Category Archives: Anthropology

The Story of Ollie and his Flashlights

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Ollie Andersen and his wife lived much of the summer in a cabin in northern Minnesota,where Ollie fished, watched birds, and spent considerable effort keeping his boat in repair, while his wife made canned goods and embroidery to bring to the market a few times a year down in Walker, not to make money, but to sell for the Leech Lake Area Benefit Association, her favorite local charity.

One day Ollie came up to the cabin after a couple of weeks down in the cities, and his mail box, out on the county road, was full of junk mail and a few good pieces of mail. Ollie had noticed over recent months that more and more mail was coming to the cabin address, and on more than one occasion he found several days worth either soaked because a bad rain had blown into the box, or found the mail knocked out by the wind and strewn around in the ditch by his drive. So, he decided, about mid August, on a plan to do something good and healthy for himself and deal with the mail box problem at the same time. Every evening, after dinner, Ollie would walk up the drive, out to the county road, and check on the mail.

Now, you have to understand a few pertinent facts. Continue reading The Story of Ollie and his Flashlights


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Minnesota Northern Scowl

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I call it the Minnesota scowl. It is a little like a Minnesota “stern look” but the latter is wielded as necessary and on demand. The scowl is always there, as a gumpy resting face. You’ve heard of Minnesota nice. This is the Minnesota scowl. Same thing, just more honest.

As far as I know it is an up north thing, not a city thing. In fact, just the opposite. I used to live in South Minneapolis in a neighborhood where everyone had literally gotten together in a series of meetings and decided that they would always smile at each other and say “hello” when out walking. There were hand-outs for those who had not attended the meetings. They also decided to walk around all the time. This produced a somewhat odd, almost uncomfortable, effect, at first. But in the long run, once people settled into it, it worked out pretty well. It made for a neighborhood that seemed friendly. It seemed like if you needed something – if there was some kind of an emergency – people would be ready and willing to help out. Continue reading Minnesota Northern Scowl


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Black holes of isolation induced oddness

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This happened once.

A major new venue was to be opening some time in the next year. A major existential threat was menacing the planet. A major star, one of the biggest ever, was said to be interested in performing a benefit concert, somewhere interesting, to help an important cause.

I suggested that the major star perform as the first ever act at the major new venue, in order to raise major money and awareness and stuff to address the major existential threat that was menacing the planet. Everyone involved in the conversation was pleased with the idea. A message was dispatched in the direction of the major star, via an available contact.

What happened next was interesting, disturbing, and expected. Continue reading Black holes of isolation induced oddness


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More proof the “free market” is a right wing fantasy

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This rant is more about TV and culture than economics, but still serves as an example of an important and often ignored phenomenon: the blindness of the patriarchy. Continue reading More proof the “free market” is a right wing fantasy


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Did Early European Neanderthals Make Art?

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There is some recent evidence that they did, but when you put it in context, the question becomes both more complicated (and unanswerable) and interesting. As is true of most things in Archaeology, once you add context. Continue reading Did Early European Neanderthals Make Art?


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Measurements of the human male kakadodo organ, does it matter and why?

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This is a repost of an item I put up in 2013 based on some interesting scientific research. Today, I was told by Google that if I do not take the article down, I will lose my ad sense qualification. Google and companies like Google are giant behemoths that do not have humans to whom one can talk when they do something boneheaded like this. So, I’ll unpublish the original item and post it here with a change in title. Also, words that might be interpreted by an unintelligent robot at Google as violating policy have been changed. Continue reading Measurements of the human male kakadodo organ, does it matter and why?


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

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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


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The Untermassfeld Controversy

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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


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When translations go bad, bad things can happen

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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


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That Columbus Day is Evil: A truth and a falsehood

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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


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

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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?


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How long is a human generation?

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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 Cultural Generation but that should really be called a Societal Generation, and then there is the Designated Generation and finally, the Historical-Long Generation. You will find some of these terms identified on genealogical web sites, Teh Wiki and elsewhere, and some of them are introduced here. (References provided below.)

More broadly speaking, humans have identifiable meaningful generation-related terminology and cultural concepts in many but not all societies, and when it does occur, it is more common to find the concept in age-graded societies or societies in which marriage arrangements are fairly strictly enforced (or at least strongly hoped for) by the ascending generation.

A Biological Generation


…is simply the unscaled transition from one parent to one offspring. In humans, the Biological generation does not have a standard length but there are limits. So you are in one generation, your mother the previous, your child the next one after you, etc. regardless of when any of you were born. As long as your Uncle Willard does not marry your Sister Betty Jean, this is not complicated; This is what people often mean when they use the term “generation” but not what they mean when they ask the question “how long is a generation.”

A Dynamic Generation


…is a concept used by anthropologists but not usually with this term. This is similar to the biological generation but applied more broadly across a group of people. You (Ego) relate to everyone else of your age as being in your generation (your siblings, your parents siblings children, etc.). The first ascending generation (your parents and those in their generation), the second ascending generation (grandparents and their generation) etc. go one way in generational time. Going the other way, your children and their generation are the first descending generation. Your grandchildren and their cohort members are the second descending generation. Etc.

