Post List

Anthropology posts

(Modify Search »)

  • September 21, 2010
  • 05:17 PM

Casas Grandes Macaw Breeding

by teofilo in Gambler's House

One of the many similarities between Chaco and Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, in addition to the similar types of effigy vessels, is the presence of significant numbers of scarlet macaw skeletons at both sites.  As with most of these parallels, the evidence at Casas Grandes is more impressive in scale, with hundreds of macaws found [...]... Read more »

Somerville, A., Nelson, B., & Knudson, K. (2010) Isotopic investigation of pre-Hispanic macaw breeding in Northwest Mexico. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29(1), 125-135. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2009.09.003  

  • September 20, 2010
  • 08:01 PM

The Mother Theresa Stamp and the Cultural Legacy of Postage

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Unveiling of the Mother Theresa postage stamp Sept. 5th, 2010 at the National Shrine. Postmaster General Jack Potter was in attendance (immediately to the left of the stamp).

Over the recent Labor Day weekend, S and I visited Washington D.C. where purely by chance we stumbled on a stamp unveiling. We were touring the National Shrine—the mosaics are breathtaking—when we realized the ceremony occurring at the front had little to do with normal services.  The United States Post Office had a covered display at the front, so we wound our way up the side aisle and came across a placard announcing that a stamp for Mother Theresa was being issued. (This actually explained the large number of nuns present wearing her traditional white and blue sari.) So we found a spot along the wall and settled into to watch.

First US Postage Stamp:
Benjamin Franklin, 5¢
Credit: National Postage Museum
While the primary purpose of stamps has been to pre-pay for the transportation and delivery of mail, postage icons have marked histories around the world. The world's first postage stamp was the Penny Black invented by Sir Rowland Hill, founder of the Penny Post. It was issued in 1840 by the United Kingdom, and depicted a young Queen Victoria. Seven years later, in an effort to modernize the American postal system, the Benjamin Franklin, 5-cent stamp was issued. Franklin, the first American postmaster, was selected for the image over the recently deceased Andrew Jackson—in part, because he would be recognized as a unifying figure between the conflicted states.
Kristi Evans (1992) has a really nice study that demonstrates using this type of cultural record with regard to Poland. She discusses unofficial stamps that were created by the outlawed Solidarity union. The images used for these stamps present a particular view of history and provide a snapshot of Poland in the 1980s.
Solidarity positioned itself as representing the desire of the Polish nation (the people) to oppose the state (recognized as "Eastern, alien, despotic—as in a word, Russian") (Evans 1992: 751). The stamps often included imagery suggesting sacrifice on the part of the nation in enduring the state. They highlighted events that could take on huge symbolic import for the nation and become integral to identity—a shared national memory remembered through the printing and use of stamps.
For example, in Poland in 1940 Soviet secret police murdered Polish nationals in the Katyn Forest. The order was based on a proposal to execute the Polish Officer Corps, and some 22,000 people were killed. This event came to be known as the Katyn massacre. Evans describes some of the Katyn stamps in her research (1992: 754):A. The word "Katyn" alone, constructed from crosses. B. "Katyn," with a forest and the emblem of the Soviet Union. C. "Matka Boska Katynska" (Madonna of Katyn) with crosses in a clearing. A box in the upper lefthand corner of the stamp frames the picture of a weeping mother and child. D. "Katyn," with a stylized drawing of a person standing like a cross and weeping. E. "Katyn," with a gun pointed at the head of a blindfolded man. F. "Katyn," with white candles (against a black background flickering in a triangular formation. G. "Katyn 1940," with a prominent red star, a skill wearing a Polish military cap, and the exclamation "[We remember!!!]" written in red and stylized graffiti.The images evoke a sense of "betrayal and sacrifice," and in connection with Polish history create a very specific point of identity:By grounding Poland's defining events in a particular space, representations by place creates a geographically situated consciousness of history and "Poland." Poland is defined in opposition to Russia, to the Soviets, and to the Communists, and all three are collapsed into the Katyn image (Evans 1992: 756).Stamps helped transmit these ideas via circulation, and ensured their longevity as collectors preserved them for posterity. In owning stamps, people claimed a certain connection to the nation and to a shared history. This is a particularly salient point given that the majority of Solidarity stamps were unofficial and not used to circulate mail:In collecting underground stamps, individuals can appropriate for themselves the subversive images of the imagined community and locate themselves within a community partially defined by the circulation of these images (Evans 1992: 750). This sense of sharedness, this connection, can help us understand the significance of certain events as experienced by nations and the ways in which they choose to represent themselves.
This is evident in our own postal stamp history. Unfortunately, I cannot copy US stamp images here because they are protected under copyright law, but a survey of the stamps displayed demonstrate that commemorative stamps through the ages highlight advances in transportation, communication, and industry, as well as achievements in the arts and sciences, and much more. The American Art collection provides a clear example of marking these sorts of achievements. 
The Mother Theresa stamp celebrates this amazing woman, but it also claims a portion of her legacy as our own. In commemorating her in this way, we recognize and support the work she has done, and align ourselves with her ideas:Stamps, which are the basis for the circulation of correspondence, facilitate communication while simultaneously expressing certain ideas and emotions through their own imagery (Evans 1992: 750).Stamps may face an uncertain future as we move increasingly toward digital means of communication. I don't know that snail mail will even be entirely eradicated, but there may be less of a need for decorative postage as time goes by. It will be interesting to see whether stamps take on purely a symbolic role, or if they are destined to be removed as cultural currency entirely.

