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!) Read the rest

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. Read the rest

Trash anthropology in NYC

For 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.
(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) Read the rest

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:
Chagnon 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.
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Did a volcanic eruption nearly kill off ancient humans?

Short answer: We don't know. What makes this story by Erin Wayman interesting is the way it carefully breaks down an almost Hollywood-ready narrative and finds the fascinating uncertainty lurking underneath. The truth is, uncertainty is cool. Because it means there's more stuff left to discover. Read the rest

Inner monologues — out loud

At the Brainwaves blog, Ferris Jabr writes about a fascinating project. Anthropologist Andrew Irving talked random strangers on the streets of New York City into putting on a headset and speaking their inner monologue out loud as he followed behind them with a camera. The result is something that approximates what it might be like to be able to hear someone else's thoughts.

A woman worries about where she can find a Staples and contemplates her relationship with a friend who has cancer. A man deals with his emotions over two close friends (or, possibly, roommates, or lovers) having a baby together. Another man flits between internal discussions of totalitarianism, speculation about other people on the street, and his own attempts to figure out which direction he's heading. In general, it's all a mixture of engaging and mundane, swirled together.

There are other videos in the series, as well. You can watch them at Brainwaves. Read the rest

Mummies had a form of chronic cardiovascular disease

Atherosclerosis is what happens when your arteries fill up with layers of fat and white blood cells. It's a disease of chronic inflammation that increases your risk of stroke and heart attack. It's also a disease we tend to associate with the modern era — commonly cited risk factors include cigarette smoking, obesity, and stress. But there are some signs that we may not have a great handle on what actually causes atherosclerosis. That's because ancient mummies, from all over the world, have shown signs of the disease. It's unclear what this means at this point — for instance, just because ancient people didn't light up a Marlboro from time to time doesn't mean they weren't exposed to smoke and particulate matter from indoor cooking fires. But it's fascinating to see a disease of modernity affecting the past. Read the rest

Interactive explorations of history

The University of Oregon's Mapping History site could easily suck up all your productivity for a day or two. Filled with interactive graphs, charts, and timelines, it allows you to explore history in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. The US section is particularly robust, allowing you to trace everything from the development of railroads, to connections between the growth of the cotton and slavery industries, to changes in life expectancy. Fascinating and fantastic. Read the rest

How to: Tell time like the ancient Maya

I promised to not speak of Schmapocalypse Miffy Melve on BoingBoing anymore, and I am standing by that. However, I do think that I would be remiss not to point you toward this nifty, interactive version of the Maya's long count calendar system. It does a great job of helping explain the Mayan number system and how those numbers come together to mark important dates. If you're interested in Mayan hieroglyphics, I'd also recommend reading the book A Forest of Kings, which explains how the ancient Maya wrote and what their writing really tells us about their history. Read the rest

LOL linguist

I can haz transformational grammar?

Via Justin Bernacki and Trust me, I'm a linguist. Read the rest

The crowd psychology of Grand Central Station

New York's Grand Central Terminal, as it currently stands today, was built between 1903 and 1913. But it is the third Grand Central. Two earlier buildings — one called Grand Central Depot, and the other known as Grand Central Station (which remains the colloquial name for the Terminal) — existed on pretty much the exact same spot. But neither lasted nearly as long. The Depot opened in 1871, and was drastically reconstructed in 1899. The new building, the Station, only stood for three years before it began to come down in sections, eventually replaced by the current building.

That's a lot of structural shuffling, and at the Anthropology in Practice blog, Krystal D'Costa explains some of the history behind it. Turns out, the rapid reconfiguration of Grand Central had a lot to do with crowd control — figuring out how to use architecture to make the unruly masses a little more ruly. One early account that D'Costa quotes describes regular mad scrambles to board the train — intimidating altercations that could leave less-aggressive passengers stranded on the platform as their train left them behind.

The problem it seemed was that the interior of the depot did nothing to manage the Crowd—which could resume the same patterns of movement as they did on the street—and believe me, it was just as unruly out there. In the depot, where passengers were confronted with the unbridled power of locomotives, it was necessary to impose some sort of structure to the meeting: the Crowd had to be domesticated.

Read the rest

Did the average Neanderthal know she had a brother-in-law?

In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin hits on an interesting point that I don't think we (the media and laypeople) consider enough when we talk about our closest ancient relatives. Although we have an increasingly deep picture of Neanderthal anatomy and genetics, that doesn't necessarily tell us a great deal about their biology.

Truth is, for how little we understand the wiring and functioning of our own brains, we understand even less about the Neanderthal mind. It's quite possible that they could mate with us, but couldn't think the same way we do. And it's those unseen, unstudied differences that could really account for the vast disparities that we see between how humans lived and how their Neanderthal neighbors lived.

