Tag Archives: anthropology

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

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Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

This is a “big” book – it covers Chagnon’s long career and deals with big ideas – including culture, science and professional standards. It’s also a long book, but it held my interest. I remember seeing one of the early popular articles based on Chagnon’s field work when I was a teenager. Was it in National Geographic? I was intrigued.

So why, 35 or 40 years later, did my friends seem so surprised that I was reading a book about anthropology? After all, I took an anthropology course in college (just one). Didn’t we all read Margaret Meed and fantasize about running off to Samoa? 

So much can be said about this book. First, Chagnon asserts his identity as a scientist and rejects “advocacy” as the proper role of the field anthropologist. 

I’m struck by the fact that the Yanomamo culture was/is so “successful”. These people, who only rather recently came into contact with the wider world, lived lives we might consider violent and “dirty” (I simplify here), but they fed themselves, were possessed of language, myths and goods, and their population was slowly increasing. Chagnon spent time recording genealogies and observing changes that occurred as group size increases.

The Yanomamo had no particular reason to help or even tolerate anthropologists. In some sense, all information was “purchased” with trade goods, ranging from fish hooks to machetes. Chagnon formed friendships that ranged beyond the mercenary, in some cases extending for decades. He worked under rigorous and often dangerous conditions.

The possibility for trouble during contact between staggeringly different cultures always looms. Chagnon explores and documents two deadly issues – firearms and measles. 

Chagnon’s difficulties in getting along with others in his profession provide an interesting window on growth and change in the social sciences. He describes the extent to which his colleagues clung to preconceptions. Many were unwilling to accept his assertion (based on years of observation) that the Yanomamo fought over WOMEN (not over resources needed for subsistence). They considered his characterization of the Yanomamo as “fierce” to be inaccurate and prejudicial, although he was quite certain they would have felt complimented.

I was surprised to find extensive discussion of E O Wilson’s Sociobiology, which burst on the academic scene while Chagnon was fighting with his fellow anthropologists. Chagnon and Wilson both use the scientific method and evolutionary theory to investigate what it means to be “social”. 

If you are interested in how social sciences are taught in American colleges, you should read this book. If you like lively autobiography, don’t miss it.