Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Records don't tell the whole story

One topic that pulled me into archaeology was my fascination with the Norse exploration of North America.  Early on as an undergrad I had grand designs centered on working in this field, only to have numerous professors and teaching assistants assure me that there was zero interest and no future in this area.  Granted, Norse sites in North America are anything but plentiful, and it would have been quite a niche field to get into.  But I do wonder sometimes...

What brought about this bit of reminiscence was a recent piece in Science Daily regarding the climate history of Greenland and the effect it had on the various cultures settled there.  Recent ice core samplings appear to give credence to the "Little Ice Age" theory regarding the demise of the Norse Greenland settlements, although the proximal factors likely included conflict with the Inuit populations (as well as an unwillingness to adopt "Skraeling" survival strategies), raids from European pirates, and the erosion of the soil from over-farming.  What is interesting is that the Norse Greenland settlements represented a literate society which provided some record (albeit sporadic) of social and environmental factors relevant to its eventual demise.  For example, the Landnamabok (Book of Settlements) describes famine winters in which "the old and the helpless were thrown over cliffs."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Wealth and poverty in historical samples

Since the lightning outside seems loath to end (great for atmosphere, lousy for electronics), I will be brief and to the point with this post.  Simple premise; how do we measure relative wealth and poverty in historical populations?  Two applications that I have used both at work and in my own research come to mind.  The first is this engine for converting historical currencies into present-day value (apparently, the $20 on my desk was worth $414.63 in 1700).  Second, the University of Virginia Library has an online Historical Census Browser that includes census data down to the county level since 1790 (although it does not enable finer, census tract analysis).  I have used this particular application for assessing the relative wealth of farmsteads at the county level using the agricultural schedule function.  It is also quite useful for assessing the ethnic composition of historical populations.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Peer-review in the blogosphere

A few years ago I caught one of my favorite authors, Harlan Ellison, expounding on the virtues (or lack thereof) of the world wide web as it related to the quality of information and opinion.  This was prior to the release of the new Star Trek movie, which someone initially claimed on-line contained elements from Ellisons script of City on the Edge of Forever.  Of course, this wasn't true, and when interviewed on the picket line of the writers strike, Harlans first remark was that this is one of the reasons the Internet deserves to be bombed out of existence immediately; the fact the the Internet now gives an easy worldwide forum to any ill-informed voice where years ago they would have been limited to mimeographed handbills.

I was thinking about all of this during the latest firestorm over something ejected from the keyboard of Satoshi Kanazawa.  For those of you not in the know, Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist with the London School of Economics who has a blog at Psychology Today called the Scientific Fundamentalist.  Recently he published a post of his alleged research titled "Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?    In a nutshell, Kanazawa uses data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (which included subjective measures on the part of interviewers on the physical attractiveness of the interviewees) in order to claim that African-American women are objectively less attractive than other women (based on the subjective responses of the interviewers) due to the fact that African-American women have higher testosterone levels than other women.  Don't bother looking for the original post, since apparently Psychology Today scrubbed it right quick (although you can probably find an archived copy somewhere online).

What drew me to this subject was the fact that I do have an interest is at least the idea of evolutionary psychology (lower case), in the sense that it is important to acknowledge that our behaviors are the product of an evolutionary process and should be understood and studies as such.  This view can still make large segments of the anthropological community very uncomfortable to the point of hostility.  Thus, it pains me when something like the above "research" comes out under the banner of evolutionary psychology, since it has the oroboros-like effect of engendering the kind of justifiable anti-EP backlash and then feeding on that backlash in the pose of the heroic researcher standing up to the forces of political correctness (whatever that means these days).  Fortunately, much of the initial criticism of Kanazawa appears to be coming from evolutionary biologists and psychologists, particularly bloggers such as PZ Myers over at Pharyngula.  Daniel Hawes, who also blogs at Psychology Today, published a decent criticism of the Kanazawa piece.  And Scott Barry Kaufman conducted an independent analysis of the original data, and found no statistically significant relationship between ethnicity and attractiveness. 