... Read more »

  • September 20, 2010
  • 02:11 PM

Ladybusiness anthropology: Physical activity and prevention of reproductive cancers

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

I use PubMed to make RSS feeds out of searches on topics relevant to my research, because I cannot be trusted to regularly look this up on my own (I also have feeds from many of the main journals in my field, natch). One of my searches, “inflammation endometrium,” turned up an interesting article today from the European Journal of Cancer. Friedenreich et al review the literature on physical activity and cancer prevention and find a consistent relationship between physical activity and reduced risk of several cancers. Obviously, I want to focus on breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers, since those are the stuff of ladybusiness.Breast cancerThe authors found seventy three separate studies on breast cancer (they say separate, I assume, to differentiate multiple publications on the same data set). Three quarters of the studies found physical activity to have a positive effect on breast cancer risk; within those, the risk reduction tended to be around twenty five percent when comparing most to least active participants. Interestingly, postmenopausal physical activity seemed to have the strongest effect, which was a bit of a surprise to me. What this says, to me, is that adjustments to lifestyle made late in life can still have significant effects on health. If you were a couch potato when young but are committed to physical activity now, all is not lost.Endometrial cancerFor endometrial cancer, the authors concluded that “physical activity probably protects against endometrial cancer” (p. 2594, anyone else find that wording odd?). There were twenty studies of endometrial cancer, so far fewer than of breast cancer, but the reduction in risk was very similar, of twenty to thirty percent. Sedentary behavior appears to increase risk (like jobs where you sit all day), and more intense or longer bouts of activity tend to have more positive effects.Ovarian cancerHere, the authors found conflicting evidence, where some studies found risk reduction with physical activity, some found no effect, and one found a risk increase with physical activity. There were about twenty studies that looked at ovarian cancer, but the authors claim that the sample size was often small. What surprised me about this section was what little attention they paid to mechanism. Ovarian cancer is different from breast or endometrial cancer: a big part of what researchers think causes it is the “incessant ovulation” of industrial societies. That is, women in industrial populations, due to a positive energy balance, low rates of childbearing and low rates of breastfeeding, have as many as 400 menstrual cycles in their lives, compared to only 50 in a forager population, which would have a later age at menarche and women who are often pregnant or breastfeeding. Continual insults to the ovarian tissue, from the rupture of the ovarian wall during ovulation, and its subsequent repair, increase the risk of cell mutations. Small differences in sedentary or active behavior don’t tend to be enough to keep a woman from ovulating.Why parse out physical activity and sedentary behavior?You may have noticed that I mention different kinds of physical activity, but also sedentary behavior. In the paper the authors go into far more detail about different types of behavior, from domestic activities to occupational activities to recreational ones, and whether they are physically active or sedentary. It is important to consider both of these factors because they contribute to an overall lifestyle that can tip the balance towards a more positive (more calories in than out) energy balance, or a more negative (more calories out than in) energy balance.Let’s take my Polish field site for instance, the Mogielica Human Ecology Study Site, directed by Grazyna Jasienska. These women burn on average more calories than urban US women (Clancy et al 2009). Women there work alongside the men to do all the agricultural work needed to run their farms. You could just stop there and say that is very different from many populations within the US. But these women also do all their own housework and cooking, they have gardens, if they work they walk or take the bus. They are often sweeping and mopping instead of vacuuming. They spend a lot less time in front of screens, like televisions or computers (they have them for sure, but there are fewer desk jobs in front of a computer there). At least from my observations, they are less likely to order things online, and instead go to the store.So the lifestyle differences, comparing an urban, sedentary person with a desk job in the US to a farmer in Poland, become far more striking, as do the number of calories they likely burn each day in their daily lives.Is there population variation in cancer rates?I thought you’d never ask! The main reason I decided to write about this article was so that I could highlight one of the most elegant, simple little graphs I have ever read, from a 2001 article by Jasienska and Thune. They compare population averages in progesterone (a female reproductive hormone) with breast cancer rates. Here’s the graph:Jasienska and Thune 2001Guess what is one of the biggest predictors of progesterone concentrations? Physical activity.Finally, why someone else should always read your manuscriptsThere were a few tough sentences in here that a copyeditor could have really improved. The authors wrote:“There is strong and consistent evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of several of the major cancer sites, and that between 9% and 19% of cancer cases could be attributed to lack of sufficient physical activity in Europe” (p. 2593, abstract)Which I tweeted, and to which Alex Wild of Myrmecos responded:“@KateClancy So if Europeans were more active we'd all have less cancer?#wordingfail”And then as I was preparing this post, I found:“Physical activity reduces breast cancer risk when performed at any age throughout life, but activity done after the age of 50 years does have a stronger effect on risk than activity done earlier in life and sustained lifetime activity is of benefit” (p. 2594).So, sustained lifetime activity isn’t as good as activity after 50, or this is a point independent of which time of activity matters? I thought perhaps they were trying to make points about both? Copyeditor, please!Anyway, this article was a fun way to get to share a broader perspective on reproductive cancer rates in women across the world. Share your thoughts or questions in the comments!ReferencesClancy, K., Ellison, P., Jasienska, G., & Bribiescas, R. (2009). Endometrial thickness is not independent of luteal phase day in a rural Polish population Anthropological Science, 117 (3), 157-163 DOI: 10.1537/ase.090130Friedenreich CM, Neilson HK, & Lynch BM (2010). State of the epidemiological evidence on physical activity and cancer prevention. European journal of cancer (Oxford, England : 1990), 46 (14), 2593-604 PMID: ... Read more »

