How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?

I’m going through some old files here in the lab, and came across an interesting book review by Jim Fitting from 1972.  He was looking at 3 books about ‘Science and Archaeology’, and asking the question anthropologists still debate today ‘how much are we natural science, social science and humanities?’.  Fitting was always a good writer, so it’s a fun read, regardless of your opinions on HIS opinions.  Here’s my favorite quote:


“But if the end purpose of archaeology is the study of subjects rather than objects, then does the objective study of subjectivity come any closer to reality that the subjective study of subjectivity? – Fitting, Science, 1972 Vol 175 p 977.


Try saying that five times fast.

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The World until Yesterday vs The Foraging Spectrum

In all of the discussion lately about Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies, I haven’t heard anyone bring up the book that keeps coming to my mind, so I figured I should write a blog post about it.

Last night I pulled out my copy of The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways (1995), by Robert Kelly, and started re-reading it.  I’m still in the first chapter, but as always, the book engages me.  I’m wondering if others have read it, and what they think of it?  What I love about this book is that it takes all of the assumptions you’ve heard about forager homogeneity and tests them, rather than accept them.  By showing the variety of lifeways of hunter-gatherers around the world in the past 100 years, Kelly shows how extremely DIFFERENT they are from one another, leading the reader to recognize the problems with using modern hunter-gatherers as cultural correlates for the vast cultures of our human past.  If we can have so many diverse lifeways today, think of all the potential variability in social organization, religion, economic systems, and family structure we may have had over the course of the history of our species.

Indeed, I think Kelly explains the potential pitfalls of Diamond’s book quite well in his first chapter, while discussing the history of anthropologists and their own research on hunter-gatherer communities:

“But for many years the objective of hunter-gatherer research has been to seek out the essential core of the hunter-gatherer lifeway and consequently to ignore or explain away variability as the product of extraordinary natural environments or particular historical circumstances…For each model proposed, variation is recognized, but eventually winnowed out, leaving behind a unitary description of the essential hunter-gatherer'” (Kelly 1995:2-3)

Kelly then goes on to discuss how engagement with nation-states, large-scale farmers and forced removal to marginalized areas may all lead to variations which are modern anomalies, rather than anything related to the act of gathering wild foods. He then states one of the most important lines of the book:

“Whatever is commonly associated with ethnographically known hunter-gatherer economies cannot be causally linked with hunting and gathering because hunter-gatherer is a category we impose on human diversity – it is not itself a causal variable.” (Kelly 1995:3, emphasis mine)

Distinguishing people because of the way they get their food is an anthropological creation – it is not inherently ‘natural’ or in fact relevant.  We have assumed that there is some relevance to it – that it indicates some sort of shared behaviors.  We as anthropologists have then sought out those shared behaviors, based on a faulty premise, so that when we find anomalies we consider them outliers, rather than an indication of possible breadth of lifeways.  Diamond, along with many others, links this idea of hunting and gathering with ‘primitive’ or ‘simple’ societies, as did many early anthropologists.

This line of thinking leads to another fault in analysis that Kelly brings up: we find what we expect to see in the past because we know what we expect to find in the past. Early anthropologists believe in unilinear cultural evolution – ‘Civilization (aka Western European society)’ was the highest rung on a ladder of progress, and other societies represented lower rungs on that ladder.  As such, they believed that modern societies that were less-materially-complex were lower on the ladder, and could be correlated to past societies that had been on the same rungs.

“To [William] Sollas, Bushmen were Aurignacians, and Eskimos were descendants of the Magdalenians, genetic relics of Upper Paleolithic peoples.” (Kelly 1995:9)

Sollas also correlated Neanderthals with Australian Aborigines.

