October 01, 2007

Peruvian tribe seen again after 30 years

Not sure of the date of this story. From the BBC via LiveLeak:

Ecologists have photographed a little-known nomadic tribe deep in Peru's Amazon, a sighting that could intensify debate about the presence of isolated Indians as oil firms line up to explore the jungle. Carrying arrows and living in palm-leaf huts on the banks of the Las Piedras river, the tribe was glimpsed last week by researchers flying over the Alto Purus national park near the Brazilian border to look for illegal loggers. "We saw them by chance. There were three huts and about 21 Indians -- children, women and young people," said Ricardo Hon, a forest scientist at the National Institute of Natural Resources. Hon said an indigenous group using the same kind of huts was seen in the region in the 1980s, and advocacy groups said they appeared to be part of the Mascho Piro tribe. The sighting of the indigenous group comes as Peru's government is encouraging foreign companies to look for oil in the rainforest.

Posted by Will at 01:13 PM

September 30, 2007

Endagnered languages

From one of my favorite blogs, The Numbers Guy at the Wall Street Journal:

Numbers Guy reader Sabahat Chaudhary noticed the recent spate of press coverage claiming that half of the world’s 7,000 languages are endangered, with one dying every two weeks. The New York Times, the Associated Press and Reuters all reported these alarming statistics, released by linguists associated with the Enduring Voices project, which aims to preserve and document languages.
But not all these threatened languages face equal risks. Linguists do agree that hundreds of languages are nearly certain to expire in the next few decades, but many of the other roughly 3,500 languages defined as endangered have a much better shot. These include languages still spoken regularly in small but stable communities, but considered “endangered” because a natural disaster might wipe out the speakers. Other languages, such as Sora in Eastern India, are defined as “endangered” because city dwellers have shifted away from them, though rural speakers haven’t.
These are estimates in a field where exact numbers are difficult to pin down. First, defining a language compared with a dialect is difficult. Two people generally are speaking in dialects if they can understand each other, but Catalan and Spanish qualify as separate languages even though there is generally mutual intelligibility. The distinctions “don’t always jive with socially perceived language barriers that exist in some communities,” Dr. Anderson said. Nonetheless, linguists generally agree that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages in the world — nearly half of them in two diverse language groups, the Austronesian (mainly from Pacific islands) and Niger-Congo. Establishing the extent of language usage is also tricky; relying on national censuses doesn’t suffice because many countries don’t conduct regular counts, and those that do may not report languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, Dr. Anderson said.

Read the whole thing here. It's pretty interesting.

Posted by Will at 05:20 PM

March 26, 2007

67th Annual SfAA Meeting in Tampa

The Society for Applied Anthropology's 67th annual meeting is happening in Tampa this week and USF Anthropology is in full gear for being the unofficial host department. Jen, a fellow Anthroblogs.org blogger, USF graduate, and U. of North Texas graduate student is organizing a series of podcasts from sessions at the conference. Keep on eye on the podcast site and the offical SfAA website for what I assume will be regular updates. From the SfAA website:

Applied anthropology in the 21st Century faces challenges to contribute meaningfully and in a sustained way to understanding complex and recurring global struggles. The theme of "Global Insecurities" is both expansive and focused, designed to invite intellectual discussions and practical applications from our colleagues worldwide and especially from our Canadian neighbors to the north, and our southern neighbors in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central, and South America. From resource insecurity (e.g., clean water and air), basic necessity insecurity (e.g., food, shelter), infrastructural insecurity (e.g., health, education, public governance), to insecurity related to ethnic, class, and social relations (e.g., disparities and conflict) the 21st century is marked by increased uneasiness. Applied anthropology is specially suited to addressing those conditions through research, program design, evaluation, and advocacy at the local, national, and international levels.

Posted by Will at 03:34 PM

March 20, 2007

Moral behavior began with primates

From the New York Times:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.
Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.
Moral philosophers do not take very seriously the biologists’ bid to annex their subject, but they find much of interest in what the biologists say and have started an academic conversation with them.
The original call to battle was sounded by the biologist Edward O. Wilson more than 30 years ago, when he suggested in his 1975 book “Sociobiology” that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” He may have jumped the gun about the time having come, but in the intervening decades biologists have made considerable progress.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 04:12 PM

March 04, 2007

NYT Magazine: Darwin's God

Be sure to check out this easy to understand and well-written piece from the New York Times Magazine. It follows Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. The piece touches on what in my opinion are some of the most important questions that we can ask about our world:

Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?
In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?

So why are these questions important?

About 6 in 10 Americans, according to a 2005 Harris Poll, believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God — that is, a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from “distant” to “benevolent.”

And the central conclusion:

This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the “God of the gaps” view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.

Posted by Will at 10:49 AM

February 13, 2007

Good news?

Coming a day after Darwin's 198th birthday, I find it sad (and embarrassing) that in 2007 it is necessary to rejoice over the following news item:

Kans. ed board OKs evolution-centered science
TOPEKA, Kan. - The Kansas state Board of Education on Tuesday repealed science guidelines questioning evolution that had made the state an object of ridicule.
The new guidelines reflect mainstream scientific views of evolution and represent a political defeat for advocates of “intelligent design,” who had helped write the standards that are being jettisoned.

Just for kicks, I copied the full text of the AP news story but replaced "evolution" with "gravity" and "intelligent design" with "intelligent adhesion." The result (below the fold) is comical yet just as ridiculous as the current "debate" about evolution.

TOPEKA, Kan. - The Kansas state Board of Education on Tuesday repealed science guidelines questioning gravity that had made the state an object of ridicule.
The new guidelines reflect mainstream scientific views of gravity and represent a political defeat for advocates of “intelligent adhesion,” who had helped write the standards that are being jettisoned.
The intelligent adhesion concept holds that the laws of physics are so complex that they must have been created by a higher authority.
The state has had five sets of standards in eight years, with anti- and pro-gravity versions, each doomed by the seesawing fortunes of socially conservative Republicans and a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.
The board on Tuesday removed language suggesting that key gravitational concepts were controversial and being challenged by new research. Also approved was a new definition of science, specifically limiting it to the search for natural explanations of what is observed in the universe.
“Those standards represent mainstream scientific consensus about both what science is and what gravity is,” said Jack Krebs, a math and technology teacher who helped write the new guidelines. He is also president of Kansas Citizens for Science.
The state uses its standards to develop tests that measure how well students are learning science. Although decisions about what is taught in classrooms remain with 296 local school boards, both sides in the gravity dispute say the standards will influence teachers as they try to ensure that their students test well.
John Calvert, a retired attorney who helped found the Intelligent Adhesion Network, said under the new standards, “students will be fed an answer which may be right or wrong” about questions like the origin of life.
“Who does that model put first?” he said. “The student, or those supplying the preordained ‘natural explanation’?”
The Board of Education’s swing back wasn’t likely to settle the issue, given many Kansans’ religious objections and other misgivings about gravity.
“I don’t think this issue is going to go away. I think it’s going to be around forever,” board chairman Bill Wagnon, a Topeka Democrat who supports gravity-friendly standards, said before the vote.
“There’s this, I think, political agenda to just ensure that gravity is the driving, underlying notion that has to be accepted in Kansas science standards in order for Kansas to keep its head up in the world, which is just bizarre,” said board member Ken Willard, a Republican who supported the 2005 standards.
The debate has branched off into history, with the current board planning to delete a passage about abuses of science.
The wording mentioned the Nazis, forced sterilization and the decades-long Tuskegee syphilis study, in which public health officials falsely told poor, black men with the disease that they were being treated for it.
Critics claim the board is trying to sanitize the sometimes ugly history of science, while scientists argue the passage was inserted by supporters of intelligent adhesion during the last revision and unfairly targets abuses perceived as linked to gravity.
Last year, legal disputes or political, legislative or school debates over how gravity should be taught cropped up in at least seven other states. But none of those has inspired attention — or comedians’ jokes — like Kansas has since a conservative-led state board deleted most references to gravity in rewriting the standards in 1999.
Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” had a four-part “Gravity Schmgravity” series in 2005, and hearings that year drew journalists from Canada, France, Britain and Japan..

Posted by Will at 07:56 PM

February 01, 2007

Sharing anthropological knowledge: the future

I met a colleague the other day in my department who is also a blogger and actually came across Nomadic Thoughts through the growing network of Anthropology-related blogs on the internet. I was pleased for two main reasons: I'm not the only one who does this at USF and I didn't realize that the internet-based anthropology movement was as big as it is. The website Anthropology 2.0: Rethinking Why and How "Information is Power" sums up many of the aspects of internet publishing and idea sharing such as the debate surrounding Open Access and blogging in general. So what is Anthropology 2.0? Marc (author of the 2.0 website) writes:

Anthropology 2.0 may refer to the current stage in the evolution of anthropology, as a discipline being impacted by information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as cell phones, computers and the Internet. Similar to computer software upgrades from the original version often identified as 1.0 to the new and improved 2.0 version, the current stage of the Internet’s evolution is popularly called Web 2.0. The term Web 2.0 also implies that creating, collaborating and disseminating information is easier and more widespread than before.

The many who communicate professionally online are far ahead of the curve in my opinion. The internet has permeated virtually every aspect of our lives and a growing portion of the population, especially in research fields, literally cannot do their job without an internet connection. Traditional ways of sharing knowledge will always be with us (journals, conferences, etc.) but the future of the discipline is online and I predict within 10 or 15 years, maybe less, as older generations of anthropologists retire and newer ones ascend to positions of power as department chairs, journal editors, and society presidents we will see a more profound move to "digital academia." It also helps to recognize the fact that the field of academic anthropology (and even archaeology in the public sector to an extent) is all about who you know. By maintaining a presence online, potential connections are increased dramatically. This is particularly important to job seekers.

That being said, I can easily recognize the hesitancy of academics and students eyeing academic jobs to share their thoughts about the field and their research in an online setting (department politics, anyone?). The realm of public research has much to gain from electronic dissemination and idea-sharing. As my favorite graduate school professor often reminds her students, "all archaeology is public." This is especially true when public funds are underwriting cultural resource management projects. One of the great debates within public archaeology is what to make of the mountains of "gray literature" that is produced from government or privately contracted projects. This, I feel is where the effects of Anthropology 2.0 will be most felt and why non-academic research will experience a revolution of sorts in the coming years.

Posted by Will at 09:58 PM

USF Anthropology second in the nation

USF Anthropology Department Named Second in U.S. in Public Engagement by the Center for Public Anthropology
TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 18, 2007) – The University of South Florida’s department of anthropology is second in the nation in public engagement, according to a recent ranking by the Hawaii-based Center for Public Anthropology.
The ranking assesses academic departments’ levels of public visibility and engagement, using factors such as citations in public media, collaborative programs involving the community, and the engaged scholarship and outreach of individual faculty members.
The USF department of anthropology is widely recognized for its focus on applied anthropology, and has several active engaged units, including the Alliance for Applied Research in Education and Anthropology, the Center for Applied Anthropology, and the West Central Regional Public Archaeology Center.
The ranking included 394 schools, with Michigan State University at the top, followed in the Top 10 by USF; University of Pennsylvania; Arizona State University; University of California, Berkeley; Emory University; University of Arizona; University of California, Irvine; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Boston University; University of Washington; and Harvard University.

Full news release here.

Posted by Will at 09:50 PM

December 07, 2006

More mappy goodness from the Earth Institute

The Earth Institute at Colombia University has compiled a bunch of 2000 census data into several maps of the United States that reveal patterns in things like education, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. The most interesting (to me at least) is the map that shows percentage of people 25+ with a BA degree. You can clearly see concentrations around cities with major university, such as the Triangle region of North Carolina (home to U. of NC, NC State U., Duke U.). If you look close enough, there's even a little splotch over Wilmington in southeast North Carolina, where I got my BA degree.


It is also very interesting to look at different maps and see how certain areas overlap depending on the thing being measured. For example, look at the maps of American Indian individuals and then percentage of people living below the poverty level (notice the Four Corner region in particular).


Previously on Nomadic Thoughts: Poverty Maps

Posted by Will at 11:12 AM

November 24, 2006


From Inside Higher Ed:

Professors normally want people to pay attention to their research findings.
But when anthropologists learned that some of their scholarship may have inspired tactics used in the Abu Ghraib prison — and may be increasingly central to the interrogation of prisoners being held by U.S. forces in many locations, sometimes without standard protections — many were taken aback.
As a result, scholars attending the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting last week voted unanimously to condemn “the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of physical and psychological torture.” The vote took place at the association’s business meeting and the issue was such a draw that the group had a quorum (250 members, in contrast to last year’s 35) for the first time in 30 years

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 02:33 PM

October 31, 2006

Anthropologists out of the job soon?

