Anthropology - Other

Controversial Topics in Anthropology in 2008

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Controversy within anthropology brings debate, which serves as a useful tool to encourage a re-examination of past findings and to introduce new ideas or views and to hone current theory.

Controversy invites excitement. It breathes life into an often dry and academic subject and serves to remind us that this fascinating subject can still offer valid and pertinent knowledge that can teach us much about the physiological, social and physiological roots of our past ancestors...

So the skulls of modern humans and ancient Neanderthals evolved due to chance, and not natural selection? a dramatic statement from scientists led by anthropologist, Tim Weaver, which has put "natural selection" under the microscope again and may change the views on how mankind evolved. ScienceDaily (Mar. 20, 2008)

By using cranial measurements of 2,524 modern human skulls and 20 Neanderthal specimens, two separate studies were made - one based on studying bones, the other studied genes, and showed that the fossil record and the DNA records both substantiate the others findings in giving a really good picture of evolution during this particular time.

"A take-home message may be that we should reconsider the idea that all morphological (physical) changes are due to natural selection, and instead consider that some of them may be due to genetic drift," Weaver said. "This may have interesting implications for our understanding of human evolution."

Another big topic of interest so far this year has been the attention given to the South Pacific "dwarf" bones with claims that they indicate a new type of small bodied human. These bones were discovered in caves on an island in Koror, Palau and are thought to be between 1 to 3 thousand years old. Although there is some contention that these bones merely represent the remains of children, the anthropologist Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, asserts that they give further proof of how people can become dwarfs from living in an island environment.

Further study is needed to open up this line of research but even the pursuit of knowledge can be a controversial thing and this is highlighted by the invasive and high handed approach of fact gathering made by Lee Berger and his fellow workers.

Their methods have been questioned by some officials and traditional leaders who are concerned that their sacred burial sites were being exploited to use for entertainment purposes only, rather than for scientific study. The complaint was made by Adalbert Eledui, the state resource manager who said that notice should have been given to the people of Palau before a National Geographic Society movie was broadcast in Asia on March 1st, as time was needed to properly prepare for the "influx" of visitors to the area.

Palau's paramount chief Yutaka Gibbons says "This shows disrespect to our people, country and laws," he says. "Before they did anything, they should have sat with us."

A less intrusive story, but none the less, still inviting great argument, is about a 40,000 year old tooth recovered from a cave in Lakonis, in Southern Greece. It may help to strengthen the debate that Neanderthals moved around within different areas in their lifetime. (ScienceDaily Feb. 15, 2008)

There has always been great controversy as to the mobility of the Neanderthal tribes. Some researchers have argued that Neanderthals never moved far from home and stayed as a group in one fixed area throughout their life, whilst others have argued that the pursuit of food meant that they were compelled to range certain areas in search of food sources.

The latest claims would uphold the view that their movements were more wide ranging than previously thought, and often moving over vast distances. By analyzing strontium isotope ratios in the enamel, scientists have been able to decipher geological information which shows where the owner of the tooth had been geographically living at the time and where the owner of the tooth originated from. All clever stuff, but the argument is not over. Some people are just not convinced and have said that the tooth is very tiny and probably from a seven year old child and so could have been transported from one area from another by a wild animal or it could have fallen into a stream or river.

Another field of study which has invited a fresh seat of debate comes from the single minded anthropologist, Lisa Lucero who has made a minute study of the Mayan people and the way that temples were built and used. She challenges the belief that such structures were reserved for royal use only, suggesting that any group at the time who had the "wherewithal" would have had these buildings structured to their own personal preference and needs. ScienceDaily (Feb. 26, 2008)

She argues that Mayan scholars have always assumed that the temples were built by kings and had never questioned this assumption over the years. She urges archaeologists to seize the opportunity to make further inroads into this research and that archaeologists must seek answers from the buildings themselves and "construct more creative ways to assess what temple attributes can reveal about their non-material qualities." Lucero's latest findings can be found in the journal Latin American Antiquity, and entitled "Classic Maya Temples, Politics, and the Voice of the People."

Her work serves as an additional reminder to us about how important it is not to accept something which has arisen from reasonable assumption, and illustrates how debate can open up a whole new field of study within a topic however controversial that topic may be.


More about this author: Jane Allyson

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