“If Australian Aborigines, for example, matched Neanderthal “culture” so well, it was because Europeans had already presumed what Neanderthal culture was like. This was hardly a demonstration that the Aborigines were a relic population. The comparative method seemed to work so well because it conveniently began by assuming the past it claimed to discover.” (Kelly 1995:9)

Kelly’s book is geared towards archaeologists, and he readily admits that there are many aspects of social life and organization that he does not examine, while emphasizing ecological data.  The book has chapters on subsistence practices, mobility, economics, group size/fertility, gender, and inequality, culminating in a very brief chapter that discusses the links and limitations of this data to prehistory.  I love the book for the detailed amount of quantitative data it makes available to the reader.  Rather than assuming homogeneity or diversity among foraging communities around the globe, Kelly presents data table after chart of information about dozens, sometimes well over a hundred, communities: rates of mobility, % of food from fishing, gathering, hunting, cultivation and trade, rates of food sharing with spouses and siblings, demographics, “effective temperature and division of labor”, etc…

I find Kelly’s work to be very accessible and engaging (though I’m obviously biased) – for each topic he discusses he lays out the historical anthropological framework of research on the issue, so that the reader gets a sense of both WHY we are interested in this topic and how we’ve thought about it in the past.

At this point in my re-read, I’m only part way through chapter 1: Hunter-Gatherers and Anthropology.  As I re-read this history of how Anthropologists have thought about and worked with foraging communities, and how they have used/mis-used data on contemporary foragers to interpret past societies, I kept thinking about how and why Diamond has created his book at this point in time.  As Kelly frames it (and I agree with his assessment) – every phase of forager studies has stemmed out of the cultural currents that anthropologists themselves were living in.  When the ‘Man the Hunter’ conference was held in 1966, researchers latched onto Marshal Sahlins’ research which suggested that foragers have a lot of leisure time, what he called ‘The Original Affluent Society’.  Kelly suggests this became popular in part because of the decline that was going on in western society in the 1960s – people were now doubting their place as the ‘greatest’ civilizations on the top of the ladder (Kelly 1995:16). In fact there were faults in Sahlins’ data as well, which became apparent upon further research. So where does Diamond fit into that? Does his book and the focus of his research question reflect something of our own current global crises? I suspect so.  And like we’ve seen from others, I think this should cause al readers to pause and ask themselves ‘What assumptions does Diamond have, and are they valid?’

Update 2/3/13 – I just got an e-mail from Robert Kelly. He’s got a new edition of the book coming out this summer (Cambridge University Press) with updated data and some expanded chapters – including a section on technology and a section on violence.  So keep your eye out!

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Geertz on cultural anthropology

This is one of my favorite quotes. I read it often when I get frustrated with how my research is going:

“This backward order of things – first you write and then you figure out what you are writing about – may seem odd, or even perverse, but it is, I think, at least most of the time, standard procedure in cultural anthropology.”

Clifford Geertz – The Interpretation of Culture (preface)

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Historical Particularism, Achieved Status and the End of Days

The last time I taught Introduction to Anthropology, I decided to use the Mayan Apocalypse phenomenon as a case study for how we recognize and evaluate pseudoscience. We discussed what the students had heard about Maya eschatology, figured out what data we actually needed to determine the facts behind the story, and reached our own conclusions. Did the Maya, in fact, believe there was an apocalypse coming in 2012 CE? Any archaeologist worth their salt will tell you ‘No’, but I wanted my students to understand the evidence for themselves, and learn how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.

The Mayan Calendar System

The ancient Maya had a complex calendar system – several in fact. There was the 260 day ritual calendar (Tzolk’in), along with the 365 day solar calendar (Haab’). Together these make up the 52 year calendar round. There was also the Long Count Calendar. It is this latter calendar that has been of such interest regarding the upcoming Apocalypse.

The Long Count is made up of years which are 360 days long (tuns). 400 tuns make up a b’ak’tun, which is just over 394 solar years. The Mayans used a base 20 counting system, which is why you have a year that is 18×20 (as close to a full solar year as possible) ritual year and 1 b’ak’tun = 20×20 tuns.  The Mayan long count has a chosen start date (like we have the the reckoned year of Jesus Christ’s conception as the start of our Gregorian Calendar, 1 A.D.)  We have data for the Long Count Calendar from several sources – it appears on archaeological sites before the start of the Common Era, and also gets discussed in a few Maya Manuscripts including copies of the Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex. The Popol Vuh says that the Gods created three worlds before they made the one that the Maya were created in. The third world lasted for thirteen b’ak’tuns. Nowhere does anything say that each world, or even the fourth world, must last only 13 b’ak’tuns. You can think of the long count in the same way that we think of our centuries, or millenia.  We’d write the end of the 13th b’ak’tun as – the next day is

