chestnut of “human nature”. This week on NPR.org’s “cosmos and culture” blog 13.7, anthropologist Barbara J. King concisely argues that this intellectual tack does disservice to the complexities of human life.

 

In what one might call a human-interest story wrapped around a mini-ethnography in the mainstream press, The Detroit News reported on the complex development of their city’s historic Black funeral home industry.

 

…and of course, I have to self-plug the second installment of our own Grant Season Journal, penned by foundation president Dr. Leslie Aiello. Exhaustive, in-depth tips that anyone wrestling with grant proposals can’t afford to miss.

Grant Season Journal, Part 2

Please note: the application procedures described in this article are no longer applicable.  Please refer to the Programs section of the Foundation’s website for current application procedures.

Grant Season Journal, Part 2

Our President returns with another installment of invaluable advice for building a successful grant proposal.

How to write winning answers to our project description questions.

This is the second installment in our blog on writing winning proposals for Wenner-Gren (Here is the first). Good and convincing answers to the project description questions are essential – they are the core of your application and its success depends on how well you answer these questions.

What follows is based on my experience in reading and reviewing almost 9,000 Wenner-Gren applications. Believe what I say here – I know what I am talking about. Remember that you only have limited space to answer each question. For the full page answers this amounts to somewhere between 700 and 750 words depending on how long or short your words are and how many paragraphs you use.  Take some time to think about constructing your answers with the space limitations in mind.

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Wenner-Gren March-April Conferences

We’re pleased to announce three new conferences that will be held this Spring!

The “International Conference on the Genetics of the Peoples of Africa and the Transatlantic African Diaspora” will be conducted by the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The conference aims to bring together scholars in order to conduct the first comprehensive assessment of genetic knowledge of African-descended groups on both sides of the Atlantic, with an emphasis on how such insights address contemporary health disparities.

March 19-20, Friday Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

 

The “European Human Behavior and Evolution Association {EHBEA)” is an annual conference aiming to create an international forum for theorists working on applying evolutionary theory to human behavior, with special emphasis placed on fostering collaboration between research regions (especially outside of Europe). This coming session at Durham University will be the fourth since the association’s founding in 2009 and will feature our own President, Dr. Leslie C. Aiello.

March 28-29, Durham University, UK

 

“Arts and Aesthetics in a Globalizing World” is a conference administered by the United Kingdom’s Association of Social Anthropologists in collaboration with New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University intended to explore the shifting relationship between art, aesthetics, and anthropology in their widest contemporary sense and experiences.

April 3-6, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

 

For more information on our conference and workshop grants, visit our Programs page.

Anthropology Around the Web, Friday 2/17

Happy Friday and welcome to a long-weekend edition of Anthropology Around the Web.

Will 20,000-year-old huts in Jordan challenge the accepted narrative of the development of human dwelling? A new open-access paper from PLoS One has the details.

Some call 3rd President of the United States Thomas Jefferson ‘the first anthropologist’ for the detailed inquiries into local lifeways made in his Notes on the State of Virginia. In honor of Presidents Day, read some of his ethnographic observations in this vintage issue of American Anthropologist

Throughout history, people have used votive offerings in the shape of various ailed body parts such as hearts, lungs and limbs to solicit supernatural aid. Biological anthropologist Kristina Killgrove (@bonegirlPHD on Twitter) takes a look at these stylized anatomical components in antiquity to see what they might have to say about the medical knowledge of the cultures which produced them  

 

Interview with Eric Plemons on “Making the Gendered Face”

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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