Category Archives: Anthropology

A Thanksgiving Day Story: Fear, Loathing, Feasting, Family

What is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a feast. But what is a feast? Anthropology is all about examining ourselves through the lens of other cultures. Or, at least, that’s what we used to do back in the good old days. Let’s have a look at this great American holiday from this perspective and see what we see. Continue reading A Thanksgiving Day Story: Fear, Loathing, Feasting, Family

The Untermassfeld Controversy

Ancient European humans and their near relatives such as late Homo erectus, “archaic” Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all come from an African stock. While some of the variation we see in these late members of the genus Homo certainly arose in Eurasia, these groups all represent either African populations or stems coming off an African trunk.

There are two chronologies proposed for the early occupation of Europe, for the time before these branches are clearly visible. The “long chronology” has human relatives in Europe perhaps as far back as two million years, and the “short chronology” has these human relatives at around a half million years ago or later.

The truth is probably this: Continue reading The Untermassfeld Controversy

When translations go bad, bad things can happen

The gift shop had a key chain with a miniature hominid skull (KNM-ER 1470) on it. I saw the price tag, and it looked very expensive. I’m not sure if it looked expensive because I had just arrived in-county and had not yet adapted to the local currency, or if was because I had just spent the last 10 months living in an economy where you could literally purchase ownership of a prisoner for about five bucks (ransom? human trafficking? maybe there isn’t much of a difference). In any event, the price looked high, so I turned to the cashier and said, in a language that we both knew and that should have allowed a mutually intelligible conversation, “This useless object just grabbed me and threw me violently to the ground!” Continue reading When translations go bad, bad things can happen

That Columbus Day is Evil: A truth and a falsehood

Update: Long after I penned this essay, Cambridge MA (which is not Boston but is near and different from Boston) renamed Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day.”

The photograph above is of the Columbus Statue in the North End, doused with red paint in 2006.

Columbus Day has become a holiday of disdain, and there are many people who feel it should be taken off the books. It is a little like the Martin Luther King Jr. day maneno in reverse. If you were a progressive thoughtful American you’d have supported having a state-wide Martin Luther King Jr. day, and probably also a street named after the highly influential slain civil rights leader. If, on the other hand, you were a Republican and/or racist white supremacist type (and there are a lot more of those than gentile people like to admit) than you’d have come up with some lame excuse for not having a Martin Luther King Jr. day or a Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in your state or town. When the Federal version of MLK day was being debated in congress, it was the likes of Jesse Helms who opposed it. Numerous states resisted adding MLK day, and it was not until the year 2000 that all states in the US celebrated the only US holiday for the birth of a famous person who was not white by actually taking the day off.

Continue reading That Columbus Day is Evil: A truth and a falsehood

How many people were killed as Witches in Europe from 1200 to the present?

The original post generated a lot of comments, including from expert historians who strongly disagreed with my post. I put those comments at the bottom of the post so you can see them. I am sticking to my story that the consideration of people murdered as witches should include the 13th century, and does not for reasons having more to do with quirks of the practice of history than to the behavior of the Europeans at the time. I also maintain that typical estimates accepted by historians are by nature conservative.

Now, on to the original post:
Continue reading How many people were killed as Witches in Europe from 1200 to the present?

How long is a human generation?

How long is a generation, you ask?

Short Answer: 25 years, but a generation ago it was 20 years.

Long answer: It depends on what you mean by generation.

In US-biased Western culture there is a Biological Generation, the Dynamic Generation, the somewhat different Familial Generation, what is sometimes called a Continue reading How long is a human generation?

Among Cannibals

I have lived among Cannibals, according to a lot of people who claim to know. The number of times that the “tribal” people of the Congo have been called cannibals is too great to be counted, most notably in great literature like The Heart of Darkness but most commonly, I suspect, from the pulpit or soap box by those raising money to spread this or that word. Most Europeans and Americans don’t know it, but many people who live in the Congo are quite convinced that the bazunga … the white foreigners … are cannibals. I’ve listened closely to these assertions, made by many individuals, and I’ve lived in both places for considerable time and I can say something about these claims.

They have a case. Continue reading Among Cannibals

The Origin of the Human Smile

i-292d5241115b67e27ce78512e86d1926-chimp_smile.jpgA colleague and grad student of mine, Rob, just sent me the following question, slightly edited here:

A student in my intro class asked me a good question the other day to which I had no answer. When did smiling cease to be a threat gesture? I have a couple of ideas. One is that with reduced canines, smiling became a way to say “look, I have small canines, I am not a threat to you.” The other is that smiling is based more on a “fear-grin” than a threat. Under this idea, smiling might have been a way of showing deference to others. If everyone shows deference, it would be egalitarian, until the one guy comes along who never smiles. Maybe that’s why bosses often don’t smile. … let me know when you have some free time to have lunch. Tuesdays and
Wed’s probably work best for me.

