Stories tagged anthropology


Painted Bison Hide, Dakota, in the collection of Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo Italy
Painted Bison Hide, Dakota, in the collection of Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo ItalyCourtesy Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo Italy
If contemporary star quilts and painted bison hides are rooted in the same tradition, that means women were (and still are!) important producers of ceremonially painted arts in Dakota communities in 1823.

Ethnographic accounts prior to the 1970s often left women out of the picture regarding the production of art. Specifically, western anthropologists suggested ceremonial and “high” art was the work of men, when in fact women were the primary tanners and painters of hides.

Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine edited an important volume, "The Hidden Half, Studies of Plains Indian Women" in 1983. One article discusses the development of star quilts from hide painting traditions. This isn’t a new story—centuries-old forms and designs are adapted according to new materials, tools, and ideas—however, this dialogue is helping me consider the two painted bison hides and the importance of women in the Beltrami story.
Star Quilt, Dakota; Collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota A91:13:1
Star Quilt, Dakota; Collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota A91:13:1Courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota

Designs on the Beltrami painted hides consist of radiating concentric circles, sometimes called headdress, sun, or star designs. Contemporary star quilts usually employ an 8-pointed star motif. According to ethnologies and Dakota oral histories, the 8-pointed star represents Venus, or the Morning Star and carries various meanings including immortality and death. Red painted bison hides historically wrapped the dead, and Dakota people still use star quilts during funerals. Today, people gift star quilts to denote passages in life like marriage and the birth of a child, and to honor a person.

Are the two traditions related? Why did Beltrami receive two painted hides? What do you think?

Modern tap (Barcelona, Spain)
Modern tap (Barcelona, Spain)Courtesy Tom Raftery

In preparation for the Science Museum's upcoming Social Science event, "Fermentational Informational," I've been reading about weird beer glasses.

Not to be confused with beer goggles, the shapes of these "containers that hold our libations" are apparently pretty important -- at least in terms of understanding

"the technologies and the knowledge at our disposal through the ages."

For serious: Anthropologist Krystal D'Costa says so in Scientific American!


How does food matter to human evolution? We could ask this guy?
How does food matter to human evolution? We could ask this guy?Courtesy Lord Jim
What makes human beings so special? How did we evolve into an agriculture-developing, city-building, history-making, world-changing species that can live on every continent and even in outer space?

Scientists have been asking questions about our evolutionary trajectory and human "uniqueness" for as long as there's been science - and guess what? We still don't know the answer! Some of our best theories are explored by anthropologists in the PBS television series The Human Spark, airing throughout the month and also online at the PBS website. If you're curious, you might want to watch, but don't do it on an empty stomach! Many of the theories that anthropologists have developed to explain how we became human involve food.

That food and evolution would go hand in hand is not really surprising, since food is necessary to survival and an important and dynamic part of our environment. Did a search for nutritious plants and animals lead our ancestors to new environments, causing our species to adapt and change? Did hunting and eating meat mean the evolution of new physical characteristics? How has agriculture changed our environment and species over time? How will present and future foods change what it means to be human in the future?

Some evolutionary theories involving food look not just at what we ate, but how we ate it - namely the invention of fire and the use of heat to cook food. Think about it: our Hominid ancestors needed calories in order to develop into the big-brained humans we all know and love. How did they do it? And what did this mean for human evolution?

Sure, eating meat was an important dietary step, but cooking root vegetables can transform hard-to-chew or even poisonous plant parts into nutritious food that can be consumed out of season. With cooking, environments that would otherwise provide few nutritious options suddenly become bountiful. This change in diet may also have led to changes in body size and shape - even social structures! Large teeth and jaws were less desirable once food could be more easily chewed, and delaying the gratification of food until it could be cooked may also have meant that our species had to develop new social skills.

Those social skills - the same ones that mean you and I can now share a burger or beer without fighting each other for scraps - may be one of many "sparks" that makes us human.

If you live in the Twin Cities, you can meet an anthropologist and here how he thinks food impacted human evolution by attending tonight's Cafe Scientifique program in Minneapolis.


After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.

It was us.

Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark.

What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why?

In a three-part series to be broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.

