Sunday, November 18, 2012

More paleo-porn fun!

Hot on the heels of my recent paleo-porn post, here's a wonderfully sarcastic - and dead-on! - comment about the post that I received on my Facebook.

Can I just say/rant one thing that always irritates me about Venus figurines and art with respect to sexuality/repro in the past is the conceit that saying "they were concerned about reproduction, or it was a focus" whatever is somehow supposed to be an interesting observation. Tell me about a culture that doesn't have some concern, taboos, mores about reproduction, etc. for god's sake. Other than sexy sexx sexxy sex-time sex sex sex titillation, what is so interesting about it? Hey, did you know that faunal remains indicate that people in the past ate food? No, listen, they literally ate food, with their mouths.

And, really, I couldn't agree more: To state that Venus figurines are evidence that Upper Paleolitic folks people cared about sexuality is kind of ridiculous. Of course they did in one way, shape or form, - and we certainly don't need Venus figurines to determine this.

Still on the topic of the paleo-porn story, also make sure to check out Becky Farbstein's post about the story - it touches on a lot of the same issues I originally raised.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Sum Greater Than Its Parts: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Later Human Evolution

What are you doing this weekend? If you're in the San Francisco area, you should come to the AAAs, specifically to attend this session I'm in entitled "A Sum Greater Than Its Parts: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Later Human Evolution." It's being organized by Jamie Clark (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and Adam Van Arsdale (Wellesley College), and it will be jam-packed with human evolutionary goodness. Both Adam and John Hawks (who's also participating) have already mentioned it, so I figured I'd get in on the action too, and list the program here, for any interested readers (you can also find it online here); you can also click on the presentation titles for the abstracts. 

A Sum Greater Than Its Parts: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Later Human Evolution

Room: Imperial A

Date/time: Saturday Nov. 17, 2012, 1:45-5:15 

Session Abstract:

In anthropology departments across the country- as in the field as a whole- the boundaries between the sub-fields of the discipline are often being drawn more starkly than ever. This reflects the ongoing debates about scientific vs. humanistic anthropologies as well as the increasing specialization of knowledge required for successful scholarship. And yet, even in the face of the increasing fractionation of our field, certain avenues of anthropological inquiry are actually becoming more multi-disciplinary in nature. A particularly noteworthy example is found in the study of later human evolution. Researchers from an array of fields—paleoanthropology, archaeology, behavioral and evolutionary ecology, genetics, linguistics, cognitive psychology, and primatology—produce independent and overlapping datasets that address the behavioral and biological evolution of our species. It is only by embracing the contribution of scholars across sub-field- and disciplinary- boundaries that the complexity of recent human evolution can be understood.
The purpose of this session is to bring together scholars who approach the study of human evolution from different perspectives, both to demonstrate the unique contributions being made by the disciplines represented, and as a means of highlighting the critical importance of collaborative work to a more deeply nuanced understanding of the later evolution of our species.

2:00 PM
Why Humans (especially simple foragers) Are So Egalitarian
Frank W Marlowe (University of Cambridge) 
2:15 PM
Territoriality, Tolerance and Testosterone: Hormonal Correlates of Male Chimpanzee Behavior and Their Implications for Human Evolution
Marissa Sobolewski (University of Michigan), John Mitani (University of Michigan) and Janine Brown (Smithsonian Institution) 
2:30 PM
A Primate Perspective On the Evolution of Human Life History
Tanya M Smith (Harvard University), Andrew Bernard (Freelance Nature Photographer), Ronan Donovan (Freelance Nature Photographer), Zarin Machanda (Harvard University), Amanda Papakyrikos (Wellesley College) and Richard Wrangham (Harvard University) 
2:45 PM
Childhood, Play and the Evolution of Cultural Capacity In Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans
April Nowell (University of Victoria and University of Victoria) 
3:00 PM
Milford H Wolpoff (University of Michigan) 
3:15 PM - Break

4:00 PM
Neandertal Genetics: Drawing a New Boundary for Humanity
John Hawks (University of Wisconsin-Madison) 
4:30 PM
Working Hard or Hardly Working? A Preliminary Study of the Metabolic Costs of Stone Knapping
Eric Martin Heffter (University of Arizona), David Raichlen (Universtiy of Arizona and University of Arizona) and Steven Kuhn (University of Arizona) 
4:45 PM
Language, Myth and the Symbolic Mind: Cultural Anthropology Enters the Middle Stone Age
Alan J Barnard (University of Edinburgh and University of Edinburgh) 
5:00 PM
Julien Riel-Salvatore (University of Colorado-Denver) 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Taking peddlers of 'paleo-porn' to task

The New Scientist has a short interview with April Nowell ('Palaeo-porn': we've got it all wrong) about an upcoming paper of hers (with M. Chang) in which they expose (eh!) the pernicious tendency to view Venus figurines as having overt sexual meaning. This is timely as my students and I were discussing Venus figurines in my Research Design grad class last week! Among other things, I really dug how she takes to task reputedly serious outfits for promoting this kind of facile interpretation of these objects:

When respected journals - Nature for example - use terms such as "Prehistoric pin-up" and "35,000-year-old sex object", and a German museum proclaims that a figurine is either an "earth mother or pin-up girl" (as if no other roles for women could have existed in prehistory), they carry weight and authority. This allows journalists and researchers, evolutionary psychologists in particular, to legitimise and naturalise contemporary western values and behaviours by tracing them back to the "mist of prehistory".

I like how EP is singled out here - not all of it is bad, of course, but that which is most egregious in transposing current 'commonsense' realities onto the past does drinks deeply from the well of these kinds of unsupported assertions, drawing on the apparent reputability of the sources in which they were published to bolster the credibility of their own conclusions. That's not to say that sexuality wasn't one of the dimensions of at least some Venus figurines, but Nowell's perspective certainly goes a long way to show that assuming that this was the single or most important motivation behind their manufacture in many cases probably says more about prehistorians than it does about prehistory itself.

I also really cannot agree enough with her observation that assuming that all figurines look like the ones from Willendorf or Dolni Vestonice biases our understanding of how variable this class of objects truly is. If we don't acknowledge this variability and the fact that it is a defining feature of figurine-making in the Upper Paleolithic, we're doing our interpretations a major disservice. By extension, we're also doing a major disservice to the interested public who often has a strong interest in the past of our species. In fact, assumptions about the homogeneity of various forms of behavior in the Upper Paleolithic (e.g., cave art, burials) has really been an impediment to getting a realistic understanding of what life between 45-10,000 BP must have been like.

Read the whole thing, it's well worth your time, and make sure you also check out the gallery that accompanies the piece - there's even more info in there.