Those methods of reckoning generations have to do with the relationship between people. Another reason to reckon generations is either to do demographic (or economic) analysis or to test and analyze genealogies. For this you want to know how long a dynamic generation (or a biological one) usually is. For instance, a genealogist wants to know this: From the point of view of some long-dead relative, is the time span between the birth date of a grandparent and the birth date of a great grand child … thus, the span of time of four complete generations … reasonable? If such a span is 200 years, that means that an average of 50 years time passed from birth of a person to that person giving birth to the person in line. Implausible. If the total span is 40 years, that means ten year olds were having babies (on average). Also implausible. Either way, some part of the hypothetical genealogy is messed up and it’s back to the church records, vital statistics, and Mormon database for you. This is a Familial Generation.

In the “old days” (whenever that was) people often used the value 20 to represent Familial Generations. So, a person born on the first day of a century may well have had a great great great grandparent born around the beginning of the previous century. Today, with lager age at first birth for women being the rule, we tend to see 25 years as the recommended estimate for Familial Generations.

A Cultural or Societal Generation


…is a cohort (a bunch of people born during a specified range of time) with a name that has some sort of meaning to those who use it. The following are widely recognized, given here with the midpoint of the generally accepted range of birth dates:

  • Lost 1914
  • Greatest 1923
  • Silent 1935
  • Baby Boom (Boomers) 1955
  • Generation X 1968
  • Generation Y 1975
  • Generation Z or I 1992

(See comments below for people fighting about these names and dates. I accept Teh Wiki as the final word on this, so I take this list as perfectly accurate and complete.)

Several things are noticed in this list. The first three relate to major historical events (World Wars, the Great Depression) while the later ones are vague, stupid, and obviously little more than lame attempts by people who wish they were part of a generation to name themselves. This leads to the X and Y generations to be floating in broader time ranges (see Teh Wiki) and very arguable. The Z generation is clearly an afterthought. I assume everyone was so focused on the Millennium that they forget to be in a generation for a decade or so, and then had to catch up.

Some of the more primitively sexy and exotic tribal cultures of the world of the world have a strict age grading system. This is where individuals are in a specific age-defined stratum, and there are several strata. Often there are different age-grades for males and females, and often there are more age-grades for males than females. Individuals of a particular age grade always X and never Y (fill in cultural prescriptions for X and cultural proscriptions for Y). The Pokot of East Africa are one example. These age grades can be termed Designated Generations and include not only groups like the Pokot but also Americans who have very strongly age-graded designations.


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Among the Pokot males of a certain age wear a certain hairdo. Males of a certain generation get married. All the important things you can do or not do are defined by one’s age grade. As young men age they want to move to the next age grade, and often take serious risks to do so. In one Pokot group, the boys of one age grade would typically wear the hairdos of the Ascending Generation. Males in the Ascending Generation would then beat the crap out of them. When the beatings became too common and severe (sometimes deadly) the Ascending Generation of the Ascending Generation (the “Elders”) would declare that it is time for everyone to move up one generation, and a ceremony would be held.

In that particular group the ceremony applied to many different villages, and representatives from each village had to bring to the major chief’s village one head of cattle. The cattle were all slaughtered and the fresh meat laid out on racks to be guarded from lions and hyenas overnight by the chief, alone. If any of the meat was taken by predators, the chief was fired and a new chief appointed, everyone was sent home and were required to return with a fresh head of cattle, and the ceremony was re-started with the new chief. But I digress.

The Historical-Long Generation is my own invention. This is the period of time that is just short enough for a person to have a conversation with another person about shared memories where those memories are separated in time by the maximum amount possible for our species. Let me explain further:

Just today, the last surviving US veteran of World War I died. When I was a kid, I went to (or marched in) parades in which there were lots of veterans. Most vets in the parade were of World War II. Korea was not ever represented. The Viet Nam Vets were busy in Viet Nam being Viet Nam soldiers, so they were not in the parades. But World War I was represented by the grandpas and there were a lot of them.

And, leading all of the veterans in the parade was this one guy who looked quite dead, eyes closed, not apparently breathing, wearing a 19th century Slouch Hat and covered with a blanket and slumped in wheel chair pushed by members of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, and he was the only remaining veteran in town of the Spanish-American War. I know he was not in fact dead because he was in the parade several years in a row. That war was in 1898, and the parades I remember must have been from the mid 1960s. I assume he was a drummer boy, perhaps 10 or 11 at the time of the war. The last surviving vets from Civil War were similar: Boys who served in the military as aides or drummers. The point is, one could argue that a historical-long generation is about a century, because that old guy and I share involvement in an event … marching in those parades … that link two memories, the parade and the war, which were about 100 years apart.