Archaeologists have determined that the creation date of the fourth world, the world of the Maya people, would have been August 11, 3114 BCE according to the Maya long count calendar. We are coming to the end of the 13th b’ak’tun of this era on December 21, 2012 (or thereabouts). There is one damaged archaeological monument, Monument 6 at the site of El Tortuguero, which makes reference to the end of this b’ak’tun, but even this series of glyphs has been interpreted variously by different archaeologists. None state that it indicates the end of the world, however. Surely if the Maya thought this an important date, it would have appeared more frequently in their glyphs at the huge number of Maya sites thus far studied by archaeologists. Further – why would other monuments include dates well into the future, if the world was believed to end this year? Indeed, the bulk of new age mythology that has developed around December 21st 2012 is based on nothing but assumptions that each Maya world must be the same length of time and a culturally un-Mayan expectation of the end of days. It ignores the vast amount of data that does not support the claim that the Maya believed the world will end this year.

I told my students this was a straightforward example of pseudoscience, and that they have the skills to seek out information and evaluate the evidence themselves to refute such claims. It was a nice way to wrap up the semester.

And then Dick Clark died.

And I began to rethink my suppositions. Rather than looking to other cultures and misinterpreting their calendars, we should look to the particulars of our own culture, to understand what is happening at the end of this year. And that it may, in fact, be the end of the world.

The American Calendrical System

For Americans, Dick Clark is the facilitator of our own calendar cycle. Every year he leads us through the ritual to leave one calendar cycle and enter into the next.

The American ritual of calendrical transition is the New Years Eve Ball Drop.  As with other traditions, the Ball Drop was somewhat variable during its early years, but was quickly standardized. From 1928-1977 Guy Lombardo would host the ball drop, first on CBS radio and by the 1950s on CBS Television. He held achieved status as the host of the New Year’s eve ball drop – he earned the respect of Americans and they chose to follow him as he led us through our ritual transition between calendar years.

During the 1970s, Dick Clark, feeling that the leader was no longer performing the ritual well, began his own New Years eve ritual on ABC: Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.  For several years both men performed their rituals of calendrical transition. Dick Clark earned his status as Americans chose to watch his show in lieu of Guy Lombardo’s.  When Lombardo died in 1977, a clear leader was waiting for us, one who many had already accepted as the ritual leader for the transition. Dick Clark had achieved his status, and thus the Calendrical Round continued successfully. Until now.

After Dick Clark had a stroke several years ago, Ryan Seacrest was ascribed as the next ritual leader, but we all know that it takes more than a title to make a successful ritual leader.

The ritual calendrical leader is a position of achieved status, and Ryan Seacrest does not have the authority of the people behind him, leading us to certain failure in performing the ritual properly. Ryan Seacrest was handed down to the people from the other leaders (including Dick Clark).  We did not choose to follow him, and though he was given the opportunity, he has not earned a status position in the way that Guy Lombardo and Dick Clark did. Without legitimate status as ritual leader, it is doubtful the ritual will succeed.

Perhaps we ARE misinterpreting the Maya data. Perhaps we are not reading the glyphs as we ought. Perhaps our own ritual calendar also shows signs of structural collapse. Dick Clark’s death is, to me, the most convincing data yet that the Maya calendar does end after 13 b’ak’tuns and the Apocalypse is coming.

Prepare yourselves.


** Update: 3:40pm : For a physicist’s perspective on the Apocalypse and the actual end of the world, check out Matthew Francis‘ post over at DoubleXScience

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Bad ‘anthropological’ movie reviews

Most folks who know me know that I LOVE bad movies. There’s a limit, but with the right crew watching a film with you, some of the worst plots, strangest special effects and annoying characters can become downright hilarious.  When I lived in Missouri our Anthropology Club used to host C.A.V.E.s – Cheesy Anthropology Video Evenings. We’d all get together and watch movies that loosely related to anthropology and mock them together (case in point 1) – trucks blow up in an Indiana Jones film and someone says ‘yeah, that happened at my field school too!’). I’m sure there are medical practitioners who get together and do this for medical TV shows as well – it turns the agonizing into the hilarious to watch these films with other specialists. Some of these are easy enough to find, but there are many gems out there worth your time, which you may never have heard of.