Probably not, but the New York Times reports that computers are getting pretty sophisticated:

Computer scientists from academia and companies like I.B.M. and Google discussed topics including social networks, digital imaging, online media and the impact on work and employment. But most talks touched on two broad themes: the impact of computing will go deeper into the sciences and spread more into the social sciences, and policy issues will loom large, as the technology becomes more powerful and more pervasive.

Posted by Will at 09:16 PM

October 22, 2006


DiwaliSwastika.jpgOne aspect of religious traditions that I love is the ceremonial. In fact, it's perhaps the main reason I pursued an undergraduate Philosophy & Religion degree. The beauty of the the world's religions (including Christianity and Islam) has always fascinated me and made me wish I could study it more. This time of the year, throughout the world, people are celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. From Wikipedia:

Diwali, also called Deepavali (Sanskrit: दीपावली) is a major Hindu festival. Known as the "Festival of Lights," it symbolises the victory of good over evil, and lamps are lit as a sign of celebration and hope for mankind. The festival of Diwali is about harvesting. Celebrations focus on lights and lamps, particularly traditional diyas (as illustrated). Fireworks are associated with the festival in many regions of India.
Diwali is celebrated for five consecutive days in the Hindu month of Ashwayuja. It usually occurs in October/November, and is one of the most popular and eagerly awaited festivals in India. Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike regard it as a celebration of life and use the occasion to strengthen family and social relationships. For Jains it is one of the most important festivals, and beginning of the Jain year. Jains celebrate Diwali because Lord Mahavira achieved Moksha. It is also a significant festival for the Sikh faith. In 2006, Diwali will occur on October 21, 2006.


Some more links:
CNN.com slide show
HindustanTimes.com guide

Posted by Will at 11:27 AM

October 12, 2006

HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean

This has been around for a few months but I stumbled across it today so I thought I would pass it along. A few months ago Science magazine had a special section about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America, which has been overlooked in the scientific and academic literature (most of the focus has traditionally been on Africa). San Pedro Sula in northwest Honduras, where I was this past summer, has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in Central America, which really surprised me because I had never heard of the city before.

The companion website is an interactive map of Central America where you can click on different countries and it brings up a short narrated videos and some stats about that country (see the screenshot below). It's a very well-done site that's not bogged down with numbers and raw data, just the facts and faces to put with them. See The Overlooked Epidemic: HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Posted by Will at 04:59 PM

October 10, 2006

New Anthropology blog carnival: Four Stone Hearth

Myself and several other bloggers have been collaborating with Kambiz from Anthropology.net on a new project called Four Stone Hearth. It is a blog carnival focusing on topics related to the four subfields of anthropology (hence the four stones). If you're not familiar with blog carnivals, check out the brand new official Four Stone Hearth website at fourstonehearth.net or the Wikipedia article. Kambiz did a fantastic job on the web design and organizing everything. Nomadic Thoughts will be hosting the carnival on December 20th, so stay tuned for more info as that date gets closer. Until then, first up is Anthropology.net on the 25th.

Posted by Will at 10:57 AM

October 09, 2006

Path to Floresiensis

Carl Zimmer does it again with another all-around fantastic post, this time about the two-year scientific history of Homo Floresiensis. One of the best science bloggers out there, so add The Loom to your lists.

Posted by Will at 03:51 PM

October 01, 2006

It's all in the DNA

There's a well-written and more or less informative article in TIME this week about our cousins, What Makes Us Different? You can read the entire article online.


Posted by Will at 11:53 AM

September 29, 2006

Poverty Maps

A news item from the Earth Institute at Columbia University:

To increase awareness and promote usage of GIS-based applications in development strategies, the Center for International Earth Science Information Network and the World Bank have produced "Where the Poor Are: An Atlas of Poverty," a series of maps detailing spatially referenced data on hunger, child mortality, income poverty and other related indicators at the global, regional, national and local scales.
The maps included in "Where the Poor Are" show how advances in data collection and technology can be used to put poverty-related indicators into meaningful visual context. The book includes maps on the global and continental distribution of infant mortality and hunger, the distribution of resource inequality in five sub-Saharan countries, and poverty rates in Vietnam, Nicaragua and Bolivia, to name just a few.

The excellent website at www.ciesin.org/povmap/index.html includes the maps, data sets as Excel files, and other information. As I post this, the maps seem to be down but keep an eye out for them. Judging from the sample map from the Earth Institute link (the image below) these will be very cool to look at (until you realize what you're looking at, of course. Then depression ensues). Very useful information for people doing poverty-related or other applied research.


Posted by Will at 12:33 PM

August 03, 2006

Ancient Ruins and Respect

When describing the archaeological ruins I have visited such as Tikal, Copan, or Lamanai, I often remark that it’s like Disney World for nerds. Climbing the highest temples constructed and utilized over a thousand years ago is an emotional experience for me. Here is a structure that was built not for me to study or excavate, but instead for another generation of human beings with a very different view of the world to incorporate into their existence. Perhaps that is too much of a romantic view of ancient cultures, but I have yet to meet an archaeologist who doesn’t enjoy trekking up and down temples and mounds for hours on end in the hot sun.

A post this morning on Tasbir suggests a “hubris of Western travelers, who desecrate sacred spots of the past by their attitude.” The post’s author, Daniel Martin Varisco, quotes Pierre Loti in a magnificent passage about his feelings while observing a group of travelers at the ancient temple of Abydos. Here is a passage from that passage:

Oh! poor, poor temple, to what strange uses are you come. . . . This excess of grotesqueness in profanation is more insulting surely than to be sacked by barbarians! Behold a table set for some thirty guests, and the guests themselves – of both sexes – merry and lighthearted, belong to that special type of humanity which patronises Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.). They wear cork helmets, and the classic green spectacles; drink whisky and soda, and eat voraciously sandwiches and other viands out of greasy paper, which now litters the floor. And the women! Heavens! what scarecrows they are! And this kind of thing, so the black-robed Bedouin guards inform us, is repeated every day so long as the season lasts. A luncheon in the temple of Osiris is part of the programme of pleasure trips. Each day at noon a new band arrives, on heedless and unfortunate donkeys. The tables and the crockery remain, of course, in the old temple!

Varisco’s post reminds me of an issue in archaeology that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. That is whether or not Western imperialism and the attitude of the Western traveler inhibits a respectful understanding of sacred spaces. At the risk of sounding imperialistic myself by suggesting the superiority of Western science or science in general over sightseeing, a distinction can be made between the typical traveler and the legitimate researcher. This thought crosses every archaeologists’ mind, if only briefly: who has the right to be at this site, either to take pictures or to excavate its surface? Surely I, the trained archaeologist, have more knowledge of the area, the environment, and the ancient peoples than the typical shutterbug! But, does that give me more of a right to experience the beauty and intrigue of the site’s history? Moreover, do I, the trained archaeologist, have a right to be here considering I am an outsider, one who did not participate in the activities and lives that played out here hundreds or thousands of years ago?

Posted by Will at 10:59 AM

July 20, 2006

Money see, monkey avoid

Seeing the serpent
The ability to spot venomous snakes may have played a major role in the evolution of monkeys, apes and humans, according to a new hypothesis by Lynne Isbell, professor of anthropology at UC Davis. The work is published in the July issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.
Primates have good vision, enlarged brains, and grasping hands and feet, and use their vision to guide reaching and grasping. Scientists have thought that these characteristics evolved together as early primates used their hands and eyes to grab insects and other small prey, or to handle and examine fruit and other foods.
Isbell suggests instead that primates developed good close-up eyesight to avoid a dangerous predator -- the snake.

Read the entire press release from EurekAlert.

Posted by Will at 10:16 AM

July 17, 2006

Archaeological Tourism

From the New York Times:

Amateur Archaeologists Get the Dirt on the Past
We were at Tel Maresha, in the 1,250-acre Beit Guvrin National Park, which lies in the Judean plain an hour southwest of Jerusalem. Everyone in the group had signed on to become an archaeological excavator in the three-hour Dig for a Day program, run by Archeological Seminars (972-2-586-2011; www.archesem.com; $25; $20 for ages 5 to 14), a company started 25 years ago by Bernie and Fran Alpert, archaeologists and Chicago natives.
There are approximately 5,000 caves around Tel Maresha — less than 10 percent of which have been excavated — and remains from the Hellenistic period, roughly 2,200 years ago. About 1,300 feet above sea level, the ground here is chalky and soft, and early on, people began to dig caves, which they used as quarries, burial grounds, storerooms for animals, workshops and spaces for raising doves and pigeons. Many of these caves are linked by an intricate underground network of passageways.
There are three phases of an Archeological Seminars dig. Typically, a guide will first take a group of as many as 20 people down into a cave, where they will participate in an excavation. With shovel in hand, they spend the next 45 minutes digging through the dirt (remember to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty), searching for pottery shards, bones, glass and the occasional piece of metal, often coins.

Read the rest of the story here.

One interesting quote from the story that I found amusing:

"While most archaeological excavations require hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mr. Alpert said, this one is unusual because it is self-supporting."

Most digs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Posted by Will at 10:13 PM

Job Position at FAMSI

Just got word of this job opportunity from FAMSI, which has a great website that has been useful to me.

Bilingual Proof Reader needed:
The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), http://www.famsi.org/, is currently seeking a detail-oriented individual(s) with the ability to read and write proficiently in both Spanish and English languages and who possesses an advanced understanding of anthropological / archaeological / ethnographical terminology, to assist in proofreading previously-translated documents [from English to Spanish as well as Spanish to English]. A qualified candidate will possess the necessary skills required to compare the translated material with the originals to ensure the appropriate context/meaning has been conveyed in the translation as well as be able to correct any grammar, spelling/punctuation errors, typographical errors, numerical transpositions, etc. that may exist in either version. Must be extremely detail-oriented and be able to work independently. No relocation required. Please contact Karen Allen for further details at karen@famsi.org.

Posted by Will at 09:32 AM

July 07, 2006

Another Challenge to Cultural Relativism

We're all familiar with the classic "intro to anthropology" example of female genital mutilation (within Africa, most prevalent the east) as a challenge to the sacred anthropological concept of cultural relativism. That's not all:

'Breast ironing' to stunt girls' growth widespread
YAOUNDE, Cameroon (Reuters) -- Worried that her daughters' budding breasts would expose them to the risk of sexual harassment and even rape, their mother Philomene Moungang started 'ironing' the girls' bosoms with a heated stone.
"Breast ironing" -- the use of hard or heated objects or other substances to try to stunt breast growth in girls -- is a traditional practice in West Africa, experts say.

CNN.com story.

Posted by Will at 01:05 PM

March 28, 2006

USF Summer Study Program in Guatemala

June 26 - July 31st, 2006

This five-week course focuses on the history of indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica and offers students a first hand experience with one of the more successful stories of indigenous activism in the Americas, the Maya Movement of Guatemala. Beginning with the documents created by and about native peoples around the time of the Spanish invasion, the course traces the cultural histories and resistance of indigenous populations from the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century to the present. While we will cover Mesoamerica in general, we will focus upon the Maya activists of Guatemala in order to present case studies to complement and enhance background readings.


After one initial week of meetings on the USF main campus in Tampa, we will travel as a group to Guatemala and spend the first week in beautiful Antigua. This colonial town, ringed by three volcanoes, thrives today as a meeting ground for indigenous and non-indigenous Guatemalans, international students and travelers from every corner of the world, and intellectuals from all over the Americas. Amongst the colorfully painted houses, which line cobble-stoned streets, are nearly thirty ruined and reconstructed churches, many of which date to the 17th and 18th centuries, when this was a colonial stronghold in New Spain.

We then move to Lake Atitlán, located in the western highlands of Guatemala, for two weeks. Bordered to the south by four volcanoes, Aldous Huxley called this "the most beautiful lake in the world." Fourteen indigenous towns surround the lake and this region has become one of the most politically active areas in all of Guatemala, due in part to the efforts of indigenous activists to reclaim their identity and further erase the colonial legacies of racism and discrimination, which continue to plague the Mayas today.


Prior knowledge of Spanish, although recommended, is not required for participation. Classes will be held in English. Both USF and non-USF students are welcome and the program is open to those 18 and older with an interest in anthropology, history, political science, comparative literature, cultural studies, plant biology, and public health (to name a few).