  • September 19, 2010
  • 08:54 PM

The West Mexican Context of the Chaco Effigy Vessels

by teofilo in Gambler's House

Given the rarity of human effigy vessels in the ancient Southwest, it seems clear that understanding them requires looking elsewhere.  Specifically, it requires looking south, to Mesoamerica, where effigy vessels were quite common starting from an early date.  Since most evidence of Mesoamerican influence in the Southwest seems to point to West Mexico as the [...]... Read more »

Beekman, C. (2009) Recent Research in Western Mexican Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research, 18(1), 41-109. DOI: 10.1007/s10814-009-9034-x  

  • September 18, 2010
  • 10:52 AM

The Genetics & Linguistics Of Central Asia

by in

Both Razib and Dienekes have reviewed a paper on the population genetics of Central Asian peoples. To make sense of Central Asian ancestry has been challenging, to say the least. In particular, the problem is compounded by nomadic peoples without much written history nor uncovered archaeological record. What we do have are the linguistic, physical features, [...]... Read more »

Martínez-Cruz B, Vitalis R, Ségurel L, Austerlitz F, Georges M, Théry S, Quintana-Murci L, Hegay T, Aldashev A, Nasyrova F.... (2010) In the heartland of Eurasia: the multilocus genetic landscape of Central Asian populations. European journal of human genetics : EJHG. PMID: 20823912  

  • September 17, 2010
  • 11:30 AM

Darwinius Strikes Back

by Laelaps in Laelaps

If all that you knew about paleontology came from headlines alone, you could be excused for thinking that the science consists of little more than naming one obscure creature after another. There are a few petrified celebrities which can draw sustained attention – Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops foremost among them – but, in general, it seems [...]... Read more »

Gingerich, P., Franzen, J., Habersetzer, J., Hurum, J., & Smith, B. (2010) Darwinius masillae is a Haplorhine — Reply to Williams et al. (2010). Journal of Human Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.07.013  

Williams BA, Kay RF, Christopher Kirk E, & Ross CF. (2010) Darwinius masillae is a strepsirrhine-a reply to Franzen et al. (2009). Journal of human evolution. PMID: 20188396  

Williams, B., Kay, R., & Kirk, E. (2010) New perspectives on anthropoid origins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(11), 4797-4804. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908320107  

  • September 17, 2010
  • 09:00 AM

Big Brained Humans: A Dangerous Idea?

by Daniel Bassett in Chew the Fat

Predation is a key driver of biological systems over both ecological and evolutionary timescales. Thus, to understand our role as Homo sapiens within this evolutionary framework we must look to the animal kingdom to find our place. This is important for anyone following an evolutionary eating plan as it gives our species an ecological context, which we can consider when making choices about our lifestyle and diet. In the latest edition of Behavioral Ecology, Shultz & Finlayson utilised a range of studies on vertebrate predators to establish the relationship between prey behavioral and ecological characteristics, and predator diet composition at the population level. Although this focuses on non-human species it is easy to extrapolate information from this data and find our place within the animal kingdom.... Read more »

  • September 16, 2010
  • 12:52 PM

Darwinius massillae, continued…

by zinjanthropus in A Primate of Modern Aspect

I found a new paper in my reader this morning from the crew who published the first description and taxonomic statements about Darwinius massillae, Phillip Gingerich and his colleagues.  This paper is a reply to Williams et al. (2010), which … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • September 16, 2010
  • 11:11 AM

Can Peruvian Coffee Gain a Foothold at Home?

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Spurred by questions from readers, I've expanded the coffee series to include two additional posts on this caffeinated drink that will run this week. If this is your first visit to AiP, you can review our coffee discussions here. Monday's post asked, how can we explain the popularity of instant coffee in coffee producing countries? As a follow-up, today we will look at the future of Peruvian coffee among native Peruvian coffee drinkers. As always, thanks for stopping by—and for your questions!
The question of what happens to local culture in the face of globalization is not a new one to anthropology. One view has held that capitalism is a great cultural steamroller, creating homogeneous responses to global markets. But our discussion last time explored an example of cultural contact in which there was a dialogue, and this represents the other side of the coin: the argument that the conditions that permit and encourage international trade, also offers a means maintaining cultural distinction and identity.