Good question, and good ideas as to a possible answer. I have a couple of other ideas to contribute….

(a repost)

Dare I say “It’s too bad that smiles don’t fossilize…” But really, if we started digging up smiles, that might make palaeoanthropology too weird to contemplate and fewer people would go into the field.

Since primates seem to use facial gestures like smiles and yawns to communicate emotional state and to negotiate social status, a comparative approach is reasonable. However, human emotions have been incorporated into a set of social relations that are very derived so this is difficult.

In The Face: A Natural History, Daniel McNeil refers to a study that shows that while judges are as likely to convict (or not) smiling defendants, the ones who smile get lighter sentences.

Smiling is innate in infants, and has obvious social implications in humans, but the role and nature of the smile … as far as what the mouth is doing while smiling … seem to have culturally bound variation.

Have you seen the movie Platoon? For a few years, some time before that movie came out, I had the pleasure of working with a number of Viet Nam vets (doing archaeology and historical research). I heard a number of stories from them over the years, and Platoon, interestingly, seemed to me to be a catalog of horrors experienced by most of the ground troops who spent a fair amount of time in that conflict. One of the events that happens in the movie involves a raid on a village suspected of harboring “Viet Cong” or stashing weapons. The Marines corner a young man and insist that he tell them where the bad guys and/or weapons are hidden. The young man is totally freaked out, but appears to be smiling at the Marines. This enrages one of the Marines, who eventually kills him.

What the Marine missed is that in the culture of that region, there is a facial expression that Westerners will often interpret as as smile, but it is in fact a grimace. The corners of the mouth are turned up and the teeth are showing, but there is nothing happy going on at all. We do see this in Western settings as well, just not as often. My daughter was perplexed a few months back when one of her friends seemed to be smiling while talking about the death of her father a day or two earlier. The girl’s emotions were clearly showing, but a negative expression appeared as a smile (at least that is what I think was happening).

The mouth-smile of primates is, in fact, usually a grimace and not a happy thing (as you point out). I think primates do different things to show that they are happy, and smiling may not be on the list.

A hard core evolutionary psychologists might suggest that s smile shows a state of health by showing a complete set of teeth, indicating normal development during childhood and that you have spent a life not making other people mad at you enough to knock out a few teeth.

I’m not sure I like the canine/no canine idea too much because that is a display that operates across broad phylogenetic differences. Consider analogues to this argument with other physical traits. Every time a whale pirouettes in the water it is demonstrating that it does not have those ancient land-mammal legs any more. I don’t think the other whales would be impressed. (I admit that might be an extreme example).

But here is what I think is the most important point: An evolutionary theory about smiling has to take into account the whole face (and perhaps more) and not just the lips and teeth. Look at this picture:
i-dd043713df73be0b845ef877e5482e6e-smiling.jpg

You can tell that this person is smiling and you can’t see her mouth. The eyes give it away. Meanwhile, you can tell that this person is not smiling:
i-01d0bd42a7c6b68e9fcef589615dafcc-notsmiling.jpg

By the way, the upper photo is a professional model. She is not necessarily happy, but she is really smiling. She is truly smiling because she is looking at something she truly loves (the camera). The ability to do this is what separates the professionals from the rest of us who always look like we are faking it when the person taking the picture with one of those horrid PHS digital cameras takes nine minutes to press the button while we stand there waiting.

Expressions can be important. They can even tell you what a member of another species is thinking, as has been demonstrated over and over again by the insightful LOL cat movement:
i-6d64822ef22db7742c26efe2380c9bf1-cat_eat_you.jpg

As for lunch, Wednesdays are good for me.

Evolution Of Language, The Symbolic Species (Terry Deacon)

Evolution of Language: Deacon vs. Pinker

In considering the evolution of human language, I think it is helpful to contrast these two books, and the ideas presented in them:

Terrence Deacon’s “The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain

and

Stephen Pinker’s “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.)

Neither book is exceptionally new, and in fact, Pinker has cranked out a number of books since The Language Instinct. However, I think The Language Instinct is the best of Pinker’s volumes for this discussion. In it, he lays out the basic evolutionary psychology argument in a way that is most directly contrasted with the ideas in Deacon’s. Also, The Language Instinct has a great chapter called (if memory serves) “The Language Mavens” which is worth reading whether or not you agree with or even like the rest of Pinker’s book.

Continue reading Evolution of Language: Deacon vs. Pinker