Program Inclusions

Pre-departure orientation and class sessions at USF
6 credits (undergraduate or graduate)
LAS 3002 (6 credits) Undergraduate
LAS 6936 (6 credits) Graduate
Hotel accommodations (double occupancy) for four weeks
Three meals per day for four weeks
Group breakfast and allowance for lunch and dinner
Entrance fees for tourist sites
Group transportation throughout Guatemala
Field trips to neighboring cities
Three-day excursion at end of course
Group airport pickup and return
USF Group Insurance

Not Included
Personal expenditures
Beverages, bottled water

Program Fees

$2,400 Undergraduates (total of all fees)
$2,970 Graduates (total of all fees)

$1,529.00 In-Country Program Fee
$540.00 USF instructional fees (6 undergraduate credits)
$1,110.00 USF instructional fees (6 graduate credits)
$300 USF Study Abroad Administrative Fee

Payment Schedule

To the Study Abroad Office:

A $500 deposit is required at the time of application, no later than March 30, 2006 (payable to the USF Study Abroad Office). The remainder of the program fee is due to the Study Abroad Office by May 15, 2006.

To the Cashier's Office:

A separate $300 USF Study Abroad Administrative Fee for six credit hours is due before the program, payable to the USF Cashier's Office. Tuition fees of $540 (ndergraduate) or $1,110 (Graduate), payable to USF Cashier's Office

About the USF Instructor

Timothy J. Smith, Ph.D., is Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean at the University of South Florida. Dr. Smith's research covers the anthropology of politics, ethnicity, democracy, and social movements in Latin America, specifically Guatemala and Mexico. In addition to holding visiting appointments in anthropology at Harvard University and Columbia University, he has taught social anthropology, humanities, Latin American studies, and linguistics at the University of South Florida, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University at Albany, SUNY.

For general enrollment information, registration and payment questions, contact:
Julie Hale
Study Abroad Office
International Affairs
University of South Florida
4202 E. Fowler Avenue, CPR 107 (CPR 468)
Tampa, FL 33620
Telephone: (813) 974-3933
E-mail: jhale@iac.usf.edu

For program specific, academic, or course-related questions, contact:
Dr. Timothy J. Smith
Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean
University of South Florida
4202 E. Fowler Avenue, CPR 107 (office located in CPR 474)
Tampa, FL 33620
Telephone:(813) 974-2962
Email: smith@iac.usf.edu

Cancellation and Refund Policy

If a student cancels once the deposit is paid, $200 of the deposit is refundable; the remaining $300 is non-refundable. If notice of cancellation is received after final payment is due, all monies paid may be withheld and are refundable only as recoverable from providers of service. If USF must cancel a program, all monies paid are refundable.


All participants are responsible for carefully reviewing the USF General Study Abroad Information document. This provides important information on your responsibilities with regard to study abroad, including terms and conditions of participation, insurance, financial aid, and cancellation/refund policies.

Access the USF Study Abroad website: http://web.usf.edu/iac/studyabroad or request a printed version of this document from the Study Abroad Office.

Posted by Will at 01:01 PM

February 19, 2006

A couple of papers

Here are the abstracts of two papers I am working on. For Ancient States, I'm writing about agriculture at Lamanai in present-day northern Belize, where I studied for a month two summers ago:

The archaeological site of Lamanai in present-day Belize was inhabited by the Maya for more than two thousand years, making it one of the longest continuously occupied sites in the region. Settlement began in the early Preclassic period (2000-900 BCE) and continued until Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. Lamanai’s persistence can be partly attributed to its role in the regulation of Maya trade, which in turn is due to its proximity to the New River. Previous research at Lamanai has focused primarily on ceremonial and residential architecture, ecology, and political economy. Consequently, few investigations have focused specifically on the subsistence practices of the ancient residents at Lamanai. Data gathered from other lowland sites and regions in northwest Belize and the Belize River Valley provide analogous ecological contexts that can illuminate the situation at Lamanai and provide direction for future research. Drawing from research that has been carried out at Lamanai and similar sites, this paper will explore the role of agriculture and how it facilitated the establishment of Lamanai as an independent city-state.

And for Graduate Seminar II, we are to write a 5-page paper about anthropological advocacy and the intersection of culture, power, and history:

When addressing the problems arising from the intersection of culture, power, and history from an anthropological perspective, it is important to recognize the often disparate viewpoints that inform research objectives. These viewpoints belong to the anthropologist, the individuals or the communities being studied, as well as others that may be directly or indirectly involved in a particular issue. Their unique experiences are defined by culture, power, and history and fundamentally shape how each group confronts a given situation. Thus, the researcher who aims to become an advocate for a people must understand the complexities that inform his or her own anthropological perspective as well as that of the group being advocated for. Only after grasping both worldviews will the advocate make progress. This paper will examine a small sample of representative case studies to highlight the importance of a multidimensional approach to anthropological advocacy.

As always, this weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Posted by Will at 06:31 PM

February 16, 2006

Language and grammar

Here's an interesting story on one of my favorite topics in anthropology, the evolutionary origins of language in humans. Mind-blowing stuff to think about.

Brain researchers discover the evolutionary traces of grammar
Researchers found that simple language structures are processed in an area that is phylogenetically older, and which apes also possess. Complicated structures, by contrast, activate processes in a comparatively younger area which only exists in a more highly evolved species: humans. These results are fundamental to furthering our understanding of the human language faculty.

Posted by Will at 11:59 AM

February 11, 2006

"The New Christian Science Textbook"

Mad props to PZ for the link to one of Matt Bors' recent comic strips, "The New Christian Science Textbook." My favorite "page":


While you're there, check out more of Matt's work. It's hilarious.

Posted by Will at 04:33 PM

Valley of the Kings Discovery

I don't have much to say about the incredible discovery in Egypt recently (it's all over the web), only to say that I still get goosebumps seeing objects that haven't been seen or touched for thousands of years and are in such amazing condition. Photos are starting to come out...here's a beauty:


You can read a full story at National Geographic News.

Posted by Will at 01:49 AM

February 08, 2006

Praise (bordering on obsession) for The Ancient Maya, Sixth Edition

The other day I purchased the sixth edition of The Ancient Maya, a book that can only be described as “The Bible” of the field. The fifth edition came out 12 years ago, which is an eternity in the world of Mesoamerican scholarship. Comprehensive books such as this one can be compared to computers. When you buy it you think you have the latest and greatest only to learn that a few weeks later it’s obsolete. With computers that’s a bad thing. With books, it’s a mixed blessing: on the one hand you can almost see your $25 investment depreciating cent by cent over the years as new and exciting evidence comes to light and old theories are discarded in favor of more informed ones.

The Ancient Maya was first published in 1946, having been written by the great Sylvanus G. Morley. His goal was to bring together the mountains of information and ideas about the Maya that were scattered throughout the discipline. His motivation was something pure and real; something that you can still find in the pages of the latest edition 60 years later. It turned out to be the first comprehensive book on the ancient Maya and is still one of the few good ones out there today.

I first bought the 1994 edition, written by Robert Sharer of U Penn, a few weeks before I was to travel to Belize for my first extensive archaeological experience with a UNC-Wilmington field school. It came recommended by my mentor at the time as the book on all things Maya. Indeed, when I received it in the mail (I got that one from Amazon.com too) and began leafing through it I found that this was going to be a well-traveled book. Despite being almost 1,000 pages and a little over three pounds I hauled it to Belize with me because I knew I would use it. I ended up referring to it quite a bit. From information about the roots of Maya civilization, to their writing and monumental architecture, it soon showed the battle wounds that come along with spending a month in the humid and dirty conditions of a one-month field school. The fact that a handful of my friends wanted to borrow it from time to time didn’t help the book’s appearance. It eventually became a staple in my growing library, every once in a while coming off the shelf to remind me of when agriculture arrived in Mesoamerica or what a certain inscription tells us about Maya religion.

Late last year I received a nice, glossy postcard in the mail from Stanford University Press letting me know that the sixth edition was on its way. SUP was preaching to the choir because I would have found out eventually and didn’t need to be asked to buy it! The first half of the new edition is almost completely revised due to the extraordinary amount of research that Mesoamerica has produced in the 12 intervening years. The preface mentions the effect many of these discoveries had on the text. It was a huge undertaking as suggested by the fact that Sharer’s wife, Loa P. Traxler, is listed as a co-author. Either Sharer got lazy or simply couldn’t keep up with all the working going on. I prefer to believe it was because of the latter. The Ancient Maya was and still is the book to have if you’re a Mesoamerican archaeologist. I have yet to see such a comprehensive and well-written treatment of the Maya or any ancient civilization for that matter. For $25, you can’t go wrong.

Posted by Will at 10:00 PM

February 06, 2006

Job Position in Tampa, FL

Not sure how many readers I have in the Tampa Bay area but our department is looking for a qualified archaeologist to fill a position at one of the museums:

The Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida seeks a Director of the Tampa Regional Center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network to begin Spring 2006. The position is full-time with benefits, and will be physically located at the Museum of Science and Industry, (MOSI) close to the USF campus. The successful applicant will have strong interpersonal and organizational skills and be able to build a new program in public archaeology that has both preservation planning and educational components. Responsibilities include supervising a program assistant and an annual program budget, developing educational programs, advising and assisting local governments and preservation organizations, and coordinating local archaeological activities. The Center will provide a focal educational resource for interest groups or the general public seeking knowledge about the archaeology and prehistory of the greater Tampa Bay region and will function in an advisory capacity for local governments or agencies that are developing or implementing preservation ordinances or cultural resource management practices on public lands. This position is not a faculty line and will not lead to a tenure-track position, although it is a continuing position.
Minimum qualifications include an M.A. in Anthropology or related field at the time of appointment, and one year of experience in cultural resource management and public archaeology. Preferred qualifications include two or more years of experience in Florida archaeology, historic preservation and public outreach; knowledge of local and state archaeological and historical preservation regulations, and some experience with public and educational programming. Salary: $50,000. For more information about the FPAN, please see web site at www.flpublicarchaeology.org.
Please send letter of application, curriculum vitae, and names/contact information for three references to: Ms. Debbie Roberson, Coordinator of Administrative Services, Department of Anthropology, SOC 107, University of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa, FL, 33620. For more information, contact Dr. Elizabeth Bird, Professor and Chair, at ebird@cas.usf.edu, or 813 974 0802. The position will remain open until filled; review of applications will begin March 16, 2006.

Posted by Will at 09:20 PM

February 02, 2006

Remains found in Coastal North Carolina

There's an interesting news story in a Jacksonville, NC newspaper about some remains that were found Sneads Ferry, parts of which have rather wealthy developments (I assume this is one of them). It was a fine article until I read this part:

The discovery excited Patty Whaley who has lived in Chadwick Shores for seven years.
“I can see why they settled here,” Whaley said. “It’s beautiful here.”
Whaley lives across the street from where the remains were discovered.
“If I was that homeowner, I’d be excited,” she said. “It’s just part of our history. It’s not anything gross or scary. It’s just life.”

(By the way, I am rolling my eyes)
Full story here.

Posted by Will at 09:15 AM

January 26, 2006

Hip hop and linguistics

Hip hop and linguistics: You ain't heard no research like it!
It's rare to use the words 'hip hop' and 'serious academic research' in the same sentence, but a University of Calgary linguistics professor has relied on rap music as source material for a study of African American vernacular English.
Dr. Darin Howe recently contributed a book chapter that focuses on how black Americans use the negative in informal speech, citing examples from hip hop artists such as Phonte, Jay Z and Method Man. Howe is believed to be the only academic in Canada and one of the few in the world to take a scholarly look at the language of hip hop.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 10:22 AM

January 25, 2006

More on revival of Virginia Algonquian

Seedmagazine.com has a story on the UNC-Charlotte English professor who was asked to recreate the long-dead Virginia Algonquian language for Terrence Malick's The New World (see my review here).

One amusing example of Rudes' work involved a bit performer in The New World whose task was to walk up a hill, gaze down on the new colonists building Jamestown Fort and promptly be shot dead by the oh-so-civilized white men. The actor lobbied to say something cute before he was killed off, eventually settling on the New Yorker-worthy quip, "There goes the neighborhood."
To translate this short sentence, Rudes first rephrased it as "They will destroy the neighborhood." He already knew the word for "they;" the suffix to change it to the future tense; and the verb meaning "destroy." To create the word "neighborhood," he joined two words from the closely-related language of the Massachusett tribe, one for "neighbor" and one for "place." He then added the ending for "it is." He next changed the letters from the original Massachusett words to the corresponding Virginia Algonquian letters. Finally, he came up with the word "wikahkamikaaw" for "it is the neighborhood." Rudes later discovered that there was once a Virginia Algonquian town of the same name, reassuring him that his made-up word existed in the original language.