In the last post, we discussed the way Lithuania was able to wield a memory of Soviet sausage to comment on the state of their newly formed capitalist state, and create an identity for the nation—this identity seems more domestic the more I think about this issue because the identity really allowed Lithuanians to distinguish themselves from the capitalist processes that were unfolding. Remember that "Soviet" sausages were good, natural, and tasty, while Western-style sausages like salami (that lacked the tasty bits of fat Lithuanians liked) were not as popular and viewed as an inferior product in many ways. I argue that Lithuanians owned sausages in a way that allowed their preferences to hold a majority of the market against Western sausage products. Peruvians have not had a similar relationship with coffee and that has allowed foreign products to dominate general coffee consumption,

But this does not have to necessarily have to be the case. There is a chance for Peruvians to claim their coffee. It will require more than establishing a "Coffee Day." Changes will have to be made at the grower's level—which will certainly not be a simple process. But I found a great case study that suggests that getting growers involved can boost brand awareness locally.
The lives of Peruvian coffee growers and their families are not easy. Coffee growers outside of cooperatives often don't get paid very much for their product. Often they sell beans at market to a middleman, who may sell the beans again to another contact, who may then get the beans to a known roaster and wholesaler. The beans often change hands several times—and for the local grower this means low prices for his product. And that leads to other problems, like the issue of malnutrition:
The basic diet in the indigenous communities and for nearly the entire rural population is based on subsistence products like plantains, manioc and maize. Few can afford a more balanced diet, or meat and milk every day.And on the heels of this is a lack of educational resources. Schools are spread out over great distances, which makes it a hardship to attend. They are inadequately funded and are overlooked for supplies. And malnutrition keeps many students at home. So it all seems to come full circle.

These challenges are not limited to Peruvian growers. Researchers Castillo and Nigh (1998) paint a similar picture among the Mayan growers (Mam) in Chiapas, Mexico, who seem to have followed a similar path as Peruvian growers, first with cacao and then with coffee. The Mam are a Maya-speaking group that is geographically centered in Guatemala with a small group located on the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, also known as the Soconusco. Geography has played a large role in the ways the identities of these groups, which share a heritage, has unfolded. The Guatemalan Mam have been able to preserve political and religious hierarchy and Mam language thanks in part to Guatemalan indigenist practices, however, the Soconusco region has long been involved in widespread trade practices and Mexico has been unable (or unwilling?) to override this history to enact preservation measures.

The Mexican Mam have had a relationship with a commercial product in much the same way that Peruvian growers have with their product. The Mam have been working as exporters since 2000 BCE when the region was conquered by the Aztecs who mined cacao for currency. When the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, Castillo and Nigh report that the plantation systems were already in place:
Early Spanish colonists invested heavily in cacao production during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, expanding the original plantation and introducing Moorish irrigation technology ... Mam Indians probably supplied the skilled labor necessary for the cacao boom that produced some of the first Spanish fortunes in the New World (1998: 137).As a result of this history, Mexican Mam identity has long been tied to capitalist endeavors. When a worldwide depression collapsed the trade market in the 1630s, the Mexican Mam also faded from view until the 19th century when foreign investors revived the region for coffee production, the Mam (this time also including Guatemalan Mam displaced to the Soconusco by seizure of communal lands) once again provided the labor for the production of this commodity, which became a major export product for Mexico:
Thanks to Mam laborers on Soconusco plantations, their owners were able to export 227,040 quintals of coffee to Germany, the United States, England, France, Spain, and Switzerland between 1927 and 1928 (Castillo and Nigh 1998: 138).In the mid-nineteenth century, one of the outcomes of the Mexican Revolution was the redistribution of lands (ejido) to the Mam, which suggested the potential for them to grow and sell coffee for themselves, but for reasons mentioned above, this has historically made for difficult living conditions. Compounded with financial hardship, the Mam also faced systematic attempts at eradicating specific markers of their cultural identity following the Mexican Revolution. For example, Castillo and Nigh provide the following ethnographic account of the "civilization through dress" program as told by a Mam man:
I remember when the law came that prohibited our costume: they tool the weaving from the woman and the short pants from the men, and they burned them in the middle of the plaza. One old man refused; he wouldn't take off his pants, and so the policeman came and threw kerosene on him. We were all in the plaza—I was a child still. He said, "Take it off or I'll set you on fire; you're a stubborn Indian." The poor man tool off his short pants crying" (1998: 139).These types of programs continued until the 1970s, when the international community began to demand that human rights be awarded to indigenous populations. This opened the door for potential growers to receive aid in the form of "technical assistance, credit for agrochemicals, and state-supported channels for marketing" (Castillo and Nigh 1998: 139). However, this did little to change sale practices, which put individual growers at a disadvantage.  

In the 80s, the Catholic Church's local cooperative commission met with Mam coffee growers, and the growers decided to form cooperatives that wouldn't rely on government assistance. Subsequent meetings resulted in the formation of the ISMAM (Indigenas de la Sierra Madre de. Motozintla) cooperative. ISMAM was founded on the basis of a shared memory of what it meant to be MAM: that the ancestors had a connection to the land, and understood how to produce high quality, natural foods. This belief is tied to the organic trade in which ISMAM has rooted itself. The cooperative purchases all the coffee produced by the growers at a set price and is the point of contact for trade with other nations. The result has been that the standard of living for MAM has risen—schools have been built, there is greater financial stability, and the people own their product.

