Tag Archives: anthropology

This Year’s Thanksgiving Thoughts

It is the eve of Thanksgiving in the United States, and in keeping with my annual tradition, I’d like to remind you that Friday is Black Friday Buy Nothing Day (and also to let California readers know that our State Parks are offering free passes so you can enjoy some time out in the fresh air instead of shopping). And of course, there is yet more to say about the complex relationship between the land of North America/Turtle Island, the first people who came here over 10,000 years ago, and the more recent immigrants to this continent.
If you have been following the news from Standing Rock, you know that a new generation of indigenous land and water protectors is under attack from some of these more recent immigrants. What this says about our nation, our priorities, and our future ranges from inspiring to alarming.
But rather than focus on current events, I’d like to wander into the past for a bit. About a month ago, my friend Joe asked a question for a class he was teaching. He and his students wanted an anthropologist’s perspective about the first steps toward modern technological society in Europe, and what advantages Europeans might have had in “getting there first.” He was wondering if “Guns, Germs and Steel ” were some of the answers.
If you have not read it, Guns, Germs and Steel is actually well worth the read – good writing and some brilliant insights (though not without its critics, e.g. Tomlinson 1998).  The title is a bit misleading: guns and steel are part of the same issue (technological complexification). Guns actually had their origin in China, with the invention of gunpowder over 1000 years ago, and its use in weapons by 1200CE (Haw 2013). Guns made their way into European warfare by 1324CE (DeVries 1998). Steel was produced much earlier, with some evidence from western Asia (in what is now Turkey) as early as 1900BCE (Akanuma 2008).
Germs were SO much more of an issue in the European conquest of the Americas, resulting in a loss of perhaps 95% of the pre-Columbian human population (Montenegro & Stephens 2006). Many indigenous populations were in decline and disarray due to exposure to European diseases before they actually saw any Europeans (Diamond 1997). The reason Europeans had so many contagious diseases was due to the kinds of animals that could be domesticated in the ‘Old World’ (versus the paucity of domesticatable critters in the ‘New World’), and the high human population densities that went along with intensive, livestock-supported agriculture.
And it was that kind of agriculture, and the energy surpluses it yielded (starting with human and animal labor) that made increased technological complexity possible, leading to innovations like steel, guns and internal/infernal combustion. In Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, Joseph A. Tainter (1996)  focuses on how and why complex societies collapse (short answer: diminishing returns on increased social complexity).
So, in essence, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were screwed because Europe’s aurochs could be easily domesticated into cattle, and American bison could not. Also, the first Americans had probably been involved in, and almost certainly were witnesses to, the early Holocene extinction of horses and camels in North America (had those indigenous species survived, it’s possible that North America would have been the first to develop complex civilizations, or at least been closer to on par with Europe, India and China). Despite the domestication disadvantage, several complex civilizations had come and gone in the Americas (Maya, Aztec, Inca).  Other North American peoples had a mix of agricultural and hunting/foraging subsistence  (Mississipian cultures, Pueblo cultures) or very rich foraging (Pacific Northwest cultures) as a basis for fairly high levels of complexification, including “permanent” settlements (sites occupied year-round, for decades or centuries), social stratification, pottery and metalworking.
Now, the reason it was western Europe, and not Persia or China or India or Egypt, that came to be the dominant culture of the last six or seven centuries is less clear.  I suspect it is mostly historical accident: Europe happened to be in a technological upswing as the other ‘Old World’ civilizations were in downswings.
One of the great challenges in looking at all this is (from this very recent perspective of the last several centuries) it seems like increased complexification and technological progress are normal.  From a deep-time anthropological perspective this is clearly not the case. About 96% of the time humans have been Homo sapiens (about 190,000 years), and among the vast majority of independent human cultures that were still intact a few hundred years ago, we’ve been low-complexity foragers with “stone-age” technologies and no “permanent” settlements.  Those are very successful, old-growth cultures. High-complexity cultures generally adopt a rapid expansion, weedy model of growth and invasion (even our choice of grain-based agriculture reflects this) – but there’s no evidence yet that such things can be built to last more than a millennium or two.
Undocumented immigrants Refuse to learn local language Still get food assistance - Undocumented immigrants Refuse to learn local language Still get food assistance  Lucky Pilgrims

So, one of the things you may be grateful for this holiday season is the opportunity to live at a time of such amazing social and technological complexification that we are able to investigate and consider the differences between old-growth cultures and weedy ones via nigh-instantaneous information access. Or, you know, you could be grateful for other stuff that’s maybe more pleasant (including our lovely California State Parks). Don’t forget Buy Nothing Day, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Ritual sacrifice with pie - Pangs (S4 E8):

The Scale of Change Over Time

(or “The difference between rust and fire”)

Randall Munroe has given us a great way to look at climate change over a somewhat-deep-time perspective.  (Remember, I’m an anthropologist, so 20,000 years is trifling – it’s next to nothing in geologic time, and only about one-tenth of the time since the first Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.) Today’s XKCD walks the viewer through a very nice scale model of the 20 millennia since the last glacial maximum, with some key events from the geological, archaeological and even linguistic record.  I’ll admit I haven’t taken the time to fact-check his placement of these events, but the ones I’m familiar with seem to be in about the right place (tragic extinctions of saber-toothed cats and Pokemon, I’m less certain about).  Scrolling through 500-year chunks of time, and reading the events therein, leaves one with a clear sense of just how out-of-the-ordinary the change over the last 500 years – and especially the last 100 years – has actually been.


