What’s that Smell?

anthro blog #6

Of the five senses, people often regard smell as the least important and most dispensable. This is a Western view of the senses, and is not a universal view. In his article “Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages”, Greg Downey, an Australian professor of Anthropology, argues that our sense of smell is more powerful than we realize and that West’s underdeveloped sense of smell is a cultural problem. This argument is based on research conducted in the South Pacific which shows the range of words that exist in languages of the region to specifically and thoroughly describe different smells. He says, “When it comes to how language and culture affect perception, the nose may know… but only if it has the language to pin down what it knows.” Humans, and mammals in general, biologically have excellent olfactory senses (senses of smell), but that does not mean everyone uses their noses to their full ability. In addition, being able to detect a smell and then identify it is another skill that most do not posses.

Downey focuses on two languages from the Malay Peninsula, Jahai and Maniq, and their ability to identify smells. Western languages and cultures tend to think of smells based on where they came from, but in Jahai or Maniq terms for smells are more abstract and can be used to describe a variety of objects. Individuals who speak Jahai or Maniq also have an easier time identifying smell, whereas an individual from a Western culture may have trouble finding the words to describe what they smell. Downey cites studies performed to test people’s senses of smell and how most people would assume that the sense of smell is universal and says, “In other words, the cases of Maniq and Jahai olfactory terms, and the precision of their speakers on basic tests of olfactory ability, highlight the ‘WEIRD’ problem in our understanding of humans’ sensory abilities.” By looking at the way different cultures experience the different senses, we can gain insight to the way that our bodies function, and what factors can change or develop different parts of our body.


How Farming Changed the Structure of Human Bones

Anthro Blog #5

Archaeology is an important branch of anthropology and is used to make discoveries about people and cultures of the past. In a recent study, scientists found clues to human’s past by looking at our bones, which are very flexible and react to changes in the activity of the body. Alison Macintosh, of Cambridge University, presented the results of her study of human bones at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists on Thursday April 10th and showed that with the introduction of formal agriculture to Central Europe in the 5000s, human bone structure changed because of the changes in culture. Humans in this region were no longer hunter/gatherers and did not migrate as much, and this resulted in the general loss of bone strength and changes in where bones were strongest or most rigid. Specifically, Macintosh says that males were more effected by this change and claims that “male mobility among earliest farmers (around 7,300 years ago) was, on average, at a level near that of today’s student cross-country runners. Within just over 3,000 years, average mobility had dropped to the level of those students rated as sedentary, after which the decline slowed.” Using 3D laser scans and silicone molds, scientists can see how weight was distributed on the bones of different humans, and deduce what kinds of activities these humans would have participated in.

MacIntosh also says, “I’m interested in how the skeleton adapted to people’s specific behaviours during life, and how this adaptation can be used to reconstruct long-term changes in behaviour and mobility patterns with cultural diversification, technological innovation, and increasingly more complex and stratified societies since the advent of farming.” Her research is affiliated with the ERC-funded project: “From the earliest modern humans to the onset of farming (45,000-4,500 BP)”, whose goal is to discover more information about the culture, lifestyle, and biology of humans of that time period.


Gender Inequality and Climate Change


As we have talked about in class and in our labs, climate change is a huge issue that is being approached in different ways. But as we have seen through examples like Hurricane Katrina and the Carteret Islands, there are communities being affected by changes in their environment, due to climate change, who are not receiving the help they need. Most often, a technological or economical approach is taken when addressing the issue of climate change and Rachel Masika, an international development consultant who has worked at universities in England, says this of these approaches and policies, “ They have displayed scant regard for the social implications of climate change outcomes and the threats these pose for poor men and women… [and for] gender specific implications … on human, food, and livelihood security…”

People who live in poverty, especially women, are the most at risk of the effects of climate change. Merril Singer describes some of the concrete results that climate change in her article, “Climate Change Isn’t Gender Neutral”. Women are often the main household health provider, and when their lives are affected by climate change, their family’s and their own health is put at risk. Malnutrition among women can also increase their chances of having infections and problems during pregnancy. When women are completely uprooted changes in their environment and become climate refugees, they are more susceptible to theft, violence, or rape.

Currently there are a few organizations who are committed to changing the way we tackle the issue of climate change so that more social issues are included. One such organization, Global Gender and Climate Alliance (GGCA), lists its 4 main goals on their website:

1. Integrate a gender perspective into policy and decision making in order to ensure international mandates and other legal instruments on gender equality are fully implemented.