Peruvian growers have started to move in this direction according to a few sources that I have found online (see here, here, and here). They have also come to the realization that they must join together to face the global market, and gain domestic recognition. It's not a foolproof plan: initiatives by the Pangoa Coffee Cooperative had to be abandoned when coffee prices fell in 1998.

My research has been largely documentary, and I don't have a sense for the current state of Peruvian growers (which is why I invite those with inside knowledge to share their thoughts with us), but it seems that co-ops may offer coffee a domestic foothold in places where ... Read more »

  • September 16, 2010
  • 11:05 AM

Repost: Which is more safe: home birth or hospital birth?

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

I am slowly re-posting some work from my lab blog. This one received quite a bit of traffic. I actually have a follow-up in the works, so watch for it!You have probably seen the buzz about the recent American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology article (Wax et al 2010) on home birth safety, and the editorial in the Lancet that took the article’s shaky meta-analysis to crazytown: “Women have the right to choose how and where to give birth, but they do not have the right to put their baby at risk,” they write.I have a lot of thoughts about this study and how it has been covered, by medical doctors and by the media. My main issues revolve around: 1) what these statistics mean from a personal versus a public health perspective, 2) maternal recovery and mortality, 3) the problem with criminalizing home birth, 4) the literature around birth experiences and the process of birth and resources for women, and 5) how we should look at this topic in the future.What do these statistics mean?According to the Wax et al (2010) meta-analysis, the difference in infant mortality between hospital births and home births is 0.2% versus 0.9% (other people have already done a nice take-down of the cherry-picking of older studies that have received significant criticism, yet were included). While headlines have screamed that this is a three-fold difference, it makes sense for us to pay attention to the absolute values. Infant mortality, in hospital or home births, is under one percent. We can’t even say that one in one hundred babies die in childbirth in developed countries any more (at least not as a whole – for now I’ll side-step some major differences relating to social disparities and race). If you are pregnant and considering where you want to give birth, I’m not sure how this slight difference could really sway you one way or the other. The problem is that the editors of the Lancet (and others) are conflating public health recommendations with personal recommendations… and shaming women in the process.From a public health perspective, I suppose I can grudgingly understand why the difference in infant mortality in home versus hospital births matters. But you cannot take population-wide statistics and apply them to individuals. To do so is to ignore inter and intrapopulational variation, and to take a women’s decision about her body out of the context in which it should be understood.Another thing to notice, Wax et al (2010) found that “neonatal outcomes of planned home births revealed less frequent prematurity, low birthweight, and assisted newborn ventilation.” So of the more than 99% of babies who were fine, home birth babies tended to be healthier. This of course could be a bias of who chooses a planned home birth versus someone who does not, so I am not assuming the directionality to be that the home birth predicts healthier kids. But I wouldn’t be surprised if further analysis showed both directions to be causal; that is, that women more likely to have healthier kids choose to plan a home birth, but also that because home births have fewer interventions those kids are more likely to be healthy.What about maternal health?What the Lancet editorial and Wax et al (2010) mention only briefly, is that for maternal mortality and morbidity in low-risk births, to me, home births (and, I would contend, birth center births) are the clear winner. By not being in the same room as epidural medicine (it’s right behind you in big cabinets, just waiting for you to say “ow”*), single beds with little room to maneuver, continuous fetal monitoring and an IV under your skin as soon as you’re admitted, you avoid interventions that often carry their own significant risks and precipitate a cascade of other interventions.Many women in the US don’t want to give birth in hospitals because being in a hospital increases the risk of maternal mortality and morbidity and, perhaps more importantly, slows recovery time. I say the recovery time issue may be more important, because while the US is embarrassingly bad at keeping mothers alive, the numbers are still better than in infant mortality (though, obviously, this makes sense from a life history perspective). The US is ranked 40th in the world in terms of maternal mortality – that means 39 countries do a better job keeping women alive during childbirth. Our incidence of maternal mortality is increasing, not decreasing, with the latest figures for 2008 being 17 deaths out of 100,000 births (Canada, for instance, has 7/100,000). Developed countries with higher rates of home birth have lower rates of maternal mortality.Criminalizing home birthAnother problem I have is that part of the reason they cite home births as unsafe is that so few of them are staffed by certified midwives (only one third according to the Lancet editorial). The only reason more home births are not staffed by certified midwives is that organizations like the American Medical Association and others have lobbied to keep home births illegal in many states. Midwives cannot legally help a family give birth at home where I now live, in Illinois. Instead, I have been told by local homebirth supporters that there is an underground movement of lay midwives who try to help women stay out of hospitals, if it’s what they want. Is this a safe way to give birth if you are low-risk? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure I would be keen on a home birth that did not have a Certified Professional Midwife or Certified Nurse Midwife attending, who also had a good relationship to a doctor at the nearest hospital. But I also would not want to give low-risk birth in a hospital, even if I had a midwife, because of the major risks you incur just by stepping into a hospital (like infection). Women in states like mine are stuck between a rock and a hard place: give birth at home and risk not having someone with the right qualifications (and potentially face legal action), or risk giving birth under conditions where you may have interventions you don't want, and treated like something less than human (which I'll get to more in the next section).By criminalizing home birth, medical doctors and their lobbyists force women who don’t want a medical birth to find less-than-perfect alternatives. So when Lancet editors and others criticize US women for not having the right people at their home births, I call shenanigans: they were complicit in making the laws that prohibit it in the first place.Birth experiences in hospitals, birth centers and the homeThere is a huge literature already on the medicalization and pathologization of femaleness, and I encourage you to devour it all, from Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body to Robbie Davis-Floyd’s Birth as an American Rite of Passage.So the other issue I want to make sure to include here is that pregnant patients don’t have the same rights as non-pregnant patients in a hospital (link to pdf), to refuse treatment, to leave, to contest a decision; hospitals can and do get court orders to force pregnant women to receive treatments they have refused. On the one hand, I can understand that sometimes decisions need to be made quickly during labor. On the other hand, I think there is a problem when we place a fetus’s rights above that of its mother’s. This recent story of police violence against a pregnant woman links to several problems with pregnant patient rights. Here are examples of court-ordered interventions. And here is more information on pregnant patient rights.These are other reasons many women find the idea of a hospital birth frightening, and thus choose home birth or a birthing center. And if you read Davis-Floyd and others, you will see the interviews of women who have had hospital births how they were disempowered by the experience. This isn’t to say there aren’t many, many women who aren’t totally satisfied with hospital births, and would never consider home birth. It’s just to say that to acknowledge differences in infant mortality risk that are not necessarily meaningful to an individual making a decision about this, in the absence of all this other information, is disingenuous on the part of the editorial writers at the Lancet.Future work on this topic... Read more »