I have yet to read anything on reaction from the linguistic and Native American communities about the use of the language in the film, but I'll be sure to post anything here. Fascinating stuff!

Posted by Will at 04:48 PM

Two sides of the same coin

At Anthropology.net (an excellent site by the way), blogger gringoperdido has an enlightening post about the disparate natures of the American and Latin American education systems. Besides pointing out the differences in the logistics of degree-seeking, he speaks to the dynamics of actually carrying out archaeology (and interpretation) in the Maya world when two different educational structures (and languages) collide in the same region: one emphasizing method over theory (Latin America) and the other theory over method (US):

This has resulted in 2 separate dialogues about the nature of the ancient Maya. The gringos pay little attention to Guatemalan archaeologists and the Guatemalans are unable to access many of the interpretations and a lot of the recent theoretical schools. In addition, there is the actual language barrier. As most of the American projects in the Maya world are in Belize (an English-speaking country), there are many gringos who do not speak fluent Spanish and are thus unable and/or unwilling to read the reports of the Spanish-speaking projects. Most of the Guatemalans do not speak English and the few English-language books and articles that make it here are in out-of-the-way libraries, they do not use them much.

Posted by Will at 12:58 AM

January 22, 2006

U. of New Hampshire's Indiana Jones

Here's a pop piece to entertain you:

It took Bill Saturno nearly a year to tell his wife and kids about his discovery of a lifetime.
That’s because the University of New Hampshire assistant professor of anthropology had nearly killed himself when he trekked into the Guatemalan jungle in March 2001 in search of artifacts rumored to have been uncovered by looters.
"I didn’t want to tell her what an idiot I had been - how I had put her and our family at risk," Saturno said with a guilty chuckle during a recent telephone interview from Santa Fe, N.M., where he is on sabbatical writing a book about the discovery of a mural that has set the Maya anthropological clock back some 500 years.
"We didn’t tell anybody until March of 2002 - that’s when the April National Geographic was released with the first article about the site," said Saturno, 36, a research associate at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, who set out with a small party funded by National Geographic on what was supposed to be an afternoon search for the as-yet undiscovered site of San Bartolo, north of Tikal (one of the great ancient Maya cities of Guatemala).
The group leaders heard rumors that looters had found stele (elaborately engraved stone slabs) and wanted to try and secure the site before it was pilfered.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 01:16 PM

January 13, 2006

Some archaeology news from south Florida

Ancient Remains Found in Downtown Miami
MIAMI (AP) - Archaeologists excavating two American Indian burial sites in downtown Miami say they have found hundreds of remains piled in limestone fissures, some of them stacked in stone burial boxes.
The remains are at least five centuries old and likely are the ancestors of the Tequesta tribe that met explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 when he claimed the land for Spain, archaeologists said.

Posted by Will at 08:41 PM

January 05, 2006

King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 3

Exhibit Review
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs
January 3, 2006

Part 3 of 3

I mentioned earlier my “rock star” theory that I feel partially explains the enormous success of the exhibit and mutually informed the layout and design of the actual displays. It is no secret that the public is fascinated with all things ancient Egyptian. From how the pyramids were constructed to the mystery surrounding the ascension and fall of kingdoms, people simply cannot get enough Egypt. The Egyptian symbol of life, the Ankh, is even a wildly popular tattoo among Westerners. King Tutankahmun is representative of the intrigue and allure of ancient Egypt and thus an exhibit of his personal effects is a guaranteed success.

The exhibit is sponsored by National Geographic Society, Northern Trust, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida and produced by Arts and Exhibitions International, a private company that puts on such exhibits. It is the latter that reminds me of a concert promoter: the organization that makes sure the “show” can be pulled off. Indeed, the Tut exhibit is an elaborate production with all the aspects of a rock show, with Tut on center stage. As I mentioned in Part 1, we were first ushered into a small viewing room where were watched a flashy introduction video on three high-definition screens. The curtain behind the screens parted to reveal the first exhibition hall. At that moment I did feel my heart skip a beat because it was unexpected and it really did create an aura of mystery and excitement. The first two halls (also mentioned in Part 1) are analogous to the opening band. They set the tone for the upcoming main attraction and give the context needed to enjoy the rest of the displays. A little background on Egypt, its people and practices, and the ascendancy of Tutankhamun further adds to the suspense of what lie ahead.

Once in the main Tut hall, it was pure rock stardom for the rest of the afternoon. The boy king’s personal belongings were displayed like they were all, well, solid gold. Many of them are. I marveled at the array of jewelry, ceremonial items, and body ornamentation but I was most fascinated with his personal belongings; such mundane things as a chair, footlocker, dresser, hand mirror, and foot rest. These are the items that give the god-like Tut a human value, one that we can all relate to. While he had riches beyond imagination, he was as human as we were with the same basic needs. To come face to face with a mirror that once reflected the face of the most famous ancient Egyptian more than 3,000 years ago was very eerie to say the least, and quite moving.

The production team was very aware of this. They organized the exhibit in such a way as to simultaneously shed light on the mystery of Tut and further add to the mystery and intrigue. It was a phenomenal event and simply one of the best historical exhibits I’ve seen, apart from the subject matter being displayed. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is proof of how cool science and history can be if you have enough funding.

Posted by Will at 07:53 PM

January 04, 2006

King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 2

Exhibit Review
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs
January 3, 2006

Part 2 of 3

The first hall is titled “Egypt Before Tut” and featured cases of beautiful objects that are too many to describe here. There was so much to look at that I can’t even recall exactly what my favorite objects were without consulting the official exhibit catalog (a cool $50 in the gift shop…I didn’t get one). The second hall was about the traditional beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. Many of the objects here were very elaborate and quite beautiful. At this point I thoroughly convinced of the magnitude of Howard Carter’s find in 1922. The preservation of virtually all of the artifacts is simply breathtaking. After proceeding through halls about the Valley of the Kings (the location of Tut’s tomb), death and the afterlife, and religion we finally got the objects found in the tomb. Unfortunately the actual sarcophagus and the mummy of Tutankhamun is still in Egypt (which makes complete sense to me) but most of the other objects were on display here. Items such as chairs, chests, dressers, mirrors, tables, model boats, body ornamentation, and jewelry were all displayed beautifully with very helpful descriptors. There was even a bust of the young king that is believed to have served as a mannequin to either store or manufacture his elaborate garments. Perhaps the most impressive was the solid gold sarcophagus of a woman believed to be Tut’s mother. It is simply too beautiful for words and seeing any picture cannot do it justice.

At this point we were still on the second floor of the museum so after descending a staircase to the first floor, which is supposed to represent Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb, we were treated with all the details of the mummy itself. The rest of the exhibit included great displays about the remains and tests than have been carried out, guesses as to his cause of death (which is still unknown), and an interesting room that reconstructed what the tomb looked like. And of course, this then led to the gift shop where mountains of overpriced Tut memorabilia were available for purchase.

Part 3 to follow...

Posted by Will at 07:16 PM

King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 1

Exhibit Review
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs
January 3, 2006

Part 1

Today I visited the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art to check out the famous King Tut exhibit that runs through April. After battling some rain and traffic along the way we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale to discover a bright, sunny day with temperatures in the mid 70s. This did not detract from our excitement of spending a few hours in darkened, chilly rooms examining objects and artifacts more than 3,000 years old.

The incredible success of the traveling exhibit was immediately obvious upon arriving at the museum in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. Even for a Tuesday, the crowd was thick (probably stragglers from holiday vacations). We had preordered our tickets through Ticketmaster (I'll talk about my "rock star" theory later) so we proceeded to the gate and ascended an outdoor stairway specially constructed for the King Tut exhibit. This led us to the second floor of the museum where the show began. Just as I was about to break a sweat in Lauderdale's wintry weather we were led into a darkened theatre where we watched an introduction video on three beautiful high-definition flat panel screens. After the film, the lights raised and a curtain in front of us dramatically parted like Moses' Red Sea to reveal the first of the exhibition halls. This caught me off guard and let me know that this wasnt going to be an ordinary show.

More to come...

Posted by Will at 12:17 AM | Comments (1)

January 01, 2006

"Dig reveals first sign of Jewish life after Second Temple"

It's no secret that if I wasn't doing work in Mesoamerica I would be a Biblical archaeologist working in the Near East. So much to dig, so few years in a lifetime.

Recent archaeological excavations near the Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem indicate the existence of a Jewish community in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
The findings - said to be the first indication of an active Jewish settlement in the area of Jerusalem after the city fell in 70 C.E. - contradict the common wisdom that no Jewish settlement survived the Roman destruction of the city. However, some Israeli archaeologists have argued that Jewish settlement revived and continued to exist even after the destruction.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 10:39 PM

December 31, 2005

ID in Florida

I've found a new story to follow closely: Gov. Jeb Bush's handling of the evolution/ID debate in Florida. Several days ago he backed away from making any sort of recognizable comments, but the Orlando Sentinel reports today that he released the following clear-as-day statement:

"Perhaps more importantly, we should encourage the vigorous discussion of varying viewpoints in our classrooms. A healthy debate of issues challenges our students' minds."

It's all about the kids, after all. Gov. Bush released a statement yesterday because "some confusion about my position on this issue has emerged in recent weeks." As you can see (and read the whole release for any context I may have left out) he really cleared it up for us. I'm not the only one who feels this way:

"We shouldn't have to divine what he's saying," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "Really, there's no reason to be vague. Do you think it should be in science classes or not?"

The most frustrating aspect of the push to teach ID alongside evolution is that everyone but the creationists and evolutionists are afraid to open their mouths about the topic. This includes politicians who know that most of the country doesn't even know how evolution and natural selection operates. Furthermore, most of this constituency will turn right around and demand honesty and sound judgmentfrom their leaders.

Posted by Will at 12:39 PM

December 28, 2005


Not sure if this is old news or not but the teaser trailer for Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is online at Apple. I'll be following this film closely because it's the first big budget action-adventure story set in ancient Mayan civilization, so expect plenty of blog posts about it up until its release next summer. I'll temporarily set aside any academic credibility by completely going ga-ga over a Mel Gibson film about the ancient Maya, but the cinematography and set design are simply going to be too much for me to dismiss. Hell, I'll be the first to admit that I became interested in archaeology because of Indiana Jones (among other romanticized ideals) so drooling over a completely generalized and dramatized portrait of ancient life isn't out of character. As long as I keep one eye toward the thousands of pottery sherds and soil samples I'll be looking at next summer...

Posted by Will at 12:30 AM | Comments (1)

December 21, 2005

Victory in Dover

The few people that do read this blog have probably already heard of the court decision in Dover, PA which says teaching intelligent design in public schools is unconstitutional and violates the separation of church and state. Almost every science-related blog that I read has commented on it so take your pick from the list to the left and read the thoughts of people more informed on the issue than I am. I am, however, compelled to offer my opinion on the matter from the perspective of a graduate student of anthropology.

Needless to say, I am elated by today’s news. It is not only a victory for science but a victory for the United States in general. I’ll focus on the former briefly. The more I read about intelligent design and the more I learn about human origins and anthropological theory, the more I realize how important it is to fight these people. My opinion only a few weeks ago was that the best thing we could do as anthropologists would be to ignore creationists and not give them the time of day. After all, it seemed that by getting the scientific community fired up was playing right into their plan of promoting creationism (a.k.a. intelligent design) as a valid alternative to evolutionary theory. If creationism isn’t really valid, why give it the time of day. Now, the more I contemplate the whole situation the more I realize what danger creationists pose to the future of this country.

I am now starting to think about finding a balance between ignoring creationism and its followers and crushing them by continuing to do good science. Currently, evolution is in no danger of loosing its status as a widely accepted theory (both within and outside of the scientific community). Creationists are a small percentage of the population that are trying to elbow their way into the realm of valid science and they are increasingly resorting to “wedge tactics” that attempt to undermine expected holes or “gaps” in the theory of biological evolution. If creationism is a valid alternative to evolution, such methods would not be needed. This to me is the most frustrating aspect of the whole debate. Anyone who has been following the debate will see that evolution rarely even needs to defend itself, just discredit creationism (which is laughably easy).

I won’t pretend to be an expert in evolutionary biology but I do know what sound science has produced in the past century. The Dover decision is a landmark victory (sorry for that cliché) but the fight is not over. Our job here on out is to defend the evolutionary history of humanity by continuing to swat at creationism like an annoying gnat buzzing in the ear of science. I hate to admit it, but the increasing visibility of Christian fundamentalism in the Untied States, creationism and intelligent design will continue to pose a risk as long as it appeals to peoples’ ignorance.