I have an even better memory. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Januray 1st, 1863. When that happened, a toddler who’s last name was Alexander and who was born as a slave in the Carolina’s became free. Later, his family moved to Albany, New York. In around 1968 or 1969, my father asked me to accompany our congressman, Representative Samuel A. Stratton (famous for introducing the bill to give us Monday Holidays, I am told) to an old tenement building in “Teh Ghetto” and bring him up to the third floor to meet Mr. Alexander, the now old former infant slave. I did so, and we all chatted for a while. I was about ten, and Mr. Alexander was closer to 110. He had memories of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that were similar to my memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy: Vague, mostly about the aftermath and not the event so much, but seemingly real. We shared memories that were a century apart in time, and in this case, interestingly parallel.

So, the Historical-Long generation is a century. If you meet me and shake my hand, you are shaking a hand that has shaken the hand of a man who was an American slave. Meaningless, yet profound.

Fox, Robin.Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Lutz, Catherine. Reading National Geographic

Teh Wiki. Generation.

Teh Wiki List of generations.


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What is "Rape Culture"?

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When I first encountered the term “rape culture” I was put off by it. I’ve lived in and directly studied, and indirectly studied through the literature, a wide range of cultures around the world, and there is a great range of variation in prevalence of and attitudes about rape. Now and then there emerge circumstances in which rape becomes extremely common. It has been said that for a period of time during the Second Congo War rape accounted for nearly 100% of the intercourse, babies, and of course, violent deaths of women, in certain regions. I was concerned that the term “rape culture” applied in the US watered down consideration of the more severe end of this distribution.

It did not take long, however, for me to realize this was a rather bone-headed way of looking at it. For one thing, the actual definitions of rape culture in use do not in any way limit its application to those extreme and horrific cases. Also, culture is complex. We tend to collect data, make generalizations, and see solutions at societal levels such as entire nations or even continents, not at the level of “cultures” which are, in any event, edge-less complex interconnected entities despite the common use of the shorthand term (“culture”). The elements of rape culture can be in place in a country or region where rape is more rare, or more common.

An excellent definition of rape culture is provided by Marshall University’s Women’s Center:

Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

Rape Culture affects every woman. The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of Rape Culture.

The same web page goes on to provide examples (i.e., blaming the victim, tolerating sexual harassment, inflating false rape report statistics, and so on) and also provides a few tips to combat it (changes in language, social engagement, critical thinking, respect, etc.).

Rape culture is a thing, and it applies in the US. The fact that it probably actually applies everywhere (Do you know of any exceptions? If so please elaborate in the comments below!) does not actually water down the definition but rather, exposes the underpinnings of rape culture as a human-wide problem. This indicates it either stems from the basic evolutionary biology of humans or ubiquitous common cultural features of human societies (such as a self perpetuating patriarchy) or, more likely, a causal structure that exists independently of our post hoc notions of nature and nurture.

Politically, rape culture has another meaning; it is a touchstone to the inimical false debate between so-called “Mens Rights Advocates” and basic humanistic, including feminist, values. To get a feel for this check out the definition of “Rape Culture” in Wikipedia, and scroll down to the “Criticisms” section.

The Criticisms section sites Caroline Kitchen’s ironically titled opinion piece “Its Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria.” Kitchensi is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing “think” tank which is exactly where I would look to find a female willing to fill stinky shoes of a Men’s Rights Advocate for the purpose of toning down public discourse on rape. The section also brings in the critique by Christina Sommers, libertarian anti-feminist. And so on. I’m not claiming here that these criticisms are invalid or should not be heard (though I quickly add that I disagree with them). I’m just pointing out that the use of “rape culture” invokes the MRA counter-argument (to almost everything) as its main counter-point. This is what we see in many other areas of public discourse as well. If the main critique of a new study on anthropogenic global warming comes from other climate scientists that’s one thing. If the main critique comes from the usual cadre of science denialists many in the employee directly or indirectly of the petroleum and coal industries, that’s another thing. The litany of critiques of the “rape culture” idea in the seemingly well updated entry in Wikipedia comes from the usual suspects, not from within the sociological or anthropological, or even criminological, communities where spirited debate about almost everything is the norm. This does not prove anything but it is a clue.

One could argue that “rape culture” has become a dog whistle for feminism, or even a particular brand of feminism. That might actually be true. But any concept that tries to link cultural context to appropriately scrutinized individual behaviors is going to get dog whistled by the opposition.


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Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?

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Imagine that there is a trait observed among people that seems to occur more frequently in some families and not others. One might suspect that the trait is inherited genetically. Imagine researchers looking for the genetic underpinning of this trait and at first, not finding it. What might you conclude? It could be reasonable to conclude that the genetic underpinning of the trait is elusive, perhaps complicated with multiple genes, or that there is a non-genetic component, also not yet identified, that makes finding the genetic component harder. Eventually, you might assume, the gene will be found. Continue reading Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?


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