Editorial staff. (2010) Home birth--proceed with caution. Lancet, 376(9738), 303. PMID: 20674705  

  • September 16, 2010
  • 10:02 AM

Science proves that your friends are more important than you!

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

The other day a friend of mine bumped into some news that concerned her. She could have asked a random person about this to find out more information, but there was a bit of information that came with the news indicating that I might know more than the average person about it. So, she asked me, and as it turns out, I did not know anything. But, having heard the news from her, I noticed a different bit of information that came along with it that told me exactly who would know everything about it, so I sent along a question .... "What's going on with the [deleted]?" I got back a message almost immediately. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

  • September 16, 2010
  • 08:54 AM

Intelligent Design's Legal Status after Dover

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

First, there was plain and simple creationism, a Christian idea that, in an ideal Christian world, would be taught as part of any science dealing with the past, including biology (evolution), geology, and presumably history.

But the constitution stood in the way of implementing basic Christian teachings in public schools in the United States, though that battle took decades. Just as creationists were being driven off he landscape, a sort of Battle of the Bulge occurred, in the form of Intelligent Design. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Rosenau, Joshua. (2010) Leap of Faith: Intelligent Design's Trajectory after Dover. UNIV. OF ST. THOMAS JOURNAL OF LAW . info:/

  • September 16, 2010
  • 08:38 AM

Tracking Notharctus, Wyoming’s Prehistoric “Lemur”

by Laelaps in Laelaps

Despite all the overhyped nonsense which surrounded the debut of the 47-million-year-old primate Darwinius masillae (“Ida” to her fans) last year, I have to admit that the first-described specimen was a gorgeous fossil. It was a paleontologist’s dream – a complete, articulated skeleton with traces of hair and even intact gut contents. Never before had [...]... Read more »

Gregory, W.K. (1920) On the structure and relations of Notharctus, an American Eocene primate. Memoirs of the AMNH, 3(2), 49-243. info:/

  • September 15, 2010
  • 02:52 PM

Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

There are two quick and fairly easy approaches to reducing US emissions of CO2 by several percent. These reduction would be at the household level, possibly decreasing the household cost of energy by between 20 and 30 percent (or more, depending on the household) and decreasing national total CO2 emissions by around 10% or so.

But these approaches are nearly impossible to implement. Why? Because people are ignorant and selfish. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Attari, S., DeKay, M., Davidson, C., & Bruine de Bruin, W. (2010) From the Cover: Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(37), 16054-16059. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1001509107  

  • September 14, 2010
  • 02:05 PM

Peruvian Coffee: Matching Consumption With Production

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Spurred by questions from readers, I've expanded the coffee series to include two additional posts on this caffeinated drink that will run this week. If this is your first visit to AiP, you can review our coffee discussions here. This post will consider the question that readers have raised: how can we explain the popularity of instant coffee in coffee producing countries? As a follow-up, on

... Read more »

Klumbyte, Neringa. (2010) The Soviet Sausage Renaissance. American Anthropologist, 112(1), 22-37. info:/

  • September 13, 2010
  • 07:32 PM

Shelter Dogs: Taking the Dog's-Eye View

by Jason Goldman in The Thoughtful Animal

At least one dog can be found in forty percent of US households, and forty percent of those owners allow their dogs to sleep on their beds. To put this in perspective, in a family with five children, two of them can be expected to become dog owners, and one of them will probably allow the dog to sleep on his or her bed. In an undergraduate lecture class of two hundred, eighty of those students come from homes with at least one pet dog. So as you might expect, dogs are a big business! In 2007, the pet industry was worth about $40 billion in the US, with dogs responsible for the largest share of that expense.

