March 16, 2011

114th Four Stone Hearth

Four Stone Hearth is a biweekly blog carnival of all things anthropological. In each edition, the host gives her readers a snapshot of anthropology blog posts around the web. Feel free to comment below or to journey on to the authors' respective posts. And do remember to bookmark Four Stone Hearth for future editions!

The contributed articles this week defy easy classification. Rather than reflecting just one stone in our hearth, they cross-cut the subfields and encapsulate the vast range of anthropological inquiry. To me, the ability to draw together so many ideas and methods under the umbrella of anthropology is the discipline's greatest strength. So let's instead take them in a sort of reverse chronological order, from modern people to our primate ancestors.

Over at Anthropology in Practice, Krystal D'Costa meshes cultural and physical anthropologies on the social plane in her post "This Is Your Brain on Disney." She writes that:
As an alternative to understanding why specific forms of entertainment are so appealing, Palmer and Coe instead suggest they reflect parenting strategies to influence the behavior of offspring. The "parenting mind hypothesis" proposes that the size of the human brain developed via natural selection in response to parental ability to influence behavior—big brains allowed offspring to store and replicate behaviors modeled by parents that enabled survival and reproduction.

They suggest that our susceptibility to these forms of entertainment allow Disneyland—and other forms of art and entertainment—to exist. But I would amend that to say that our potential susceptibility to these traits allows the Disney franchise and other good examples of art, creativity, storytelling, humor, wit, music, fantasy, and morality—such as movies and plays—to be successful because they help us construct (non-sexual) social connections.

Ippolytos Kalofonos of the University of Washington has a very interesting post over at Somatosphere on healthcare interventions in Mozambique, specifically antiretroviral treatment: "Therapeutic Enclaves in Central Mozambique?" The post is a bit long, as it was based on his 2010 AAA paper, but well worth reading, as Kalofonos situates this treatment intervention within the world economy and adds nuance with the idea that philanthropic prestige may be more important than creating lasting change in a culture. He argues that:

[...] Donors often frame the success of their HIV/AIDS treatment interventions in terms of numbers: "lives saved," "directly supported care," and "numbers tested." These claims generate moral capital for some of the most powerful countries, institutions, and individuals in the world, allowing them to show they responsibly respond to the suffering of the poor as the interventions powerfully influence the shape of the public health infrastructure of much of the world, the distribution of health care resources, and the ways people care for themselves and each other. [...] These interventions effectively disarticulate HIV/AIDS from local social and economic realities. As a result, the actual benefits of the interventions to individuals and collectivities are limited and short-lived. Even while lives are saved, broader issues of inequality, food insecurity, and unstable livelihoods are unaddressed and may even be exacerbated by the structures being erected.
Two interesting posts came through this week that initially seem strongly archaeological in nature but also have significant links to the present day. In Sweden, there is a controversy brewing over the fate of "exploratory" archaeology (which is better known as contract archaeology or cultural resource management in the U.S.). Magnus Reuterdahl at Testimony of the Spade summarizes the new regulations and links to other Swedish archaeologists and their opinions of the proposed legal changes:

The risk of this proposal lies in further pressure on prices at the expense of science – but if you look at other deregulations they have rarely led to lower prices. It will most probably lead to a situation where it will be more important to be on good terms with the entrepreneurs. This will place new demands on archaeological performers, the County Boards and the National Heritage board – there are several risks concerning this that should be discussed in depth. [...] I’m not sure if this proposal will be for the better or the worse – and much can happen before this goes in front of the parliament – but it will change the archaeological landscape of Sweden.
Over at Elfshot, Tim Rast blogs about creating quartz microblades that can be fitted onto a handle in: "Hafting Stemmed Quartz Microblades." The resulting tools are very cute - inasmuch as deadly Palaeoeskimo weapons can be cute. The post reminded me of an NPR piece from February, in which Kevin Kelly, the editor of Wired Magazine, asserted that "there is no species of technology that has ever gone exinct on this planet." The NPR host, Robert Krulwich, suggests "Palaeolithic hammers." Are palaeo-tools extinct, though? Clearly Rast and others are still knapping - does the different purpose (Rast is making his for reproductions) of the modern knapped blades mean that the palaeo-blades are an extinct species of technology? It's a question I asked my ANTH 101 students on their midterm, and a question to which I got varying answers.

Reaching back even further into the human past, CIV blogs at Femora & Cream and asks about "Pair bonding as the foundation of human social structure?" She has her doubts about the recent Hill & Walker article, which suggests "pair bonding as the basis for modern human non-related cooperative social groups." CIV discusses various problems with the article, as well as with the NY Times' coverage of the article, but chief among them is the idea that the natural state of human coupling is monogamous. She writes that one of the major problems with positing pair bonding as an evolved behavior is that:
First, and this may be more of a pet peeve, Chapais (2011) calls extant humans monogamous, but in actuality we are not truly monogamous (if we were, we would remain with the same single mate/partner the entirety of our lives). There are many polygamous groups (mostly, where one man has more than one wife, but also when one woman has more than one husband) and even in Western societies where monogamy is considered the norm, people have multiple sexual partners in their lifetime, and even multiple marriages. The vast majority of humanity may be monogamous (I cannot speak to this) but it's certainly not a universal. Like many (or most) things human, these behaviors may further be highly influenced by cultural, learned, values, and we've probably evolved to be highly flexible.
Switching gears from coupling to calling, Raymond Ho at The Prancing Papio details "The Semantics of Vervet Monkey Alarm Calls," which bridges physical anthropology and touches on some of the possible origins of language and linguistic behavior that can be seen in our primate cousins. After deftly navigating the evidence for vervet alarm calls, Ho concludes that:
Most of us interpret animal alarm calls as an uncontrollable auditory response to fear or pain, akin to humans yelping if we had our finger caught in a door. While this is not entirely false, some animal calls actually convey information from the caller to the listener. Seyfarth et al. (1980) posit that vervet monkey alarm calls are actually basic semantic signals or symbolic signals because each alarm calls seem to mean something to these vervet monkeys. While we don't know if these alarm calls actually mean "leopard" or "run up to the tree", we do know that it conveys specific information to their conspecific about approaching predators.
And now, dear reader, to wrap up our conversation at the Hearth tonight, let's get a bit personal. On Valentine's Day, Rex at Savage Minds proposed that all willing anthropologists write an anecdote about our feelings for our discipline. A month later, Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology rounded them up and published them in "Anthropology Love Letters." Grab a glass of wine, snuggle up, and enjoy this collection of anthropology meet-cutes!


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