The picture we have so far is that the Neanderthals are sort of opportunistic, good at hunting middle- to large-sized mammals. They have a territory in which they probably go through a cycle of habitation in different places, basically when one place is exhausted they move to another one. What we don't see with Neanderthals is long-distance exchanges with other groups. What we see with modern humans in the same areas is different. For example, we find shells in Germany coming from the Mediterranean or from the French Atlantic Coast. It means there was a network of people. So, the question is, what kind of relationship did a Neanderthal have with his brother-in-law? Humans did not just live with their families and their neighbors, but they knew they had a brother-in-law in another village, and that beyond the mountain there is the family of their mother, or uncle, or something like that.

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The dead rise in Georgetown

Authorities think that an area of Washington D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood — on Q Street north of Volta Park — might once have been part of a cemetery. Several sets of human remains have been found there over the years, including, last month, the skeletons of five people. All five were found in the driveway and backyard of one house, where the owners were doing some repaving work and building a new garage. (Via Leah Thayer) Read the rest

This Friday, procrastinate with history!

Perhaps you will enjoy this in-depth analysis of the history of Roman charioteers, their sport, and their role in ancient Roman society. I haven't had a chance to read through this whole thing yet (because, you know, I have to work) but what I have read is fascinating. Be sure to check out the Appendix, which has a translation of a Roman account of a chariot race — so, basically, ancient ESPN play-by-play. (Via Dr. Hypercube) Read the rest

Black American sign language and American sign language are different languages

I've been fascinated by the history and development of sign language for a while now. Highly linked to local Deaf cultures, individual sign languages have deep roots in the home-made systems people came up with in order to communicate with one another and with their families at times when Deaf people were often a lot more socially isolated than they are today. That means that each sign language is unique — even British and American sign language aren't at all the same thing. English is spoken in both countries, but the cultural history that gave birth to sign was sufficiently different to produce two completely different languages that are unintelligible to one another. (Meanwhile, American sign language is much closer to French, because it also has roots in a system imported from France in the 19th century.)

In that case, it was a physical distance that lead to the development of two different sign languages. But, within the United States, the same thing happened because of social distance. Turns out, there is a Black American sign language that is distinctly different, as a language, from ASL. Its roots lie in segregation, and especially in separate-and-not-at-all-equal school systems. Ironically, though, that meant sign language had a more prominent place in black schools for much of the 20th century. At white schools, up until the 1970s and 1980s, students were heavily pressured to speak and lip-read, rather than sign — because it was thought to be better. Meanwhile, at black schools, sign language continued to be heavily used, growing and changing. Read the rest

How old is post-traumatic stress disorder?

It is very hard, and very weird to try to get a handle on how human health has changed between the 19th century and today. Obviously, the way we live has changed dramatically. But understanding how that impacts health (or doesn't) is complicated by the fact that healthcare, science, and public health research changed dramatically during those years, as well.

And all that science hasn't happened in a vacuum. The names we give various disorders change. Whether or not we consider something to be a disorder, at all, might change. And our cultural understanding changes, too—especially when it comes to mental illness.

At the Mind Hacks blog, Vaughn Bell has an excellent breakdown of two recent studies that try to put the modern diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into a cultural and historical context. Many people assume that PTSD is just a new name for something that has always existed—look at shell shock, which made it onto Downton Abbey last season. But these new papers suggest that the distinction between what soldiers experienced in the past and what they experience today might go deeper than naming conventions.

The diagnosis of PTSD involves having a traumatic experience and then being affected by a month of symptoms of three main groups: intrusive memories, hyper-arousal, and avoidance of reminders or emotional numbing ... there has been a popular belief that PTSD has been experienced throughout history but simply wasn’t properly recognised. Previous labels, it is claimed, like ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’, were just early descriptions of the same universal reaction.

Read the rest

Forensic psychologist says mass killing is about culture, not mental illness

The story is familiar to us today: Somebody, usually a young man, walks into a public place, kills a bunch of people seemingly at random, and (usually) ends the murder spree with a suicide-by-cop.

But this story—at least, in Western culture—is startlingly new, relatively speaking. In fact, Paul Mullen, a forensic psychologist, says we can pin a date and place on the first time it happened. On September 4, 1913, in the German towns of Degerloch and Mühlhausen an der Enz, Ernst August Wagner killed his wife, his children, and at least nine strangers. He shot more than 20 people and set several fires during his killing spree. He ended up spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum.

But when we try to pin killings like these on mental illness, Mullen says, we're not quite hitting the right point. The people who go on killing sprees are mad, sure. But that's not the same thing as diagnosable, objective, physical mental illness. Only about 10% of the people ever arrested for crimes like this had actual mental illnesses. In fact, Mullen thinks these killings have more to do with culture than brain chemistry. His argument is interesting. And it might sound a little similar to the old "angry music made him do it!" trope. But what Mullen is talking about is different than that. Science journalist David Dobbs tries to explain the distinction:

I’m not saying the movies made Holmes crazy or psychopathic or some such. But the movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution.

Read the rest

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