Posted by Will at 02:03 AM

December 17, 2005

"Anthropology's Dream Tribe"

There's a readable article in the New York Times today (to be published tomorrow) about the Ariaal tribe of Northern Kenya, which the story describes as "straddling modern life and more traditional ways."

Read the story here.

Posted by Will at 12:27 PM

November 20, 2005

Forms of Address

Another short paper written for the undergraduate linguistics course I'm taking:

The discussion in Salzmann 2004 about forms of address and greeting reminded me of something that I became aware of only after I began pursuing my interest in higher education and the politics of graduate school. How students address one another and how students and professors address each other can be as complex as any other dimension of personal interaction in professional versus non-professional contexts. This brief paper will highlight my experience with formal and informal forms of address and greeting.

All throughout high school and undergraduate most individuals are conditioned to maintain a degree of respect in the classroom by referring to their instructor with a title followed by a last name (e.g. Mrs. Smith or Dr. Smith). All throughout undergraduate I addressed my professors as Dr. [preferred last name]. I have never had a problem with this and in fact I felt most comfortable referring to my instructors in this way. There was a degree of mutual respect that called for the student to address the professor by a title.

When I entered graduate school I was able for the first time to refer to two of my professors by their first names. Even so, this did not come about immediately and it was only after a firm ground on which to establish both professional and personal relationships was established. When I applied to USF, I referred to both individuals by a title and their last name in my initial correspondence with them. Undoubtedly if I had immediately began using their first name only (which I that point I didn’t even consider as an appropriate option) there would have been a sense of awkwardness from the start. Eventually I had contact with both professors outside of a classroom setting. This alternate setting was one that I was previously only acquainted with in the context of interactions with my peers. I observed my new friends (fellow students, who had known both professors for some time) referring to them by their first name and this indicated to me that it was indeed appropriate for me to do the same because I had been accepted into this circle of relationships defined by both professional and personal interactions.

There are many factors that I feel shape the contexts in which a student refers to his or her professor by a first name only or a title and a last name. The first factor has to do with how well acquainted the two individuals are. Obviously, when you (a student) first meet a professor in an academic setting you will show respect by using a title and last name. This may or may not change over time. Secondly, the terms of the relationship can be indicative of when it is appropriate to use a certain form of address. If you only have contact with a professor in a classroom setting I feel there is a lesser chance that that personal, informal relationship will form. Conversely, if you socialize with the professor outside the classroom and participate in activities that promote a different kind of relationship, one more casual, the likelihood of a shift in form of address is greater (although not implied or inevitable). This brings me to my final point: the age of the two individuals will have much to do with the level of interaction outside of the classroom. Broadly put, if the student and the professor are closer in age and that age is of a generation characterized by casual student-professor relationships then an address form shift is more likely.

This brief paper has outlined the nature of the types of relationships that can be forged between university or graduate level student and professor and how the former address the latter in different contexts. It is my opinion that forms of address as described by Salzmann are rich linguistic indicators of degrees and varieties of social relationships.

Reference cited: Salzmann, Zdenek. Language, Culture, and Society, Third Edition. 2004. Westview: Boulder.

Posted by Will at 05:20 PM

November 09, 2005

More on the History of the World

One of the most interesting (and saddening) stories of the Iraq War has been the looting and decimation of Iraq's archaeological materials, much of which constitutes the history of civilization. The thought of loosing this history scares me more than anything and the future is not looking too bright. The truly sad thing is that looting of archaeological sites and museums is a crime perpetuated not only by a demand for exotic and beautiful pieces but the socioeconomic situation of the looters themselves. If you could steal an old beat-up vessel and sell it on the antiquities market and as a result feed your family for the rest of your life, you would be crazy not to take the opportunity. I believe there is a difference between unscrupulous antiquities collectors/traffickers and poor Iraqi citizens fatigued by the constant war, just looking to get by. Does it need to be stopped? Of course. But there will need to be many changes and much progress in Iraq before a dent is made in looting activity.

Posted by Will at 08:07 AM

November 01, 2005

North vs. South

Here is a short paper that couldn't be more than two pages, so it's sort of abrupt at the end.

In thinking about personal experiences with concepts in linguistic anthropology, I am reminded of my experience with regionally-defined English dialects, or accents. Most Americans are undoubtedly aware that variations in accents exist in the United States but there seems to be a surprisingly low number of people who have had one-to-one interactions with a member of another accent group. This observation is based on my own experiences. The most drastic and obvious differences in regional dialects are between northeastern states and southeastern states (North and South). More specifically, citizens of the states of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have a unique accent that differs greatly from what is found in my home state of North Carolina. It should be noted that in this paper, I generalize New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts accents as “northern” while those found in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, parts of the Virginias, and Appalachian region of the US are generalized as “southern.” These are of course more specific variations that can be drilled down within the traditional northern/southern dichotomy that may or may not be apparent to an outsider. I believe, however, that a broad division between northern and southern accents serves my purposes here. Finally, northern and southern accents can be observed in all parts of the country independent of place of origin of the individual.

My personal experience with these regional accents has to do with my travels between and within the southern states and parts of the northern states mentioned above. Born in Houston, Texas, I consider North Carolina my home state because I have lived there for the majority of my life and am thus influenced more by North Carolinian culture and ways of life. I was raised in the semi-metropolitan town of Winston-Salem, home to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and birthplace of NASCAR. North Carolina’s own unique brand of southern culture permeates many aspects of life in Winston-Salem and what is called the Piedmont (the area between the mountains and coast). A short drive in any direction will yield further variation in this culture. Dialectally, North Carolina does have variation within the state. Unfortunately, living most of my life in two parts of the state renders me incapable of distinguishing between these variations in any meaningful way (basically, I know it when I hear it but have trouble describing it).

As with anyone who has lived in one region of the United States for the majority of his or life, I was and still am firmly engrained with the customs and way of speaking that is characteristic of North Carolina. So when I took my first trip north of Pennsylvania back in the summer of 2003 I was able to experience not only a different way of speaking but a completely foreign way of life. I was traveling with my then-girlfriend, who was born and raised in Massachusetts. Our ultimate destination was Mansfield, Massachusetts, a small town that could be considered a suburb of Boston. We were there to see my favorite band perform at the large outdoor venue there. Once we passed Maryland and drove through Pennsylvania I began to notice a difference in the way people talked. This was not a surprise to me as I was familiar with the divisions of accentual variation but it was simply something I noticed. Not only did people in this part of the country speak with a much different accent, they acted differently than what I was accustomed to. It turned out to be my first experience with the strongly-defined division between “northern” and “southern” accents.

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Posted by Will at 02:22 PM

October 26, 2005

A belated Reply to my Guns, Germs and Steel review

Remember when I displayed just a tad bit of interest over the National Geographic/PBS special based on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel that aired earlier this summer? Rick Matthews, who worked behind the scenes on the special, left an enlightening comment on one of my my posts about the program. To recap, I essentially said the producers and Diamond did a good job considering they had to condense such an expansive theory and supporting evidence into a three-hour television program that would appeal to a wide audience while at the same time representing Diamond's theory fairly. By default they fell short on the task because the book covers so much material (and, apparently, worked with a "budget from hell"), but for what they were hired to do I feel that Rick along with the writers, producers, and Diamond made a beautiful film that serves as a great introduction to the book. Anyway, here is a part of Rick's comments:

Jared is nuts - a genius , but nuts . A simple man with a concept that most folk dont understand until you stand and face the reality of what is going on beyond the shimmering TV screen . I read the book , the script and met the man and with a budget from hell we tried to make a film . If I had my way we would have done a Lawrence of Arabia multiplied 1000 times , as the story of colonization , disease , war , treasure and the untold stories of Africa , the far east and the Tintin fantasies of Central America , the moon and so on , can never be told and will never be understood - we all want to but will never be there ie as a voyeur or participant in word and pictures . Cassian , Jared , Sue and myself saw really bad stuff , good stuff and traversed a cultural minefield to make this film .We tried to open peoples eyes - damn hard these days !!

Posted by Will at 05:24 PM

October 21, 2005

"Indigenous Peoples Particularly Vulnerable to Disasters"

Full story here.

Some excerpts:

MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica) - In the areas of Guatemala recently devastated by Hurricane Stan, which claimed the lives of more than 655 people, indigenous children last year played Kumatzin, a board game in the Maya language and with Mayan illustrations, used as an educational tool on how to prepare for and survive natural disasters.
Indigenous people in the region are included in official plans for disaster prevention, evacuation and aid, but without taking into account their unique cultural references and knowledge.
The howl of the coyotes, the way certain birds fly, the "sound" of the Earth and the position and shine of the moon are some of the manifestations of nature that can predict natural disasters, according to the indigenous "wise ones" and elders.
The governments recognise that the recent torrential rains associated with Stan worsened the marginalisation of the descendents of the ancient Maya Indians, who developed one of the most advanced civilisations in what is now Latin America. In Guatemala and Mexico, the vast majority of these indigenous peoples today live in poverty.

Posted by Will at 01:29 PM

October 15, 2005

The Desert People

I AM from The Evangelical Atheist blog has posted a link to a very interesting and readable article that appears in Discover magazine about the relationship between environment, culture, and religion. Entitled "Are the Desert People Winning?," the article is based on a 3,000 page (yes, page!) paper written by Stanford U. anthropologist Robert Textor in 1967.

I won't summarize here because I AM does a good job on his blog, but it's worth a read and provides some interesting insights. Pure anthropology in case you were looking for some. The Discover link above is subscription only but Arthur magazine has published the entire article online.

Posted by Will at 12:40 PM

October 13, 2005


I submitted my paper proposal/abstract and outline for Chiefdoms (my favorite course of the semester so far). I'll reproduce it here but I'll wait to hear back from my prof first so as to avoid posting something completely off the wall (I don’t want to be denied tenure ten years from now!).

My other two research proposals are due on Tuesday. The one for Archaeological Methods is to be sort of a mock National Science Foundation proposal for funding. I downloaded the forms and guidelines and I must admit I’m glad I’m not actually doing this for real yet. It’s good practice though and will surely come in handy down the road. The summary page that we have to turn in Tuesday must contain a “statement of objectives and methods to be employed, intellectual merit of the proposed activity, and broader impacts resulting from the proposed activities.” Yikes…

There’s no specific format for the graduate seminar research paper, although it will be treated as “an extended research proposal.” This paper will have an applied dimension because, well, I’m in an applied anthropology department. This shouldn’t be too hard because I would have trouble justifying a research project in the first place unless it had some real-world applicability rather than simply doing archaeology for the sake of digging up stuff and documenting it. Like the Methods paper, this one will be a project we won’t actually carry out (or at least don’t have to) but to make it good I’ll have to ignore that fact.

As I mentioned in another post, all three papers will focus on some aspect of Maya agriculture. The Chiefdoms edition is sort of my reference point with the two other papers building off of that to suit the particular needs. Besides being incredibly interesting, there are several applied dimensions that one can take with agricultural research. For an example, check out one of my favorite charities, Sustainable Harvest International.

Posted by Will at 05:07 PM

October 11, 2005

"Hobbits" back in the news

Carl Zimmer, writer of one of my new favorite blogs The Loom, has a good post revisiting the H. floresiensis discovery last year on the Indonesian island of Flores (as well as a link to an archive of past posts). Peter Brown and company have published another article in Nature further supporting the classification of floesiensis as a human species.

In this week's issue of Nature, the scientists describe bones from nine individuals from the Liang Bua cave. Some of the bones--parts of the right arm and jaw--belong to an individual. Other leg bones, shoulder bones, and various bits of fingers and toes come from other levels in the cave. They were laid down in the cave over thousands of years, the youngest being just 12,000 years old--around the time when our ancestors were inventing agriculture.
The key conclusion of the paper is that these fossils look a lot like the original Hobbit bones reported last year. The new jaw, for example, has the same peculiar roots on its teeth as the old one, and both also lack a chin. If the original Hobbit was just a pathological human, the authors argue, then all of these new individuals would have to be pathological too. And the fact that these fossils span 80,000 years makes it even harder to hold the pathology argument. According to Harvard's Daniel Lieberman this pattern refutes the aberrant dwarf argument, which now "strains credulity," as he writes in an accompany commentary.

More: AP reports on the discovery of another H. floresiensis jawbone.

