human culture

Why Anthropology Matters (now more than ever)

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Excited chatter echoes down the second floor corridor as a group of middle school girls approaches the door to the osteology lab. The young women file into the lab wide-eyed, curiously craning their necks to see the rows of bones on the shelves and tables. “Are those real?” They ask, pointing to a row of skulls or the complete skeleton on the table, “are those someone’s bones?”

Typically, I begin these GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane) workshops by introducing myself and welcoming them to the New Life in Buried Bones workshop. Today, I tell them, you all will learn about the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites and in forensic cases. Using the examples of bones with dental disease and cranial modification, I show these young women how human bones inform us on ancient life. They always love to hear gory forensic cases, so I make sure to include a few examples of blunt-force trauma and gun-shot wounds. For those interested in medicine or biomechanics, I give demonstrations of how repetitive motions to two joint surfaces can result in boney changes and sometimes even osteoarthritis. Every once in a while, one girl will exclaim that she also wants to be a bioarchaeolgist or a forensic anthropologist when she grows up.

Today, this workshop felt as if it would be different. Today, my enthusiasm felt strained. I had spent the last few days deliberating over what I was going to say to these girls. I could not simply pretend that everything was okay. It certainly wasn’t. I could not think of words eloquent enough to express how distraught I felt. Today, it was my job to stand in front of these young women and tell them that her education was one of the most important things she’ll ever have. She shouldn’t feel discouraged when she fails, or when her peers let her down. I was supposed to tell her that the bullies don’t win in the end. Hard work and critical thinking are invaluable. Being bold, imaginative, and fearless is what leads to innovation and discovery. The world is full of its problems, but she has the ability to tackle the most insurmountable challenges. Pursuing science, I would tell her, is one way to do that.

Today, those words felt hallow, flippant, and simply untrue. I should be thinking of ways to encourage and inspire these women, but instead, in light of this week’s election, I was plagued with memories of all the troubles I had when I was their age. I thought of the bullies, male peers who harassed me for answering questions in class or commented on my appearance, as if that had something to do with my value or intelligence. How was I supposed to tell them that no matter how impressive her accomplishments, there will be that person who attempts to discredit her, belittle her, and make her feel worthless? Worst of all, how am I supposed to tell her that all of these problems are simply a phase, and that things will get better after middle and high school? She has a bright future, I should tell her. She would be accepted to university based on her merits. But would always be someone there, a real or fictions demon on her shoulder whispering in her ear that she only got in because she’s a woman, a woman of color, an immigrant, a LGBT? I shudder to think of those who said similar things to me (and I enjoy more privilege than most); those men who said or implied that I took their spot, that being a woman gave me a competitive edge they did not enjoy. Forgot that maybe my successes meant I was qualified. Someone had to be blamed, and I was the unlucky winner.

As much as I wanted to unleash my own frustrations, I knew that was not the best way to proceed. I am sad, I am angry, but I am certainly not going to back down and admit defeat.

Instead, I will look to my greatest comfort: anthropology.

What is anthropology? I ask the young women.

“The study of human bones!”

“The study of ancient societies!”

“The study of artifacts and archaeology!”

“The study of culture!”

You are all correct, I tell them, these are all important aspects of being human and they are intimately interconnected and manifest in infinite, fascinating ways. Anthropology is the science of human beings. We have the tool kit of a scientist: we ask questions, formulate hypotheses, make observations of the evidence, and evaluate our results. Our goal is to understand the complexities of human nature, why humans do what we do. It is during that fascinating, fulfilling, and sometimes frustrating journey that we discover how valuable and rare our open-mindedness and thirst for understanding is in the world.

My fellow anthropologists, all you linguists, cultural and medical anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and primatologists, you know this. And it thrills me to call you my friends and colleagues.

But to those who are unfamiliar with what I do, this is for you. Anthropology is not simply an intellectual oddity tucked away in the ivory towers of university campuses. It cannot be buried in piles of jargon-heavy books and articles, though that doesn’t mean some haven’t tried. Studying the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life enables us to understand why diseases spread and why crops fail. This science of human nature allows us to explore why societies commissioned art to inspire creativity or to evoke a sense of the divine. Anthropology explores how empires expand and collapse. It does not shy away from discussions of race, gender, and colonialism; in fact, it confronts these debates head-on, challenging us to critically evaluate our past mistakes so that our future is full of thoughtful, well-informed decisions. To an anthropologist, why early humans migrated out of Africa, over Beringia, and went to the moon seems almost obvious. Humans are wired to look to the horizon, across oceans, and up at the night sky: we want to go beyond our known world to see what lies just out of reach.

Anthropology has comforted me these last few days. Hatred and fear are simply the symptoms of ignorance, and it can spread like wildfire if left unchecked and unchallenged. To be an anthropologist is to understand human similarities and differences. We do not hate the unknown nor fear the challenges of this ever-changing world. Instead, we build connections with our global community and to the past by studying cultures, ancient societies, and their material correlates; we do not build walls. Anthropology is a discipline that has the power to understand who we were. It is more important now than ever that we recognize that anthropology also has the indispensable power to help us decide who we are and who we want to be.

So today, as I looked at those excited, hopeful, bright young women in the osteology lab, I tell them I decided to study anthropology because I wanted to fully comprehend and appreciate the complex, beautiful world around me. In the words of Ruth Benedict, I tell them, “the purposes of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

This week in anthropology, bioanthropology, bioarchaeology, archaeology, and primatology

Replica of King Tut’s tomb almost complete in Luxor, Egypt

New findings in Rome make archaeologists’ believe city older than previously thought

Mummies with copper masks uncovered in Siberian Arctic 

Study suggests that Neanderthals and Cro-Magons did not coincide on Iberian peninsula 

Body modification practices in Omo Valley, Ethiopia 

Looting in Peru is more common now than in the Spanish colonial era 

How human culture influences our genes 

Archaeologists find 21 remains of German soldiers in WWI shelter 

New chemical tests planned for Bronze Age “Racton Man” 

An illustrated guide to a PhD

Tests on Chilean mummies suggests arsenic poisoning

Sacrificial and common graves reveal diversity in ancient city of Cahokia 

Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, practices of collecting and displaying of Egyptian materials, especially mummies 

China’s terra cotta warrior army heading to Indiana 

Scurvy, a Vitamin C deficiency, common in Columbus colony in La Isabela, Santo Domingo 

Orangoutang shot by poachers, has wounds attended to 

Epigenetics help explain early human appearance 

Why humans get autism and Neanderthals didn’t 

Giving animal cute names can help save species, Jane Goodall explains 

DNA tests begin on King Canute, UK 

Chimpanzees are very picky about where they sleep 

Vampire burial in Venice 

Physical impacts on skull shape of Trail of Tears and Civil War on Native Americans 

Jared Diamond, we could be living in a Stone Age by 2114

How do we explain the evolution of religion?

Has human evolution been propelled by war?