Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st Century

Capitalism, Denisovans, Anthropology in Media

by Jason Antrosio

Click Anthropology and Moral Optimism to preview the free PowerPoint:

Anthropology PowerPoint


A big thank-you to all those who have read, tweeted, recommended, shared, commented-on, and blogged about the Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto. I have a lot more work to do on that, but as an immediate follow-up, please see the free PowerPoint download Anthropology and Moral Optimism. It’s a version of something I’ve used in Anthropology 101 courses, and is fully customizable. Many textbooks have a final chapter on the uses of anthropology and the future of humanity, so it fits in well as a course re-cap. Happy for suggestions or comments.

Off list, E. Paul Durrenberger reminded me of Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st Century, a second edition of a text he wrote with Suzan Erem. This is a choice worth considering for those wishing to specifically tackle these issues in an anthropology course:

Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st CenturyThe first edition of the widely popular Anthropology Unbound (Paradigm 2007) prepared readers to see how the dynamics of Western economies were rapidly becoming unsustainable. This updated edition takes readers into the heart of the economic meltdown as it explains the many recent world events it had predicted. With the unique perspective of anthropology, this book offers a wider view of the present financial crisis–as well as pathways out of it. It describes the latest studies of fundamentalism, Al-Qaeda, and American culture. In lively form it invites any reader into an anthropological way of understanding our own society and the world at large.

The original post has had three lives, first circulating in the very kind anthropology-blog world, and then getting some write-up and shares from other disciplinary allies and activists. I was grateful for write-ups from Jason Baird Jackson, UVicAnthro, #OCCUPYIRTHEORY, and Rust Belt Philosophy (among others). The post then had a third life when it was picked up by The Browser and two Reddit entries, Reddit1 and Reddit2, which brought many more visitors but also made clear how much work has to be done to bring certain kinds of anthropology into a wider orbit. My favorite tweet from that phase: “A paean to anthropology-as-policy, the most pompously funny piece you’ll read today.” To be fair, I was deliberately copying language from the Communist Manifesto, so I suppose pompously funny is part of the genre. But I wanted it to be the most pompously funny piece you’ll read all year…

Update 12 November 2011: The original post is now on Reddit for a third time, but is so far better liked in the Anthropology thread. It’s curious how on Reddit this was posted first elsewhere before then being posted in anthropology.

More seriously, I’m grateful for some of the more extended commentary, as it outlines exactly the places that need development and elaboration. I’ll hope to do that–I’m also hoping to get YouTube videos started–but it’s going to take some time.

Related news from the AAA

The AAA has updated their Free Speech Anthropology Forum so that it highlights the most recent issues AAA-member anthropologists have been blogging about. I requested updates and reorganization, as that forum seemed focused more on Bin Laden than more recent events. Joslyn O. was extremely helpful, quickly updating and moving things around. She says she would like more links. So, please send things along, and thank you Joslyn!

The AAA also highlights A Creative Spin on Teaching Anthropology through Professor Balmuli Natrajan’s class on “Global Transformations and the Human Condition.” Professor Natrajan was also featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anthropology Course Explores the Life Cycle of, Say, Your Pen. Kudos to Professor Natrajan for bringing these issues to the classroom and getting these highlights.

This method of intensive research into the social relations of a single commodity has a deep anthropological history. Sidney W. Mintz used this to great effect in his Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History and taught a graduate seminar which asked students to research a single crop or commodity.


Denisovans hit the news again with headlines like More people have Denisovan genes than thought and Asians, too, mated with archaic humans, DNA hints, based on a paper in PNAS, Archaic human ancestry in East Asia. John Hawks provides a customarily trenchant analysis, with some words of caution, in How widespread is Denisovan ancestry today? Still, a preliminary takeaway point from Hawks: “This paper provides the suggestion of a more widespread Denisovan legacy, and I accept that as a possibility.”

I find some relief in these headlines and studies, as they seem to support the points I was making in It’s admixture all the way down. East Asian admixture results may slow down some of the racist interpretations filtering around about the native inhabitants of New Guinea and Australia. I also appreciated the reflections at the Torso and Oblong blog, Talking about Modern and Ancient Peoples. Here, Dalton Luther refers to Hawks and my post to use a great metaphor and image: a braided river.

Dalton Luther traces the braided river metaphor to Kroeber, but it does seem to come from his more recent source, John Moore, even as Kroeber had some similar thoughts but stuck to complicated trees. John Edward Terrell  discusses this, quoting Kroeber, Linton and then “Recently, John Moore offered yet a third image of the past, the ‘braided river channel,’ to make the same point that a strict biological (i.e. genetic) tree showing human history as a monophyletic branching off from a common trunk does not work well as a way of representing our history and diversity” (Archaeology, Language, and History: Essays on Culture and Ethnicity, p.4).

I like the braided river a lot–I’m not sure how different this is from Franz Weidenreich’s interconnected trellis or a more rhizome-like model (see Denisovans and Neandertals as human races), but the overall point is of complexity and interrelation.

AAA Anthropology in Media Award

An earlier version of this post included a comment about the AAA Anthropology in Media Award. However, I have recently been contacted by a journalist at the Chronicle of Higher Education about this comment. I am removing it. Here is the message I sent to the journalist:

My point was mainly to say that these are times when anthropology as a whole should emphasize non-deterministic approaches, and there are an array of anthropologists who are doing exactly that in the media, although they don’t always get highlighted.

