Monthly Archives: September 2009

Four Stone Hearth #75

Welcome to Four Stone Hearth number 75. Four Stone Hearth is a fortnightly anthropology blog carnival. Topics covered span the four major fields of anthropology: archaeology, socio-cultural anthropology, bio-physical anthropology and linguistic anthropology. If you would like to host the carnival, please write to Martin Rundkvist. The next issue will be hosted at the Afarensis blog on 23 September. So without further preamble, let’s get on with the show.

Martin Rundkvist talks about his experience digging at a Middle Neolithic coastal site in Sweden. Among the finds were small potsherds and a fine example of Pitted Ware.

A recent article in the journal Nature reports on the “oldest handaxes” in Europe. John Hawks gives his interpretation regarding the significance of these bifaces, suggesting that although Lower Pleistocene hominins had the technology to produce bifacial handaxes, they were not a necessity.

Biological anthropology
Anybody who has been following anthropology news for the past few weeks will be well aware of the spirited reaction that a recent editorial in Scientific American generated. The article calls for the adoption of more open practices with regard to accessing human fossils. I have written a piece where I give my own take on the issue.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer reviews Jonathan Marks’ latest book “Why I am not a scientist”. Jonathan Marks is a controversial anthropologist, who sticks to his guns in this, his latest work. Ever thought provoking, Marks is bound to stir up some debate among anthropologists and scientists alike.

There has been a lot of debate regarding whether Central European farmers were the descendants of indigenous hunter-gathers or the result of a demic diffusion from the southeast. Dienkes reports on a new study which suggests that Central European farmers were in fact probably not descended from local hunter-gatherer groups.

Stephen Wang asks the age old question of how similar Neandertals were to us and how they thought about the world.

Linguistic anthropology
The Innovation in Teaching blog explains the concept of a “focused gathering”, a term coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. The post goes on to discuss how this concept helps us better think about classroom dynamics.

Socio-cultural anthropology
Over at Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende has a revealing piece which looks at food crises in Lesotho and the role funerals play in coping with these food shortages. In another post Daniel takes on the recent “research” by researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, which is plagued by poor methodologies and a pseudoscientific approach to neuroscience. Greg Downey follows this up with his own take on some of the methodological flaws of the investigators, principally their inflexibility in the face of contradictory evidence.

Rex over at the Savage Minds blog suggests that the real question anthropologists should ask regarding internet addiction is not whether it exists but rather “how and in what forms do preexisting cultural structures predispose people to think something is true?”

Greg Laden debunks the fallacy that culture overrides biology. This part of a larger series on the common misperceptions that people have regarding biology.

Idris Mootee thinks that industrial designers need to think like cultural anthropologists. He uses the example of how different cultures adopt their own particular posture while sitting. By being aware of this, designers can better accommodate the needs of the end user. Joana Breidenbach of the Culture Matters blog is of a similar opinion:

“Design thinking has many overlaps with the anthropological approach, such as starting out with as little preconceived ideas about the research topic as possible and gaining an empathetic understanding through immersion during fieldwork.”
Lian explores the the archaeology of the worship of Celtic deities in Roman Britain.

Lorenz at the antropologi blog reviews Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s new book “Engaging Anthropology”. In it, he addresses the question of why anthropologists fail to engage the general public. In a similar piece that appeared in Times Higher Education, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes asserts that part of the problem may lie with universities:

    “Scholars who want to reach diverse publics – through popular writing, speaking or participating in social activism – are not only under-rewarded by their universities, they are often penalised for ‘dumbing down’ anthropological thinking, cutting social theory into ‘soundbites’, ‘vulgarising’ anthropology, sacrificing academic standards or (in the US) for playing to the anti-intellectual, illiberal American popular classes.”

Anna Barros shows how trends are subject to selection. She demonstrates how memes can be transmitted from person to person and how they respond to selection pressures.

One more thing…
Each of the four fields of anthropology can offer us a glimpse into our past. Perhaps more importantly, they can take us on a journey and show us the steps which got us to where we are today. Photography offers yet another way of archiving the past. To use the clichéd metaphor – photographs are moments frozen in time. A Flickr photostream by Jason Powell wonderfully bridges the gap between the past and the present, through the medium of photography. Enjoy!

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Fossil and data access in palaeoanthropology

A recent article in Scientific American has generated a lot of buzz in the anthropology blogosphere. The piece discusses the problems of accessing human fossil remains, reopening the discussion on how open anthropology needs to be. The reason why data acquisition is such a problem in palaeoanthropology is captured in the opening sentence of an article Stephen Jay Gould and David Pilbeam wrote for Science:

“Human paleontology shares a peculiar trait with such disparate subjects as theology and extraterrestrial biology: it contains more practitioners than objects for study.”