As well as providing pleasure and comfort, though, dogs can also be a source of pain and distress to humans. In the United States, dogs bite around 4.7 million people per year. In fact, by age twelve, an average American child has a 50% chance of having been bitten by a dog. In that same group of two hundred undergrads, one hundred of them have probably been bitten by a dog. Each year, around 2 million dogs are destroyed terminated executed euthanized killed in shelters.
Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Wynne, C. (2009) Editorial. Behavioural Processes, 81(3), 355-357. DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2009.04.007  

  • September 13, 2010
  • 07:33 AM

Through the Language Glass (Part 1)

by Chris in The Lousy Linguist

The publisher Henry Holt and Company was kind enough to send me a review copy of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages which bills itself as "demonstrating that language does in fact reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial" but which also goes beyond that and purports to demonstrate that language affects thought, if only via habits of mind.This is part one of a two part review. I expect to post Part 2 next Monday, Sept. 20th. My division into two reviews follows the book's own division:Part 1: The Language Mirror (pages 1-126)Part 2: The Language Lens (129-249)Part 1: The Language MirrorThe general goal of the first part of the book is to establish that language does in fact reflect culture; that it is a mirror in some non-trivial ways of the culture of the speakers. However, Deutscher begins the book by clearly debunking many tired canards about specific languages reflecting crude stereotypes about its speakers. Is French really the most logical language, as my PhD advisor was fond of jokingly claiming? No, it is not (sorry JP, haha).Overall, Deutscher is a clear and enjoyable writer to read. He does a good job of reviewing basic, but important facts about language and linguists. Facts that need to be understood by the reader if the rest of the book is to be appreciated. These includes arbitrariness of the sign, cultural transmission, abstraction, and categorization.So how dose languages mirror their speakers?Deutscher spends 95 pages (38% of the whole book and 75% of Part 1) arguing that the inventory of color terms in a language reflects the state of the culture's need to distinguish one color from another as well as its exposure to a wide range of hues (particularly, artificial). The basic facts, which have been established by about 150 years of empirical findings, are these:All languages have a set of color terms (words that name colors).Languages do not share the same color terms (e.g., some have no word for blue and what gets labeled as blue in one language may differ from what what gets labeled as blue in another).Color terms are not arbitrary (each term refers to a coherent subset of the visible spectrum)Acquisition of color terms is predictable (i.e., language acquire names for color terms in a predictable order.The predictable order of acquisition is this:black & white > red > yellow/green > blueWhat this says is that all languages have terms for black and white. If a language has a third color term, it refers to red. If that language has a fourth color term, it refers to either yellow or green. And so on. See WALS for more.Deutscher goes to great lengths to establish these facts. Maybe too great. I felt he beat this horse a bit too long and hard. The average reader may disagree. Ultimately, we get no satisfying answer as to why this pattern exists (that's science's fault, just haven't figured it out yet, but Deutscher build this up pretty high to give us such a weak landing).And this brings me to my first critique of Part 1: This is just too light weight for me. I was expecting a more rigorous scientific work, and what I got was Gladwell-lite. The first three of the five chapters of Part 1 read more like pop biography than serious cognitive science. They each begin by introducing us to an historical 19th Century figure who was crucial in the emerging field of color term research. Deutscher describes each man's lost contribution with the affection of a smitten history student trying to re-fight battles that ended before his grandfather was born. It's a particular genre of history that is not uncommon (think Ken Burns' The Civil War), but I found it beside the point. Can we please get down to the business of how language affects thought, I kept thinking. Worse, despite his lengthy explications, he never quite convinced me that color terms was the crucial topic he needs it to be in order to justify such lengthy discussion. His own obsession with color term research leads him to over-emphasize the topic, to the detriment of many other crucial topics (which he does in fact get to, but a little too late and a dollar short).He's also a little too fond of his own Writing 101 skills. Several times he concocts little explanatory vignettes, but then rather takes it too far, going on not for a paragraph or two, but a full page. He also tends to give us these tantalizing teasers about future chapters (like "X would have to wait until Y before..."). I found these a bit tiresome. A bit too much like Behind The Music documentaries which tease you before each commercial break.Deutscher has been criticized for treating Benjamin Lee Whorf too harshly (see my review of his NYTs article here for specifics). At one point in this book he call Whorf the most notorious of the [linguistic relativity] con men. This is odd, to me, because in Part 1 Deutscher repeatedly channels Whorfs own claims and even language. If you were to read Whorf's original 1940 essay Science and Linguistics (pdf), one of his early drafts of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, you'd have to conclude that he and Deutscher are best pals, simpatico. They both make the same distinction between folk theories and science; they both emphasize the need to question one's own pre-conceived notions, and both concoct straw men to argue against.Both Deutscher and Whorf sketch for us the basic assumptions of the common man (Deutscher actually uses the phrase Joe the Plumber, Peirs the Ploughman, or Tom Piper's son to represent this straw man at one point). But I couldn't help but shake my head at some of the things Deutscher thinks you and his readers are running around thinking, like "primitive people speak primitive languages" (page 99; this is an echoing of Whorf as well). I have no doubt that SOME people think this, but is this the average person? Deutscher needs this straw man to create the space of need that he fills. Joe the Plumber NEEDS Deutscher to save him from his ignorance.In a similar vein, Deutscher also uses some questionable assumptions. On page 101 he seems to assume that our contemporary notions of aboriginal languages comes from Tintin and Westerns...huh? Frikkin Tintin? I had to Google that. And Westerns? Does Deutscher think it's 1955?The portion of Part 1 I liked most was the last 20 pages or so where he really starts to get into the meat of how language and culture intermix. If only this were the FIRST 20 pages, but alas.He finally starts to get into really interesting issues of culture and language when he discusses complexity and language. I found it a little confusing that he would claim, and strongly so, that "No one has ever measured the overall complexity of even one single language, not to mention all of them. No one even has an idea how to measure the overall complexity of a language" (page 105). Then he claims that it is inherently impossible to compare the complexity of two languages (page 109).My position is that this is simply false and it is odd for Deutscher to have published those sentences. What Deutscher is doing, I think, is defining his own version of what it means to "measure the overall complexity of a language" in such a way that the many attempts to do so, dating back to the 1940s, don't count. He's playing a rhetorical game like politicians do when they pledge to cut taxes in such a way that when they fail to do it later on, they can wiggle out beneath their words to make it look like they lived up to them nonetheless. Linguists and logicians have long been interested in measuring linguistic complexity. Deutscher makes it look like this is not so. He may not like these attempts. He may wish to debate their merits, but they do exist. All you have to do is Google "measuring linguistic complexity" and you get a whole host of results, like these:Gruber, J. & Gibson, E. (2004). Measuring linguistic complexity independent of plausibility. Language, 80, 583-590.Juola, Patrick, Assessing Linguistic Complexity, Duquesne University.McWhorter, John (2001). The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. Linguistic Typology 5, pp. 125–66Bane, Max. ... Read more »