Posted by Will at 09:50 AM


Robot to climb Egyptian pyramid
Tom Perry
A robot will be sent up narrow shafts in the Great Pyramid to try to solve one of the mysteries of the 4500-year-old pharaoh mausoleum, says Egypt's top archaeologist.
Dr Zahi Hawass say he will this week inspect a robot designed to climb the two narrow shafts that might lead to an undiscovered burial chamber in the pyramid of Cheops at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 08:54 AM

October 05, 2005

Finally, a purpose for archaeology

The funny thing is this is probably real:


Posted by Will at 10:47 AM

October 03, 2005

Anthropoloy Subfield Test

I took the following "test" that seems to be desinged for high school kids or new undergraduates. Some of the questions were obvious (and hilarious) but the results were only halfway accurate (the "bio" prefix isn't my bag). Leave a comment if you take the test yourself!

The best question:

Now that we're done, what are you likely to do next? (You can leave blank if none of these appeal to you...It makes me wonder, though, if you really are an anthropologist!)
-drink beer with my new pals
-drink beer until 3 am, get up and go to work at 5 am
-study the effects of alcohol on the human body (aka drinking beer)
-bink dreer
You scored 22 living culture, 48 growing culture, 58 digging culture, and 12 talking culture!
Your answers suggest you would be interested in bioarchaeology. Typically, bioarchaeologists are interested in what bones can tell us about past human societies. Often, bones are examined for age, sex, trauma and disease, burial treatments, and associations with grave goods. These can provide clues about social classes, population structure, and relationships to ancestral or descendant populations.

My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 33% on cultured
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 69% on bare bones
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 97% on diggin it
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 5% on ya don't say
Link: The What Anthropology Subfield Test written by arlaniarch on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test

Posted by Will at 12:17 AM

October 01, 2005

Photos show wild gorilla tool use

From National Geographic News:

Researchers have observed and photographed wild gorillas using sticks and stumps to navigate a swampy forest clearing in the Republic of the Congo. The images provide the first documented use of tools among wild gorillas.
In one instance, a female gorilla named Leah tried to wade across a pool of water but found herself waist deep after just a few steps. She retreated, grabbed a branch sticking out of the water, and used it to gauge the water's depth before wading deeper.
The use of sticks by gorillas for postural support suggests tool use can be triggered by other environmental factors. It also fits with the argument that tool use reflects ecological needs, Breuer and his colleagues conclude in PLoS: Biology.
Stanford, the University of Southern California anthropologist, said the tool use of gorillas is "lower order," in the sense that their tools are not modified like the sticks chimpanzees use to fish for termites. Nevertheless, he added, the finding is "very cool."

Posted by Will at 04:09 PM

September 29, 2005

Describing "Hobbit Man"

Peter Brown, an Australian paleoanthropologist, visited the anthropology department today and gave a lecture earlier this evening to the USF community. Brown was the one who discovered and first described Homo floresiensis in 2003 after him and his team uncovered miniature yet distinctly human-like skeleton and other remains. The discovery completely rocked the anthropology community and anyone interested in human origins. Soon, television documentaries and magazine features dominated the headlines with news of “Hobbit Man,” a long-lost direct human ancestor. First described in Nature, the discovery has been most prominently featured by National Geographic, who sponsored the investigation.

The anthropology department was fortunate enough to have Dr. Brown give a special mini-lecture this afternoon where he shared some casts of H. floresiensis. Needless to say, he was quite knowledgeable and willing to speak about the debate surrounding including the finding in the genus Homo. It was a very rare glimpse (for me at least) into the very down-to-earth, human process that goes into describing such a revolutionary discovery. For my “being in the right place at the right time” moment of the semester I was asked to show Dr. Brown our biological collection that I am working with for my graduate assistantship. For someone who has a somewhat limited knowledge of paleoanthropology the task was a bit nerve racking but I managed not to confuse my hominid species too badly.

The most entertaining part of the lecture this evening was Dr. Brown relating his experience of dealing with the media frenzy surrounding the find, which he mentioned had quite a bit to do with the label of “Hobbit Man” (apparently his choice for a nickname, Flo, never caught on). It’s embarrassing for any serious scholar or student of anthropology to refer to a major discovery as a Hobbit, but the important thing is that it’s getting people excited about human origins and the growing amount of evidence in support of evolutionism.

I was going to compile a list of links related to H. floresiensis but talkorigins.org has already done that for me on their very good page about H. floresiensis.

H. floresiensis cranium compared to that of a modern human.

Posted by Will at 09:09 PM

September 22, 2005

Incredibly Preserved Mummies

Now this is Indiana Jones material: The Washington Post reports from Argentina that three highly preserved Peruvian mummies are at the center of a debate on whether or not to display them to the public in a museum. The photo that accompanies the story is eerie to say the least.

Some more links:
Inca mummies in Peru at National Geographic, BBC News, and NPR.
Ice Mummies of the Inca at NOVA Online

Posted by Will at 07:20 PM

September 02, 2005

More on Katrina and Anthropology

I received an e-mail today from a fellow grad student about a professor at the University of Texas who is initiating an informal response from the academic community regarding Hurricane Katrina and what, if anything, different disciplines could contribute. He initially posed this invitation to his grad students at Texas but it made its way to USF anthropoplogy listserv so I was prompted to build on my previous post about Katrina and the possibility of an anthropological perspective. The following is what I submitted.

It is not immediately obvious what, if anything, the field of archaeology can offer to the understanding of and response to the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We are after all concerned with the material remains of past cultures and societies. In one disturbing sense any academic endeavor carried out in the immediate disaster area will ultimately be a study of a past society. Archaeologists several hundred years from now may excavate in New Orleans and be able to correlate data with historical accounts of a great flood that happened back in AD 2005. It is unknown what conclusions they may draw.

In a broader context, the field of anthropology has much to offer to the study and documentation of Katrina. One news reporter spoke of a “leveling effect” whereby every private citizen within the disaster area suddenly became equal: all had lost virtually everything. Money no longer held any value and one could no longer be judged by their material possessions. It is obvious however that an overwhelming majority of those “left behind” were of the lowest economic class in the country before the storm. They simply did not have the means to evacuate the city when the government demanded it. These people were herded into the Louisiana Superdome like cattle to ride out the storm only to emerge on the other side as headless chickens. Government officials initially did little to displace the survivors from the area after the hurricane had passed. Indeed there was little that could be done in such a devastating aftermath. Looters practiced their trade with callous indifference to law and order while others had no choice but to participate just to survive.

The dynamics of the entire situation beg for anthropological insight. Overnight the Superdome was transformed into a new society with new rules and new survival tactics. New Orleans was no longer and its former citizens found themselves facing the challenges of a lawless, third world nation. This was a unique situation in which people who had very little to begin with had even less. How did they react, adjust, and cope with this new social environment? What effect did cramming twenty thousand people into a concrete structure have on the mentality of these people? Surely exhaustion, devastation, frustration, and confusion were the most prevalent. However I feel there was something less obvious going on inside the walls of the Superdome. With little social order to speak of and even less infrastructure guiding the actions of the survivors, what knowledge and abilities did they put into use over the past several days? How did they deal with unrest? These are anthropological questions whose answers can serve a purpose. That purpose make become more obvious in the coming weeks and months but it is safe to conclude at this point that by studying how the people affected by the hurricane reacted and acted will be integral to planning for similar future situations.

Posted by Will at 11:48 PM

August 31, 2005

Katrina: the need for an anthropological perspective

I’ve heard it at least two or three times on the radio and television: Hurricane Katrina has brought the best and the worst out in people. As with any disaster, natural or otherwise, this is usually the case. I cannot begin to fathom how anyone could be taking advantage of such a situation as callously as those that have been looting in the hurricane area, particularly in New Orleans. As many have said, it is one thing to “loot” for bare necessities such as food and water, but blatantly stealing electronics, designer clothing, and other goods is the worst display of humanity and a prime example of everything that’s wrong with American culture. I could go on for pages about how our society has nurtured this behavior but I’ll spare you.

What I will comment on is the sad state of affairs in terms of survivors and refugees. Virtually every news image coming in from the New Orleans area, which experienced the worst flooding due to its location below sea level, has been of the poorest of the poor of Louisiana. These are these are the people that could not evacuate the area prior to the hurricane because they did not have the means to, presumably because they did not own or have access to a car. They ended up either at the Superdome, on a rooftop, or dead. I have yet to see footage of middle- or upper-class families sticking it out on a stadium floor or wading through waist-deep water that is most definitely contaminated. Why? The answer is obvious: they all had the means to get out.

While I cannot offer a solution to the poverty problem in New Orleans or elsewhere, I cannot help but place a certain degree of blame on the federal and local governments for the current situation. As some have noted, the mere fact that so many individuals were “left behind” is testament to the government’s lack of adequate disaster planning for the low-income, poor, and homeless population. Many have sympathized with local officials and authorities for doing the best they can in such an awful situation. Indeed they have been but much could have been prevented with a little foresight and planning. Much has been made of the fact that New Orleans as a city was waiting for the hurricane disaster that would sink the city. Why then have so many people been left behind to scrape by in a structure designed for football games and worse, left to die? To plan for the worst after the worst has happened is not acceptable. The majority of these people should have been in the state of Louisiana on Monday morning.

I anticipate a voice from the anthropological community in regards of diaster planning in the coming weeks and months. There is a class structure in America that sadly become very well-defined over the past few days. If one good thing is to come out of the Katrina diaster it is that disaster planning for low-income, disabled, elderly, poor, and homeless communities may now play a more prominent role in the agendas of local governments.

Posted by Will at 09:20 PM

August 11, 2005

First words of Incan Empire revealed?

Despite all its magnificent architecture, beautiful artwork, and centralized rule that extended north and south throughout the entire empire, the Inca of South America never got around to developing an archaeological observable form of writing. The closest they presumably came was the quipu, a system of strings and knots that were used to preserve information that probably had to do with public administration of the vast empire. Now, two researchers from Harvard University claim they have found a three-knot pattern in some of the strings. The discovery may indicate the use of a place name. Full story below the fold:

Possible Pattern Found in Incan Strings
By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer

Three figure-eight knots tied into strings may be the first word from the ancient Inca in centuries.

While the Incan empire left nothing that would be considered writing by today's standards, it did produce knotted strings in various colors and arrangements that have long puzzled historians and anthropologists.

Many of these strings have turned out to be a type of accounting system, but interpreting them has been complex.

Now, Gary Urton and Carrie J. Brezine of Harvard University say they have found a three-knot pattern in some of the strings, called khipu, that they believe identifies them as coming from the city of Puruchuco, about seven miles north of modern Lima, Peru.

They used computers to analyze 21 khipu found at Puruchuco and divided them into three groups based on the knot patterns. Their findings are reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

One group seems to be for local use and the other two groups — each with the three-knot pattern — may have been used to report local activities to higher authority, or to receive messages from those authorities. Details of the information from the local khipu was coded onto the others intended for travel.

In this case, the researchers believe they have found a place name in the three knots. "If that's the case, we should ideally be able to look around at other khipu and see if we see this arrangement," Urton said.

"We suggest that any khipu moving within the state administrative system having an initial arrangement of three figure-eight knots would have been immediately recognizable to Inca administrators as an account pertaining to the palace of Puruchuco," the researchers said.

"For the first time, really, we can see how information that was of interest to the state was moving up and down in a set of interrelated khipu," Urton said in a telephone interview.

"We assume it has to do with tribute, the business of the state, general census taking or what resources existed or what activities were taking place," he said.

Identifying a place-name, they said, could provide the first foothold for interpreting the knots.

Potentially, Urton said, they might be able to build up an inventory of place names, the first time khipu knots have been directly associated with words rather than numbers.

There are between 650 and 700 khipu in museums, he explained, and about two-thirds of them have the knots organized in a decimal system indicating their use in some sort of accounting.

But the remaining khipu have knots in other patterns, perhaps a form of written language, if the researchers can work it out.

"We think those may be the narrative ones, "Urton said. "The identities attached to those knots may not be numerical. If we can use the numericals to account for objects, that may give us clues to how they were assigning identities to objects," he said, citing such items as llamas, gods, defeated cities and warriors that might have been counted.

If they are able to find such words, then they could look for those words in the narrative khipu.

What is missing is something like the Rosetta stone, which allowed Egyptian hieroglyphics to be deciphered when researchers realized it contained identical text in three languages, two of which could still be understood.

The Inca empire flourished along the western edge of South America in the late 1400s, ending with the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s. There are reports of the Inca telling the Spanish conquerers that the khipu told history, good and bad. The Spanish reportedly wrote down some of the Inca stories, but destroyed many of the khipu.

Galen Brokaw, professor of languages at the University at Buffalo, called the paper "exciting," because Urton was able to show a relationship between three levels of khipu.