– Stephan J. Gould and David Pilbeam

Whenever supply cannot keep up with demand, you can be sure that problems will follow. (Many parents have learned this to their chagrin, when they find out that the Christmas toy du jour, their beloved child so wanted, is sold out.) Each newly unearthed fragment of human bone represents yet another valuable piece in the ever-growing jigsaw puzzle that is our evolutionary history. The study of primary data is of prime importance in paleoanthropology. As a result, a conflict arises, due to the need to study fossils and the limited access placed upon them. Restricted access occurs for a number of reasons, ranging from valid concerns over the fragility of a particular specimen, to scientists reaping the benefits of a research monopoly.

There is an unwritten rule in palaeoanthropology that the discoverers of a fossil have the exclusive rights to publish the initial monograph describing their specimen. Palaeoarchaeologists invest a lot of resources, time and effort in recovering fossils. They will often literally risk body and limb. Dehydration, food poisoning, snake bites, diseases and infections are but some of the hazards field archaeologists face. When they are not digging they are often engaged in the unenviable task of writing grants for their projects. It is understandable that they are wary of outsiders who expect free access to their hard-won prizes.

Ancient fossils usually come out of the ground highly fragmented and in a poor state of preservation. Much time is required to clean, preserve and reconstruct them before conducting a phylogenetic analysis. While many people have focused on the fact that certain specimens have taken an exhorbitant amount of time to describe, thus holding up the process of peer validation, it must also be kept in mind that these represent only a small fraction of the total human fossil record. While it of the utmost importance to make fossils available to outside investigators in a timely fashion, it is perhaps not the most fruitful or constructive area in which to be directing our attention.

Conflicts arise between researchers who want to access fossil material and curators who are genuinely concerned about the wear and tear that these fossils have endured through repeated handling. Curators will often direct researchers to others who have already measured the material in question, to avoid the redundant repetition of measurements. It is often at this point that researchers can come up against a brick wall, with peers who are unwilling to relinquish their valued data. Like the fossils themselves, unique data is a precious commodity and alas is necessary for publication. For good or for ill, peer-reviewed publications are placed in high regard in the anthropological world. Its role when it comes to job-seeking or tenure cannot be underestimated. An incredible amount of data has been collected through the years on ancient human remains but they are rarely put in the public domain. A noteworthy exception is the data on some 3,000 skulls from 17 worldwide populations, measured and made freely available by the eminent anthropologist William W. Howells (pdf file). The Howells’ dataset is perhaps that man’s most lasting legacy, at least in the sheer number of times his data have been used and referenced. Similarly, we need to place great value on other researchers who make their data available and this should be taken into consideration in matters of career advancement. At a minimum, the sharing of data should be deemed equivalent to research publication.

Positive steps have been taken in the ensure more data is made available. The US National Science Foundation encourage applicants to make provisions to make data available after the research has been completed. The NSF states that:

    It expects investigators to share with other researchers, at no more than incremental cost and within a reasonable time, the data, samples, physical collections and other supporting materials created or gathered in the course of the work.

Anthropologists who fail to comply with these recommendations may have subsequent grant proposals turned down on these grounds. There is an ever-growing number of high quality casts and 3D images of fossils becoming available. Taphonomic processes may deform the fossilised bone and filling in gaps has often required a liberal amount of guesswork. 3D images often allow for better reconstructions of the original specimens, due to the ability to interpolate absent regions and more readily pinpoint and correct deformation. Research centres have woken up to the fact that collaborative projects tend to have a greater synergy due to their symbiotic nature. For palaeoanthropology to become a truly open discipline, it will not only need researchers to be more freehanded with their data, but will require funding agencies, universities and research centres to incentivise such actions.

Related reading
Fossil access editorial @ John Hawks weblog.

Science Suffers From The Idiots At Scientific American @

Take your time @ A Primate of Modern Aspect.

Delson et al. Databases, data access, and data sharing in paleoanthropology: First steps. Evol. Anthropol. (2007) vol. 16 (5).

Gibbons. Glasnost for Hominids: Seeking Access to Fossils. Science (2002) vol. 297 pp. 1464-1468.

Mafart. Human fossils and paleoanthropologists: a complex relation. Journal of Anthropological Sciences (2008) vol. 86 pp. 201-204.

Pilbeam and Gould. Size and Scaling in Human Evolution. Science (1974) vol. 186 ( 4167), 892-901.

Tattersall and Schwartz. Is paleoanthropology science? Naming new fossils and control of access to them. Anat Rec (2002) vol. 269 (6) pp. 239-41.

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Above photo by Simon Strandgaard under creative commons license.