After eight years, the US army's $725 million Human Terrain System, a controversial social science program ostensibly established to help the military understand the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, but criticized as a tool for propaganda and psyops, has ended. At CounterPunch, San José State University anthropology professor Roberto J. González published a fascinating history and critique of the program. From CounterPunch:
HTS supporters frequently claimed that the program would increase cultural understanding between US forces and Iraqis and Afghans–and therefore reduce American and civilian casualties. The program’s leaders insisted that embedded social scientists were delivering sociocultural knowledge to commanders, but the reality was more complex. HTS personnel conducted a range of activities including data collection, intelligence gathering, and psychological operations. In at least one case, an HTS employee supported interrogations in Afghanistan (Weinberger 2011).
The program also served a more insidious function: It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public–especially those with liberal tendencies–that the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role. It appeared to demonstrate how US forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation. Department of Defense photos portrayed HTS personnel sitting on rugs while drinking tea with Afghan elders, or distributing sweets to euphoric Iraqi children. Here was a war that Americans could feel good about fighting.
"The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System
Human Terrain System (Army.mil)
(photo: Spc. Jason A. Young / Army)
Art historian Paul Koudounaris travelled the world, visiting 30 countries to document the practices—ancient to modern, solemn to joyous—by which human remains are displayed. From good luck charms to genocide memorials, his gorgeous art book Memento Mori
collects the finds.Read the rest
Is that they only lived in caves seasonally, "maybe a couple of months a year at the most." At Nautilus
, Jude Isabella interviews anthropological archaeologist Margaret Conkey
, who sets the record straight.
Archaeologists are influenced by their culture, not surprisingly. We can’t be totally neutral—we’d be like a blob—but it’s important to recognize what biases we bring to our work. My colleagues and I are suggesting that we have certain biases about what constitutes a “home” and that mobile people didn’t think of home as a stationary physical structure. A “homeless” archaeologist would have a different perspective. Only instead of using the term “homeless,” which in our culture has a negative connotation, I use the term “spatially ambitious.” Clearly, based on what we found, our ancestors were way more spatially ambitious than the cavemen we had thought them to be.
Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (author of the brilliant Coding Freedom) spent years embedded with Anonymous and has written an indispensable account of the Anonymous phenomenon.
Read the rest
Not, like, modern misinformation on the Internet, but longstanding cultural myths, with characters and the gravitas that comes with being really, really old. Max Gladstone writes about his favorites at Tor
. I'm a big fan of the origin story of the Maya hero twins
Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, as told in the Popol Vuh.
The BBC's in-house linguists have an interesting piece about pronouncing words in Xhosa
— a major language spoken in the region of South Africa where Nelson Mandela grew up. (Helpfully included in the story: How to pronounce "Xhosa".)
The bones of St. Nicholas (or, at least, his purported relics) rest in the crypt of in Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. They've been disinterred, measured, and documented, and over the years various anatomists and forensic anthropologists have taken a stab at reconstructing what the real Santa might have looked like. The results vary widely. Why?
In 2010, Caroline Wilkinson of the Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification at the UK's University of Dundee wrote an easy-to-read (and publicly accessible) research paper about the flaws of facial reconstruction techniques — flaws that are exacerbated when all you have to go on are dry bones.
Read the rest
To linguists, the central feature of Valleygirl Dialect is the tendency to make a statement sound like a question. For decades, this has been considered not just part of Valleyspeak, but part of female speech. That's changing. Like, dudes are totally doing it, too.
Jared Diamond's account of the collapse of Easter Island society is well known by now — how the Islanders decimated their ecosystem and drove themselves to the brink of starvation by using up the island's natural resources at a furious rate. But that's not the only possible explanation for how Easter Island lost its tree cover and ended up with a much-reduced population. In fact, some anthropologists say there's not really any hard evidence that the Islanders were practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing the land with fire.
Instead, this other theory blames the little creature pictured above — the Polynesian rat, an invasive species that stowed away on canoes and chewed its way through the roots, sprouts, and seeds of Easter Island's trees. Instead of willfully destroying themselves, this scenario has the islanders desperately adapting to a quickly changing environment. It's not that the changes had nothing to do with people — the rats got there with human help, after all — but the angle of the story changes somewhat, becoming less about the destructive aspects of human nature and more about the lengths humans will go to in order to survive.
Image: Cliff from Arlington, via CC license
As food goes globalized, UNESCO has started thinking about preserving cuisine as a cultural artifact
, the same way it might preserve an ancient city. Japanese food got the nod last week
I'm really enjoying Jason Colavito's reviews of The History Channel's hilarious/infuriating hit show Ancient Aliens
. What makes them better than the average blog? Colavito is an author who has written extensively about the anthropology of pseudoscience, and the connections between pseudoscience, religion, and science fiction. So his recaps are less about debunking the claims made on Ancient Aliens
(because, really, that's just too damn easy) and more about exploring where those claims come from, pop-culturally, and what makes them so appealing, to begin with. Fascinating stuff.
From beer to coffee, bitter flavors are things that most of us have to learn to enjoy over multiple tastings. Scientists have long assumed that our ability to even taste those flavors is rooted in self-defense — a way to root out and avoid potentially poisonous plants in the diet of our hunting and gathering ancestors. But new research suggests that the ability to taste bitter flavors isn't strongly tied to hunting and gathering
lifestyles, which leaves researchers at a loss for why the skill might have evolved. My hypothesis, based on experience with espresso and IPA lovers: Perhaps there's an evolutionary advantage to beverage pretentiousness.
: The partially digested contents of a deer's stomach has "a consistency and a flavour that is not unlike cream cheese". It's a treat enjoyed by modern/recent hunter-gatherer cultures and, possibly, by Neanderthals. (Via Smithsonian Smart News)
Schwa Fire is would-be magazine that hopes to publish long-form journalism about the science and sociology behind the way we talk to each other. It sounds like it has the potential to be totally awesome, melding great storytelling with a field — linguistics — that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. You can help fund the magazine through a Kickstarter
. Check it out!
I'm utterly fascinated by the way culture affects the outcomes of mental illness — whether that's in terms of prevalence of specific disorders, how we interpret and treat those disorders, or even how seemingly innate symptoms express themselves in wildly different ways
. Case in point: The voices that schizophrenics hear. In the US, those voices seem to talk a lot about violence — what a person should to do themselves, or to others. In Chennai, India, on the other hand, schizophrenic patients report that voices most commonly command them to do household chores. The disturbing content comes in the form of sexual comments or directions to drink from the toilet.
It's not too early to plan for next semester. John Hawks
, a fantastic science blogger and professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is offering a Coursera class on Human Evolution: Past and Future
. Seems like just the thing for curious Happy Mutants!
I'm reading a ton of baby and pregnancy books right now, preparing both for the October birth of my daughter and an upcoming BoingBoing feature about evidence-based books for science-minded soon-to-be-parents. After reading this interview at The New Inquiry
, I really want to check out The Motherhood Archives
— a documentary about the ways culture shapes and reshapes how we understand the biology of birth and the growth of an infant. From the Marxist origins of Lamaze, to the early-20th-century feminists who pushed for pain-free birth, to the rise of the birth center, The Motherhood Archives
sounds like a fascinating exploration of how different generations think and rethink the same ideas and an anthropological assessment of what "the right way" to give birth and raise children really means. (Thanks, Emile Snyder!)