"Each higher level condenses the more specific and detailed information of the level immediately below it. So, this provides us with an idea about how khipu were used in the Inca administration. To a non-specialist, it may sound like a fairly small discovery, but within the context of khipu studies it is fairly significant," Brokaw said.

Heather Lechtman, a professor of archaeology and ancient technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology — after hearing a description of Urton's paper — said "he is making an interpretation, and I expect that he is not far from the mark."

Neither Brokaw nor Lechtman was part of Urton's research team.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, Dumbarton Oaks Foundation, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Posted by Will at 03:13 PM

August 10, 2005

Dawkins vs. Gilder

I left Wilmington yesterday for the last time as a student to come home to Winston-Salem for about two weeks before I leave for Tampa and graduate school. Unfortunately, my parents sill use what is called a "dial-up" internet connection so my blogging for the next two weeks will take a tad longer, but you won't notice.

Despite the archaic internet connection I'm using, I was able to tune in to a replay of this morning's On Point radio program on NPR. Originally intended to be a head-to-head debate between famed evolutionist Richard Dawkins and Discovery Institute fellow George Gilder, Dawkins was wise enough not to give Gilder the time of day, so instead they went "back-to-back", Gilder going first then Dawkins responding from Oxford. I listened to about three minutes of Gilder's babbling before skipping ahead to Dawkins' segment (about 20 minutes in). My conclusion: I could listen to Richard Dawkins read the phone book and still be mesmerized. Needless to say, he put Guilder to shame in many respects. I was surprised to hear that the last guest on the program was Michael Ruse, who I just blogged about in my previous post. As always, Pharyngula has a full review and opinion of the show.

My favorite quote from the program comes from none other than Richard Dawkins, who said the following in response to a caller who stated the tired "complexity of life as evidence of God" argument:

"Do go read a book, they are fascinating. You'll love them."

Posted by Will at 03:18 PM

August 09, 2005

Laser Buddhas

A neat story out of Afghanistan: California artist Hiro Yamagata is recreating with laser projections the country's famous 1600 year old stone Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001:

"Many people say, 'My art will heal the people,'" said Yamagata. "Of course I help people, but it's more about not harming people."


Posted by Will at 11:42 PM

August 08, 2005

Ape to Man

The Ape to Man documentary aired last night and I was able to catch the whole thing. My reaction is mixed: I enjoyed the fact that it focused on the history of evolutionary theory and while the re-enactments were a little corny, they seemed to go along with the goal of the program nicely. The only thing that really made me laugh out loud and almost embarrassed me was the actor who played 1970's Don Johanson's colleague; the guy with the huge sideburns and obviously faux handlebar mustache. To boot, he was a spitting image of Brian Fantana from Anchorman.

Posted by Will at 10:09 AM

August 05, 2005

Hi-Res CT Scan Images of 2,000 year-old Mummy

This is a must see: scientists have used an incredibly powerful CT scanner and imaging equipment to create high resolution images of a 2,000 year old sub-adult Egyptian mummy:

"Real anatomy exists in three dimensions, so any time you can view anatomical data in 3D, you'll have a much more accurate picture of the subject," said Paul Brown, DDS, of the Stanford-NASA National Biocomputation Center. Brown and a team of fellow dentists, orthodontists and oral surgeons determined the mummy's age and other features by studying the 3D visualization. "Even multiple two-dimensional CT slices can never allow you to understand a subject's dental condition as quickly or as accurately as a quality 3D visualization."

The full story tells all about it and includes a video and two of the hi-res images (thanks to ArchaeoBlog).

Posted by Will at 11:08 PM

Guatemala's Popularity on the Rise

There's a great story in the LA Times (via Newsday) about the reemergence of Guatemala after decades of violence and civil war. Along with its booming tourism industry, Guatemala has Francis Ford Coppola's new resort on Lake Petén Itzá. I also learned from the story that CBS is planning to film the next season of "Survivor" in the country. It's easy to see why Guatemala is experiencing an incredible growth in tourism: it's simply one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I've only been to four countries other than the United States but when I was in Guatemala for a few days last summer I was awestruck by the beauty of the culture and its people. It seemed so full of life and energy despite its history of violence and bloodshed; a stark contrast from attitudes in the United States. While part of me felt sympathy for the poverty that plagues Guatemala I had infinite respect for the character of the people. I was only there for four days but I got a strong sense of the pride and quiet dignity they possessed. Most of them knew violence all too well but they were somehow above that, at least on the surface.

Posted by Will at 12:23 PM

August 03, 2005

GG&S Debate Summary at Inside Higher Ed

In the wake of the PBS special based on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, a multi-blog debate exploded that brought in all kinds of opinions and thoughts on the matter. I posted quite a bit about the series itself, including one post about the debate, which started at Savage Minds. For anyone who wants to catch up or find out what all the uproar was about and what started it, Inside Higher Ed has a great piece on the debate's short history (thanks Kerim).

Previously on Nomadic Thoughts:
More on the Guns, Germs, and Steel Special on PBS
GG&S Episode One Review
GG&S Episode Two Review
My psuedo-interview with Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel: Final Review and Analysis
GG&S Debate Heats Up

Posted by Will at 03:10 PM

August 02, 2005

Groundbreaking linguistics research to change anthropology forever

For all you linguists out there, billmon from the Whiskey Bar describes an exotic language, Journalish, and one its variants known as Newspaperese. The findings will undoubtedly rock the world of anthropological linguistics and may even cause Noam Chomsky to exhibit a human emotion:

The crudest dialects (such as Cablenewsian) consist of little more than simian grunts and howls, accompanied by hand and facial gestures so simple and obvious that even total morons (as well as some CNN anchors) can understand them.
But the written version of Journalish -- Newspaperese -- isn't always that easy. While still primitive compared to standard English, Newspaperese texts can be very hard to decode. Anthropologists attribute this to the dominant social norms of most Journalish tribes: extreme deference to authority, an almost pathological fear of being shunned, and a deep aversion to acknowledging unpleasant facts that might cause the tribal chiefs to lose face.

Posted by Will at 06:55 PM

July 26, 2005

Guns, Germs and Steel: Final Review and Analysis

Last night was the conclusion of the Guns, Germs and Steel mini-series on PBS. Episode Three, Into the Tropics, tests Jared Diamond’s theory of global European domination on the continent of Africa. He looks at why Europeans were so successful in and around the southern tip of Africa and why the Dutch failed miserably at extending their domination northward. Diamond concludes his train journey by examining the role of disease, climate, and technology in the development of global inequality.

Like the previous two episodes, Into the Tropics was wonderful aesthetically but it was a little more scattered than its predecessors. Africa is a rather large continent and it is clearly impossible to apply Diamond’s theory to such a geographically expansive area in less than an hour. Whereas Episodes One and Two achieved the goal of providing a good introduction to the roots of European domination, Episode Three was a bit of a stretch. The conclusion, however, was well written and summed up the series quite well, but it felt rushed; sort of that “oh crap, we’re running out of time so let’s get to the point” feeling. I believe I got this feeling because this particular episode dealt with a vastly important and emotional topic and focused largely on contemporary human suffering. The footage of Diamond breaking down in a Zambian children’s hospital was awkward yet effective.

Now that I have the entire series to base my opinion on, I still stand by my belief that documentary filmmaking on scientific topics does not have to be high-density in order to provide a useful tool for both laypersons and professionals. The fields relevant to Guns, Germs and Steel (geography, anthropology, environmental science, etc.) all have their professional journals and academic conferences that provide a useful and necessary forum for the exchange of ideas and thus the development of theory and method. Speaking from an anthropological perspective, I have always thought that the entire point of scientific inquiry was to address real problems relevant to real people. If a topic is of absolutely no use to anyone and as a result makes no useful contributions to the broad base of human knowledge then such a topic is a lost cause (thankfully, it is hard to think of a feasible research project that does not meet these requirements). For this reason, the aim of any scientist, social or otherwise, should strive to make their research available to the masses. This may mean numerous translations in some cases or the preparation of visual aids in others. Particularly in anthropology, there is a cultural divide that often must be crossed to do this.

I feel that Guns, Germs and Steel (the television version) does just that: it provides a succinct yet informative introduction to Jared Diamond’s theory. It doesn’t rob the viewer of the importance of the topics covered nor does it sell short the science of those topics. The television series never purported to be a highly scientific documentary examining the ultimate and proximate factors in the development of inequality. In this respect, neither does the book that the series is based on (although is does examine the factors closely).

There has been some great discussion happening on academic blogs in the wake of Guns, Germs and Steel, most notably at Savage Minds which offers two posts, both critical of Diamond’s theories rather than the television series itself. I suggest you read them to balance out the GG&S love-fest that has been going on here at Nomadic Thoughts for the past three weeks:

Anthropology's Guns, Germs and Steel Problem by Ozma
What's Wrong with Yali's Question by Kerim

Posted by Will at 11:13 AM | Comments (1)

July 22, 2005

My psuedo-interview with Jared Diamond

As I mentioned a few posts back, Washingtonpost.com hosted an online "chat" with Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond this past Wednesday and the question I submitted for the chat was answered (read the whole transcript here):

Wilmington, N.C.: Dr. Diamond, whenever a documentary such as Guns, Germs and Steel is released on television, there always seems to be some criticism from academics and other experts in the discipline that the program focuses on. What was your experience with helping to produce a television series in which your expansive theory was adequately covered in such a relatively short amount of time (a three-hour program)?
Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Well, I had to get used to the fact that a 200,000 word book that would take 20 hours to read out loud has to get summarized for TV within 3 hours. A lot had to be shortened, but on the other hand, TV can evoke and recreate in a way that a book cannot. And I myself think that it is wonderful how National Geographic and Lion TV succeeded in making complex subjects come vividly alive.

(My question was actually inspired by recent posts by two other bloggers: PZ at Pharyngula because of his concern over the "low-density" format of science shows on television; and Alun for his post on archaeology on television.)

Diamond's response to my question is parallel to my own belief that the visual aspect of television and other multimedia can work wonders for both students that are learning for the first time and experts who are already familiar with the subject matter. I've been reading the book off and on for a few years now and just from watching the first two episodes I already have clearer understanding of Diamond's theory. Naturally he's going to defend science on television because he's currently promoting his special on PBS, but I think low-density science programming for the masses is just as important (if not more so) than technical professional journals. Naturally, I would have loved to see Guns, Germs and Steel as a 10-disc epic documentary a la Kens Burns, but three hours was enough to scratch the surface in such a way as to provide a thorough introduction to the theory of ecological/geographical determinism.

As an aside, the GG&S DVD that I ordered from Amazon.com the other week just arrived and it's magnificent. The 2-disc set includes all three episodes plus some pretty cool interactive special features. If you're going to buy it, get it at Amazon because it's about $15 cheaper than the PBS store and Best Buy.

Posted by Will at 06:35 PM

How to be an Archaeologist

Savage Minds directed me to IndyGear.com, a website (I kid you not) about the clothing, equipment, and archaeology of Indiana Jones.

Posted by Will at 06:22 PM

Panda's Thumb reports from Creation Mega Conference

Jason at The Panda's Thumb is providing a series of incredibly fascinating posts about his time at the Creation Mega Conference in Lynchburg, Virginia (home of Liberty University, Falwell's institution). They're coming in parts, so read there or keep an eye on this post for excerpts:

Part 1:

People start taking their seats and Jerry Falwell approaches the platform. Golly! He's famous. I've seen him on television.

He describes the conference as an historic event, and claims around 2000 attendees. My own informal count says that's a plausible number. He then asserts that all the polls show that 2/3 to 3/4 of Americans agree with AiG on this issue, which is total nonsense. The polls have consistently shown that the percentage of people accepting the Young-Earth position is just under fifty percent.
He boasts that the debate is being won by the church. He says that despite having the media, Hollywood and academe against them, the church of Jesus Christ returned George W. Bush to the White House. And this is about science, right?

Part 2:

At scientific conferences, the purpose of the presentations is to transmit facts and ideas to the audience. Glitz and flash are not viewed as important. But in creationist conferences, the point is to fool people into thinking that something of great import is being delivered from the stage. They want to provoke the reaction, “How could they be wrong? Their presentation is so slick!”

Part 3:

Nonsense has to be confronted. A short drive from my home, some two thousand people are gathering to listen to a series of frauds and charlatans impugn the characters of my colleagues and tell lies about what scientists believe and why they believe it. How could I live with myself if I didn't do what little I could to challenge it? Frankly, I think it should be a requirement of every science PhD program in the country that students attend a conference such as this. Let them see first-hand the ingorance, the anti-intellectualism, the anti-science propaganda, the anti-anything that doesn't conform to their idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible attitude. Maybe then people on my side of this would wake up, and stop acting like it's a waste of time to pay attention to these folks.