It’s good to see that the associated explainxkcd has not yet descended into a flame war (as of 11am PDT on 12 September 02016).  Clear, popular and provocative explorations often attract the attention of professional climate-denier trolls – this even happened to me once, gentle readers, despite the fact that I have “dozens of loyal fans… baker’s dozens… they come in 13s.” Remember, when there is over 97% scientific consensus on something, it is about as close to proven as science can reasonably get.

As Randall Munroe had pointed out previously, the difference between the effects of regular corrosion and a car fire is simply a question of how fast the oxidization is happening.


When it comes to climate change, extinctions and far too many other phenomena, the difference between Anthropocene changes and natural background rates of change are roughly on that scale of difference.  It’s time to be in emergency response mode if we are to have any hope of saving what’s left.


The Myth of Bartering and the Realities of Sharing and Gift Economies

In their ethnographic research, anthropologists do not find barter economies among people who have never used money.  Much more prevalent are gift economies: a complex and time-extended form of reciprocal altruism.  Often there is a great deal of social pressure to participate and share, giving away any accumulation to others, wherein no insult is crueler than to say that someone is “stingy.”  For good examples, see

1990. Counts, David. Too Many Bananas, Not Enough Pineapples, and No Watermelon at all: Three 0bject Lessons in Living with Reciprocity. In The Humbled Anthropologist: Tales from the Pacific, Philip DeVita, ed., pp. 18-24. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

2006. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.  The Old Way: A Story of the First People. Farrar, Straus, Giroux.(see here and here for some specific examples)

There was also an intriguing article outlining the myth of bartering and the realities of sharing and gift economies in the Atlantic a few months ago, that included the following insights:

“No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”

[The] barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.

But the harm may go deeper than a mistaken view of human psychology. According to Graeber, once one assigns specific values to objects, as one does in a money-based economy, it becomes all too easy to assign value to people, perhaps not creating but at least enabling institutions such as slavery (in which people can be bought) and imperialism (which is made possible by a system that can feed and pay soldiers fighting far from their homes).

Are gift economies possible in a civilization built around assigning specific values to objects (and maybe people)?  Are gift economies only workable in small communities of people who all know one another?  How do they differ from charity efforts?  Do efforts to ascribe value to ecosystem services help our efforts to save ecosystems more than they distort our real relationships to them?


Elwyn L. Simons was one of the leading figures of paleoprimatology, and founder of the Duke University Primate Center. His fossil discoveries included Aegyptopithecus.  He worked on primate conservation, focusing on the lemurs of Madagascar.  He helped to establish Park Ivoloina … Continue reading


The woman who solved economic tragedy

Elinor Ostrom’s on-the-ground research showed how actual people within real, living cultures overcome Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (more accurately, “The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals”).  Remember that market economies as we know them have only been around for a few centuries (largely coincident with the Antrhopocene) – other socioeconomic systems represent the vast majority of the time that humans have been humans.

Many commons have flourished for hundreds of years, even in periods of drought or crisis. Their success can be traced to a community’s ability to develop its own flexible, evolving rules for stewardship, oversight of access and usage, and effective punishments for rule-breakers. …[T]he rules for appropriating a resource must take account of local conditions and must include limits on what can be taken and how… Commoners must be able to create or influence the rules that govern a commons. … [T]he authority to appropriate a resource, monitor and enforce its use, resolve conflicts and perform other governance activities must be shared across different levels— from local to regional to national to international.

The Political Scientist Who Debunked Mainstream Economics -David Bollier – Evonomics

Saving What Matters: Taking Sustainability Personally

I was asked to deliver a talk to the School of Arts, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University last week.  As I was preparing, I recorded a rehearsal version of the talk and posted that on YouTube:

This version cut off the bottoms of the slides, which included some important source links and some other information.  That information is visible in this PDF: MM talk to ADM Sept 2015 v4


Dr. Merrill will discuss her research on rainforest apes, how these experiences moulded her views on sustainability, and how everyone’s choices shape the future. She will share her adventures watching bonobos (Pan paniscus) in central Congo, and orangutans (Pongo abelii) in northern Sumatra. She will talk about some of the threats to these endangered primates, and how they connect to the decisions people in Singapore and all over the world make about what to buy and do. She will show why these actions and choices have repercussions that are relevant to the well-being of current and future generations of people everywhere. She will provide examples of how we can make better choices, and explain how these choices can have greater effects because of the way humans have evolved to learn.

Celebrate Life’s B(earth) Day 25 Feb!

A little dash of perspective, from


We need perspective. And no where is this perspective more obvious than in Earth’s Calendar Year.

Earth's history into one calendar year