Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Life in Crete

I'm home from my short trip to Greece. For the second part of my trip I was staying on the island of Crete, in Pachia (sometimes spelled Pacheia) Ammos. The population of Pachia Ammos is 300. It's very small, and very beautiful.

 The real reason I was in Pachia Ammos was to do osteological research. The first few days were spent washing bones. This was... an experience. For my forensic anthropology lab I did an experiment that ended in my washing bones of a pig. In my archaeology class I've washed pottery. Neither was anything like the bones I encountered in Greece. These bones were highly fragmented, and highly fragile. The bones were caked in dirt, and the long bones were packed with it. Dislodging the sediment from the marrow cavity required the assistance of a wooden skewer and a lot of patience. In what I thought was a stroke of luck, I was given a mostly complete skull to wash. It was completely compacted with dirt. Using a wooden skewer, I carefully began to remove the dirt from the underside of the skull. Pieces began to fall off, and when I added water (drop by drop) the bones began to dissolve! When I finally worked my way around to the mandible, there were still teeth embedded in the bone, indicating a young individual. I tried to wash up the mandible a little bit, and the bone disintegrated. In the end I was left with only a few fragments of skull and a lot of teeth.

Over the next few days we began the long process of piecing together the bones we had so carefully cleaned. Find two pieces that match, glue them together, tape them, repeat. To give you an idea of the complexity, it's almost like doing three jigsaw puzzles at once, only almost all of the edge pieces have been removed, as have half of the center pieces. Oh yeah, the puzzles are all almost identical, too, and all the pieces are mixed together in one bag. Despite the challenge, we worked well and pieced together a rather impressive (to me at least) amount of bone. On the last two days of our project, I was working with a bag containing four individuals. I was happy with myself for being able to work through this an assemble their skulls, one of them being mostly complete.

The other students and I learned a lot of different things about the information gained from bones and teeth. We learned how to side bones when only a few fragments are present, to sort and side hand and foot bones (which is very difficult), and to sort teeth. The last one became sort of my specialty. I was taught to decide which tooth was which (incisor, canine, premolar, molar), determine if it was a deciduous "baby" tooth or a permanent tooth, to know if it belonged to the upper or lower row of teeth, if it was from the right or left side, to determine the amount of enamel wear and interpret the meaning, and to check for the presence of enamel hypoplasia. With the disintegrating skull I mentioned above, I was left with almost two complete sets of teeth: one deciduous and one permanent. From there I determined the age of the individual. It was a long and taxing process, but I felt very accomplished once I had completed the evaluation. Next spring I am going to present a poster of my dental analysis at my university's Student Scholar Symposium.

While I'm not at liberty to share photographs of my work, I can share some pictures of the beauty in Pachia Ammos. This was the view from the research center where I was working:

It's really a shame we had to work in the basement the entire time. Our hotel was beach front, and we were so close to the water that I fell asleep to the sounds of crashing waves every night. The weather was as beautiful as the scenery, and if it hadn't been for the bugs, I would have let the doors to my porch stay open the entire time I was there. This picture was taken from the hotel:

As well as being an exceptional educational experience, my short stay in Pachia Ammos was amazing. I grew closer to the classmates with whom I worked every day, and I met some great people at the research center. This is truly an experience I will never forget.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

I'm in Greece right now.

I was selected as on of three students to go to the island of Crete in Greece to participate in osteological research. The other two students and I decided to come a few days early and stay in Athens before traveling to Crete. I'm so glad we did. Yesterday we went through the New Acropolis Museum and then went to the actual Acropolis. You read about Ancient Greece all the time (at least I did in school), but when you actually get to Athens and go through the museums, it is just amazing. The remains of the Parthenon? I just can't describe it. It was awesome. I learned a lot more about ancient Greek customs than I ever thought I would.

One thing I didn't realize is there are a lot of cats and dogs in Athens. They don't belong to anyone really. They belong to everyone. Everyone in the city will feed them. They aren't shy. I had a cat crawl into my lap today to ask for attention. I petted him, and he drooled on my pants.

One thing nobody really tells you before you travel to Greece is you can't flush toilet paper. There. Now it's out in the open, and everyone who reads my blog will know. Instead, you place it in a trash can. Obviously, unclean Greek restrooms smell a lot worse than the gross gas station toilets in the US.

Tomorrow I move on to Crete, and I don't know how much internet access I will have there. I will also be working all day with bones. I'm excited and I know the island will be gorgeous, but right now my heart belongs to Athens. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sherry Ortner and Practice Anthropology

This is the essay portion of an exam I recently took in my anthropological theory class. The instruction was to describe the three major theories from which Ortner developed Practice (or Praxis) Anthropology. My response seems short in a computer, but when I was furiously writing all period by hand it didn't seem so short.