Guy Deutscher. (2010) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books. info:/

  • September 10, 2010
  • 05:40 PM

Spontaneous fermentation: the role of microorganisms in beer

by Katie Kline in EcoTone

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was once quoted as saying: “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.” While there is certainly some truth to this quote, especially considering water quality in the 1700s, it should be noted that beer’s long history is also fraught with microorganisms—both helpful and harmful in the eyes of the brewer.

... Read more »

  • September 9, 2010
  • 09:19 AM

Human sacrifices, uranium, and corals

by Uncharted Atolls in Uncharted Atolls

The development of shrines and temple architecture associated with chiefdoms and early states is thought to be a slow process.  In Mesoamerica, a sequence of architectural evolution took 1300 years, according to archaeological evidence.  However, this may not always be … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • September 8, 2010
  • 08:54 AM

Autistic Toddlers Like Screensavers

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Young children with autism prefer looking at geometric patterns over looking at other people. At least, some of them do. That's according to a new study - Preference for Geometric Patterns Early in Life As a Risk Factor for Autism.Pierce et al took 110 toddlers (age 14 to 42 months). Some of them had autism, some had "developmental delay" but not autism, and some were normally developing.The kids were shown a one-minute video clip. One half of the screen showed some kids doing yoga, while the other was a set of ever-changing complex patterns. A bit like a screensaver or a kaleidoscope. Eye-tracking apparatus was used to determine which side of the screen each child was looking at.What happened? Both the healthy control children, and the developmentally delayed children, showed a strong preference for the "social" stimuli - the yoga kids. However, the toddlers with an autism spectrum disorder showed a much wider range of preferences. 40% of them preferred the geometric patterns. Age wasn't a factor.Intuitively this makes sense because one of the classic features of autism is a fascination with moving shapes such as wheels, fans, and so on. The authors conclude thatA preference for geometric patterns early in life may be a novel and easily detectable early signature of infants and toddlers at risk for autism.But only a minority of the autism group showed this preference, remember. As you can see from the plot above, they spanned the whole range - and over half behaved entirely normally.There was no difference between the "social" and "geometrical" halves of the autism group on measures of autism symptoms or IQ, so it wasn't just that only "more severe" autism was associated with an abnormal preference.They re-tested many of the kids a couple of weeks later, and found a strong correlation between their preference on both occasions, suggesting that it is a real fondness for one over the other - rather than just random eye-wandering.So this is an interesting result, but it's not clear that it would be of much use for diagnosis.Pierce K, Conant D, Hazin R, Stoner R, & Desmond J (2010). Preference for Geometric Patterns Early in Life As a Risk Factor for Autism. Archives of general psychiatry PMID: 20819977... Read more »

join us!

Do you write about peer-reviewed research in your blog? Use to make it easy for your readers — and others from around the world — to find your serious posts about academic research.

If you don't have a blog, you can still use our site to learn about fascinating developments in cutting-edge research from around the world.

Register Now

Research Blogging is powered by SMG Technology.

To learn more, visit