December 5, 2008

Anthropology fail

My google alerts told me about an online article I might want to read called, "The Greeks: an Anthropological Study." So it's not a real news piece, and it was written by something called the Australian Macedonian Advisory Council, probably a group made up of people of Greek ancestry living Down Under. It seems to be a reaction or opinion piece claiming (as the Greeks and Italians are wont to do) that they are an autochthonous people, which is a mildly quaint notion to us Americans.

While I have no problem with people using the historical and even the archaeological record of ancient Greece to support their ancestry claims, this piece demonstrates that, even in the 21st century, there are people who believe that the cranial/cephalic index is scientific and a good way to trace descent based on the ancient skeletal record. Just one excerpt from the piece:

"The skeletal record can, in part, supplement the evidence of reconstructed history. Six skulls from Hagias Kosmas near Athens represent the period of amalgamation of Neolithic Mediterranean, Danubian, and Cycladic elements, between 2500 and 2200 B.C. Three are dolichocephalic, one mesocephalic, and two brachycephalic. The faces of all are narrow, the noses leptorrhine, the orbits high. One may conclude that a Cretan type of Mediterranean and the Cypriote Dinaric form were both present. Twenty-five Mid-Helladic crania represent the period after the arrival of the Corded or "Kurgan" folk from the north, and during the seizure of power by the Minoan conquerors from Crete. Of these, twenty-three come from Asine, and two from Mycenae. Needless to say, the population of this time was very mixed. Only two skulls are brachycephalic; they are both male, and both associated with very short stature. One is of medium size, high-vaulted, and narrow-nosed and narrow-faced; the other extremely broad-faced and chamaerrhine. They seem to represent two different broad-headed types, both of which can probably be found in Greece today."

It's really unfortunate that the lay public thinks this is what anthropology is about: recording merely the length and width of a cranium, and using those measurements from a couple dozen people to re-create the entire "racial" history of ancient Greece. The piece goes on to talk about hair form and skin color, all of which have been re-created based on art (which we all know is an exact reflection of real life). But really it's just curious that the readers of this piece would understand all the terminology used, brachycephalic versus mesocephalic, leptorrhine versus chamaerrhine, and would be convinced by the argument.

Of course, the most recent literature cited dates to 1934. That should tell the author something. Although a 1934 treatise on a mosaic could still be relevant, anthropology has progressed through leaps and bounds in the past 75 years, as all good sciences do, and we have this magical technique called multivariate statistics so that we don't have to rely on a simplistic two-measurement index. Then again, even though Franz Boas discredited the cephalic index and Giuseppe Sergi questioned the racial typologies generated by it in Italy all in the 1910s, I've seen it used in Greek archaeology publications as recently as the 1990s. As Greek bioarchaeology in general is opening up to outsiders in much the same way as Italian bioarchaeology is, I hope the influence of primarily American and British research will once and for all make the cephalic index a thing of the past. At least, I can do my part to help.

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