Sherry Ortner’s Practice anthropology aims to place emphasis on humans and what they are doing and to eliminate the preconceived categorization that exists in anthropology. Without using their exact terminology, Ortner pulls the basis of practice anthropology from three main sources: Marx, Weber, and Wallerstein.
                Marx was interested in how people related to one another on an economic level. He asserted that social classes developed from capitalism. Marx believed that eventually class conflict will arise between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and workers will overthrow their oppressive government. They will then establish a new government that will benefit everyone in society. The governmental style he pushed for was communism. Ortner shares Marx’s view that the economy is the most motivational factor on the individual, and pulled this into both interest theory and strain theory.
                Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory states material production has caused the development of economics and politics as well as created a world class system. Wallerstein asserts that history can be divided into three periods based on economy. The first period is from 1300-1450. During this time feudalism was stagnating, and was on its way out. The second period is from 1450-1670. The European economy was expanding rapidly, and nation-states were forming. The ruling kings were insisting on a bureaucracy with themselves on top. The new nation-states began forming joint-stock companies. This minimized their financial risk while maximizing their return. Eventually the merchant class was able to buy its way into the bureaucracy. The extensive overseas trade led to an influx of cheap goods. The third and final period began in 1700 and led into the modern era. Through the success of capitalism, it was realized that more resources meant more money. European colonialism gained momentum as Europe became more dependent on its colonies. Slavery was a result of colonialism and the European industrial revolution; colonialism gave European nations cheap resources and slavery provided free labor. All of this came to an end after World War II, when Europe was financially drained and could no longer afford its colonies. World Systems Theory is Marxism on a global scale; Wallerstein promoted the idea that the economy was the driving force behind global change. Ortner was interested in how individuals operate within a given system, and was highly supportive of the notion that society is dynamic, and the economy is a major catalyst for change.
                Weber was pulled into anthropological thought in the 1970’s. Weber stated that the basic unit of society was the group. He gave three reasons for group formation: economics, politics, and culture. Societies are comprised of stratified groups. People will naturally assign themselves to groups based on similarities and work together to exclude individuals who are dissimilar. Weber believed that the intentional behaviors and actions of individuals were important to study, and Ortner agreed. According to Weber, there are two main types of organization: personalistic and bureaucratic. Personalistic organization begins in the family and is the basis for the social organization of small-scale societies. Bureaucracies are a way of controlling a large amount of people through a tiered system of command. Ortner took Weber’s ideas of studying the group’s effect on the individual and the individual’s effect on the group.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Do Cultural Universals Exist?

Cultural universals are traits or institutions that exist in all cultures worldwide. The concept of cultural universals has existed in American Anthropology since the beginning of the 20th century. The question I’ve come up with for myself is: does cultural universality exist?
It’s generally accepted that killing another human being is unacceptable behavior. This belief is found worldwide, but is it a universal? Consider India, where it has long been accepted that if a married man dies his wife should be burned. There are many societies which view this as morally reprehensible, but it is a long-standing (though now outlawed) tradition. There are societies in which honor killings and human sacrifices are viewed as essential. So, though most societies worldwide consider taking the life of another as implicitly wrong, it is not a universal belief.
Some things are considered to be cultural universals, and I’m not quite sure if they are. Some of the ways in which we use language are considered to be universal, such as the fact all languages are translatable, or that they all have the logical notion of opposites. I’m not so sure these “universals” are cultural products. All languages are quite similar when broken down. That is true. Humans use language in very similar ways, no matter what language they are speaking.  Is that really a product of culture, or is it a product of the way humans are hardwired? Are our large brains cognitively able to handle language structure and use in a way that it isn’t currently used? Not being a neurologist, I have no answer to that; it’s just a thought.
Perhaps I’m being too specific. In a more general sense, there are universal qualities about humans. We’ve mastered tool-making. Every culture I have read about has a culturally accepted ritual surrounding a deceased loved one. Using these more general terms, my example earlier about killing others being wrong can be changed and become a universal by saying every culture has a stance on taking the life of another human. Not all stances are the same, but every culture has a stance on killing.
When attempting to uncover cultural universals, one must decide between taking a Boas-style approach or a Radcliffe-Brown approach. Is it more important to gather the information before drawing conclusions (Boas), or should conclusions be made during the course of study (Radcliffe-Brown)?  Shouldn’t you gather all the facts before you draw your conclusions? The problem is if the entire field of anthropology adopted a Boasian approach, then the discipline would encounter the same problem as Boas himself: anthropology would become atheoretical. Boas was a great anthropologist and did marvelous work. He basically founded American Anthropology and made it what it is today, but he never had any theories, nor did many of his students. Taking Radcliffe-Brown’s approach, data is collected and compared sooner. When searching for true cultural universals, either method would take a lot of time, but by following Radcliffe-Brown’s methodology theories can come out much sooner. When new information is uncovered, current theories can change accordingly.
So, do cultural universals exist? If I’m going to go with the more specific mode, I would say no. But speaking in the more general manner, I would say yes. And really, the more people you are trying to group together, the more general you must be. Trying to link cultures across the globe in any meaningful way necessitates generalization. Therefore I must conclude that cultural universals exist.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Language and Thought

What does it take to use language? Linguists typically divide the knowledge into two categories: competence and performance, basically knowing the rules and speaking the language. This is pretty cut and dry, and linguistic anthropologists tend to think there is more to "knowing" a language than just knowing its rules. Because they are anthropologists, they like to have a list of things you need to know to "know" language: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. We learn language primarily through interaction with others. It's generally accepted that language cannot be developed or learned in isolation, and that makes sense because language is used for communicating with others, right? Well, what about when we are communicating with ourselves?

We  think in language. When we are thinking, most times we aren't thinking in abstract concepts; we are thinking in nouns, verbs, and adjectives. So, is it possible to have thought without language? This was the topic of a long discussion/debate in my linguistic anthropology class. During that class, I admit that I was a fence-sitter. I just didn't have a real opinion on the matter at the time. After sitting on the issue for two months, I think I'm ready to take a side and say that I believe that thought is possible without language. Think about it. If humans didn't have thought before they had language, how would the language have come about? The impetus for language was most likely to communicate thoughts that already existed to another member of the community.

 Although I believe that thought can exist independently of language, I do think that the invention of language made thought a lot easier. Obviously, if the word for "need" does not exist in your language, you can still need things, only you wouldn't be able to express that. You might use the word "want" when you needed something. Similarly, people often start thinking about something in a discussion, and then will forget the word for the particular object or concept they are trying to talk about.

That's all I have to say on this topic for now, but I might revisit it later.