Today I would like to recommend “The Lost Tribe” (2010 – this date matters). I watched this with a paleontologist friend and we giggled from end to end. It was free with his Amazon Prime membership, so if you have that, this schaudenfreude will cost you nothing!

In 2008/9 a movie was produced under several different names: The Forgotten Ones, The Tribe, and After Dusk They Come.  You can watch the trailer here. You might recognize Jewel Staite (Kaylee on Serenity/Firefly).  It has a 9% like rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  So the next year someone else decided to remake the movie and release it in theaters. THE NEXT YEAR! THAT is The Lost Tribe. 21% of viewers on Rotten Tomatoes like it, and it has a lower IMDB rating than the original.

The anthropological premise of The Lost Tribe is gloriously convoluted. The actual plot of the movie is straightforward: friends/lovers on a boat crash onto an island where evil creatures voraciously attack and kill most of them. The anthropological premise is a bit less clear.  Archaeologists are excavating a hominid species unique to this locale.  The skulls are surprisingly well preserved for the mud they are sitting in, and their excavation techniques are unique. According to their video journal the Catholic church is going to FLIP OUT AND DESTROY THEM for what they have finally proved which has never been proven before (though it is never made clear what this is).  Their computer also does some really neat analysis for a field site laptop – you know, like all movie anthropologists do.  They throw in some jargony sounding nonsensical explanations for what’s going on…and then they disappear. At some point you do see a priest, but his role is never made clear.  MEANWHILE we discover that the species on the island did not go extinct, it still lives there. It’s bipedal, hairy and evil. Oh, and it can jump straight up in the air about 100 feet. MAD EVOLVING SKILLZ. No explanation for why our relatives became killer carnivores on this island. No explanation for their joy in disemboweling humans, or leaping through the forest.  I’d ask the archaeologist, but she disappeared too early in the film. This lost ‘tribe’ is never shown in any sort of social situation – they don’t talk to each other or interact that I recall. I’d like to see another film from their perspective. What is ‘village life’ like on this island?
As hilarious as the anthropology in this movie is, the rest of the plot is not without merit. I don’t want to spoil it, but rest assured the death scene in the cave is not to be missed.

The Forgotten Ones/After Dusk They come was just released on DVD and via download in October of this year, so I will have to watch that soon to see what their hominids looked like.

I strongly recommend this movie, but only if you watch it with a crew of folks who are into biology or anthropology and don’t mind yelling WHAT!?? at the screen with you.

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Student Engagement and Engaging with Students

I’ve had a really busy week, but it’s ended on a fun note, even if I did drop a folder full of graded papers into a deep oily rain puddle outside of this coffee shop.

I’m interested in getting students engaged and invested in their classes, and am regularly trying to think of different ways to get them to do more than read and memorize and regurgitate. In general, my Alma College students are fairly good at taking that next step and trying to really grapple with new material and make sense of it themselves.  But engaging students, and engaging WITH students isn’t always easy. So here are two attempts I made this week:

Field Trip! – I can’t take credit for this idea, but I’m really glad we did it. A colleague and I are co-teaching a First Year Seminar entitled ‘Food For Thought’. It is about food, culture and ethics. It is also a place where we help freshman acclimate to college coursework and life on a residential campus away from their families.  So one of our goals is to help them build a cohort of peers they get to know well, and field trips are great for that.  We have an Organic CSA farm a few miles from town, so we piled in the vans (I drove a 15 person van!) and headed out to see the farm.

The Monroes are from Gratiot County, and moved back here two years ago to start their own organic farm. It’s had a ton of support from the community; they have about 130 CSA members, along with several local restaurants they supply with certified organic food. They’ve done this on seven rented acres.  The students got to hear about why they decided to create this farm (and why they did it here), see how a small organic farm operates, learn about some foods they haven’t eaten before (no one had ever tried Swiss Chard) and why the farmers choose the vegetables they do.  We’ll see what they got out of it when we get to class next week.  I do know they had a unique experience together, which built more camaraderie. The students who grew up on farms also got to share some of their knowledge, and I don’t think some people realized they had farmers in their class.  This was a good way to realize that not everyone comes from the same background, not even at the same college.