However, I would be reluctant to comment further because I am really not too familiar with Dr. Fisher’s work and based my questions more on some select media comments. I was also very dismayed with the Chronicle’s coverage of the AAA meetings last year, Anthropologists look for bridges across a divided discipline (by David Glenn). I attended that panel and found it not at all representative of the vibrancy and bridge-building which characterized the meetings and anthropology generally. I would definitely not want to make this into a bigger issue than it is, and don’t want to let one award get in the way of what promises to be an exciting intellectual exchange. This part of my blog-post has received almost no comment, on or off list.

I’m very wary of falling into a recurring theme for 2010-2011, of Anthropology, Ambushed.

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  • Warren Platts

    Hi Jason, I always that the cholla cactus skeleton was a good metaphor for visualizing intraspecific evolution in a species composed of many separate, yet interconnected populations: the entire cholla cactus tree will form a conventional “monophyletic” tree, but each individual branch is composed of a reticulate network of tiny twigs that rejoin each other at intervals.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Warren,

      That’s certainly a fun one to think with! Perhaps a bit difficult for me to grapple with from my northeastern U.S. abode, but neat to think about–thank you.


  • Does this suggest more than one original population of humans,from whence we all supposedly come ? Further more if we evolved from “lower” to “higher” forms what explains co-existing “species” of humans living at the same time ?
    My question is sincere I am not mocking widely held theories,doubt is essential to critical thinking.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Dirk,

      Thank you for reading and asking these questions. Biological variation and diversity is an important part of evolution. It seems now apparent that there was a significant variability for the creatures becoming habitually bipedal about 6-8million years ago. The exact number of hominid species–and whether this variability represents variation within a species or speciation–will always have to be a matter of some debate. It seems also now apparent that there was significant variability within the Homo populations existing about 100,000 years ago, to the extent that many researchers saw Neandertals (and much more recently, the Denisovans) as a separate species of Homo. However, the evidence now points to significant interbreeding between those who seem to be most ancestral to modern humans and the Neandertal and Denisovan populations. There is still much to be learned, but what is clear is that the scenario is much more complex than we may have initially believed. If you want to see a really premiere anthropology blog discussing these matters, head over to the John Hawks Weblog, which features regular, in-depth discussion of these issues.

      It is important to not think of evolution as a process which leads automatically from “lower” to “higher” along a ladder of progress. Every trait is going to have advantages and disadvantages, depending on the environment and circumstances. Even something like a larger brain is going to involve evolutionary trade-offs. Evolution also does not automatically move from simple to complex, as in some environments, a simpler adaptation may be favored. I’ve written a bit about this in the section on Evolution and natural selection, anthropologically.

      Thank you again, and hope to continue the conversation.


  • Thanks for your reply I believe I am starting to understand the argument a bit better.
    But that said there is something about the word evolution that doesn’t seem to fit,would not adaptation be a better word ? For example species adapt to the condition around them,therefore at certain times when conditions change some species remain unchanged , other take on “new” characteristics & appearances.Suggesting that species adapt to the conditions they encounter rather than evolving slowly over millennium to meet an existing condition(s). Or to put in another way the essence of what they are and what they can/might become -given environmental conditions- is one in the same. Evolution suggests species are one offs,unique and once “extinct” are never to be seen again.
    For example recent studies show polar bears to be variants of grizzly & brown. Indigenous peoples have known this for a long long while,Indigenous People say that should the arctic ice disappear polar bears do not go “extinct” but adapt i.e they become grizzly bears/brown bears from whence they came. This also suggests that when environmental conditions change yet again i.e an environment more fitting for bears with polar bear characteristics, polar bears will reemerge. This happens in the space of a few generations not slowly or over millions of years as the theory of evolution suggests. This is what Indigenous Peoples have always said -based on hundreds of generations of observation- it also explains quite nicely what drives species change. Maybe this also explains the differing varieties of humans and for that matter the differing origin stories.
    On a side note this Indigenous knowledge suggests Indigenous Peoples have memories going back a very long long while ,which would pretty much puts to rest the land bridge theory ,but that’s another discussion.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Dirk,

      Thank you for reading and for your response. Indeed, I agree with your take on the word evolution. There’s a blog-post I’m composing that argues we really should drop using that word, because it inevitably brings up too many outmoded ideas. Darwin originally wanted to talk about “descent with modification,” and only started using the word “evolution” later.

      The issues you raise are ones that have become more considered in evolutionary theory but need even more elaboration. Organisms and environments do not exist apart from each other–they are an inseparable totality, each acting on the other and on all the organisms around it. This can indeed mean that evolutionary change can occur more quickly than was once thought, and as organisms alter their environment, this alters the conditions for selection and change in the next generation (one variant of this idea is known as “niche construction” in evolutionary theory).

      I agree with you that in many matters much could have been learned–and much can be learned–by actually listening to indigenous peoples, not just for stories but for insight into biological and other processes.

      On the issues of coming to new understandings of evolution and taking very seriously indigenous knowledge, I have been very influenced by the anthropological work of Tim Ingold in The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. In his first essay, Ingold begins with how Cree hunters see caribou hunting, and how their understandings have been unfairly dismissed by both evolutionary biology and anthropology. It’s fascinating material which asks anthropologists and others to really allow ourselves to be informed by indigenous understandings.

      Thank you again,

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