Posted by Will at 06:08 PM

July 11, 2005

Must-Read Piece on Iraq Looting

From Mother Jones magazine comes a great essay from Chalmers Johnson's collection Nemesis: The Crisis of the American Republic. In it, Johnson sets a backdrop for the West's treatment of the looting and vandalism problem that has plagued Iraq since the war began, specifically at the Iraq National Museum. Johnson is critical of US efforts to curb the decimation of the invaluable artifacts and manuscripts that are located within Iraq's borders, claiming that

...the American forces made no effort to prevent the looting of the great cultural institutions of Iraq, its soldiers simply watching vandals enter and torch the buildings. Said Arjomand, an editor of the journal Studies on Persianate Societies and a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, wrote, "Our troops, who have been proudly guarding the Oil Ministry, where no window is broken, deliberately condoned these horrendous events."[19] American commanders claim that, to the contrary, they were too busy fighting and had too few troops to protect the museum and libraries.

A sad situation all around and one that must be continuously addressed if we are to save our collective history from the ravages of war (see my post here). I'm becoming increasingly more passionate about the issue of Iraq's cultural heritage and the implications that seem to drown in the blood that steadily flows from the country. While human life is infinitely more valuable that a stone tablet or a tattered manuscript, in many ways they are similar. Both can teach us about the past as well as our future, whether it be destruction or prosperity.

My favorite part of the MoJo piece is actually from Tom Engelhardt's introduction to Johnson's essay, in which he beautifully sums up the whole situation:

The destruction began as Baghdad fell. Words disappeared instantly. They simply blinked off the screen of Iraqi history, many of them forever. First, there was the looting of the National Museum. That took care of some of the earliest words on clay, including, possibly, cuneiform tablets with missing parts of the epic of Gilgamesh. Soon after, the great libraries and archives of the capital went up in flames and books, letters, government documents, ancient Korans, religious manuscripts, stretching back centuries -- all those things not pressed into clay, or etched on stone, or engraved on metal, just words on that most precious and perishable of all commonplaces, paper -- vanished forever. What we're talking about, of course, is the flesh of history. And it was no less a victim of the American invasion -- of the Bush administration's lack of attention to, its lack of any sense of the value of what Iraq held (other than oil) -- than the Iraqi people. All of this has been, in that grim phrase created by the Pentagon, "collateral damage."

(As an aside, Johnson's essay made me aware of The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad : The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia, yet another volume that will soon be on my shelf.)

Posted by Will at 12:16 AM

July 06, 2005

More on the Mexican Footprints

My post yesterday on those Mexican footprints got a nice mention at a blog called Alun, which is written by an archaeoastronomy PhD student at the University of Leicester in the UK. He has a very thorough post about the discovery and gives some good background about the debate. There is even a website now about the footprints: http://www.mexicanfootprints.co.uk/.

Posted by Will at 09:54 AM

July 05, 2005

Footprints from the Past

Perhaps more convincing evidence of early human occupation of the Americas: archaeologists in Mexico have discoved several footprints preserved in volcanic ash and made by four to six individuals. Dating techniques seem to shatter the long-accepted date of arrival of the first Americans (full story here):

The layer of volcanic ash in which the 269 footprints are preserved has been dated by two different techniques - radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating - to between 38,000 and 39,000 years ago. Until now the earliest definite dates for a human presence in the Americas were 15,000 years ago. Given the location of the find, deep in the Americas, it makes it almost certain that humans must have first entered the Americas at least 40,000 years ago.

The find, coupled with research of prehistoric climate, is becoming increasingly important in determining approximately when the Americas were first populated and how.



Good article in Nature here.
Another from BBC News here.

Other blogs writing about the story:

Posted by Will at 12:02 AM | Comments (1)

July 03, 2005

Social Neuroscience

The Guardian reports on recent findings about the nature of beliefs and the growing field of social neuroscience. Previously reserved for philosophers, the subject is crossing over into the realm of imperical science. How are beliefs formed? How are they maintained and changed? The answer seems to be complex interactions of biology, culture, and environment:

"Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain," says Taylor. "If you challenge them by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you're going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other."

What does this mean for anthropology and other social sciences? If social neuroscience begins answering the many questions it has raised, then we will be better equipped to understand such things as social interactions and behavior and the dynamics of culture and spiritual beliefs. Temporary relief from my fear of not having anything to research in the future.

Posted by Will at 11:23 PM

June 22, 2005

That's dinosaurs, right?

There's an interesting discussion going on at Savage Minds about the "Indiana Jones Syndrome" in anthropology. Rex writes:

When I tell most people that I am an anthropologist, the most common response is “ah… dinosaur bones. Fascinating.” But, as Kerim points out many focus on the Indiana Jones thing as well. This isn’t surprising. As a kid I loved Indiana Jones flicks as much as anyone else, but I never went into anthropology because of them (how that happened is a longer story!). But truth be told, I am genuinely shocked at how many anthropologists I know got into the business as a result of Indiana Jones—and if people were willing to admit it, the numbers would rise even higher.

I commented here that I was not immune from the Indiana Jones syndrome.

Very rarely does an archaeologist need to replace an artifact with a bag of sand to avoid death.

I have heard the dinosaur comment a few times since I started taking anthropology classes. The best one was when one of the managers at a cafeteria I used to work at thought anthropology was the study of bugs. Many times, those of us in the field loose sight of the fact that anthropology really is a minority discipline at most American universities and that there are only a few thousand professional archaeologists in the entire country. As a result, the majority of non-anthropology geeks have false impressions or no impression at all. For such an important field, I hope that this changes over time.

American anthropology has always sort of been one of those disciplines that people view as either exotic and exciting or completely dull and unimportant. Both extremes are the result of ignorance and it is up to the field alone to correct these false impressions. As I am relatively new to the field I can't give an expert opinion but it seems to me that the key is dialogue. By engaging the general public on a regular basis we clarify what we're all about as well as the importance of what we do.

Posted by Will at 04:14 PM | Comments (3)

June 07, 2005

Work Habits

On one of my two days off from work I chose to write about the social dynamics and interactive characteristics of the clientele. I work at a yacht club here in Wilmington that is strictly members only. Located on an island which is situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, one has to own a house or be a guest of someone who owns a house to even gain access to the island via the single bridge that connects it to the mainland. Once on the island, the most noticeable thing is the absence of ambient noise and at night, the complete lack of light, save that which emanates from the houses themselves. The island prides itself on having absolutely no commercial development. The only structure on the island that is not a private residence is the yacht club. There are no streetlights or overhead power lines. When I leave work after dark, there is an eerie sense of "otherworldliness" characterized by an almost negative silence and complete darkness.

These are the richest of the rich of the East Coast: there are both permanent residents and those who have second and third vacation homes at the beach. My job is in the yacht club restaurant running food, among other things. About the only thing I don't do is cook and wait, which gives me ample opportunity to "study" the club's patronage, taking mental notes of what goes along with having millions and in a few cases, billions of dollars to your name. As an anthropology student, it's almost as if I'm conducting fieldwork that entails documenting the habits of a new species of humans.

There are just two main groups of people that would ever be on the island: homeowners and employees of the yacht club or the homeowners association (which I assume includes the security guards, etc.). As I mentioned above, you have to be either a member of one of these groups or a guest of the former. Prior to gaining access to the island, you have to pass through a security gate which is monitored 24/7. Once approved, you pass over the Intracoastal Waterway and onto the island itself. To the uninitiated, you immediately notice the differences between "their world" and ours. The speed limit over the bridge is 15 miles-per-hour and it never goes above 35 anywhere on the island. A terse message reminds members to "Walk left, bike right." Although to the average person these signs seem strictly utilitarian the anthropologist in me sees them as serving a dual purpose. Besides the utility aspect, such signs serve to let everyone know that "when you're on our island, you play by our rules." I cannot say much about other signs on the island because as an employee, I am not allowed to drive past the club where the massive houses begin.

The yacht club itself is replete with signs of social stratification. Upon entering through the front door, there is a simple sign carved from a single piece of wood that reads "Members Only." This is the most obvious example of separation that I have found. While the sign may indeed serve to keep unescorted guests from penetrating the walls of the club, I have a strong suspicion that it's main purpose is to make the members feel special, like this is their club paid for by their $40,000/year dues (not a typo). The prominence of the sign subconsciously reminds the members of this fact and that they are indeed separate and apart from the rest of the world while they're on the island.

The inside of the club, it is not much different than any other very fine dining establishment, except the yacht club logo is on everything. The dinner base plates, our employee nametags, pens, napkins, and bathroom hand towels. One is greeted by an oversized brass logo mounted on the wall at the entrance. Again, such signs serve to subconsciously remind the members where they are and why they are here. They are different, unique in their fortune and status.

I find it amusing that I see these types of things almost everywhere I go. The ways humans interact with one another in certain situations are as variable as life itself. In the example of the yacht club, we see a conscious effort being made on the part of the staff and management to allow the members to "live" their wealth. That is when they are within the walls of the club, which is the only public indoor space on the island, they feel comfortable. I make no moral judgements on these grounds, only the observation that there is much more that goes along with social status in America that simply realizing one is a part of a certain class. There is a prescribed subconscious element to class that makes its perpetuation virtually unbreakable.

Posted by Will at 04:05 PM

June 03, 2005

Sustainable Harvest International

I came across a charity organization the other day called Sustainable Harvest International. They do some great work helping farming families in Central America (including Belize) deal with growing environmental problems that is making productive farming more and more difficult. It also aims to provide alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture, which can be just as destructive.

One of our activities during the archaeology field school I attended in Belize last summer was to get some hands-on farming experience. We met Julio, a farmer who owned some land just outside the village where we stayed. He showed us how he farms and instructed us on how to plant the kernels. We tied coffee cans around our waist filled with corn kernels and walked up and down a plot of land in straight paths, digging a hole in the ground about every three feet with a pointed stick. Drop a seed in, cover the hole up a little bit, and move to the next spot. Each of us only did for about five minutes and got a sense of the tedium that went along with such a technique. Julio and farmers like him do this day in and day out over acres of land. I can't imagine.

Julio shows James (left) and I how he farms with a coffee can and digging stick on his farm in Central Belize. Not pictured: the swealtering heat.

When I went to Belize last summer for a month I was struck by the beauty in the simplicity of the villager's way of life. Many people get caught up in the "endearing quality" of their lives and look at them as if they're a precious relic of the past. The truth is, they are where they are because most of Belize and Central America is still third-world and plagued by an enormous drug trade that keeps them there. Belize isn't as bad off as most of the other countries such as Guatemala (which I also visited on my trip) and Nicaragua. There are, however, still farmers that need assistance in many ways. The best thing about Sustainable Harvest is that they claim to not approach farmers unless they are invited.

So check it out and consider donating. They have a chart of where different amounts of what different amounts of money would provide. If you're still worried about donating, Charity Navigator gives SHI a favorable rating and budget breakdown.

Posted by Will at 01:19 PM

June 02, 2005

Richard Dawkins lays the smackdown!

I was overjoyed when I came across this piece written by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. It is a brief and concise rebuttal to the fundamental flaws inherent in Creationism (a.k.a. Intelligent Design Theory):

Science feeds on mystery. As my colleague Matt Ridley has put it: “Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that drives them on.” Science mines ignorance. Mystery — that which we don’t yet know; that which we don’t yet understand — is the mother lode that scientists seek out. Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a very different reason: it gives them something to do.

This passage adequately sums up why I'm an anthropology student: because I want to know. Only recently have I come to embrace my ignorance and what it means to do so. There's something beautiful about acquiring knowledge and embarking on a scientific endeavour, filling in little pieces of an infinitely large puzzle. As Dawkins notes, the difference between science and religion is that the former uses ignorance as a tool of sorts to drive inquiry, while the latter is content to accept probable unknowns as the product of something unknowable by its very nature. It is a paradox that led me to accept science and reject religion as a worldview.

Admissions of ignorance and mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore galling, to say the least, when enemies of science turn those constructive admissions around and abuse them for political advantage. Worse, it threatens the enterprise of science itself.

Here we have one of the clearest explanations of the most basic flaws of Creationism I have come across. Creationists are indeed a slick bunch and know how to use scientific language to make the public think they are a valid alternative to evolutionary science. I attended a lecture at UNCW back in April sponsored by a group called the Institute for Creation Research. The title of the talk was "using their own words against them." Amusing to say the least, but after reading Dawkins' article it's now quite clear their whole theory rests on trying to use our language against us.

Posted by Will at 06:03 PM