Farmer Fred tells us about his farm

Farmer Fred Monroe tells us about his family’s organic farm.


Freshman with pigs

Thumbs up for happy organic pigs!


Farmer holding organic blue corn

Farmer Fred shows us his neighbor’s crop of organic blue corn. If you’re eating organic blue corn chips, they might be coming from Gratiot County corn!

My other form of engaging with students this week spins the other way. Over the summer the new football coach sent out an invitation to have ‘honorary coaches’ on the sidelines for the games this fall.  I thought hanging out on the sideline sounded AWESOME and I think Osh Kosh is a GREAT name for a Wisconsin town, so I picked today’s game. Little did I know Osh Kosh would be ranked 20th in the nation for Division III, and we’d get creamed. But it was still a good experience.

Earlier this week I got an e-mail letting me know when all the meetings and practices occur, in case I wanted to go to any of those as well…I really DID try to go to a 7am meeting, but I needed to get ready for class, and couldn’t get myself out of bed early enough to do both.  So on Thursday I cut out of office hours a little early and went to my first practice.  It was there that I realized that I never pay attention to anyone on the football team unless they are holding the ball. So I tried to pay more attention to all the other roles.

This morning I met up with the team for breakfast, then reconvened with them on the sidelines for warmups and the game.  Along the way I spent a lot of time talking to coaches, the Athletic Director, and the Econ professor who also came out to ‘coach’.  We actually spent a lot of time talking about the feedback coaches get from students whenever faculty come to their games (it makes them happy), and about some of the students who came to Alma College as shaky freshman and have gone on to graduate school and successful careers, in large part because they got the chance to participate in athletics and go to a small liberal arts school.  Obviously that’s not everyone (we talked about that too), but we’ve got a lot of great alums out there.  Sometimes it can seem like a lot of effort to get to student events on campus, but it’s clear that it means a lot to them when faculty show up to support them in their non-academic interests.  I have a freshman on the football team, and he came up to say hello to me during breakfast.  Other students said hello at the game (and I’m sure many others spotted me but never said hello). I saw my students on the field, in the band, on the cheer squad, and selling hot dogs.  So this was my chance to engage them on their turf (ha! literally.). Hopefully this builds a feeling of mutual respect and trust, and will encourage them to engage more when they’re in the classroom, and maybe stop by my office when they’re worried about a homework problem or have questions about careers.  Not every student has the chutzpah to do that with a faculty member if they don’t feel like they know the faculty very well. We can only wait and see.


football players sitting on bench

Alma College Students taking a breather.

Coach talking to player on bench

Some one-on-one mentoring

band members

Kiltie Band performing the Alma Mater post-game



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Plant domestication and my garden

Archaeologists spend a lot of time thinking about the origins of gardening, and eventually agriculture. What makes a person start caring for a set of plants? What makes them start to intentionally grow them? We know that people in several areas around the world independently came to the same idea of caring for plants (and food animals) starting about 12,000 years ago and some not until the very recent past.

Most of the plants you grow in your garden wouldn’t survive to produce fruit without your help, then need weeding and pruning and stakes and pest prevention, etc…  And the fruit they produce would not be as big as they are if we hadn’t intervened and done some cross breeding and selection for certain traits. Corn was a grass. A GRASS. And look at that cob now. That is generations of selection you see on that stalk.

Some plants are pretty resilient though, and some people speculate that may have given rise to some types of gardening.  Cucurbits are notoriously successful without intentional planting.  They include squashes, pumpkins and all sorts of melons.  Some people speculate that when folks ate wild squashes (or other cucurbits) and threw the seeds away, the next year they sprouted back and people thought it was convenient to find them right there in the trash pile near the village, so they then started caring for them.  This is one possible way that people started to get ideas about gardening. But since it happened so long ago, it’s hard to say.

Here’s the compost pile behind the Central Michigan University Campus Grow Gardens.  On the right I’ve circled every cucurbit plant growing in that particular compost pile. On the left – two very successful fruits that are growing ON the compost pile. No one is caring for them, watering them or tending them. They’re just that productive.  Cool enit?



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