"The Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Wednesday, January 6, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 13, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 20, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Sunday, January 24, 1:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 2:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 3:00 pm, on 2

"Our Origins: Exploring the Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Sunday, January 24, 4:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 8:00 pm, on MN
  • Sunday, January 31, 12:00 pm, on LIFE

A "Bellarmine" or "Greybeard": Sort of an industrial strength pottery witch bottle. Look at that scary, bearded face. Wouldn't that scare you off, if you were a curse?
A "Bellarmine" or "Greybeard": Sort of an industrial strength pottery witch bottle. Look at that scary, bearded face. Wouldn't that scare you off, if you were a curse?Courtesy Public domain
Wrap yourselves up in your least haunted quilts, Buzzketeers, and warm up a mug of your holiest liquid, because it’s that time of year again. It’s the time to throw out your old pumpkins, to put a towel over that spot on the stoop where the pumpkins were, to brush up on your circles of protection, to cover your orange sweaters in black marker, to splash your black sweaters in orange paint, and to prepare some fresh witch bottles.

Because witches are frisky this time of year, and a frisky witch is a dangerous witch.*

That’s right, it’s October, the season we call Halloweeny. And if we want to survive Halloweeny curse-free and with all digits and eyeballs intact, we’re absolutely going to need witch bottles. I don’t know about you, but I want that.

Do you remember a Buzz post I made two years ago about witch bottles? Rhetorical question—of course you remember. Here it is. You’ll recall that we covered some of the basics of apotropaios techniques. What you have to do, more or less, is think like an eleventh century peasant, and fill a bottle with some stuff that might cause discomfort in a witch’s urinary tract. What should go in there, exactly? Just follow your heart—this was before science, really, so whatever seemed like it would absorb evil magic and/or give a witch trouble in the bathroom and/or kill a witch from a distance was what you would go with. Nowadays, the scientific method has shown us what the best materials are for achieving each of these goals (the ShamWow, White Castle sliders, and lightening, respectively), but it’s nice sometimes to do things the old timey way.

So, a refresher: Get a little bottle, fill it with bent pins, thorns, and spiky things (for the witch’s discomfort), as well as items from your body, like hair, fingernails, or belly button lint, and then top it all off with good, old fashioned urine. Then you’re going to want to bury that bottle somewhere close, like under your fireplace. Apparently, whatever curses were directed at you will be confused by the other pee-soaked bundle of lint, fingernails and hair in your house, and it’ll attack that. Alternatively, some sources say you can throw the bottle in your fireplace, and when it explodes the witch will die. But then you’ve got a house full of broken glass and boiling hot urine, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

I’m bringing witch bottles back up partially because it has been two years, and witches, like diarrhea and terrorism, are an ever-present threat. But the subject was brought to my attention yesterday because I noticed this article: Archaeologists unearth 17th century bottle used to scare off witches. Pretty neat, huh?

The artifact, among many others, was buried under a parking lot in Staffordshire, in England. You might not think it, but big, old cities are swimming in potential archaeology. People have been living in some cities for thousands of years, after all, just building over older stuff, and archaeology is all about finding where people were a long time ago, and finding out what these people did.

Several large pottery kilns have been dug up in the same area, suggesting that the region may have been a major pottery producer and exporter. A pit full of leather scraps, left over from shoe making seems to indicate that a shoemaker lived and worked at that spot 400 years ago. And the witch bottle implies that someone in the neighborhood was concerned about witches. (JK—we’re all concerned about witches. That’s why I’m just putting the finishing touches on (in) a milk jug beneath my desk. Try to curse me now, Springsteen!)

Also, I put this link in the old post, but I had totally forgotten about it. Apotropaios—all about how people used to protect themselves from perceived malicious forces. Wild.

*I might be thinking about frisky lions here, actually.


The titans close on each other: Look at how much bigger they are than that house! But how do we know that's a werewolf and not just a normal giant wolf?
The titans close on each other: Look at how much bigger they are than that house! But how do we know that's a werewolf and not just a normal giant wolf?Courtesy JGordon
JK. The war has already been fought, Bigfoot totally won, you missed it, and remarkably little blood was spilled. Go figure.

A professor of the history of science at Kean University in New Jersey is arguing that Bigfoot, in fact, killed the werewolf. Not for really real, but in the collective mind of our society. However, Bigfoot had a secret weapon: Charles Darwin. (I’m assuming it was a silver-tipped Charles Darwin, at least.)

See, everybody has to be afraid of something, pretty much. And for a long time we were all, “I have to be afraid of something, huh? Well… I’m already sort of afraid of wolves, so why don’t we throw in this unnatural wolf/man mix thingy. I’ll be afraid of that.” And because we were too dumb to know about stuff like flesh eating disease and giant crocodiles and cancer, we were pretty satisfied being afraid of werewolves.

But then, says New Jersey science historian Brian Regal, then along comes ol’ Charles Darwin (and his silver tongue?), and begins to popularize evolution with On the Origin of Species. People start thinking, “Hey… wolf-man? Why did I ever think that was scary? That’s old, magicky nonsense. No, what makes sense is an ape-man. I’ll be afraid of that now.”

