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How To: Pronounce Nelson Mandela's middle name

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".) Maggie 4

What did Santa really look like?

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

Rise of the Valleyguy

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. Maggie 27

Rats vs. Easter Islanders: How the Islanders (sort of) won

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

Can the UN preserve intangible cultural assets?

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. Maggie 12

Ancient Aliens, modern obsessions

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. Maggie 44

The ability to taste bitter flavors probably didn't evolve as a self-defense mechanism

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. Maggie 36

Goo from a deer's stomach is sort of like nature's pâté

Fun fact: 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) Maggie 15

Help fund a magazine dedicated to language geekery

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! Maggie 2

The voices in your head are culturally specific

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. Maggie 29

Free human evolution course starts January 21

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! Maggie 3

The history and anthropology of birth and parenting

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!) Maggie 21

Why my own culture is weird

Quora has a great thread happening that encourages people to point out the contradictory, surprising, and downright strange tendencies within their own cultures. Naturally, one of the first posts by an American mentions that great disconnect wherein extreme violence is a-ok, but women's boobies are dirty. Maggie 23

Trash anthropology in NYC

Harpers june 22 1895For years, Robin Nagle was anthropologist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. She's just published a book about trash and how we deal with it, or don't. It's titled Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, and Collector's Weekly interviewed her about it.
Ows 13639680373191 (The department) was created as the Department of Street Cleaning in 1881, and renamed the Department of Sanitation in 1929. But it was actually made effective for the first time in 1895, in that the people who worked for the department actually collected garbage and swept the streets.

In its early days, the department didn’t really function at all. There are some photographs taken for Harper’s Weekly (above), before and after photos of street corners in New York in 1893 and then in 1895. And the before pictures are pretty astonishing, people were literally shin-high or knee-high in this muck that was a combination of street gunk, horse urine and manure, dead animals, food waste, and furniture crap.

Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (Amazon)

"A Filthy History: When New Yorkers Lived Knee-Deep in Trash" (Collector's Weekly)

Blood Is Their Argument: anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon

During the brief moment that I majored in anthropology in college, I was fascinated by the work of Napoleon A. Chagnon and his seminal 1968 text Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Chagnon's time as a field scientist in the Amazon had a profound impact on the field of anthropology even as his methods (and misunderstandings of his methods) resulted in an academic war on his research and his character. To further explore Chagnon's legacy, and what he really found in the rainforest, BB pal John Brockman of EDGE convened a meeting between Chagnon and big thinkers Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, Daniel C. Dennett, and David Haig. The result is 30,00 words of conversation and hours of video that John says is "one of the most significant events in (Edge's) sixteen year history." From an intro to the materials by Richard Dawkins:
YanoooChagnon committed the unforgivable sin, cardinal heresy in the eyes of a certain kind of social scientist: he took Darwin seriously. Along with a few friends and colleagues, Chagnon studied the up-to-date literature on natural selection theory, and with brilliant success he applied the ideas of Fisher, Hamilton, Trivers and other heirs of Darwin to a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world. It is sobering to reflect on how unconventional a step this was: science bursting into the quasi-literary world of the anthropology in which the young Chagnon was trained. Still today, in many American departments of social science, for a young researcher to announce a serious interest in Darwin's dangerous idea--even an inclination towards scientific thinking at all--can come close to career suicide.
Napolean Chagnon: Blood Is Their Argument