2. Ensure that financing mechanisms on mitigation and adaptation address the needs of poor women and men equitably.

3. Build capacity at all levels to design and implement gender-responsive climate change policies, strategies and programmes.

4. Develop, compile, and share practical tools, information, and methodologies to facilitate the integration of gender into policy and programming.



Trademarking Traditional Cultures

“How can we promote cultural industries if we are unable to protect our cultural rights in our own country first?” – Eliesa Tuiloma

Last year, an airway in Fiji announced that they were planning on trademarking the 15 cloth designs, or masi kesakesa, of an artist Makareta Matemosi as a part of a rebranding initiative. This announcement was met with objection from many who argue that the artist did not create the designs, but borrowed them from existing cultural designs. A opposition Facebook group exists whose description says, “We are happy for Air Pacific, our national airline to USE traditional indigenous art on its proud new aircrafts but OBJECT to the corporation owning legal and commercial rights to the 15 other motifs, all of which are popularly used in traditional cultural art. We advocate that cultural art should remain in the public domain for all to enjoy.”

This example is one of potentially many conflicts that could occur in the South Pacific if traditional cultures are not protected and guarded by custodians of the knowledge. But many of the islands still need to come up with strategies to preserve their indigenous cultures for future generations.

Currently there exists a law that protects traditional cultures of Oceania  and, “designed to legislate traditional and moral rights over traditional knowledge and expressions of culture that previously might have been regarded as part of the public domain, recognizing that the traditional custodians of cultural heritage remain the primary decision makers regarding its use.” There is also an organization in Fiji, iTaukei Institute of Language and Culture that has an inventory of indigenous Fijian traditional knowledge and culture. These modern legal proceedings sometimes clash with traditional customs and “many scholars remain skeptical about the value and consequences of marrying the anthropological idea of culture with the legal concept of property.”

anthro blog #3

Understanding Homeless Culture through Anthropology


As we have learned from our own class, Anthropology does not only mean the study of other cultures or cultures from the past. Archeology is a branch of Anthropology that studies the physical remnants of human culture, and in recent studies, anthropologists have been studying the archeology of the homeless in North America.

The problem that the homeless community presents to cities in North America is complicated. The homeless themselves have issues with their economic situation, safety, health, etc. and the non-homeless citizens have issues with the presence of the homeless in their communities, possibly because they feel unsafe around them or because they believe it makes their city look bad.

By using anthropological and archeological practices and ideas, governments of cities can better address the problems that the homeless community presents. Robert Muckle references Hawaii state representative Tom Brower, who used a sledgehammer to destroy the shopping carts of homeless individuals, as an example of how not to approach the problem of homeless people. Muckle points out that often the homeless will sacrifice shelter for the security of their belongings, which may be very personal or have a connection to their past. Studies have also disproven some common misconceptions about homeless people, like the fact that they are all uneducated, based on the number of books found in some homeless camps. By understanding the specific needs of the homeless, instead of grouping them together as a mass of societal problems.

Facebook and Gender Identity


The differences between the terms sex and gender have become more refined in U.S. society over the past decade, and increasingly, there have been acknowledgements of gender options beyond male and female. Anthropologist Elizabeth P. Challinor writes, “We could say that sex refers to the biological body and that gender refers to cultural interpretations of biological differences which produce differentiated social roles and attributes for the sexes,” and continues, “I think that part of the difficulty is the presumption that cultural constructions of biological difference still have to fall under two categories: male or female.” The World Health Organization defines “sex” and “gender” similarly and further says on their website that, “Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly.”

Facebook personal profiles include information that piece together the identity of the Facebook user. You can find information on what movies they watch or on a more fundamental level what gender they are. Facebook users no longer have to choose the option that corresponds to the sex they were born with, or choose to leave this part of their identity blank. As of February 13, 2014, users can now choose from over 50 options to describe their personal gender. You can also now choose what pronoun Facebook will refer to you publicly, female (her), male (him), or neutral (them). GLAAD announced their involvement with the development of this feature and currently it is only available to users who use Facebook in English. The president of GLAAD, Sarah Kate Ellis, says, “This new feature is a step forward in recognizing transgender people and allows them to tell their authentic story in their own words. Once again, Facebook is on the forefront of ensuring that the platform is safe and accessible to all of its LGBT users.” This new Facebook development may even mean that the term LGBT will be too limiting in the future.