Science gave the supernatural a little boost of legitimacy, in a roundabout way. And at the cost of poor, dear wolf-man.

Or so says Brian Regal. Take it for what it’s worth; he’s an assistant professor, after all. I don’t trust assistant anythings. Especially not dental assistants. Regal will be presenting his theory to the British Society for the History of Science in Leicester, UK in July. He’s going to show how period artwork also reflects this werewolf to Bigfoot transition, which sounds pretty neat. So if you can make it to Leicester and into the British Society for the History of Science sometime in the next month, maybe you should check it out.

A brutal win!: Look—the wolf has pants. Case closed. Oh, right... this drawing isn't appropriate for more delicate viewers.
A brutal win!: Look—the wolf has pants. Case closed. Oh, right... this drawing isn't appropriate for more delicate viewers.Courtesy JGordon
I’m more than a little disappointed in the lack of an epic, bloody monster-on-monster battle here, though. So I’ll be drawing one for y’all just now, on the back of some paper I pulled out of my trash.


Self-portrait by Matthias Buchinger: The forward-most curls on Buchinger's left shoulder near his collar are magnified on the right to show the inscribed hidden biblical text.
Self-portrait by Matthias Buchinger: The forward-most curls on Buchinger's left shoulder near his collar are magnified on the right to show the inscribed hidden biblical text.Courtesy Public domain via Wikipedia
I recently (and literally) stumbled upon a web page about this remarkable man from the 17th century. His name was Matthias Buchinger, and despite being born without hands, legs or thighs, this guy managed to live a full and amazing life with no less than 4 wives (!?), and fathering something like 11-14 children depending on the source. But even more incredible was how - despite his severe physical deformations - Buchinger was able to rise above Nature’s challenges and become an accomplished musician, inventor, artist, model-in-a-bottle builder, and magician.

Born in Anspach, Germany in 1674, he was the youngest of nine children, and became widely known as “The Little Man from Nuremburg” performing his feats of wonder across much of Great Britain and Europe. Buchinger was only 29 inches tall, and for hands had "two excrescences which grew from his shoulder-blades, like fingers without nails" but his skills in magic, marksmanship, and music were legendary. He played several musical instruments, some of which he invented himself, was accomplished at skittles (bowling), and could dance a hornpipe as well as anyone. He was also a talented calligrapher. His engraving skills are evident by the self-portrait to the right. Hidden within his curls are seven psalms and the Lord’s Prayer written in tiny letters. Buchinger lived much of his adult life in England and Ireland, and performed before King George and many of Europe’s royalty. He died in Cork, Ireland in 1732.

I don’t know about you but I find Buchinger quite inspiring. You can read more about this human marvel in the links below.

Matthias Buchinger
More about Matthias Buchinger
And yet another site

What makes humans unique? Do we have characteristics that make us different from other animals? PBS will be broadcasting a three-part series on the topic this fall. In advance of the series premiere, the producers want you to tell them why humans are special. You can submit a photo, a video, or text. Some entries will appear on screen, so make a grab for your 15 seconds of fame, and send in your ideas.


The formula looks right...: But it's not happening.
The formula looks right...: But it's not happening.Courtesy FireFawkes
The journal Sexual Health has blown minds the world over with a new study’s assertion that, of all students, science students have the least sex. And male science students? They have the least sex of all, ranking neck and neck with amoeba.

Do you know who the study says has the most sex? Female art students. But I’ve never pretended to understand art kids, so we’ll leave that be and get back to our poor science nerds.

What gives? Is it the chicken or the egg? (The chicken being people who don’t often have sex, the egg being the study of science. Duh.) Does deciding to study science equate to putting on an invisible chastity belt? Is it (if we’re talking about chickens) a persistent rooster-block, if you will? Or are people for whom sex is not a huge priority, or even something to be avoided, attracted to the study of science?

The answer, according to the study, is “yes.”

The research was performed at the University of Sydney in Australia. The science department at the university has a high proportion of international students, who may have different cultural attitudes towards sex than those hedonistic, liberal arts, Australian-born students. Also, as we have discussed on Buzz, girls are often less attracted to studying math and science than boys, and boys, according to the psychotherapist quoted in the article, start having sex later than girls.

The demands of studying science, likewise, aren’t helping things. Students are kept out of environments where they would meet women, and spend most of their time “carrying on doing experiments, going to the library, and doing their assignments.”

A horde of very busy introverts—it’s the perfect storm. But don’t let this dissuade you from studying science, Buzzketeers—maybe this is just the sort of social environment you’re looking for. Or maybe you can start a brand new scientific revolution.