Beyond anything, the fairly minor controversy (in the grand scheme of academic pseudo-science) did have at least one positive effect; it demonstrated that there is a viable peer-review process operating on the science bloggosphere.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Everyone loves maps

Apparently my last posting was a bit depressing for certain demographics (of which I suppose I can claim membership).  As such, I've decided on something a bit more calming and fun for this round, namely maps.  Graphic presentation of demographic and biological data, particularly derived from GIS systems, is quickly becoming required practice in biological anthropology.  In later posts I hope to share some exciting research in this area that was presented at the last AAPA meeting.  Until then, here are a few quickly acessable maps for you perusal available via the internets:

American English Dialects - Here you'll find a wealth of linguistic and demographic information regarding the various permutations of the English language within the United States and Canada.  You can even contribute to the project by providing a recording of your own voice to the database of dialect samples.  

Ancestry Distribution in the US - 2000 Census - To date, I have not found any comparable maps for historical census data, either at the national level or more local levels.  Local maps in particular would be quite valuable in representing the historic depth of various population histories in the United States.

Pop vs. Soda - This one has been of interest ever since my undergraduate days at SUNY Oswego back in PI (pre-internet) 1991-1995.  Apparently, Oswego sits at the pop-soda frontier, which rings true with my own memory of the frequency of usage for either (and "coke" was never used as a generic term for soft drinks).  I'm not sure if there is a map of the "pizza" vs. "pie" distribution, but my prediction is that it would follow a similar distribution.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Going to grad school's a suicide mission."

I am a fairly long standing fan of the NPR show Car Talk, and make every effort to catch it on the weekends.  However, there are times when the jokes Tom and Ray constantly sling about PhD hotdog venders in Harvard Square ring a bit too true for anyone whose gone through the long, slow process of obtaining an advanced degree.  Since this blog came about in no small part as an attempt to link my graduate education with my career choice, a post on graduate education is certainly not too far afield.  Via Neuroanthropology, I came across this article on the problems of academia by literary critic and former Yale professor of English William Deresiewicz.  Although I cannot complain overmuch on my own current situation (after all, I have a fairly substantial position within my chosen field, even if it is not exactly what I had in mind on beginning grad school), I have seen plenty of burnout and stress among a substantial body of young scholars with no clear path to their original career goals. 

In any case, the take away message, both from the article and my own experience, is this; DON'T enter any graduate program without a clear idea of what you want to study, how you intend to complete your thesis and/or dissertation topic, an a brutally honest assessment of what your post-grad school living situation will be like. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Race and health in historical perspective

The article I am profiling today by Carlina de la Cova is of a study of 19th century health disparities between Euro-Americans and African Americans.  I chose this article since it is an excellent example of how historical data can act to compliment other methodologies in biological anthropology (in this case, skeletal biology and paleopathology).  In fact, the entire study should fall within the purview of archival research, since the skeletal data were derived from three archived anatomical collections; the Hamann-Todd, the Robert J. Terry, and the William Montague Cobb.

From the abstract:  This study analyzed skeletal health disparities among African American and Euro-American males of low socioeconomic status born between 1825 and 1877. A total of 651 skeletons from the Cobb, Hamann-Todd, and Terry anatomical collections were macroscopically examined for skeletal pathologies related to dietary deficiencies and disease. Individuals were separated into age, ancestry, birth (Antebellum, Civil War, Pre-Reconstruction, and Reconstruction), combined ancestry/birth, enslaved versus liberated, and collection cohorts.

de la Cova, Carlina (2010), Race, health, and disease in 19th-century-born males.  American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 144(4):526-537.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Demography of the Aleutian Islands

The Oct-Dec 2010 issue of Human Biology is dedicated to various biological, archaeological and biohistorical studies of the indigenous populations of the Aleutian Islands.  Of particular interest to this blog is the article by Katherine Reedy-Maschner regarding the demographic shifts that impacted the male Aleut population throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  Using both historical data and ethnographic fieldwork, Reedy-Maschner recounts how various political and economic forces acted to effectively replace the male population via cultural assimilation and displacement.  Today, many Aleuts bear Russian, Scandinavian and other European ancestry within their lineages.  This article also contains a cautionary tale for demographers using surnames as genetic analogs.  Aleut men baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church often took the names of their Russian sponsors, which obviously complicates the direct analogy between surnames and Y-chromosome pattern. 

Reedy-Maschner, Katherine, 2010.  Where did all the Aleut men go? Aleut male attrition and related patterns in Aleutian historical demography and social organization.  Human Biology, 82(5-6): 583.